The Transfiguration: Mark 9.2-10 and Parallels

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Form critics have asserted that the Transfiguration pericope may have been a misplaced resurrection account.  If this is so then it may allude to the resurrection appearance in 1 Peter 1.3.[1] By considering the subject matter of Mark’s transfiguration account, and Luke’s and Matthew’s, we gain a better understanding of why such critics have formed this opinion. There are parallels between the resurrection and transfiguration accounts, but the majority of these can be dismissed when considering a misplaced resurrection account. For instance, it has been argued that the transfiguration and the resurrection are the only occurrences where a miracle is done to Jesus. This can be debated due to the occurrences of miracles, such as during the baptism accounts. Stein even firmly argues that there stronger dissimilarities between the transfiguration and resurrections than there are similarities.[2]

Mosaic of the Transfigration, St. Catherine's ...
Mosaic of the Transfiguration, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

Theories concerning the placement of the time reference in Mark 9.2 are numerous.  It may come from a Pre-Markan tradition following the six days Moses spent on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:16); the six days preceding the Sabbath.  It could also refer to the seventh day which could in turn relate to the Sabbath.  However, the form of the Greek of this time reference actually makes this theory unlikely as the Sabbath would more likely be represented by the term ‘after the sixth day.’ Which begs the question: the sixth day after what?

If the Transfiguration is a misplaced Resurrection narrative, then the period of six days is unusual.  Most Resurrection accounts have very distinct temporal references to three days, the first day and during forty days but never six days. This time reference is also not unique in appearance as it occurs throughout the synoptic accounts in places with no association with the Resurrection. This suggests that what is seen as an indicator of resurrection is more an indicator of tradition.

There is also the hypothesis that James and John are later additions to the transfiguration story as only Peter speaks and if all three were present at the transfiguration how then could they have later denied their Lord? The three disciplines appear firmly embedded in Mark’s version despite only Peter speaking.  This is seen in the use of numerous third person plural terms and phrase which reflect the presence of multiple disciples; James, John and Peter. Such words as αυτους (them), μονους (by themselves), αυτων (of them), αυτοις (to them), εκφοβοι γαρ εγενοντο (for they were exceedingly afraid) and αυτοις ακουετε (You (pl.) listen), reflect that there is small ground for the view that the Transfiguration was originally only associated with Peter.

The two passages, Mark 9.2 and Mark 14.33, tell similar narratives in that Jesus took Peter, James and John along with him.  There have been theories concerning the Transfiguration occurring not at the time given in Mark but originally on the last night of the Lord’s life at Gethsemane when the three were alone with Jesus on the hillside. This would coincide with Luke’ account of the sleeping disciples.  There are several agreements between the two stories; notably, the presence of Peter, James and John, and the idea of not knowing what to say in Mark 9.6 and 14.40.

Whatever the case, the centrality of the characters is implicit in these two theories of the relation to the parallels between the two passages in Mark mentioned.  Not knowing what to say is indicative of the almost foolish nature of the disciples witnessed throughout Mark.  This parallel and the presence of the characters at the transfiguration could be seen as exemplar of their inability to understand despite how clearly it is laid out for them.  Could this be why they could have later denied their Lord anyway? If the Transfiguration did occur around chapter 14 as suggested, Mark could have separated them as an emphasis technique to make privy the nature of these disciples.

Luke’s version of the Transfiguration has a number of parallels with the ascension story in Acts 1.9-10.[3] The first notable comparison is seen in the inclusion of a cloud in Luke 9.34 and Acts 1.9, which blocks the disciples’ sight.  Some critics assert that this is an indication of a misplaced resurrection story in Luke but it appears more likely that it is an allusion to Old Testament tradition.  The idea of the cloud overshadowing is seen also in Exodus 40.34[4] and 1 Kings 8.10.[5] One of the most significant and obvious differences, which indicates that to the transfiguration belonging in its own category, is that in Luke the cloud leaves Jesus when it departs while in Acts the cloud hides Jesus from sight and he is taken up. A cloud regularly symbolises the presence of God and is not an indication of resurrection.

There is also the parallel of the two men which appear beside them, which is often taken similarly as an indication of misplaced resurrection.  While both appearances represent sinless and perfect beings, the type of which Jesus also belongs as a representation of the exemplar, the stories differ surrounding their actions and placement.  In Luke 9.30, the two men, Elijah and Moses, talk directly with Jesus and have no dialogue in the version.  In Acts 1.10, the two men remain unnamed and talk directly to the disciples; they appear after the ascension of Jesus rather than beside him.

The third comparison which holds scholars in debate is the physical appearance of the two men described in Acts and Jesus’ appearance in Luke 9.29. Jesus is described by Luke as having the ‘appearance of his countenance altered, and his raiment became dazzling white’ which parallels the white garments of the two men in Acts. Yet again the appearance in white could be alluding to Old Testament tradition, as paralleled in Daniel 7.9 where the Most High has clothing ‘as white as snow.’ It is a sign of holiness and sinlessness but it does not necessarily represent resurrection.  Jesus is acknowledged in Luke as the perfect man; in the presence of god it seems that occasion called for such an appearance.

Mark 9.9 is indicative of the Messianic secret found in Mark (paralleled in Matthew 17.9 and Luke 9.36).  This is the final time in Mark that we see the idea of secrecy surrounding Jesus as the Messiah.  The passages in Mark and Matthew clearly tell of the Son of Man being raised from the dead, asserting knowledge of the resurrection was presented to the disciples. The implication of this is that after the resurrection has occurred, the risks of letting the secret out no longer are issues.  The passage also provides the disciples with an explanation for finding the tomb empty after the Crucifixion (Jn.20.8). The passages announce the upcoming death of Jesus; notably in Luke with the preceding passage (Luke 9.31-31). It is directly related to knowledge of the Passion of Christ as well as the Messianic secret in the words “Until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

The message from the heavenly voice in Mark 9.7 addressed to the disciples is implicit of the importance of listening to the Lord, especially when he speaks of the approaching passion. This is particularly of significance in relation to Peter who had previously been unwilling to do so.  For instance in Mark 8.32, ‘He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him,’ after Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.

The occurrence of the voice in Mark 1.11 is implicit of the presence of God, but the focus differs to the occurrence in Mark 9.7. Here the voice is directed at Jesus rather than the disciples and while it introduces the heavenly voice, it does not have the same purpose.  Mark 15.39 does not include the heavenly voice but instead echoes the message of the voice. It is as if the voice in these three passages is part of a formula that is implicit of the message that Jesus is the Son of God. Mark 1.11 introduces the idea and presents it to Jesus himself, Mark 9.7 presents the idea directly to the disciples though in Mark they fail to fully comprehend, and Mark 15.39 conveys the understanding of the message. This idea presents an argument against the idea that the transfiguration is a misplaced resurrection story as it makes no sense for the incomprehension to appear after the acknowledgement.

The Markan narrative of the Transfiguration story appears to have a significant function in the overall set out of Mark’s gospel. As discussed below, the words of God especially emulate the baptism and resurrection accounts.  This suggests that the transfiguration functioned as a link between the periods of Jesus’ life. It has been asserted that the transfiguration represented the climax of Mark’s gospel because afterwards it was all downhill, but this seems terribly unimaginative. Its function is more likely a prediction of events to come, an introduction to the glorified Jesus Christ and the explanation of the Messianic secret. Whether or not it was a resurrection account originally; the transfiguration in all three accounts has received a conscious placement which indicates that to the writers it was not misplaced.

Peter offers to build three shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses.[6] When one looks at the following line concerning Peter’s lack of knowing what to do, one questions Peter’s motives for this statement.  Mark 9.6 reads ‘He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.’ This shows that Peter and the disciples were confused and fearful, suggesting that the proposal was probably not made with consideration as it was made out of fear of an unusual event.  Such proposals generally don’t involve a judgement call.

The confusion that is seen is the result of Peter’s recent awakening from sleep to witness the strange event. Peter thinks of all three figures as if they were the same, but Jesus differs from Elijah and Moses and this grouping is made without thought. Jesus is seen as more important than his companions in this passage and yet Peter fails to differentiate. Peter’s proposal though is logical in the situation and practical; if these figures were to remain on the mountain-top for the night then they would indeed benefit from shelter.

The term ωφθη which is used preceding Peter’s proposal in 9.4 has also been said to indicate that this account was originally a resurrection account.  It is true that the verb ωφθη is often used in relation to resurrection appearances, though in this case the argument is dismissed by its agreement.  The verb in Mark 9.4 refers to Elijah and Moses rather than to Jesus as it would in a resurrection account.

The title that Peter gives to Jesus here is interesting when one considers the Greek.  While English translators often translate Mark’s version to read ‘Master’, the term is actually Ραββί (teacher, preacher). This suggests that Mark was not relating a misplaced resurrection story for two main reasons.  Firstly, the term likely belongs to a Pre-Markan tradition because Mark only makes use of it on two other occasions (Mark 11:21 and 14:45).  Secondly, it seems unrealistic to assume that a resurrection story would refer to Jesus as a risen Rabbi; there are far more suitable titles.

Matthew and Luke treat the issue of the fear and lack of understanding of the disciples differently to Mark though they also make mention of the issues.  Mark stresses that the disciples and Peter were afraid with the use of the adverb ‘exceedingly,’ or at least this is what one thinks until they refer back to the Greek text and find that the adverb is here missing, reading only ‘ου γαρ ηδει τι αποκριθη, εκφοβοι γαρ εγενοντο,’ but the emphasis remains. Mark’s placement of these issues though illustrates the point of the additional adverb by placing them together at the beginning of events and he attributes the issues to each other, ‘For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.’

Luke separates the issues and presents them as logical actions in the space of occurring events unlike Mark who presents the disciples as fearful and thoughtless from the first instance.  The not knowing what to say in Luke is a logical reaction to the appearance of Moses and Elijah, just as the fear is a logical reaction to the overshadowing of them all by a mighty cloud that basically blinds them.  Their fear in Luke is more an effect of awe in the presence of unexplained phenomena and the presence of the voice of God.

Matthew in turn presents the issues differently from Mark, but has some parallel in Luke.  Matthew ignores the ignorance issue altogether and excludes the idea of not knowing what to say in order to overshadow the ignorance theme seen in the Markan version.  This is a theme seen throughout Matthew.  The issue of fear is similar in appearance to that in Luke.  It appears as a logical reaction to awe rather than ignorant fear.  Matthew relates this clearly, saying ‘When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”

Matthew, Mark and Luke have similarities which demonstrate that all three share the same essence of the text. They also contain some interesting differences.  Luke starts his account by displaying one such differentiation; the temporal designation of ‘after eight days’ (Luke 9:28). We see parallels throughout the New Testament which may explain the eight days in context. Eight days was known as a week in the period. John 20:26 also includes the appearance of the divine after a period of eight days when Jesus appears to Thomas.  This suggests that Luke may have been taking from a known tradition or independent source which he believed to be a more suitable inclusion.

Luke alone records that Jesus was praying when his appearance changed. Luke appears to be indicating that Jesus was in contact with the heavenly world.  This passage is also exemplar of Luke’s independence from the other synoptic gospels as it is presented as a narrative in the past tense.  ‘Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῳ προσεύχεσθαι αὐτὸν τὸ εἰδος του προσώπου αὐτου ἑτερον καὶ ὁ ἱματισμὸς αὐτου λευκὸς ἐξαστράπτων.’ (Luke 9:29)

Luke’s version of the transfiguration is the longest account, followed by Mark, with Matthew being the shortest in length.  The extra length in Luke’s version is due to the dialogue reported in Luke 9:31-32 and the experience of the disciples. This material expresses the upcoming departure of Jesus which he will accomplish in Jerusalem. The addition of this material from a possible independent source contributes to the argument that the transfiguration is not a misplaced resurrection story by emphasising Luke’s agreement with Matthew and Mark that the transfiguration was an event in the life of Jesus.

Luke does appear to use Mark in parts but is generally different in wording and focus. The Markan material is mostly found towards the end of the account with Peter’s conversing with Jesus.  This material also appears in Matthew and all three versions use similar wording with the exclusion of Matthew’s addition of ‘if you wish, I will…’ This addition in Matthew suggests a more conscious motive in Peter to prolong the experience rather than the confusion and ignorance that is expressed in Mark and Luke in the phrase ‘οὐ γὰρ ἤδει τὶ ἀποκριθη’ (Mark 9:6). Luke 9:33 echoes Mark in expressing that Peter has misunderstood the occasion.

The transfiguration account in Luke is again exemplar of Luke’s use of sources, his motive and audience.  We see a use of Markan and independent material which could be extracts from Q.  Matthew does express independent material in his account but not at the same points as Luke which is illustrative of his Markan priority. This is seen, for example, in Matt.17:1-2 where the wording is primarily Markan with few diversions. Luke expresses in his introduction a desire to present an orderly narrative to benefit those with prior knowledge of the faith and to narrate the life of Jesus historically.  The narrative form of the transfiguration and the lack of metaphorical and descriptive terms which are found in Mark and Matthew show this further. For instance in Luke 9:29 in comparison to Mark 9.3, with the description of Jesus’ transformation in appearance.

Matthew echoes Mark in the temporal inclusion of six days and the generally character of the text (Paralleled in Ex. 34:29-35). Matthew does differ from the Markan description of Jesus’ appearance. He reports that Jesus’ face ‘shone like the sun,’ which is a simple simile unlike Mark’s multiple descriptive phrases.[7] Matthew maintains a Jewish character in his text and presented his gospel as a teaching tool which did not require the descriptive disposition of Mark’s gospel. Mark, writing for a gentile audience, needed to provide explanations. The face being compared to the Sun is paralleled in Rev.1:16, which could suggest that a link to resurrection and the coming of Jesus.  But it is just as plausible that the description belonged to earlier traditions.  It is not enough to base the hypothesis, concerning a misplaced resurrection story, on the wording of descriptive phrase and the context of a few parallels.  The sun is a subject which appears throughout the Old Testament tradition (Jdg.5:31, Ps.84:11, 136:8, Mal.4:2).

Matthew exhibits the use of independent source material.  For instance, he is the only one of the synoptic accounts that records ‘with whom I am well pleased’ in God’s address to the disciples (Matt.17:5). This verse makes a link to the baptism account where God addresses Jesus in Matthew 3:17.[8] The ‘ακουετε αυτου,’ which appears alongside this addition, occurs in all three synoptic accounts and echoes Dt.18:15 which reports a promise that a prophet like Moses would one day come.[9]

[1] “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

[2] Stein, R.H., Is the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a Misplaced Resurrection-Account? In Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol.95, No.1 (Mar., 1976), p.83

[3] “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.”

[4] “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”

[5] “When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord.”

[6] And Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

[7] “…and his garments became glistening white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.”

[8] “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

[9] “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their people, and I will put my words in that prophet’s mouth. My prophet will tell them everything I command.”


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