What Really Happened at the Transfiguration?
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
In the Gospel miracle stories, Jesus does wonderful things. But the divine power that he dispenses flows through his person while leaving him untouched.
In the Transfiguration episode, however, that power transforms Jesus completely. His face shines with the brilliance of the sun. His garments become dazzlingly bright. His true nature is revealed in glory. What had previously been hidden beneath the ordinariness of his daily life is made manifest to the privileged disciples who witness it - Peter, James and John. The Transfiguration story is thus unique among the stories about the ministry of Jesus.
The Transfiguration story is recounted, with variations, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The episode is therefore part of what scholars call the triple tradition.
Ignoring for the moment the variations in the three accounts, Jesus takes three disciples - Peter, John and James - on a mountain to pray. (A tradition no older than the fourth century identifies the mountain as Mt Tabor in Lower Galilee, but none of the Gospels identifies this mountain.)
There Jesus is transfigured: His face changes, and his clothes become brightly white. Moses and Elijah then appear. Peter proposes that three tents be made, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. As Peter makes this proposal, a cloud descends on the disciples, and a voice - the voice of God - speaks to the disciples, identifying Jesus as God's son and admonishing the disciples to listen to Jesus. When the disciples look up, Moses and Elijah have disappeared, and they are alone with Jesus.
But what really happened at the Transfiguration? Can we possibly recover the historical core of this episode? Are there ways to uncover the original story and separate it from the accretions of later traditions?
That the story as transmitted to us in the Gospels did not really happen that way is strongly suggested by the subsequent behaviour of Peter, who accompanied Jesus on the mountain and who later denied him (Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 4:66-72; Luke 22:56-62). Having been a witness to the one moment when the divine power within Jesus blazed forth, could Peter then have denied him so firmly and callously in the courtyard of the high priest? Would we not expect Peter rather to proclaim his faith in Jesus, confident that no harm would come to him from such a proclamation? If things really happened as described in the Transfiguration story, Peter's later behavior is inexplicable.
Considerations like this have led many scholars to suggest that the Transfiguration did not really take place during the lifetime of Jesus. In their view, it was originally a post-resurrection story which for some reason was back-dated and inserted into the account of Jesus' ministry.
This solution, however, has its own difficulties. In the typical post-resurrection apparition narratives (e.g., John 20:19-20; Luke 24:13-35), Jesus, unaccompanied, suddenly appears to his mourning disciples and gives them a sign that permits them to recognize him. In the Transfiguration story, on the contrary, Jesus is with the disciples from the beginning of the story, and they obviously know who he is. It is Moses and Elijah who appear, not Jesus. The Transfiguration episode is a completely different type of story. It is therefore unlikely that it is a back-dated, post-resurrection, apparition narrative. Moreover, no convincing reason has ever been given why an event that took place after the resurrection should have been moved back into the ministry of Jesus.
Yet the difficulty of Peter’s denial remains – if the Transfiguration actually took place during the lifetime of Jesus in the way it is recounted in the Gospels. Is it possible that a much simpler event occurred during Jesus' life on Earth, but was later transformed by additions at subsequent stages in the developing Gospel tradition? This phenomenon is well documented in other episodes of Jesus' life, but it has not been given serious consideration in the case of the Transfiguration. I believe a very plausible historical narrative can be detected beneath the series of later additions that constitute the present form of the Transfiguration narrative.
How can we recover this historical core? The first step is to strip away the later additions. This involves nothing more than asking two simple questions:
1. Among the three Gospel accounts, who copied from whom?
2. Is the story internally consistent?
The first question is asked by every school teacher confronted with two pieces of homework that are virtually identical. The second question is asked by every parent whose son comes home smelling of beer and swearing that he has not been drinking. They are the fundamental questions that we all use to disentangle experiences. When confronted with the same variety of problems in the Gospel stories, it is natural to pose the same questions. This kind of detective work is one of the most fascinating aspects of Gospel studies. It demands precise observation and sound, logical reasoning. It is, of course, possible to make mistakes, and absolute certitude is unattainable. We are in somewhat the situation of a detective whose witnesses do not all say the same thing. He can never be absolutely sure of what really happened, but he can produce the most probable explanation of the evidence at hand. Whether the jury will be convinced depends on the quality of the arguments adduced to support each point.
The same is true here. Nonspecialists in biblical studies, however, are just as capable of assessing the soundness of arguments and the plausibility of an explanation as jurors in a courtroom who know nothing about law or, in an injury case, know nothing about medicine. Before trying to grasp the following argument, please read the three parallel accounts of the Transfiguration.
As a first step in our argument, we note that the accounts in Matthew and Mark are much more closely related to one another than either is to Luke. For example, nothing in Matthew and Mark corresponds to Luke 9:31-32; in these verses in Luke, Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus concerning the "exodus" he is about to "fulfill" in Jerusalem; in these same verses, Peter and those with him fall asleep and then awake to observe the glory of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. None of this appears in Matthew or Mark. So let us put Luke aside for the moment and focus on the two more nearly parallel accounts found in Matthew
As between Matthew and Mark, which account is earlier? Who copied from whom? Does Matthew depend on Mark or vice versa?
The way to solve this problem is to concentrate on the substantive differences between the two accounts in order to determine which evangelist is more likely to have added or omitted something. When we do this, we will be forced, I believe, to recognize the priority of Mark.
Let us begin by looking at the passage in which Peter suggests making three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah:
It is clear that here Matthew is modifying Mark. For example, in Mark, Jesus is addressed as "Rabbi"; in Matthew as "Lord." It is more likely that Matthew substituted "Lord" for "Rabbi" than the other way around. "Rabbi" would have been intelligible to an Aramaic-speaking audience, but it would have meant little to the wider Greek - speaking audience that the Church later acquired, and who needed "Lord" to bring out its meaning.
Similarly, with a second difference in this passage. In both versions, Peter suggests making three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In Mark, it is explained that Peter made this suggestion because he did not know what to say since they were afraid. This verse is missing from Matthew. Instead, in Matthew, Peter deferentially introduces his suggestion that he make three tents with the phrase "if you wish." Mark's text attempts to excuse Peter's impetuosity and ends up making him look foolish. In Matthew, Peter’s deferential "if you wish" makes Peter look much more controlled. It is more likely that Matthew wanted to improve Peter's image than that Mark wanted to damage it, as would be the case if he had changed Matthew's text. So again it appears that Mark's version is more primitive.
Let us compare another verse between Mark and Matthew, the dramatic statement of God that issues from the cloud that descended on the disciples, telling them that Jesus is his beloved son to whom they should listen:
The two statements are the same except for the presence of the phrase "with whom I am well pleased" in Matthew. It is absent in Mark. Is it more likely that Matthew added the phrase or that Mark deleted it? No good reason can be suggested why Mark would omit these words. On the other hand, it is easy to find a good reason why Matthew added them. He wanted to bring the statement of the heavenly voice here into line with the heavenly voice that spoke when Jesus was baptized by John. There a voice from heaven declared, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). A variation of this statement appears in Mark 1:9 -11 and Luke 3:21-26. But in Matthew's version of the baptism story, it appears exactly as in Matthew's Transfiguration text. Therefore, it is much more probable that Matthew has modified Mark in this Transfiguration text, than the other way around.
Both Mark and Matthew state that "He (Jesus) was transfigured before them" (Mark 9:2c; Matthew 17:2a), but then Matthew adds, "and his face shone like the sun" (Matthew 17:2b). This phrase is entirely absent in Mark. In Matthew 17:-6-7, we are told that the disciples reacted to the heavenly voice as follows:
"Hearing, the disciples fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came, and having touched them, said, 'Rise and have no fear.' "
This passage does not appear at all in Mark. Again it seems more probable that Matthew is embellishing Mark, rather than that Mark is deleting from Matthew. Moreover we can again explain why Matthew made these two additions: Matthew deliberately chose this language in order to evoke in his readers the memory of a vision recorded in the Book of Daniel, where a heavenly being speaks to Daniel. By additions to the Transfiguration text that evoke the vision in Daniel, Matthew means to underline the fact that Jesus is a heavenly being, as was the man who appeared to Daniel, for now the disciples react in Matthew's Transfiguration text just as Daniel did after the appearance of his heavenly visitor. Let us compare Matthew's additions in the Transfiguration text with the comparable passages from Daniel10. I have underlined the common words or ideas:
The similarities between the two texts are too numerous to be coincidence. Surely Mark would not delete these elements that evoke the vision of Daniel. If Mark did this, we would be forced to conclude that Mark was repudiating the understanding of Jesus suggested by Matthew. This, however, is untenable because, as we shall see, Mark presents Jesus in precisely the same light. Thus, again, we are obliged to conclude that Matthew expanded Mark's text.
Once we recognize that Matthew has retouched Mark's account of the Transfiguration, and that the purpose of Matthew’s additions is to deepen the theology of the narrative, it becomes clear that Matthew is not an independent witness to the Transfiguration. All Matthew’s knowledge of the event came to him through a written source, the Gospel of Mark. Thus, in our search for the original story we can leave Matthew aside.
Let us now look more carefully at Mark and Luke. My conclusion will be that we can find the original story, which was quite short, embedded in Luke, not Mark!
The differences between Mark and Luke are much greater in the first half of the story (Mark 9:2-4; Luke 9:28-32) than in the second half, so let us begin by concentrating on the first half.
Luke's account focuses entirely on the experience of Jesus. Mark, on the other hand, presents what happened to Jesus as an experience of the disciples. Thus, Luke says, "He (Jesus) went up" the mountain (Luke 9:28), while in the parallel passage Mark says, "He (Jesus) leads them (the disciples) up" the mountain (Mark 9:2). Luke reports the Transfiguration this way. "As he was praying, the appearance of his face (was) altered." The parallel passage in Mark looks at the Transfiguration from the point of view of the disciples: "He was transfigured before them" (Mark 9:2). In Luke, the appearance of Moses and Elijah is reported this way. "And behold, two men talked with him (Jesus), who were Moses and Elijah" (Luke 9:30). Mark, however, emphasizes that Moses and Elijah were seen by the disciples. Here is the parallel passage as it appears in Mark: "And there appeared to them (the disciples) Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus"(Mark 9:4).
This difference in perspective - Luke focusing on Jesus, but Mark focusing on how it appeared to the disciples - is a clear sign that the first part of Luke's story is older than the first half of Mark's version. In the first generation disciples could reflect directly on the Jesus they had known. But the disciples of the next generation had to rely on the testimony of their predecessors; as a result, it became important for the later generation to emphasize what the earlier disciples had experienced when in Jesus' company. The reliability of the later disciples, who mediated their experience of Jesus, had to be affirmed by underlining the basis of their knowledge. Thus, if we are to find the most primitive version of the Transfiguration story, it is more-likely to be in the first half of Luke's account than anywhere else.
Although the first half of Luke's account is the more primitive, the second half betrays a major editorial interpolation. Just at the point where Luke's story ceases to be significantly different from Mark, Luke states:
"And when they (Moses and Elijah) parted from him (Jesus), Peter said to Jesus, 'Master, it is well that we are here, let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah'
This sentence presents exegetes with great difficulty. It begins by stating that Moses and Elijah departed from Jesus, and then has Peter suggesting that three tents be set up, two of which are for the departed Moses and Elijah. Why would Peter want to erect tents for Moses and Elijah when they have already departed? An internal contradiction like this is the clearest sign that an editor has changed an existing text.
It would thus seem that a later editor added something after the phrase "When they (Moses and Elijah) parted from him “Jesus." The logical continuation of the clause “When they had parted from him" (Luke 9:33) is found only in verse 36b, 'Jesus was found alone." In short, the original sentence read: "When they parted from him, Jesus was found alone." The conclusion that must be drawn from this is that everything in between the two clauses was added by a later editor. Note that this later editor was careful to end his interpolation with a temporal clause (“When the voice had spoken"; Luke 9:36b) so the text will pick up nicely. Instead of “When they had parted from him, Jesus was found alone," after the interpolation the text reads: "When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone" (Luke 9:36).
Note that this interpolation is precisely the section where Luke is closest to Mark. In short, a later editor of Luke picked up most of the later part of Luke's account from Mark; that is, the part containing Peter's suggestion that three tents erected and the account of the cloud descending, and proclaiming Jesus as God's son. All of this is secondary in Luke, not part of the original.
Another verse in Luke's account is suspect - because of its awkwardness: "Two men talked with him (Jesus),” who were Moses and Elijah" (Luke 9:30). How unnatural it is becomes evident when we contrast this formulation with Mark's straightforward statement that "Elijah and Moses were talking with Jesus" (Mark 9:4). By comparison, Luke's wording seems unnatural. The awkwardness of Luke's expression can be explained in one of two ways. An editor has inserted in Luke either "two men" or "who were Moses and Elijah." The latter seems distinctly more likely. (The only purpose of inserting "two men" would be to emphasize that Moses and Elijah were males, hardly a necessary addition.) In all probability, Luke's original text mentioned only "two men." It would be natural for an editor to want to identify them. This editor created the awkwardness in Luke's wording by adding the explanatory phrase "who were Moses and Elijah" to a text that spoke only of two men.
This conclusion concerning the secondary character of "who were Moses and Elijah" provides important confirmation of the secondary character of Luke 9:33b-36a, the passage in which Peter suggests erecting tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. If the original Lucan text did not identify the two men as Moses and Elijah, we can conclude that the original text did not include a passage suggesting that tents be erected for them. Only after a later editor identified the "two men" as Moses and Elijah would he or another editor be in a position to introduce another passage in which Peter suggests setting up tents for Moses and Elijah, in addition to Jesus.
I believe we can detect another editorial addition in the latter part of the Lucan account. In Luke 9:32, we are told that "Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but waking they saw his glory." Why should they have been so exhausted? And if they were so tired, what caused them to wake up? One might also question what relevance sleep and waking have to the story. It seems likely that at one stage in the Gospel tradition, two stories were told together - the story of the Transfiguration and the story of Jesus' agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest. This is suggested by a passage in the Gospel of John. Although John does not contain an account either of the Transfiguration or of the agony in the garden, he was surely aware of them. John often reveals his knowledge of incidents recorded in Matthew, Mark or Luke even though he does not repeat the story. The following passage from John's Gospel reveals, I believe, his knowledge of the Transfiguration and of the agony in the garden; Jesus is speaking as he is entering Jerusalem:
'Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say, "Father save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name.' Then a voice came from heaven, 'I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again'
The first part of this passage is certainly, an evocation of the agony in the garden. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays to the Father, submitting himself to his will, and goes forward courageously to be arrested; in the Synoptic Gospels, he refuses to ask to be saved, just as he refuses in this passage from John. In the second part of the passage (John 12:28), the voice from heaven speaks. This could evoke either the baptism of Jesus, in which a voice from heaven also speaks (Mark 1:11), or the Transfiguration. On balance, probability is that it was intended to refer to the Transfiguration; note in particular the stress on "glory," which appears twice and is clearly more applicable to the Transfiguration than to Jesus' baptism.
Thus in this passage John reflects a juxtaposition of the Transfiguration and the agony in the garden. This in turn suggests a Gospel tradition linking the two stories. They would have constituted an extraordinarily powerful diptych representing the high and low points of Jesus' life. The background details of the two stories would easily move from one story to another in the developing tradition, emphasizing the link between them. Giving the two stories a common background would highlight the striking disparity in Jesus' situation in the two stories - in the one, the Transfiguration, he is filled with light; in the other, at Gethsemane, he is clouded with darkness. That the disciples fall asleep at Gethsemane is perfectly natural (as it is said they do in Mark 14:40); the events at Gethsemane occurred after a Passover meal, therefore late at night. That they would fall asleep at the Transfiguration, however, is much less natural because it was evidently daytime. Hence, I suggest that the detail about the sleep of the disciples’ at the Transfiguration was inserted into Luke's story to reflect the disciples' same lack of interest in what was happening to Jesus as in the agony in the garden. In other words, "were heavy with sleep, but waking" is also an editorial insertion.
One final passage will complete our analysis of the Lucan Transfiguration account. Luke 9:29 tells us that as Jesus was praying "the appearance of his face was altered." Luke does not say, as Mark does, either that Jesus was transfigured or that his face shone, only that the appearance of his face was altered. The Lucan description suggests nothing supernatural. To say that "the appearance of his face was altered" is to say no more than such common idioms as "his face lit up" or "his face fell." Faces frequently reflect changing emotions. But Luke goes on to say that Jesus' "clothing became dazzling white." This, by contrast, depicts a totally abnormal phenomenon. In the ordinary world, dusty clothes do not suddenly appear newly washed. The two statements concerning Jesus' face and his clothes are in tension because they belong to different orders of reality - one natural, the other supernatural.
Because it is more common for a story to be embroidered with supernatural elements, I suggest that "his clothing became dazzling white" in Luke 9:29 is also an editorial insertion.
We are now in a position to reconstruct the original story of the Transfiguration as it appeared in Luke's Gospel. We do this simply by deleting the passages we have identified as later editorial insertions or, conversely, by retaining only those elements of Luke's version that have not been classified as later editorial interpolation.
When we do this, we find that the original story read as follows:
“It happened after these words, about eight days, taking with him Peter and John and James, he went up the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered. And behold, two men talked with him, 'who appearing in glory spoke of his 'exodus' which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him saw his glory and the two men standing with him. And when they parted from him, Jesus was found alone."
This is a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end, which tends to confirm the literary analysis that we have just finished. An. incomplete story would have called the accuracy of our detective work into question, because such a story could never have existed as an independent unit of tradition.
This story, as we have reconstructed it, is as far back into the prehistory of the Transfiguration account as literary criticism can take us. It is of this story that we must now ask the key question: What actually happened?
We begin with the "two men" who talked with Jesus? Who were they? The clue that provides the answer is given in the phrase "who appeared in glory" (verse 31). Much later, in Luke 24:4, we are told that when the women found Jesus' tomb empty "two men stood by them in dazzling apparel." Similarly, when the disciples are looking up to heaven after the ascension of Jesus, Luke says that "two men stood by them in white robes" (Acts 1:10).' In the resurrection and ascension stories, the two men are always understood to be angels, and this is the most natural interpretation of the two men who appeared "in glory' in the original Transfiguration account. They are angels.
There is a modern tendency to imagine that angels had wings, and that, because of their appearance, they would never be confused with human beings. That is not the case, however. Seraphim had wings (Isaiah 6:2), but not angels (compare Genesis 18:1-2 and 19:1). The fullest description of angels is found in 2 Maccabees, a book contained in the Catholic biblical canon and in the apocrypha of the Protestant and Jewish traditions. In 2 Maccabees 3:26 we find this description of two angels, which makes clear that they are not easily distinguished from human beings. “Two young men, remarkably strong, gloriously beautiful, and splendidly dressed.”
In Jewish tradition, angels are assigned specialized functions. There are "ministering angels" (Jubilees 30:18; 1 Enoch 71:7) who were courtiers of God. There are "interceding angels" (I Enoch 15:2) who besought God on behalf of humanity. There were "explaining angels" (I Enoch 60:11) who communicated to humanity truths considered incapable of discovery by the human mind. The "two men" who were angels in the original Transfiguration story in Luke communicate a message; they must be 'explaining angels."
Before asking what their message was, however, we should be clear about what is happening. In the first century, "explaining angels" were understood by all to be a literary fiction; their function was to highlight the importance of the ideas attributed to them. Perhaps the most instructive example of this concerns the origin of the calendar. According to the Book of Jubilees, the calendar originated with Enoch, who wrote it all down in a book:
"He wrote down in a book the signs of heaven according to the order of their months that men might know the seasons of the years according to the order of their separate months, [etc.]" (Jubilees 4:17-18).
How did Enoch get this knowledge? "He was with the angels of God
. . . and they showed him everything" (Jubilees 4:21). In reality, of course, the calendar was worked out by trial and error over a long period. No one believed that it had been revealed by an angel. The Jews said so, however, simply to underline the supreme significance of the calendar that governed all their feasts. We find this same phenomenon in the resurrection accounts. It was irrelevant to the early Christians whether there was one angel (Mark 16:5; Matthew 28:2-3) or two (Luke 24:4) at the tomb - both cannot be historically true. It doesn't matter, however, because their role was simply to emphasize the importance of the message, "He is risen from the dead."
Once the nature of the "two men" in the primitive account of the Transfiguration is recognized, it becomes clear that the story has two parts, a factual part in which the face of Jesus changes (Luke 9:29) and an interpretive part (Luke 9:31), which explains the fact that his face changed. Thus, if we want to know why Jesus' countenance altered, we must start with the explanation: "They (the two men who were explaining angels) spoke of his 'exodus' which he was about to fulfill at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31).
The immediate connotation of "exodus" is, of course, the great saving event of the Hebrew slaves' escape from Egypt. But the word could also mean death, as in the Book of Wisdom: "In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their 'exodus' was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction" (Wisdom 3:2-3).
Here "death," "exodus" and "going from us" are all synonyms. The "exodus" of Jesus in the original Lucan account, therefore, suggests that Jesus' death would be a saving event.
Similarly, to any first-century Jew the mention of "fulfillment" would have conjured up the idea of God's plan of salvation. To perceive this, one need only recall Matthew's oft-repeated introduction to citations from the Old Testament, "This took place in order to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet" (Matthew 1:22,2-15,17,23, etc.).
If we now put these two elements together, the meaning of the explanation given by the two angels in the original Lucan narrative is that the death of Jesus (his exodus) is part of God's plan for humanity, and would be a saving event (fulfillment).
Now let us try to understand the connection between the message the two angels are conveying, on the one hand, and the fact that the appearance of Jesus' face was altered, on the other. To discover what this link is, we must construct a scenario in which the two elements fit together naturally. We must assume that the evangelist expected his readers to do the same. Like us, they were accustomed to creating scenarios to explain why friends did not write, or why a communication was formulated in a particular way, or why colleagues were late - or why a face was altered! An element of guesswork is involved, but this is kept to a minimum by paying strict attention to the data available.
A very plausible scenario can be outlined as follows: Jesus was convinced that he had a mission from God. As time went by, however, he became conscious that opposition to him was increasing. On the basis of what had happened to the prophets (Matthew 23:37) and to John the Baptist (Mark 6:17-29), he could foresee that his enemies too would bring about his death (Mark 8:31). Yet his work was not nearly complete. Crowds listened, but few understood, and the number of his disciples was small. This put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma because, as a Jew of his time, he believed that God controlled all the forces of history; even the actions of the wicked contributed to the realization of God's plan (Isaiah 10:5-19). Thus, what God gave with one hand, he appeared to take away with the other. He had given Jesus a task to do, and at the same time appeared to be manipulating historical forces to ensure that it would not be completed. In great doubt and bewilderment, Jesus decided to withdraw to the top of a mountain to pray about his problem. As he prayed, he got the answer - and his face lit up! The glory that Peter and the others saw (Luke 9:32) was the radiant joy that accompanies the resolution of a terrible perplexity. In a flash of insight, he realized that his death would be the means whereby his ministry would be brought to fulfillment. His execution would not be the end of everything, but a saving event whose role in God's plan would parallel that of the exodus from Egypt.
We cannot explain how Jesus reached this insight. Ordinary human experience would suggest that it was not by any logical process. Rather, he suddenly saw things from a different perspective. Such insights are in fact a rather common phenomenon and are in no way miraculous. Most reflective people can recall a moment when a situation that threatened to be destructive was suddenly seen as an opportunity. The best illustrations, however, come from the history of science. No one can explain how Newton came to his intuitions that falling bodies are pulled toward the earth and that light is physically separated by passing through a prism. The experiments that later demonstrated their truth were devised in the light of the insights.
In a similar way, Jesus had to verify and work out the implications that his death would be a saving event. Could it really be part of God's pIan? How could his death benefit others? In harmony with his religion and culture, he would naturally turn to the Bible for clarification, and only one passage could possibly have helped him. In the Fourth Servant Song in Isaiah, these words appear.
"He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All, we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all."(Isaiah 53:5-6)
In this prophecy of the just man who suffered in order to make vicarious satisfaction for others, Jesus would have seen a prefiguration of his own role that validated his insight. At the same time, it permitted him to see his death as atonement for the sins of the world. That Jesus drew on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to clarify his self - understanding is confirmed by references to this passage in his teaching (Mark 10:45, 14:8,24; Luke 11:22, 23:24).
This then is the context and the likely meaning of the original story embedded in Luke's Gospel.
We must now attempt to trace the process by which the most primitive version of the story evolved into the very different account that appears in the Gospels. Unless a plausible explanation of the growth of the story can be given, the validity of our literary analysis is questionable.
It is very unlikely that Mark knew the primitive version that we have extricated from Luke's account, because it would be impossible to explain why Mark would have modified it so radically. Why would Mark have omitted any reference to Jesus praying, a central element of the original story? Why would Mark omit any reference to a change in Jesus' face? Why would Mark substitute Moses and Elijah for the two explaining angels, and omit their message entirely, as he does?
Because no adequate answers can be given to these questions, we are forced to conclude that Mark became aware of the primitive version of the Transfiguration in a somewhat garbled form. While we cannot be sure of the exact wording, the story that Mark received must have run something like this: Accompanied by a small group of disciples, Jesus went up a mountain; there he underwent a luminous change and encountered two men who spoke with him.
In this version, there is no longer any distinction between fact and interpretation, as there was in the primitive version. The explaining angels referred to in Luke have become human beings in Mark. The explanation put in the mouth of the angels in Luke is not included in Mark.
It was inevitable that Mark should fill out the rather spartan story that reached him. He assumed that what had happened to Jesus must have been for the sake of the disciples, given the other-directed character of Jesus' ministry. Consequently, Mark brings the disciples to the fore. Instead of Luke's "he went up" (Luke 9:28), Mark has "he leads them [the disciples] up"(Mark 9:2); instead of Luke's "two men talked with him (Jesus)" (Luke 9:30), Mark has Moses and Elijah appearing "to them (the disciples)" (Mark 9:4).
It was also natural for Mark to think of the change that occurred in Jesus' face as affecting his whole person; hence "he was transfigured" (Mark 9:2). For Mark, the two men had to be identified, for which the mountain furnished the clue. In Jewish tradition, only two men were associated with "a high mountain"; that is, Mt. Sinai. Moses there received the law (Exodus 19-34), and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, visited there (I Kings 19). This instinctive link with the high mountain would have quickly been reinforced in Mark's mind by the realization that Moses and Elijah also represented, respectively, the Law and the Prophets. This connection gave the story theological depth. Moses and Elijah - the Law and the Prophets - are bathed in the radiance of Jesus, whose superiority is thereby implied. There is still another connection with Sinai. After Moses received the law on Mount Sinai, "the skin of his face sent out rays" (Exodus 34:29).
In Mark's account, the luminous element appears in Jesus' clothes: "His garments became glistening, intensely white" (Mark 9:3). The shift from the radiance of the face to that of the person was not uncommon. Philo, the great Jewish philosopher-exegete of the first century, reflects the same shift - with respect to Moses. In Philo's retelling of the Sinai event, he informs his readers that "Moses descended with a countenance far more beautiful than when he ascended, so that those who saw him were filled with awe and amazement; nor even could their eyes continue to stand the dazzling brightness that flashed from him like the rays of the sun" (Vita Moses, 2.70). Philo seems to extrapolate from Moses' face to his entire person, just as Mark provided Jesus with luminous clothes.
Moreover, in Mark's description of Jesus' glistening garments, we can see the influence of first-century Jewish apocalyptic, where white is the colour worn by those who belong to the heavenly world. We have already referred to the passage in 2 Maccabees in which angels are described as "splendidly dressed"; in addition, we may refer to the heavenly being "clothed in linen" in Daniel 10:5 and to the Ancient of Days whose "raiment was white as snow" in Daniel 7:9. Mark accentuates the otherworldly dimension by the phrase "as no fuller on earth could bleach them" (Mark 9:3). Thus, by drawing on the symbolism of his age, Mark succeeds in giving a completely new cast to the original story. For a moment, Jesus is transformed into a heavenly being. The evangelist surely intended this to be understood as a revelation of his true nature.
Such details, however, were significant only to those capable of grasping their import, and Mark evidently felt that a more explicit interpretation of the event was necessary. He prepares for this by moving the disciples to center stage. From passive bystanders (Mark 9:2-4), they become active participants. By verse 5, Peter is made to say, "Let us build three tents." It was important to move the disciples to center stage to make it absolutely clear that the voice from heaven was addressing the disciples.
The identity of the voice is established by the "cloud." The cloud, of course, is borrowed from the Exodus narrative, where it signifies the presence of God (Exodus 16:10, 19:9), particularly at Sinai (Exodus 24:15-18). Thus, in Mark's Transfiguration story, it is God who says from the cloud, "This is my Son, the Beloved" (Mark 9:7). This point of Mark's story, which replaces that of the explaining angels in the original story, is taken from the baptism narrative in which a voice from heaven also proclaims: "This is my Son, the Beloved" (Mark 1:11). In Mark's Transfiguration story, however, the declaration concerning the status of Jesus is supplemented by the admonition, "Listen to him" (Mark 9:7). This is done simply to underline the teaching authority of Jesus. Such insistence is perfectly in keeping with Mark's perception of the disciples. Throughout his Gospel, the disciples consistently fail to understand the events associated with Jesus. Yet Jesus' deeds spoke so clearly. As might have been expected from Mark, he cannot resist noting the disciples failure to understand, so he has Peter saying, "He did not know what to reply" (Mark 9:6); Peter did not know how to respond adequately to the revelation.
As we have seen, Mark embroidered his source considerably. By developing the hints it contained, by infusing it with apocalyptic symbolism and by incorporating his concern that the followers of Jesus should understand who he was, Mark turned a dry factual story into a narrative whose power is felt to this day. He made the story come alive, so that it might give life. This was his goal - not the objective truth of the historian.
We need spend little time on Matthew's version of the Transfiguration. We have already seen that Matthew's account is a further development of the account of Mark.
Finally, we must explore how Mark's version later affected Luke's account, when a later editor version changed the original Lucan story on the basis of Mark's expanded story.
We must assume that Luke's community, in which the primitive account of the Transfiguration circulated, somehow became aware of the longer version that Mark's community enjoyed. Christians of 'the first century frequently visited one another's churches. Luke's community must have been startled to think that they did not have the complete story, and decided to bring their version into line with Mark's.
In so doing, however, Luke's community could not simply discard the story that was so familiar to it. Hence, in the first part of Luke's account, the Lucan community took over from Mark only those details that supplemented the primitive account. Thus, a reference to the garments of Jesus was inserted: "His clothes became dazzling white" (Luke 9:29). A phrase identifying the two men was added: "Who were Moses and Elijah" (Luke 9:30). Even though Luke's community had previously understood the two men to be angels, it would have been a significant gain to have Moses and Elijah predict the death of Jesus (the ‘exodus' he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem"). Not only did this emphasize the unity of God's action in history, but at the same time it directed the community to the study of the Old Testament. The community was now obliged to ask: where exactly did Moses and Elijah make such a prediction of Jesus' death? Luke's Gospel employs precisely the same technique in the episode of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, in which we are told that Jesus "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself' (Luke 24:27). Any committed reader of the Gospel would immediately inquire which passages of the Old Testament the Gospel was referring to, and would be sent to studying.
Mark's section concerning the declaration of the voice from heaven (Mark 9:5-7) was simply attached to the primitive Lucan account by inserting it into the last line of the Lucan story. So concerned with the content was the editor of Luke's account that he never noticed the consequent contradiction created by the insertion: The two men (now Moses and Elijah) depart and then Peter offers to make three tents. If the editor had been more attentive to such details, no editorial seams would be apparent, and we might never discover how the Gospel tradition developed! It is easy to see why Luke substituted "Master" (Luke 9:33) for Mark's "Rabbi" (Mark 9:5). He does so regularly throughout his Gospel when Jesus is addressed by disciples (compare Luke 8:24 and Mark 4:38; Luke 9:49 and Mark 9:38) because to them Jesus was much more than a teacher. Why "the Chosen one" (Luke 9:35) is substituted for Mark's "the Beloved" (Mark 9:7) is more difficult to explain, because "Chosen one" is not used elsewhere in the New Testament. It may be that whoever made the change simply wanted to differentiate this declaration of the heavenly voice from that in the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:22).
It was probably at a later stage, when the new long version of the Transfiguration had gained acceptance in Luke's community that it was brought into association with the agony in the garden. At this point the detail about the sleep of the disciples (Luke 9:32) was introduced into the story in order to create a uniform background for the Transfiguration and the agony in the garden, thereby highlighting the difference in the situation of Jesus. Complex as it is, this type of development is rather typical of most of the events narrated in the Gospels. Developments like this, however, witness to the theological vitality of the early Church and to the intensity of its reflection on the person of Jesus. Such developments also dramatize the concern of the early Church to keep the tradition alive. The early Church was not motivated by a desire to record the past, what it wanted was to make the tradition a vital force in the present.
The Value of Literary Criticism of the Bible
To study a text in the way I have attempted to share with you in the accompanying article is not an affront to the sacredness of the Scriptures. Rather, it is an effort to deal honestly with all the details of the texts. Respect for the scriptures permits no less. No serious believer can be content with merely the general outline of the Transfiguration story. If God has inspired variety in the different versions of an event it is in order to stimulate our reflection.
Literary criticism permits us to enter into the life of the early Christian communities. We can share their reflections on the traditions that they received concerning Jesus. We can appreciate the resources they employed to enhance their understanding of Jesus. And we can, be grateful for their pastoral concern to incorporate their new insights in the documents that have now been handed down to us. Those who are content to stay on the surface of the text are the poorer because of their ignorance of such riches.
On another level, literary criticism brings us closer to the historical Jesus. Beneath the layers of theological development, whose value and authority is in no way denigrated by a literary analysis, we are permitted to perceive a human figure whose problems were similar to those of his followers, then and now. In the original story uncovered from the Transfiguration narrative, we see Jesus struggling through doubt and bewilderment to a new perception of his Father’s will for him. Only when we see this Jesus, the real Jesus, can we gasp the truth of the author of the epistle to the Hebrews meant when he wrote that Jesus "had to be made like his brethren in every respect .... We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning' (Hebrews 2.17, 4:15).
Jerome Murphy O’Connor