The Transfiguration

What Happened at the Transfiguration?
The Transfiguration, depicted with minor variations in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is an event in which Jesus true glory is revealed to the privileged disciples (Peter, James, and John) who were there to witness the event. Our author, Jerome Murphy-OConnor, O.P., gives us a literary critical perspective on what he believes really happened atop Mt. Tabor in Lower Galilee.

As the story in The Synoptic Gospels goes, Jesus ascends to the top of a mountain with Peter, James and John to pray. It is here that Jesus is transformed completely, and his face shone like the sun, but his garments became white as light (Matthew 17:2). It is said that his true nature was revealed there when Moses and Elijah appeared and the voice of God spoke affirming that Jesus was indeed Gods son. Peter then offered to make three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
In the three Synoptic Gospels, the accounts are basically the same with moderate differences scattered throughout. But, who has the original story? Who copied their account from whom? These are the questions that our author attempts to answer.
Many scholars have a hard time dealing with Peter whom, after following Jesus up to the mountain and witnessing Gods presence, latter denies him (Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:56-62). Peters actions seem asinine given what he has experienced. This is one of the main reasons why people come to question the transfiguration story as it is given to us chronologically in the Gospels.
First, attempting to uncover the original story of the Transfiguration, our author decides to compare the accounts given to us by Matthew and Mark because
there are more similarities between these two than either to Luke. In trying to make a case for the seniority of Mark over Matthew, we are given two examples.

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The first example shows the word Rabbi in Mark 9 being substituted for Lord in Matthew 17. According to the author, this substitution was made to accommodate the audience that they were trying to evangelize. Rabbi was widely understood in the Aramaic-speaking audience that surrounded the early Jewish-Christians. As the Gospels spread into the Hellenistic world, they would need to accommodate the now Greek-speaking audience. Thus, the need to substitute in the word Lord becomes clear.
In another example, we see Peter making the suggestion to build three tents to house Jesus, Moses and Elijah because they were afraid and didnt know what to do (Mark 9:5-6). In Matthew, Peter uses the phrase, if you wish when asking Jesus if they should build the tents; thus, Peter seems much more in control of the situation. Would the author of Mark change Matthews confident Peter into one that was afraid and didnt know how to handle himself? The contrary seems more likely.

Through examples like these, our author make his point about Matthew was using Mark as a written source for the Transfiguration information. He also used similar examples to show us that the first part of Lukes Gospel was used for a written source for the Gospel of Mark. As for the second part of Luke, we find an internal contradiction that, according to our author, suggests that an editor changed the existing text.
In Luke 9:33 we read, 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. Why would Peter want to set up three tents after Moses and Elijah have already left Jesus? Our author believes that a later editor of Luke picked up most of the later part of Lukes account from Mark; that is, the part containing Peters suggestion that three tents be built and the account of the cloud descending and saying that Jesus is Gods son. All of this is not part of the original account of Luke.
Doing away with the additions in Luke and the inaccuracies of the Gospels that relied upon one and other, our author comes up with the original story as he sees it:
It happened after these works, 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 him 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, to our author, a complete story that confirms his literary analysis. This story is as far back into history of the Transfiguration account as literary criticism can him. Our author now takes on the question, What actually happened?
When Jesus face lit up, what actually was happening? Our author gives us a possible scenario as to why Jesus face would light up: Jesus was convinced that
he had a mission from God. As time went by, however, he became conscious that opposition to him was increasing. Because of what 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. This put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma because, as a Jew of him time, he believed that God controlled all the forces of history; even the actions of the wicked contributed to the realization of Gods plan (Isaiah 10:5-19). Thus, what God gave with one hand, he appeared to be taking away with the other. Jesus decided to withdraw to the top of a mountain to tray about his problem and as he prayed, he got the answer-and his face lit up! What Peter and the others saw was the joy of a perplexity resolved.

The exodus referred to is actually Jesus own death. 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 be the saving event whose role in Gods plan would parallel that of the exodus from Egypt of the Jews. This as apposed to the end of everything; as it probably seemed to Jesus at the time. At the same time, it permitted Jesus to see his death as atonement for the sins of the world. According to references (Mark 10:45, 14:8,24; Luke 11:22, 23:24) in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus used Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to clarify his self-understanding of this idea.
According to our author, this is the true context and likely meaning of the original story embedded in Lukes Gospel. Our author also goes on to elaborate on some of the additions in Marks Gospel and speculate on how they could have possibly affected later versions of Lukes Gospel, which in turn affected later versions of other New Testament material. This type of development with the holy books is
natural and expected with an early church that is not as concerned with accurately recording the past, but wanted to make the force in the present.

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