The transfiguration of Christ, found in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36 is the pericope where we find Jesus changed before the eyes of three of His disciples. Despite being such a fantastical moment in the life and ministry of Christ, it is a moment that is avoided in many pulpits. As I sought to dissect Mark’s account of this story, I quickly realized why this story is often avoided; it is a complex, nuanced, and hotly debated pericope whose ultimate meaning is difficult to pinpoint. If this fierce debate does not cause us to avoid the content, we will find that the transfiguration is vital in Mark’s gospel- revealing both Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and his movement toward sacrifice and ultimately death. To find these answers we will look into both the historical and biblical context of the passage, and make a critical analysis of sections of the passage both grammatically and theologically.
The Context of the Passage Geographically, Historically and in the Book as a Whole
As I stated before, the transfiguration of Jesus is mentioned in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36 and a further description of the transfiguration occurs in 2 Peter 1:16-18. Although I will occasionally reference the other mentions of the transfiguration, my focus will be the account as recorded in Mark. The conclusions we will see about the passage can only come from a proper understanding of the historical, geographical, and literary context of the passage.
The Content of the Transfiguration Pericope in Mark
The placement of the transfiguration in Mark is very important. So important, in fact, that the authors of both Matthew and Luke felt it significant enough to emulate the pattern written in Mark. Therefore, all three have the following sequence:
(2) Jesus’ charge not to divulge this to others; (In Mark 8:30)
(3) Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering, death and resurrection; (In Mark 8:31)
(4) His call to those who want to be his disciples to follow him in self-sacrifice; (In Mark 8:34)
(5) The Transfiguration; (In Mark 9:2-8)
(6) Jesus’ command not to tell others about this until after his resurrection; (In Mark 9:9)
(7) A discussion (except in Luke) on the coming of Elijah; (In Mark 9:13)
(8) The healing of the boy; (In Mark 9:14-29)
(9) A second prediction of Jesus’ passion.1 (In Mark 9:30-32)
Markan scholarship has long recognized that a literary relationship exists between 8:22-26 and 10:46-52, as these two episodes are the only healings of blindness in the gospel. Often claimed as support for this “framing” function of 8:22-26 and 10:46-52, it is an internal compositional parallelism.2 Since the Transfiguration occurs in the same narrative context in all of the synoptics, it can be safely assumed that the writers understood the importance of this event happening at this juncture in the life and ministry of Jesus. Adversely, some scholars do not consider this fantastical event to be historically authentic. This charge was begun by theologian Rudolf Bultmann in his book History of the Synoptic Tradition. In it he writes, “das visionäre
Schauen des leiblich anwesenden Jesus doch ein kaum glaubliche Sache ist.” (“that Jesus was seen in visions while he was still present in the body is, after all, something unbelievable.”)3 Of course, when the transfiguration is deemed “unbelievable,” an alternative to its historicity must be found. The explanation Bultmann and his proponents give is that the transfiguration story was originally a pre-Marcan resurrection account, written into the gospel by Mark, who was willing to create false stories to push forward his view of
Christology. “Mark, by pre-dating the transfiguration in the ministry of Jesus and making it a prefigurement of the parousia, has shifted the time of the exaltation from the time of the resurrection (and thus the present time of the church) to the time of the parousia.”4 Although this article does not have enough space to develop all of the form-critical, redactional, and historical considerations one must consider to understand the arguments against Bultmann’s belief5, I will attempt to summarize them into the following points:
(1) If it is indeed a misplaced story of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, it would have to
be misplaced three times (the uniformity of the placement of the narrative).
(2) The appropriateness of this paricope’s placement (which I will argue later).
(3) George Aichele and Richard Walsh’s argument for incomplete transformation argument.
George Aichele and Richard Walsh co-authored a Journal of Biblical Interpretation article this year entitled “Metamorphosis, Transfiguration, and the Body.” In it they argue that the transfiguration is something entirely different from the resurrection, because “…despite the appearance in both Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2 of the Greek word meaning “metamorphose,” interpreters typically distinguish these “transfiguration” stories from stories of metamorphoses outside the canon.6 The Greek word that means “metamorphose” appears in Mark 9:2, translated as “[Jesus] was transfigured [μετεμορφώθη] before them,” and “…the sense that Jesus’ body has been transformed in these so called transfiguration stories derives almost entirely from Matthew’s and Mark’s uses of μετεμορφώθη.” But the μετεμορφώθη that happens before the disciples’ eyes is different from the resurrection, in that the transfiguration of Jesus is not any change of his physical body, but rather a kind of transparency that reveals the truth that he is the Son of God. “No one has any difficulty identifying the transformed Jesuses in the transfiguration stories, but the resurrection stories are an altogether different matter… not even his closest followers can identify these resurrected Jesuses easily. Therefore, despite the protestations of form critics, these transfiguration scenes are not misplaced resurrection scenes. The transformation of Jesus is not complete in any of them.7 Moss sums up the deconstruction of this argument concisely, writing, Yale doctoral graduate and Templeton award winner Candida Moss wrote “The misplaced resurrection hypothesis suffers from a number of serious flaws…the transfiguration account in Mark contrasts with the form of the resurrection accounts in ‘almost every particular’.”8
The Context Geographically
Traditionally, Mt. Tabor has been thought of as the place where the transfiguration took place, but its location and height probably disqualify it as such. It is neither a “high mountain” (v. 2)9 and there is evidence that at the time of Jesus, there was a Roman fortress at its summit. Also, descending Mt. Tabor would put Jesus and His disciples a considerable distance away from Caesarea Philppi, the location of the events immediately proceeding the transfiguration.10 The much more likely mountain is Mt. Meron, because it is not only in Galilee itself, it is highest peak in Palestine proper, at almost 4k feet. In addition, Mt. Meron had become a center of Jewish mysticism, so Jesus and the disciples descending and immediately seeing “… a great crowd around them” (including scribes) would not have been unusual.11 Which mountain the transfiguration occurred on, and whether that mountain was actually “high” pales in significance to the historical connections that the mountain location points back to.
The Biblical/Historical Context
There are two types of historical context that I will be discussing here. The first being the proximate history before the transformation occurred and the other being the ancient Biblical history that not only precluded the transfiguration event, but would be present in Mark’s audience’s mind influencing their understanding of the pericope.
Some scholars believe that when Peter offers to build “dwellings” for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, he is referring to “booths.” Those booths would be built by the Jewish people to celebrate the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles) from the 15th to the 22nd day of the seventh month (September-October). During that time the Israelites built booths or tents near their dwelling places in memory of when their ancestors lived in tents in the desert (nw 29:12-39).
Scholar Mortin Smith disagrees, stating, “There is no indication of such intentions in the transfiguration story, and if they had been latent they would have dictated one tabernacle for the whole party, not one for each of the three dignitaries. Were they going to be so uncivil as to eat alone?”12 Peter is not scolded or corrected in his thoughts, and could have possibly believed that “the eschatological rest in which God and his heavenly retinue would dwell upon earth had already begun.”13 This is a logical, but misguided response to his belief that the “Kingdom of God had come in power” right before his eyes. Whether or not Peter intended to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, or if he was attempting to build some type of memorial,14 remains unclear, but his bewildered, and ultimately harmless response seems to have been simply ignored by those present.
Exactly when the transfiguration took place is very difficult to pinpoint, but there are many scholars who believe that the transfiguration points to a very specific time period in ancient Jewish history; one in which an astute reader15 would quickly notice. The transfiguration pericope begins with the three words, “Six days later…”-this difference in time may be important in understanding the connections the story has with its ancient roots. “There were six days of Exodus 24:16 during which Moses, with Aaron, Nadab and Abiju, experienced the glory of God on Mount Sinai. “A period of six days is a common literary pattern in Semitic literature and …a parallel with Exodus 24:16 seems very likely.”16 Moses and Joshua ascended the mountain at the beginning of six days, and Jesus and his disciples ascend the mountain at the end of six days. Bruce D. Chilton writes that “It is beyond reasonable doubt that the transfiguration is fundamentally a visionary representation of the Sinai motif of Exodus 24:15…”17
The similarities are all too clear:
(1) In both passages three named people accompany the primary figure.
(2) There is an ascent up a mountain.
(3) A cloud covers said mountain.18
(4) A time period of six days is mentioned.
(5) The participants hear someone speaking “from the cloud.”19
(6) People are astonished/afraid when Jesus/Moses descend the mountain.
The similarities are so striking, in fact, that it has lead some scholars to believe that the transfiguration account was just a reformulation of Exodus 24 and1 Kings 19.20
Mark’s Readers: Both Jewish and Greek
“There is an indisputable link between the Markan transfiguration and Jewish traditions; however, the question remains, is this the only intellectual background with which the Markan author is working?”21 There is another intellectual background that Mark wrote his gospel for: Gentile (Greek) believers;
It was common practice for teachers in antiquity to consider the circumstances of their listeners and couch their arguments in terms appropriate to their audience. The transfiguration is a perfect example of a story that resonates within both Jewish and Greek thought, although in subtly different ways.22
These Greek readers would have little knowledge of Hebrew customs. Mark clearly targets this second audience because his book is written in a “street” Greek, using many low or common word forms. Candida Moss writes that “…the technique of ‘accommodation’ or ‘adapting speech to the audience’ is evidenced in Hellenistic literature contemporary with the Gospel according to Mark.”23 She gives a strong example of what the hellenistic reader would be thinking of when reading the transfiguration story:
A variety of Greek myths recount how the gods often walked amongst humans in disguise and it is certainly possible that, for those readers of the gospel well-versed in these traditions, Greek epiphanies formed a natural backdrop for the Markan ration than the story about Moses. Oft-times this earthly socializing was intended to test the morality and piety of humanity, as in Apollodorus’ Library he recalls how, Zeus desirous of putting their impiety to the proof, came to them in the likeness of a poor man … [and, following their human sacrifice] in disgust upset the table at the place which is still called Trapezus and blasted Lycaon and his sons by thunderbolts.24
Dennis R. Macdonald even suggests that Mark was so heavily influenced by Greek hellenistic culture that he used Homer’s Odyssey as a prototype for his gospel. He argues that the figure of Jesus in Mark mimics that of Odysseus in the epic and subsequently, the transfiguration resembles where Telemachus mistakes Odysseus for a god.25 Although I have no doubt that Mark wrote his gospel for a Jewish and a Greek culture, he does not seem to make any concessions, or “water down” the story for his hellenistic readers. Mark writes that Jesus was “transfigured” (The passive form of metamorphoo), Luke on the other hand, omits the verb and replaces it with “the appearance of his face changed. (Luke 9:29) Luke guided the text away from a possible confusion with the existing pagan mythologies/divine epiphanies where Mark does not seem to mind if the stories seem similar.
The importance of the transfiguration pericope being connected with the Old Testament can not be understated. “The Transfiguration takes place at a crucial time in Jesus’ ministry. He is growing in both popularity, and distaste in the public’s mouth, especially in the ruling religious power structure…. the issue of his identity and mission was escalating.”26 Throughout Mark’s book, rhetorical questions had been asked (1:27, 2:7,12; 4:41, 6:2-3) as to what was the identity of Jesus. The reader, of course, already knows the answer, as it was given in 1:1. When Jesus is transfigured in verse 2, the drama is heightened as Jesus is revealed as to who he truly is: God in the flesh. David M. Miller writes:
The mountain, cloud, and heavenly voice …are widely regarded as stage pieces, designed to recall biblical theophany narratives associated with Mount Sinai and to set up a comparison demonstrating Jesus’ superiority to Moses. From this christological perspective, Jesus appears as the new and greater prophet like Moses who liberates his followers through a new exodus. The transfiguration reveals Jesus’ true and lasting glory, which contrasts with Moses’ merely external glory. Even the concluding imperative—”Hear him!”— becomes a statement about the authority of Jesus’ teaching, which surpasses the authority of Moses and Elijah.27
Throughout Mark’s book, Jesus is seen warning others to not reveal His identity as the Messiah. When Jesus “was transfigured before them,” …the glory of His divinity of which He ‘had emptied himself’ (Phil 2:7) shone through His countenance and His garments.28 Surprisingly, after an event so shocking it leaves Peter speechless, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone until after He had been raised from the dead. Why? “Given the popular beliefs about the Messiah as a royal Messiah with nationalistic political objectives…the crowds have been dangerous enough with their view of him as John the Baptist, Elijah, etc. What would they do if they believed him to be Messiah (i.e., a military conqueror?”29 It was at the mount of transfiguration where Jesus reveals Himself to be what the audience had read in chapter one, the Son of God, Immanuel “God with us.”
The transfiguration was a reconfirmation of Jesus’ identity and mission. The identity was revealed at the transfiguration. The mission was revealed by Jesus quickly after: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (NRSV) That mission was not to become a military conqueror, but be a suffering servant. Mark begins his book listing witnesses for Jesus’ true identity: the Scriptures, John the Baptist, and the heavenly voice. At the transfiguration, the same witnesses are spoken of in reverse order: the heavenly voice (which repeats what it said at the baptism) and the witnesses of the Scriptures and John the Baptist in the person of Elijah. “Prior to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus’ task has been to teach and heal. Now Jesus has revealed that there is a way of suffering and death that he must follow.
Just as the divine voice affirmed the goodness of Jesus accepting the messianic task, so the voice at the transfiguration affirmed the necessity of the road of suffering and death.”30 Even Bultmann agrees that “The miraculous deeds are not proofs of his character but of his messianic authority, or his divine power.”31
This is why Mark placed the earlier-mentioned two-stage healing of the blind man directly before the transfiguration. Just like this man, the disciples were also healed from their own blindness, a spiritual blindness, in two stages. “[The disciples] have seen his miracles, they have heard him teach, but their understanding will be blurry and incomplete until Jesus gives the final piece. Even if the disciples know who Jesus is, they cannot speak properly of him, unless they speak of his cross and resurrection.”32 Mark’s narrative prior to 8:22 has been concerned with asking the “who” question, the “Messianic secret.” Yet still the disciples, “having eyes, …do not see.” (8:18) “Now they are taken to the north, to Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus will examine their beliefs about him. When Jesus asks the disciples about his identity he will do it in two stages.
The two stages will require the disciples to form and express their own judgments about Jesus. The disciples have witnessed many great events in their journeying with Jesus; now if they are to continue “on the way” they must become participants.”33 “We are bound to conclude then that the highest matter on Mark’s agenda… [was to] reflect on Jesus’ identity: the powerful Messiah—indeed, God himself at work—”who gives himself to die for others.”34
The Importance of Preaching the Transfiguration
The Transfiguration was not simply a special magic show for a select audience. It instead powerfully confirms that Jesus’ suffering is not incompatible with Jesus’ glory. An example, or metaphor for this concept would be if I told an audience I was going to make them lunch. I then placed a piece of ham, and a piece of lettuce in an audience member’s hand. Confusion would arise, and some would reply, “That’s not lunch. That’s a piece of ham and a piece of lettuce.” I would then take those exact same ingredients, and place them between two robust pieces of bread, to which many would reply, “Now that’s lunch.” Too often the modern, western church avoids pain, sadness, or death at all costs. In the late 19th century, Americans started calling their parlours “living rooms.” The parlour was originally where a recently deceased loved one would be laid out, prior to their funeral. So American culture segregated death from the home, to the “funeral parlor.” Now funeral homes are creepy places (despite looking like living rooms), because they remind us of death, sadness, and loss.
Just like the lettuce and ham, the modern church has a ravenous appetite for glory. “Christians frequently think of the divinity of Jesus in terms of heavenly glory or the triumph of the parousia without recognizing the real presence of God on the cross. We tend to think that jesus is most clearly Son of God in glory, not in suffering. This passage challenges us to revise our understanding of how God’s presence comes to the world. The command to silence reminds Christians that glory and suffering cannot be separated.35 Jesus tells his disciples that he must be killed (8:31), and Peter rebukes him for it. After the transfiguration, Jesus again states that he will be killed, (9:31) but like the two-stage healing of the blind man in chapter eight, the disciples begin to glimpse the truth that divine glory shines through the veil of suffering.36
For too long the goal of Christiainity has been to escape pain, and to live a life of comfort -which is a sign of being “blessed;” -a life of ham and lettuce, and only half the story. The transfiguration, where Christ is bestowed with Glory, is sandwiched between suffering…to which God looks at and replies, “This… is glory.”
“…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ —if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Romans 8:17
Aichele, George, and Richard Walsh. “Metamorphosis, transfiguration, and the body.” Biblical Interpretation 19, no. 3 (January 1, 2011): 253-275.
Bultmann, Rudolf, History of the Synoptic Tradition (3rd ed.; New York: Harper, 1963; repr., Peabody: Hendrickson, n.d.), 219.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (3rd Ed.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).
Chilton, Bruce D. “The Transfiguration: Dominical Assurance and Apostolic Vision,” NTS 27 (1980) 115-24. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity: 1993) Garland, David E. 1996 NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Keck, Leander E, ed. 1995 New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon.
Larsen, Kevin W. “A focused christological reading of Mark 8:22-9:13.” Trinity Journal 26, no.1 (March 1, 2005): 33-46
Macdonald, Dennis R. The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). 14. Miller, David Marvin. “Seeing the glory, hearing the son: the function of the wilderness theophany narratives in
Luke 9:28-36.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72, no. 3. 499, 500.
Moss, Candida R. 2004. “The transfiguration: an exercise in Markan accommodation.” Biblical Interpretation 12, no. 1: 69-89.
New Catholic Encyclopedia, (Washington: Thomson/Gale 2002).
Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According To Mark. Richmond: John Knox 1970.
Smith, Morton. 1980. “The origin and history of the transfiguration story.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 36, no. 1: 39-44.
Stein, Robert H. 1976. “Is the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a misplaced resurrection-account.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 95, no. 1: 79-96.
Twelftree, Graham H, Jesus the Miracle Worker (Downers Grove InterVarsity, 1999). All quotes from the Bible are in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted.
- Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (Leicester, England: 1993), s.v. “Transfiguration” [↩]
- Larsen, Kevin W. “A focused christological reading of Mark 8:22-9:13.” Trinity Journal 26, no.1 (March 1, 2005): 33-46. 33 [↩]
- Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (3d ed.; New York: Harper, 1963; repr., Peabody: Hendrickson, n.d.), 278 [↩]
- Stein, Robert H. 1976. “Is the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a misplaced resurrection-account.” Journal Of Biblical Literature95, no. 1: 79-96. 80 [↩]
- For a much deeper analysis of this argument, read Robert Stein’s “Is the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a misplaced resurrection-account.” Journal Of Biblical Literature95, no. 1: 79-96. [↩]
- Aichele, George, and Richard Walsh. “Metamorphosis, transfiguration, and the body.” Biblical Interpretation 19, no. 3 (January 1, 2011): 253-275. 253 [↩]
- Aichele, George, and Richard Walsh. 260, 270 [↩]
- Moss, Candida R. 2004. “The transfiguration: an exercise in Markan accommodation.” Biblical Interpretation 12, no. 1: 69-89. 71 [↩]
- McCurley, Foster R. “And after six days” (Mark 9:2) : a Semitic literary device.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 93, no. 1 (March 1, 1974): 67-81.75 “Attempts to identify the “high mountain” of the Transfiguration have led to a topographical analysis of Palestine by which any mountain less than four thousand feet has been rejected as not high enough.” [↩]
- Dictionary of Jesus and The Gospels, s.v. “Transfiguration.” [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- Smith, Morton. 1980. “The origin and history of the transfiguration story.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 36, no. 1: 39-44. 41 Full disclosure: This is the only part Smith’s article I agreed with. Most of it I not only disagreed with, but was shocked at the his intellectual sloppiness in a peer-reviewed and scholarly journal article. For example, he writes on page 43, “…Jesus practiced magic. He once took three disciples up a mountain for an initiation ceremony that led, presumably through hypnosis, to a vision of him in glory with two other figures. The ceremony required silence. When one of the disciples, excited by the vision, spoke, the hypnosis was broken and the enchantment ended.” There is not a shred of evidence for this accusation either scripturally or historically, and in this indictment of Jesus, Smith stands alone. [↩]
- Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According To Mark. Richmond: John Knox 1970. 182 [↩]
- Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (3rd Ed.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011) 251 [↩]
- I am not one, but would like to become one. I’m growing. [↩]
- McCurley, 76 [↩]
- Chilton, Bruce D. “The Transfiguration: Dominical Assurance and Apostolic Vision,” NTS 27 (1980) 115-24, 122. [↩]
- In each of the two stories a cloud overshadows the mountain. While the same verb is not used (LXX uses ekalypsen; Mark, episkiazousa), the meaning is identical, as can be seen at Exod 40:34-35 where the two verbs are employed interchangeably…” McCurley, 76 [↩]
- Miller, David Marvin. “Seeing the glory, hearing the son: the function of the wilderness theophany narratives in Luke 9:28-36.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72, no. 3. 499, 500 [↩]
- Moss, 72 [↩]
- Ibid, 73 [↩]
- Ibid, 70 [↩]
- Ibid, 75 [↩]
- Ibid, 76,77 [↩]
- Dennis R. Macdonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). 14 [↩]
- Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, s.v. “Transfiguration” [↩]
- Miller, 498 [↩]
- New Catholic Encyclopedia, (Washington: 2002), s.v. “Transfiguration” [↩]
- Larsen, Kevin W. “A focused christological reading of Mark 8:22-9:13.” Trinity Journal 26, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 33-46. 39 [↩]
- Ibid, 44 [↩]
- Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (3rd ed.; New York: Harper, 1963; repr., Peabody: Hendrickson, n.d.), 219. [↩]
- Larsen, 51 [↩]
- Larsen, 38 [↩]
- Graham H Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker (Downers Grove InterVarsity, 1999), 95 [↩]
- Keck, Leander E, ed. 1995 New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon. 632 [↩]
- David E. Garland. 1996 NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 343, 344 [↩]