Volume 28 - Issue 1
The Transfiguration of Jesus ChristBy Stephen N. Williams
Relatively speaking, the transfiguration is a theme that is neglected in Western Christianity.1 In Eastern Orthodoxy, generally speaking, it has been kept more lively, at a theological and liturgical level, although some non-Eastern churches join the Orthodox in marking August 6 as its festival day. In 1456 Pope Callistus III ordered its celebration on that date as thanksgiving for victory over the Turks—an irony, if we connect the transfiguration with the call to suffering or self-denying discipleship in the passages which precede the accounts of it.2 But commemoration of the transfiguration in the churches actually goes further back than this in Western church history, predating the separation of Western and Eastern communions in the eleventh century. Still, the subject will strike some as better adapted for consideration by the more mystical mentality of Orthodoxy (as is often supposed) than the more rational Western one (even if the West is changing).
It probably comes as a surprise to many to discover that the accounts of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ are central to the Synoptic narratives.3 At the half-way junction in both Matthew and Mark, we come to Peter’s confession of Christ at Caesarea Philippi, from which point Jesus begins to explain to his disciples that he must suffer and die. The story from there on moves to its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But as the narrative resumes its course, after the teaching which follows the prediction of the passion, we have the story of the transfiguration. In Luke’s Gospel, the account is earlier than in the other two, in relation to the quantity of his material, but it follows structurally in the same sequence: Peter’s confession; prediction of death and resurrection; teaching; transfiguration. It is also located at the same significant juncture as it is in Matthew and Mark in relation to the overall account of the Gospel for, at Luke 9:51, shortly after the transfiguration, we read that the time approaches for Jesus ‘to be taken up into heaven’ and so he ‘resolutely sets out for Jerusalem’. The end is already in sight.
Still speaking in terms of broad structure, there is at least one other indication of the centrality of the transfiguration which warrants mention here. It is connected with the baptism of Jesus, Only twice, in the Synoptic Gospels, do we hear a voice from heaven: the first time is at the baptism, the second at the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. If the baptism signifies and initiates the opening phase of Jesus’ public ministry, the transfiguration apparently inaugurates the next, climactic phase. We have only to think of the content of the transfiguration accounts to have our sense of its importance in the Gospels reinforced. In some respects its visually dramatic features exceed those of any other part of the Gospels, with the possible exception of Luke’s account of the ascension. The resurrection stories contain mysteries of recognition, appearance, disappearance and motion. There is drama enough at the empty tomb. But none are as visually spectacular as the transfiguration. Nor do the miracles performed by Jesus seem as dramatic as this, whether or not we describe it as a miracle performed upon him. Puzzling this all may be, but marginal it is not. It has even been said that in its content ‘It presents the Gospel in microcosm’.4
Outside the Synoptic Gospels we find only one clear reference to the transfiguration. According to 2 Peter 1:16–18:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
There may be reminders or echoes of the scene of transfiguration elsewhere in the NT, of course; the stories of Paul’s own conversion, in the Book of Acts that combine Jesus, light and a voice from heaven; the very rare (NT) word ‘transfigure’ is the one used by Paul when he tells the Corinthians that we ‘are being transformed [‘transfigured’] into his likeness with ever-increasing glory’ (2 Cor. 3:18); the first chapter of Revelation, with its dramatic portrayal of Jesus, has resonances. John’s Gospel is intriguing on this score. It contains no reference to the transfiguration, but it is a Gospel all about ‘glory’ and a voice from heaven thunders that God has glorified his name ‘and will glorify it again’ (12:28). The question about why John does not specifically mention transfiguration belongs to the wider discussion of its relationship to the Synoptics. We must bear in mind that John does not refer directly to the Last Supper either or directly report the actual baptism of Jesus, where the Synoptics do. John can be concerned with the surrounding interpretation of events that he does not report as do the Synoptists.
Over the years a number of scholars have supposed that the transfiguration story common to the synoptics is a misplaced resurrection account. That is, originally it circulated as a story of a resurrection appearance, but at some stage it became attached to the earthly ministry of Jesus and was transfigured into the form in which we now encounter it. Such a conjecture raises general questions about the nature and reliability of the Gospel accounts and how much we can know of the oral or written sources that lie behind them. It is baseless. There are several dissimilar features between resurrection and transfiguration narratives: the featuring of Moses and Elijah and the voice from heaven, for example, give the latter an entirely different ambience from the stories of the resurrection. All three evangelists take studious care to specify the period of time between Jesus’ sayings and the transfiguration occurrence. But I shall not argue the point in detail here.5
Others, who find the account credible as it stands, read it in light either of the experiences of Christian mystics through the ages or of reports of psychic phenomena that have circulated outside as well as within Christian circles.6 But these avenues of interpretation do not really help us. It is certainly possible in principle to posit some connections between reports of mystical transformations, such as the radiant face of a Teresa of Avila, for example, and the radiant face of Jesus.7 A proper investigation of this would mean a foray into the territory of mysticism and not just of transfiguration. It is even possible in principle to connect the experiences of those who tap into the realm of the dead with the manifestation of Moses and Elijah to the disciples. But even if we did, there would be a spiritual world of difference between accessing super-terrestrial realities paranormally by some occultic power and receiving a revelation from a gracious God for some specific purpose. The psychic route is dangerous, the disciples’ experience glorious, even if it is theoretically possible that similar phenomena can be encountered. In relation to Christian mysticism, what is significant about the transfiguration is not what it might have in common with mystical experiences, but its specific revelation of Jesus Christ. ‘This is my Son, whom I love’ or ‘my Son, whom I have chosen’ says the voice from heaven, in a way that distinguishes Jesus from the greatest of mystics in the Christian tradition.
Yet should we take the historicity of the accounts seriously at all? A range of views is possible. Some have no difficulty in believing the accounts as they stand. Others will take such belief as evidence of an almost unbelievably superstitious mind-set. Others again will believe, but only with hesitation. They do not doubt that God exists, that Jesus rose from the dead, and that in such a context all things are possible. As a matter of theological logic and the ontological order, they do not deny the possibility of transfiguration. However they find this particular scene disturbingly strange, leaving them uncertain about exactly what to make of it and generating a touch of incredulity in the matter. On the opposite side, yet others are generally inclined to disbelief, but will find themselves reluctant to dismiss the narrative completely, for the world is full of strange phenomena and certain aspects of Christian belief may be plausible enough. All these responses are inextricably linked to questions about the nature and credibility of Christianity in general and of Scripture in particular. To do justice to all the concerns, we should have to talk not about transfiguration but about reason, authority and experience in religion and in Christianity. It can not be done here, so just three general observations are in order.
First, there is no single standard about what counts as reasonable, There are simply different standards of rationality and it is difficult or impossible to come by some neutral way of judging which gives us a touchstone for them all. Second, underlying or accompanying our rational modes of thought and judgement are a host of less rational or non-rational factors which help to condition our thinking—tradition, prejudice, experience, instinct what we want to believe, what we unconsciously believe etc. Disagreements over particulars like the transfiguration have to be located within as wide a horizon as possible of encompassing and conflicting world-views. Third, we can not approach the question of transfiguration without making assumptions about larger issues, about the existence or purpose of God and the person, significance and resurrection of Jesus. My operational assumptions here are (a) the God of Israel, to whom witness is borne in the Old and New Testaments, truly exists as the Creator of this world who has revealed himself; (b) Jesus is the definitive revelation in history of the nature and purposes of this God; (c) the NT witness grasped this and reliably conveys to us the shape of Jesus’ life and ministry and the actuality of his resurrection. These are, as far as I am concerned, minimal claims. If we grant the truth or plausibility of these suppositions, what sense can we make of the transfiguration?
A distinction is standardly made in discussion between the transfiguration as a subjective vision and the transfiguration as an objective event. On the face of it, the distinction is a clear one. In the first instance, the disciples were given a vision by God which allowed them to see something of the significance and glory of Jesus. This could have been given to three of them on the mountain top, as recorded. But vision it was; it was not an objective transformation of Jesus’ physical countenance and material body. In the second instance the transfiguration is precisely an objective, historical event which could in principle have been seen by anyone walking the mountains, though in fact it was not, and which featured the actual transfiguration of Jesus’ face and clothing. For which of these accounts should we plump, if these are our alternatives?
The distinction is in fact by no means as clear as many think. We must use our language carefully. A vision is an historical event and can be perfectly objective. It can be objective in the sense that in it we see exactly what we are meant (by God) to see and apprehend the exact significance of what we are meant to apprehend, all going on at a specifiable place and time. Visions are not the same as myths.8 We really have to enquire about different kinds of objectivity. Probably the best way to get at the distinction in the two ways of envisioning the transfiguration is with reference to the external observer.9 In the case of an external observer, nothing unusual would have been seen in the case of a vision, whereas what the disciples saw would have been seen in the case of an objectively physical transformation. At least, that is presumably how the issue should be described. But it is not clear that this makes one case more objective than another; rather, the objectivities are different. On the conceptual level, there are interesting biblical cases that we might consider here. Putting together the different accounts of his conversion that are reported in the Book of Acts, we should conclude that Saul’s companions on the Damascus road heard the voice but not the words that were spoken to Saul; the latter were objective, but not accessible to others.10 In the story of Balaam’s donkey, we have a case of an objective appearance to a donkey, an appearance initially invisible to its rider.11
We should clearly study the way the vocabulary used in the synoptic accounts looks in the context of the wider way in which the words we translate as ‘see’ or ‘vision’ are used in the NT. Yet such a survey is inconclusive. For example, even if we render horama in Matthew 17:9 as ‘vision’ and believe it to be standardly used elsewhere in the NT for an inward experience, it does not force the conclusion that the seeing was not physical in this case.12 But do we really need to settle the disagreement? On the visionary hypothesis, a hypothetical observer would have seen nothing abnormal, but the three disciples are granted by God at a particular point in time and space a perception of who and what Jesus really is in his being and role. His relationship with God is such that what they see is the visual representation of the reality of that unity with the Father, hidden from the naked eye, but belonging to the very deepest dimension of reality. On the non-visionary hypothesis, an hypothetical observer from a distance would have seen the light and transformation but would not have been privy to the revelation given by the voice from heaven.
It is difficult to be conclusive in such a matter and it is therefore not clear that there is much at stake in the issue between the two points of view.13 Thus, I think that Liefeld somewhat exaggerates, or at least does not accurately describe, the importance of what is at stake here.14 Just how much care is needed here is indicated when even such a careful commentator as Charles Cranfield distinguishes in an unsatisfactory manner between the visionary and the factual.15 And just how dangerous a visionary hypothesis is depends on the meaning attached to the word ‘vision’. It depends also on the surrounding approach to the Bible.16Having said all this, the weight of the synoptic accounts on the publicly visible nature of the strange events which surround Jesus, even if what is publicly visible in principle is only privately witnessed in practice, should incline us to maximise empirical (in the sense of physical) components in the witness. If, alternatively, we subscribe to the visionary hypothesis as I have described it, while it does not need to cause the alarm that some defenders of historicity exhibit, we must not for a moment maintain it in a way that undermines the tangible nature of the events surrounding Jesus to which the NT bears witness. We must certainly beware lest any consequences of the way in which we view the transfiguration, undermine the historicity of the resurrection, understood as an affirmation of bodily continuity between the crucified and the risen one.17
Of course, the issue has been joined here as though the account concerned only Jesus. The appearance of Moses and Elijah further complicates the question of the nature of the event. Different views of the fate of the dead had developed among the Jews since OT times, involving different understandings of who were in Sheol, the underworld residence of the dead. According to the OT accounts, Moses had died, though his burial-place could not be located, while Elijah had exceptionally not been subject to death, having been taken up into heaven, though Enoch also was deathless. In pondering all this in our present context, it is fruitful to draw attention to Jesus’ own intervention into the dispute concerning the dead. He said in reply to a question by the Sadducees, who denied resurrection altogether.
Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living’ (Mark 12:26f.).
Jesus forces people to consider as follows: is it conceivable that God, having steered the patriarchs through so many ills and sufferings by binding himself to them in a covenant relationship, should, at their death, simply abandon them to eternal decay? The logic of God’s relationship with them and his power on their behalf requires resurrection.
Of Moses and Elijah on the mountain-top, we may say that by the power of God they were then and ever will be fully alive. The question of the form in which Moses and Elijah appeared, and how the disciples’ perceptions were operating at this point, seems to me hard to answer precisely though it seems that Jesus was bound to Moses and Elijah in mutually conscious communion. Calvin’s refusal to be dogmatic here is still instructive:
It might be asked whether it was really Moses and Elijah who were present or whether only their spectres were set before the disciples, just as often the prophets saw visions of absent things. Although there is much to be said on both sides, as they say, yet it seems more likely to me that they really were brought to that place.18
The Gospels testify to what the eyes saw and the ears heard; they do not conceptualise in such cases as miracles, resurrection body and, in the present case, transfiguration. The mystery of God, creator and sustainer, author of life and death, engulfs the whole account. Yet it is an account about Jesus, not about Moses nor about Elijah, for when the scene changed, the disciples still saw Jesus, but saw Jesus alone.
A Glimpse of Glory
The accounts of the transfiguration found in Matthew and Mark are basically similar with small differences. Luke’s account, however, while quite generally similar to the others, has greater contrasts. Where the others refer to a period of six days between Jesus’ previously reported teaching and the event of transfiguration, Luke speaks of ‘about eight days’, though this indicates the same period of time if you are including first and last days in your count. Interestingly, Luke does not use the word ‘transfigure’, a fact usually put down to his desire to avoid giving his readers the impression that Jesus was metamorphosed, changed from one form into another in a fashion that might be assimilated to pagan mythology. Luke is content to say that ‘as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed’ but it is he alone that tells us that Jesus was praying as it happened, just as he alone records that Jesus prayed at his baptism (3:21) and just prior to putting the question to his disciples recorded earlier in the chapter; ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ (9:18). In Luke’s account, the voice from heaven says; ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen’ rather than ‘whom I love’, to which we shall return in the second part of the article. Questions asked by the disciples, following the appearance of Elijah, in particular, are omitted by Luke from his account. But he also adds detail which gives us a lead as to what is significant about the transfiguration. He makes much of ‘glory’. Moses and Elijah appear ‘in glorious splendour’ and when the disciples ‘became fully awake, they saw his glory’.
The last declarations that Jesus made ‘about eight days’ before the transfiguration is rendered somewhat differently by the three evangelists, but Luke accents ‘glory’ particularly heavily.
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God (9:26f.).
Approaching the transfiguration by reference to these words looks like a case of explaining obscurum per obscurius (the already unclear by the even more unclear) and muddying already swirling waters of interpretation. Yet we can not avoid charting one or two of the currents.
A host of interpretations has been offered as commentators have striven from the earliest times to figure out what Jesus meant by these words or their parallels in the other Gospels. His own return; the destruction of Jerusalem; resurrection; ascension; Pentecost; the spread of the gospel; the community of the church where God visibly reigns; an intellectual perception of the significance of Jesus; spiritual rather than physical death—these singly or in some combination have been proposed as exegeses of ‘seeing the kingdom of God’ without tasting death, or the renderings in the parallel passages. Amongst all the interpretations, one is of particular interest to us. The words have been taken as referring to the transfiguration. In fact, this was quite a dominant interpretation in the earliest Christian centuries, although it was emphasised too that the transfiguration was itself a foretaste of something else.19 Is this good exegesis?
Obvious difficulties attend the proposal that we take this verse as having its primary and direct reference to the transfiguration in any of the three evangelists. It seems unnatural to refer to that event in terms of ‘seeing the kingdom’ or ‘seeing the kingdom of God coming with power’ or ‘seeing the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’. And is it not, in biblical as in modern usage, a strained way of alluding to an event that would occur within a week, to say that some would not die before its occurrence? On the other hand, it is even more difficult to avoid making some connection between the words and the event of transfiguration. The highly specific mention of the interval of days is very unusual in the body of the Gospels and appears designed to alert the reader to some connection between the transfiguration and what has gone before. Certainly Luke makes it very clear that there is a connection. His repeated use of ‘glory’ with reference to Son, Father and angels, is picked up in the repeated use in the transfiguration account. The transfiguration is a sign, anticipation, instalment or foretaste of the glorious manifestation of the Son—it is hard to state this more precisely without deciding how to read the primary reference of Jesus’ words, a matter beyond the scope of discussion here.20
‘Glory’ had strong OT connotations. The Hebrew word behind it appears more in the book of Exodus than in any other Pentateuchal or Historical book in the OT. When God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage through cloud and fire, his glory could be revealed in terms of sheer saving strength, destroying Pharaoh and his hordes at the Red Sea (14:4–31). But it also appeared in the cloud itself, however we interpret the combination of manifestation and concealment (16:10). When the Israelites eventually arrived at Sinai and God summoned Moses up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, ‘the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai’ (24:16). Moses subsequently ordered the construction of the tabernacle as a holy place and once that was up, the cloud moved from Sinai to the tabernacle and the glory of the Lord filled the place (40:34f.).
Amongst the parallels between this account and that of the transfiguration are the fact that names of three of Moses’ companions are specified upon their ascent and the cloud covers the mountain for six days (24:1, 9, 16). More striking still is the record of Moses’ shining face: when he came down from Sinai, his face was radiant; whenever he entered the presence of the Lord, his face shone (34:29–35). More or less the final word in the Pentateuch on Moses is that he was an incomparable prophet ‘whom the Lord knew face to face’ (Deut. 34:10). This prophetic stature or role is brought to mind by the voice that spoke at the mount of transfiguration, for the injunction to ‘listen to’ Jesus apparently echoes Moses’ parting announcement that ‘the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him’ (Deut. 18:15).
These connections are not flights of fancy. To the contrary, what often takes us time to dig up would have jumped to the minds of those steeped in the OT.21 There is much more OT background to and in connection with the accounts in the New than we readily perceive. Luke’s account points these up: ‘Moses and Elijah spoke about his departure’, the word for ‘departure’ being ‘exodus’. ‘Glory’ and ‘exodus’ thus emerge as key themes in the interpretation of the transfiguration. It may be coincidence, but it is worth noting that the only other NT example of the word ‘exodus’ used as Luke does here is in 2 Peter (1:15), just before Peter refers to the transfiguration, making much of ‘glory’.
Soteriological issues are at stake. When the presumably ageing Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and thanked God that he had set his eyes on the salvation he had prepared for the people, he had been waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25), Israel had had quite a grim time of it. In the intertestamental period, Alexander the Great had established his sprawling empire which, after his day, became divided into separate powers. These included Egypt and Syria, both of whom took a political interest in the homeland of the Jews in the service of their ambitions. The skies of Zion darkened in the second century with the encroachments of Antioches IV of Syria, leading to successful insurrection and hopeful independence under the leadership of the Maccabees. Triumphs, however, were followed by internal splits within Israel, making the land all the more prey to the Romans who had incorporated Palestine into the empire some decades before the birth of Jesus. Whatever religious freedom the Jews maintained, they lacked political self-determination and national independence. Against this background, Jesus’ ministry was bound to be interpreted by its earliest witnesses as an episode in the deliverance of the Jewish people. If transfiguration was resonant with themes of glory and exodus, it was contextualised by political hopes. If Jesus could be ranked alongside Moses, something historically decisive was in the air.22
Just How Glorious?
Familiarity with the NT, in a non-Jewish context, can make us blind to the incomparable prestige of Moses in, as before, Jesus’ day. To cast an OT leader in the mould of a successor to Moses—for Moses to be at all a type of any future leader from Joshua onwards—was to bestow great honour on the anti-type. Outside the OT, Jesus’ Jewish contemporary, Philo, all but deified Moses as Word and King, chosen one of God.23Indeed, in Philo’s description, Moses is himself transfigured on the Sinai mountain-top when receiving the law.24 However we interpret his joint appearance with Elijah, if Jesus stood just in the tradition of Moses, leader of the exodus, witness of glory, he was in high company.
The transfiguration account, by not just setting him in the company of Moses, but by exalting him more highly, is supremely the revelation of the divine sonship of Jesus, which is what the voice from heaven proclaimed. Jesus’ ministry invited the question of his relationship to Moses and the law. But Jesus also forced the question not just of his own attitude to the law, but of Moses’ relationship to him, in the former’s capacity as one who had prophesied the coming of Jesus. John recorded some bitter disputes with the Pharisees where Jesus insisted that Moses’ word and ministry signified none other than himself. Both Stephen and Paul were subsequently accused of being anti-Moses; the church struggled to figure out how the requirements of Moses’ law applied to Gentile converts to Christ, and Paul’s claim that we are justified through faith cut to the heart of this. But the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts proceeded as Jesus did, insisting that Moses actually pointed forward to Jesus Christ himself. So to position Jesus in relation to Moses was to make Jesus’ ministry the definitive action of God for Israel in the world. The transfiguration aside, the NT writings established a gulf between Jesus and Moses that opened out unexpected vistas on the messianic sonship declared on the mount of transfiguration. Because they take us away from the account, they will be noted only briefly and restricted to three.25
- The author of Hebrews spoke of Jesus as ‘worthy of greater honour than Moses’ (3:3). Moses is portrayed as being both part of a house and a servant in the house, the images being consistent because the house is Israel. Jesus is the builder. And God is the builder. It does not follow from this that Jesus is God: in a background passage, both Solomon and the Lord are said to be builders and Solomon is not identified with God (1 Chron. 17:10–12). However, the Son has already been described as ‘the radiance of God’s glory’ (language reminiscent of transfiguration) and ‘the exact representation of his being’, announcing what Westcott called the Son’s ‘unbroken connection with the Father’.26 The identification of Jesus with God reaches an extraordinary pitch, to all appearances, in 1:8. In the fourth century, the Fathers consistently invoked the first chapter of Hebrews in response to the Arian denial of the equality of the Son with the Father. According to Theodoret, the followers of Arius rejected the place of Hebrews in the canon because of its teaching about the relationship of Father to Son in its opening chapter.27 Behind the already considerable claim that Jesus was worthy of greater honour than Moses, lay not only the massive prestige of Moses, but a dramatic interpretation of sonship.
- Loisy commented that John’s Gospel affords us ‘a perpetual theophany—a permanent sighting of the appearance of God’s glory in Christ, temporarily glimpsed at transfiguration’.28 According to the prologue, Moses mediated the law, Christ mediated grace and truth. A stronger contrast still is given in the claim that God has never been seen and that the Son has made him known (1:18). What is arresting here is not just that there is a contrast between seeing and making known, as opposed to invisibility and visibility. It is the way that the Son is ranged on the Father’s side as revealer rather than on Moses’ side as recipient of revelation. The connection between glory and sonship, presented in its way in the accounts of transfiguration, has already been made (1:14). The glorification of the Son of Man is later the subject of the speech from heaven (12:23–34).
- In language that picks up ‘transfiguration’, Paul addresses the Corinthians with some extrordinary statements (2 Cor. 3:7–18). The Mosaic dispensation, when the law was received, was attended by its own kind of glory. Yet so intent is Paul on the belief that the law is ineffective in bringing salvation and that its function in God’s plan is subordinate to the events that have taken place in the coming of Christ and subsequent gift of the Spirit, that he is even prepared to call the Mosaic dispensation ‘a ministry of death’. One veil covered Moses, who prevented his fellow-Israelites from seeing the divine glory when he conversed with God; another covers the minds of those who can read of Moses without recognising the significance of Christ. We go beyond Moses, and are unlike him, for he had to put on a veil where we ‘with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory’ and so ‘are being transformed [transfigured] into his likeness with ever-increasing glory’. God, Christ and Spirit are all associated in this Christian experience. Moses has been left far behind.
When we look out for associations of Jesus with Moses in the rest of the NT, we meet rather strikingly the themes set before eye, mind and heart at the mount of transfiguration: glory and sonship.29 We are also in the region of what is sometimes termed ‘high christology’.30 Just how much of this can be read out of or into the account of the transfiguration without missing its significance? We shall turn to this in the next part of the article.
1 I am grateful for the invitation to adapt a draft booklet on the transfiguration into a two-part article for Themelios. That booklet was itself a popularised digest of a series of lectures given on. The Transfigured Christ of the New Testament’ and the double exercise in compression means that (a) exegetical discussion and reference to secondary literature have been all but eliminated, (b) substantively, far more about the transfiguration is omitted than included in this article and (c) discussion of discipleship in its light is completely absent. Walter Liefeld’s article on ‘Transfiguration’ in Joel Green etc. (ed.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Leicester: IVP, 1992) contains a helpful bibliography, including reference to a good essay by Liefeld himself, quite apart from this particular article. The older study by A.M. Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London: Longmans, 1949) is generally helpful. For a more detailed study, see especially A.D.A Moses, Matthew’s Transfiguration Story and the Jewish-Christian Controversy(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).
2 Mark 8:31–38 and parallels.
3 Matt. 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36.
4 A. Trites, ‘The Transfiguration of Jesus: the Gospel in Microcosm’ in Evangelical Quarterly 51 (1979), 67–79. Note also Trites’ short study, The Transfiguration of Christ: A Hinge of Holy History (Nova Scotia: Lancelot, 1994).
5 See R.H. Stein, ‘Is the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2–8) a Misplaced Resurrection Account?’, Journal of Biblical Literature 95 (1976), 79–96. It is by no means only the most conservative scholars who have held this over the years; C.H. Dodd and Krister Stendahl are amongst those who have challenged the ‘resurrection-appearance’ version.
6 E.g., D. Evans, ‘Academic Scepticism, Spiritual Reality and Transfiguration’ in N.T. Wright and L.D. Hurst eds., The Glory of Christ in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987); Evelyn Underhill, The Mystic Way(London/Toronto: Dent, 1913), 120f., a work of ‘no small influence’, Ramsey commented (102) and taken up by George Caird, e.g., in Saint Luke (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 132; see too Caird on ‘The Transfiguration’ in Expository Times 67 (1955), 291–94.
7 According to Evelyn Underhill, in another work, while Teresa was writing The Interior Castle ‘her face, extremely beautiful in expression, shone with an unearthly splendour which afterwards faded away’ (Mysticism [London: Methuen, 1914], 353).
8 R.H. Stein confuses the issues here in Jesus the Messiah: A Survey of the Life of Christ (Downers Grove/Leicester: 1996) ch. 12, as does Donald Macleod along similar lines in The Person of Jesus Christ(Leicester: IVP, 1998) 101f. But while Howard Marshall may be right to say that ‘the nature of the event is such as to almost defy historical investigation’ it is unfortunate that he allows the possibility of ‘myth’ while favouring a ‘supernatural event’: I.H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), 381.
9 So Robert Reymond, Jesus: Divine Messiah, the New Testament Witness (Philippsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1990), 160f., who, again, does not make the right distinctions.
10 See Acts 9:3–7; 22:6–9; 26:12–14. The NIV, for example, needlessly renders 22:9: ‘they did not understand’ but the word translated ‘understand’ is the same as that used in Acts 9:7 which says that they ‘heard the sound’. There need be no contradiction if 22:9 is rendered as ‘they did not hear’ because there is a distinction between hearing a voice and hearing the words and this is plausibly applied to the two passages.
11 Num. 22:21ff.
12 As R.T France admits, The Gospel According to Matthew (Leicester: IVP, 1995), ad loc. Note the distinction made by Hagner between ‘something really seen’ and ‘something merely imagined’ in D. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 492. Compare how the one Greek word translated ‘appeared’ can cover slightly distinct forms of seeing in 1 Cor. 15:7f; neither here nor in Matthew does the word itself pin down a concept with empirical exactitude.
13 Many conservative exegetes are willing to leave the matter open: France, The Gospel According to Matthew, 262; William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1974), 317; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St Luke (Leicester: IVP, 1974), 171.
14 In ‘Theological Motifs in the Transfiguration Narrative’ in R.N. Longenecker and M.L. Tenney, New Dimensions in New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 163. C.E.B, Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 294.
15 C.E.B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 294.
16 So, for example, one might subscribe to the letter of P.T. Forsyth’s treatment of Paul’s vision on the Damascus road but baulk at it all the same, in the light of contextual remarks. See Christ on Parnassus: Lectures on Art, Ethics and Theology (London etc: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911), 249.
17 For example, it seems to me that we are on dangerous ground if we begin to think in terms of something ‘not only incongruous but repellent in the idea of the Risen Lord eating’—the spirit of such a remark is to be avoided, So James Denney; my attention was drawn to it by John Thompson, Christ in Perspective in the Theology of Karl Barth (Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1978), 178 n. 63, who contrasts Barth favourably with Denney on this point.
18 A Harmony of the Gospels, II (Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1972), 199. While this is admirably open in its spirit, the notion of ‘absence’ is surely awkward here.
19 See J.A. McGuckin, The Transfiguration of Christ in Scripture and Tradition (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1986) and the selection that he gives.
20 2 Peter 1:16–18 does not provide solid evidence for the connection between transfiguration and parousia. Despite the weight of opinion against it, there is a good, though not convincing, case, for reading the reference to ‘coming’ in 1:16 rather in terms of incarnation than parousia. See Samuel Benetrau, Le Deuxieme Epitre de Pierre; L’Epitre de Jude (Vaux-sur-Seine: Faculte Libre de Theologie Evangelique, 1994), ad loc.
21 See Dale C. Allison, The New Moses: a Matthean Typology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 1993). He quotes Auerbach’s comment that biblical books are all ‘fraught with background’ (15).
22 Allusion is made to Elijah in the second part of this article.
23 For a brief account, see E. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judaeus (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), e.g. 145ff. For Moses as king and other accolades, see the very beginning and very end of Philo, On The Life of Moses, Book II (London: Heinemann/Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935). But references to Moses’ high significance are also found elsewhere in his corpus, And much later, outside Judaism, see Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis I.24 on ‘Moses as General’: ‘So there is Moses—prophet, legislator, organizer, general, statesman, philosopher’—not the Philonic heights, but plenty of breadth.
24 Cf. D.F. Strauss, who regarded the transfiguration as ‘an enhanced repetition of the glorification of Moses’: quoted in Allison, The New Moses: a Matthean Typology, 293.
25 In the next part, I shall touch briefly on methodological issues in the approach to NT christology.
26 B.F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Macmillan, 1892) ad loc.
27 See P.E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Michigan, 1977) ad loc.
28 Quoted in A.M. Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, 123.
29 Though ‘sonship’ is not the point in 2 Cor. 3, Christ is identified as ‘Son of God’ in 1:19. Of course, I am collapsing sonships: Son of Man/Son of God. Reference to ‘Son of Man’ precedes the account of transfiguration in all three Synoptic accounts, especially emphasised by Matthew (16:28).
30 Including 2 Cor. with its famous doxological conclusion though the exegesis of passages relevant to christology in 2 Cor. 3 (16–18) is controversial.
Stephen N. Williams
Stephen Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and served as general editor of Themelios from 1995 to 1999.
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