Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Making Sense of the Transfiguration

Making Sense of the Tranfiguration

I had to hand in a short paper this week for a subject I am taking called The Quest for the Historical Jesus. I had a choice of four topics and chose to write on Jesus’ transfiguration. I chose this topic because I have always been baffled by this episode in the gospels and I wanted to understand it more fully. While some of its meaning is now clearer, there are still elements of the transfiguration story that leave me scratching my head. I thought other people might be interested in this topic so here is an adaptation of the paper I handed in.

And [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.  Mark 9:1-10 NRSV (cf Matt. 17:1-9; Luke 9:27-36).

Transfiguration, Ascension, or Resurrection? 

The accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration in the synoptic gospels are puzzling. The point of the transfiguration story is not immediately apparent, and the purpose of various elements within the story is vague. Some scholars who have tried to make sense of the transfiguration suggest that the incident was misplaced in Mark’s account of the life of Jesus, and that Matthew and Luke copied Mark’s mistake and also misplaced it in their gospels.[1]

The oldest manuscripts of Mark do not contain a resurrection appearance of Jesus. These manuscripts finish with the verse Mark 16:8. It seems odd that Mark would finish his action-packed gospel on a fearful note with the women fleeing in terror from the empty tomb. So some theologians, such as Rudolf Bultmann, have proposed that the transfiguration story in Mark 9:2-10 is an account of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, but that Mark, not recognising it is as such, placed this account into his gospel before Jesus’ death.

Bultmann further proposed that the two men dressed in dazzling clothing in Luke’s account of the resurrection, are the same two men that appeared with Jesus in the transfiguration, and that, in keeping with a Jewish folklore tradition where anonymous people are given names, the two men are named Elijah and Moses. (Kee 1972:138) In the transfiguration, however, only Jesus’ clothes, and not Elijah’s and Moses’, become dazzling white like the clothes of the two men in Luke 24:4.  Luke alone,[2] whose account of the transfiguration emphasises the element of glory, includes the detail that Elijah and Moses “appeared in glory”, but this description is not the same as “dazzling clothes”. The description of Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration, therefore, does not match the description of the two men in Luke 24:4.

God’s glory and presence is sometimes represented by clouds in biblical narratives. There is a cloud at the transfiguration, but there are no clouds in the resurrection narratives. There is a cloud, however, in the ascension story, and two men dressed in white (Acts 1:9-10).[3] The transfiguration story has almost as much in common with the story of Jesus’ ascension as with the story of his resurrection.

One element that is common to the transfiguration and resurrection accounts, but not that of the ascension, is the motif of the disciples’ fear. The three gospel accounts of the transfiguration describe the disciples’ fear differently, however. Mark 9:6 indicates that Peter, James, and John were terrified by Jesus’ altered appearance during the transfiguration. Luke 9:34 indicates that their fear began when they entered the cloud. Matthew 17:6 indicates that they were overcome with fear, and even fell to the ground, when the voice spoke from the cloud.

The transfiguration and resurrection narratives are dissimilar, however, in that Jesus is front and centre throughout the transfiguration but absent at the beginning of the resurrection accounts. When the resurrected Jesus does appear, he speaks, but in the transfiguration he is silent and a voice from a cloud speaks. While there are a few superficial similarities, there are many differences between the transfiguration and resurrection narratives, so the arguments that the transfiguration account is a misplaced resurrection account are unconvincing.

Moses and Elijah at the Mount of Transfiguration

Moses and Elijah were not just any “two men”[3], they were highly revered leaders, and spokesmen of God, in Israel’s history. Moreover, Moses had prophesied about an end time prophet like himself, and Elijah had come to be regarded as “an almost exclusively eschatological figure.” (Kee 1972:146)  In first century Judaism it was believed that Moses, as well as Elijah, had not died but been translated to heaven.[4] (Pamment 1981:338; Kee 1972:147) Jesus’ connection and conversation with the figures of Moses and Elijah is therefore intended to signify that Jesus is the end time prophet who will not experience (permanent) death, and will usher in the kingdom of God in the eschaton (or end time.)

The setting of Jesus’ transfiguration was an unidentified, high mountain. Both Moses and Elijah had encounters with God on mountains (e.g. Exod. 19:3ff; Deut. 34:1-4; 1 Kings 19:8). Judy Fentress-Williams (2010:437) explains how people in the Ancient Near East regarded mountains: “With its head reaching toward the heavens, the mountain or high place is the bridge between earth, the realm of humans, and the heavens, the realm of the gods. As such, a mountain is the place for a divine encounter.” The LORD had spoken face to face with Moses on a mountain, and during the transfiguration episode Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah on a mountain. Only Luke  mentions the topic of conversation: Jesus’ departure (Luke 9:31).

A voice from a cloud, presumably the same voice that had previously spoken to Jesus immediately after his baptism (Mark 1:11), now speaks to Peter, James, and John. The voice affirms Jesus’ divine sonship[5], and orders the disciples to “listen to him”.  The phrase “listen to him” is reminiscent of Deuteronomy 18:15 where Moses prophesied: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (NIV). The Jews were looking for an eschatalogical “Elijah” or “Moses”, but Jesus is presented here as greater than them.[6] The voice commands the disciples to listen to Jesus (and not to Elijah or Moses) so that they can do their part in the kingdom which has now come.

The transfiguration passage is placed immediately after Jesus’ first prediction of his passion: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31 NRSV; cf Matt. 16:21; Luke 9:22). Both Moses and Elijah were prophets who had suffered. “These two figures had been rejected by the people and vindicated by God”, so their presence at Jesus’ transfiguration may have helped to confirm Jesus’ prediction. (Pamment 1981:338)

Suffering and Discipleship

The transfiguration account is placed within Mark 8:27-10:52 which is primarily concerned with Jesus teaching his disciples that it was necessary that he suffer.[7] The three passion predictions in this passage (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 ff.) each include a call to share in Jesus’ suffering which is then followed by a power-play among the disciples. The disciples did not understand the message of suffering because they were hoping that the kingdom would come quickly and easily. “The depth of their incomprehension continues without modification throughout the rest of Mark, right up to the events of Gethsemane.” (Kee 1976:140-141)

We know nothing at all about the actions, reactions, or thoughts of James and John concerning the transfiguration. Perhaps Mark included the information that James and John, along with Peter, were present at the transfiguration simply because these men were prominent in the primitive (i.e. very early) church and known to Mark’s audience. Mark also mentions that Peter, James and John were the only disciples with Jesus during two other significant events: the raising of Jairus’ daughter from death (Mark 5:37ff), and Jesus’ deep distress and agonized prayer in Gethsemane just before his own death (Mark 14:33). Knights (2010:220) observes that the key to the three episodes where only Peter, James and John are present is death and/or resurrection.

The transfiguration gave the three disciples an amazing insight concerning Jesus’ pending death and resurrection. They had seen beforehand that there would be glory after suffering, resurrection after death. Yet they were not permitted to share their insight. Jesus ordered the three disciples not to tell anyone about his transfiguration until he had risen from the dead (Mark 9:9; Matt. 17:9). They apparently obeyed this command and kept their knowledge to themselves (Mark 9:10; Luke 9:36). So no one else would have known about Jesus’ transfiguration until the story came to light sometime after the resurrection.[8]

Peter’s Booths and the Feast of Tabernacles

Peter is more prominent than the other two disciples in the transfiguration narratives, and he offers to erect three booths, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Mark indicates that Peter’s fear prompted him to make the foolish proposal. Luke indicates that Peter made his offer when it appeared that Moses and Elijah were leaving, perhaps hoping to keep them from leaving and to maintain the glorious spectacle. (Tàrrech 2010:151)  Matthew does not give a reason for Peter’s offer.

Peter’s proposal has been included in all three synoptic gospels, however, so there may be some meaning here. The Jewish feast of booths (or feast of tabernacles) is associated with the coming kingdom. Kee (1976:147) writes, concerning Peter’s offer, that “[Peter] is right in sensing the eschatological end is being enacted in the conclave of Moses, Elijah and Jesus.”

The feast of booths lasts for eight days. Perhaps Mark’s and Matthew’s mention of six days, and Luke’s of eight days, refers to the sixth or eighth day of the feast.  (According to Jewish thinking, six or eight days may indicate the same period of time if you include the first and last days in your count.)[9]

In Mark’s gospel, only a few events in Jesus’ life are presented with precise time references, these include Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, as well as his transfiguration. The purpose of the time reference of six (or eight) days is unclear, but it does connect the transfiguration with the preceding material that includes Peter’s confession of the Messiah, the first passion prediction, Jesus’ initial teaching about discipleship involving self-denial and suffering, and Jesus’ enigmatic saying that “some standing here will not taste death until they have seen the Kingdom of God coming with power.” (Knights 2010:219)

Conclusion 

The transfiguration is not a misplaced account of the resurrection, yet Peter, James and John did see Jesus proleptically as risen, ascended, and glorified. (Knights 2010:220)  The transfiguration was an important lesson for the three disciples. The transfiguration made it clear that Jesus was God’s son and superior to the end time figures of Moses and Elijah.[10] It also made it clear that Jesus’ triumph over suffering and death was guaranteed and that he would bring in the kingdom of God with glory. Despite this guarantee, the disciples were frightened by the transfiguration, they were frightened during Jesus’ passion, and they were frightened by the empty tomb. It was probably only after Jesus had risen that Peter, James and John understood the point and purpose of the transfiguration (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-18). (Kee 1976:150)


Endnotes

[1] Mark probably wrote his gospel first, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as one of the sources for their gospels (cf. Luke 1:1-4).

[2] Luke does not use the word “transfigure” in his account, possibly “to avoid giving his readers the impression that Jesus was metamorphosed, changed from one form into another in a fashion that might be assimilated to pagan mythology. Luke is content to say that ‘as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.’” (Williams 2002:21) Luke is also the only writer to mention prayer and sleep in his account, but he leaves out the discussion about Elijah recorded in Mark 9:10-13 and Matthew 17:10-13.

[3] Luke records that there were two men in the empty tomb (Luke 24:4), two men at the ascension (Acts 1:10), and he pointedly states, twice, that Elijah and Moses were “two men” in his version of the transfiguration (Luke 9:30, 32).

[4] In his treatise On the Life of Moses, Philo writes, “all but deified Moses as Word and King, chosen one of God. Indeed, in Philo’s description, Moses is himself transfigured on the Sinai mountain-top.” (Williams 2002:24) Deuteronomy 34:5-7 states that Moses did die. Elijah and Enoch did not (2 Kings 2:11-12; Gen. 5:23-24).

[5] In Luke’s account, the voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, my Chosen . . .” (Luke 9:35 NRSV) rather than “This is my Son, the Beloved . . .” (Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5 NRSV).

[6] Chris Knights (2010:220) notes “an interesting chiasmus in Mark 9:4-5 (Elijah-Moses-Jesus-Moses-Elijah), which is surely a further highlighting of the superiority of Jesus over the others.”

[7] In Mark 9:5, Peter calls Jesus “Rabbi” which seems unusual, considering the dazzling appearance of Jesus, unless Peter understood that he was being given a lesson in discipleship. Matthew 17:4 has “Lord” (Kurie) and Luke 9:33 has “Master” (Epistata), instead.

[8] The reason for the secrecy is not clear. Perhaps Jesus didn’t trust that his other followers were able to experience the transfiguration, or handle its significance and meaning, wisely.

[9] “[S]ix days parallels the time spent by Moses in preparation for meeting with God in Exodus 24:16. It should be noted, however, that in Exodus Moses is, in fact, already on the mountain, and also that in Exodus the six days is the time before the Lord calls Moses on the seventh day, so the adduced parallel is less complete than first appears.” (Knights 2010:219, his italics)

[10] Moses and Elijah may represent the Law and the Prophets in the transfiguration episode.

[11] Unlike Mark, Luke mentions that Jesus’ face changed during the transfiguration (Luke 9:29) while Matthew 17:2 says that Jesus’ face shone like the sun.  John would later describe the Son of Man’s face as “like the sun shining with full force” in his apocalyptic vision (Rev. 1:16). 

Image is an excerpt of “The Transfiguration” by Danish painter Carl Bloch (1834-1890)


Bibliography

Fentress-Williams, Judy, “Exodus 24:12-18 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p. 437.

Kee, Howard, “The Transfiguration in Mark: Epiphany or Apocalyptic Vision?”, in Understanding the Sacred Text, ed. J. Reumann, (Valley Forge, 1972), pp. 137-152.

Knights, Chris, Metamorphosis and Obedience: An Interpretation of Mark’s Account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, The Expository Times (February 2010) vol. 121 no. 5, pp. 218-222. doi: 10.1177/0014524609355076

Pamment, Margaret,  Moses and Elijah in the Story of the Transfiguration, Expository Times 92. 1981, pp. 338-339.  doi: 10.1177/001452468109201107

Stein, Robert H., Is the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a Misplaced Resurrection-Account? Journal of Biblical Literature, (March, 1976) Vol. 95, No. 1, pp. 79-96. doi: 10.2307/3265474

Tàrrech, Armand Puig i, The Glory on the Mountain: The Episode of the Transfiguration of Jesus, New Testament Studies, 2012, 58, pp. 151-172. doi:10.1017/S0028688511000373

Williams, Stephen, The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Part One), Themelios 28.1 (Autumn 2002): pp.13-25. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_transfiguration1_williams.html


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Posted May 18th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Christian Theology, Christology, , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

3 comments on “Making Sense of the Transfiguration

  1. Interesting story on Jesus and his disciples. Thanks again for another great intriguing post.

  2. Interesting article. I think this is my first visit to your blog, btw., though I read a number of “biblioblogs” and write one that is partially so.

    Anyway, I’ll ask this, without yet having explored your blog, where I might get some related insights: It seems you assume the Transfiguration to have been an actual event. Given the type of literature the Gospels are, and aware of their nature and details as you seem to be, what leads you to make this assumption (or conclusion, if you prefer)?

  3. Marg says:

    Hi Howard, I don’t make any speculations, or draw any conclusions, about whether the transfiguration was an actual event or not. Matthew 17:9, however, has Jesus referring to his transfiguration as a vision (orama), a word used frequently in Acts for what we would call “visions”. (In the Greek New Testament orama appears twelve times in total: once in Matthew’s gospel and eleven times in Acts.)

    I am a novice when it comes to exploring the transfiguration, and this is the first time I’ve written anything on it. The essay question that I was given was about looking at the differences in the accounts of the transfiguration in the synoptic gospels and trying to determine if the transfiguration was really a resurrection account. The question about whether it was an actual event was not relevant to my argument that the transfiguration was not a misplaced resurrection account.

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