Mark 9:2-10 – Transfiguration

The transfiguration is perhaps one of the strangest accounts of Jesus before the story of the resurrection. What is the point of his transformation? Why does he meet with Moses and Elijah on top of a tall mountain? And why does a cloud speak to the three disciples he took with him? These ideas have caused quite a few people to suspect that this is simply a misplaced post-resurrection account (eg Bultmann who claimed the “after 6 days” was originally a reference from Easter as only Easter narratives have such dates on them), or corporate vision or even just a theological statement with no element of historicity. Certainly this account is highly theological, as this essay will attempt to show, but that does not mean that it has to be divorced from any claim to historicity. Indeed, Baltensweiler and Stein amongst others have shown there to be many problems with this argument, for example that there was no luminosity involved in the resurrection accounts. Indeed, most people claiming this to be post-resurrection hold to the very early dating of the gospel of Peter by Crossan. This story has the highest christology in the gospel until the resurrection account and so it seem that the transfiguration account marks the start of the section containing Jesus in Jerusalem, on the path to the cross.

It is clear from the very beginning of this narrative that this story is heavily linked to the Old Testament. The first hint of this is the first phrase, και μετα ημε?ας εξ (“And after 6 days”). No-where else in this gospel apart from at the beginning of the passion narrative (14:1) is there such an exact reference to time, which shows that this is a highly important story, and also hints that we should look in the OT for some passage about 6 days. When we do, we find a reference in Exodus 24:16, in which God is about to reveal more of the law to Moses at Sinai. The LXX reads εκαλυψεν αυτο η νεφελη εξ ημε?ας (“and the cloud covered it six days”). As we see later in Mark’s account, a cloud descends upon Jesus and the two figures that he is with and covers them (9:7). The important thing from this account in Exodus is that “on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud” and so Moses went up the mountain to receive some of the law. From this, we can conclude that Mark is implying that Jesus is a new Moses responding to his call to go up the mountain to seek God and perhaps read a hint that Jesus is receiving something from God.

If we continue looking at the parallel further, Exodus says “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel” (24:17). This appearance of the glory of the Lord is obviously figurative because of the phrase “was like”. Mark’s account of the transfiguration is similarly figurative as he writes that “his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (9:3). There are several important differences between these two accounts. The first is the issue of witnesses; in the former it seems to be most of the people of Israel, where as in the latter story, only Peter, James and John, Jesus select disciples are witnesses of this amazing glorification. This could be another Marcan hint that Jesus is redefining Israel around himself and a small core of followers. By extrapolation, all who are followers of Jesus have now seen this transfiguration because Mark has written it down for all to read. The second difference between the stories is that in the Exodus narrative, it is the glory of YHWH which is being displayed, whereas in the Marcan account, it is Jesus who is being transformed (μετεμο?φωθη – a passive tense). However, we do see in Exodus 34:29 that as Moses came down the mountain, he “did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Perhaps we can see the Exodus account as having two appearances of God’s glory; the first to all the people with the transformation of the mountain, and the second which is the idea that once Moses has been communing with God, he cannot help but be changed (or this reason, Moses starts to wear a veil (Ex 34:35)). Reading the first transformation into Jesus does not seem to make as much sense as the second. If we do this, we see that Mark portrays Jesus as having communicated with God to a greater extent than Moses: not just his appearance is changed, but the very clothes that he wears. Therefore, it seems that Mark is portraying Jesus as a new Moses, who goes up into the high mountain (ο?ος υψηλον) to meet with God, which is an event that some of the faithful people see, and Jesus is transformed by his contact with God’s radiance and glory.

A particular theme picked up from the Old Testament is put on Peter’s lips when he says in 9:5 ποιησωμεν τ?εις σκηνας (“Let us make three booths/tabernacles”). This is a reference to the OT feast of booths which is commanded as “You shall dwell in booths for seven days’ for the reason “that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 23:42-43). These booths would be hand made houses made from sticks and various remnants of the harvest, for the purpose of reminding the Israelites that for forty years they had been in the desert without a home. The traditional explanation of this statement is that Peter thought Jesus, Moses and Elijah wanted to stay and talk on the mountain for longer. However, Hooker1 explains it by saying that there was a Jewish expectation that in the Messianic age, the Israelites would again dwell in tents, because the Jews looking back found that the time in the desert was when they were closest to God.

We should now turn to look at the controversial issue of what Elijah and Moses are in the story for. What do they symbolise, and more importantly: how does it link in with the rest of the gospel? One explanation sees Moses and Elijah as both being people who suffered for the sake of God, however this seems rather unlikely because there are people who suffered far more for the sake of God than Moses or Elijah, for example Jeremiah or Abraham. Another explanation suggests that both were figures who experienced theophanies or mountains, or perhaps that they both did not die. Certainly Elijah’s ascent into heaven is recorded in 2 Kings 2:11, however Moses’ death is recorded in Deuteronomy 34:5 (but some Jews thought that Moses had not died eg “as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him on the sudden, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God.” (Ant. 4.8:48)). Perhaps the best explanation is the traditional reformed view which states that Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. By having them both appear to Jesus, it is claimed that Mark shows Jesus as completing or surpassing the law and the prophets. However, a difficulty with this explanation is that Moses was thought of as greater than Elijah in Jewish thought, so why does Mark put the order as Elijah and Moses? Hooker says that Elijah is first because he is the person who has been mentioned the most in the surrounding passages, for example some people claim that Jesus is Elijah (8:28) and the scribes say that Elijah must come first (9:11-13). This sounds like quite a logical explanation, and therefor because of what Jesus says about Elijah in 9:12-13 it seems that he represents the heralding of Jesus’ coming (both in the prophets and as John), and Moses represents the writings in the OT.

What does the term transfiguration mean? The Greek word is μετεμο?φωθη which is from the words μετα and μο?φη which taken together mean a change of form or substance. It does not indicate so much an outer change as an inner change (were this the case, the word would be μετασχηματισμος). The word μο?φη is used for example in LXX Job where the term is used of a spirit which appeared in front of Job but he could “not discern his appearance” (Job 4:16) thus showing that something can have a μο?φη without having a body. The verb μετεμο?φωθη is a passive, which could be a divine passive or (more probably) indicates that God transformed Jesus so as to show his disciples. We see two other uses of this word in the canon, the first of which (chronologically) is in 2 Corinthians 3:18 which comes after a section about Moses and the veil and talks about believers being changed (μεταμο?φουμεθα – passive) by God “from one degree of glory into another”. The second is like it “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2) (μεταμο?φουσθε – passive again). In this second case, it seems to be an action of the Holy Spirit which is in view, but as Paul has a clearly trinitarian theology, this is the same as an action of God. We should note that in these two other uses, the verb refers to an internal change which sometimes leads to an external change. Therefore, all cases of this verb being used in the Bible are passive forms with God somehow internally transforming a person to be more like Him.

Even though the verb μετεμο?φωθη implies that the transformation was on the main internal to Jesus, Mark (and the other gospel writers) also describe some external changes which happened to Jesus’ clothes. Mark uses two metaphors, the first of which is τα ιματια αυτου εγενετο στιλβοντα λευκα λιαν (“his clothing became glistening, intensely white”). This metaphor uses the natural world (λευκα is derived from λυκη (“light”)). The second metaphor is similar: οια γναφευς επι της γης ου δυναται ουτως λευκαναι (“in such a manner as no fuller on earth is able to whiten them”). In those days, there was not such good bleach as in modern times, so a true white could not be obtained. However, this metaphor is meant for theological interpretation. It links in with apocalyptic literature, in which a servant of God is sometimes described as being in ultra-white clothes, which symbolise the servant’s purity and usually sinlessness. An example of this, which Mark and the other gospel writers probably had in mind is that of Daniel where the “Ancient of Days” is described with το ενδυμα αυτου ωσει χιων λευκον (‘His clothing [was] white like snow”). Mark thus makes a connection between Jesus and the Ancient of Days (expanded upon further in Revelation, linking at Rev 1:14). We therefore see that through Jesus’ clothing, Mark is representing him as a pure servant of God, and is probably intending to mean that he is sinless.

As we noted near the beginning of this essay, there are only three disciples to witness Jesus’ transfiguration, Peter, James and John. We have already seen in Mark that these are the only disciples to be entrusted with some of the more amazing miracles in Jesus’ ministry, for example, at the raising of Jairus’ daughter (5:37). The idea of there being a secret which is not to be spoken about is very common in the gospel and it seems that these three are the only people to be trusted to keep such amazing feats secret. Several times (eg 1:44, 7:35, 8:26) Jesus cautions people not to tell others what he has done for them, but they usually end up “proclaiming it more zealously” (7:35). Jesus’ trust is correctly placed in Peter, James and John, because they τον λογον εκ?ατησαν π?ος εαυτους (“kept the matter amongst themselves”) even though they were συζητουντες τι εστιν το εκ νεκ?ων αναστηναι (“eagerly discussing what was [the meaning of] ‘the rising from the dead'”).

It has been shown that the idea of a messiah and the idea of a general resurrection was generally accepted in Judaism at the time (at least amongst the Pharisees), and this much is clear from the gospel accounts too. As this is the case, it seems puzzling that the disciples discuss the resurrection. It seems that the disciples do understand the idea of the resurrection, but they do not yet understand that the cross is essential to this type of Messiah. Even though the traditional ideas about a Messiah to punish the Romans seems wrong in the light of the Psalms of Solomon chapter 17, in no pre-Christian document is there any mention of a dying and rising Messiah figure. The disciples at this stage simply fail to grasp the reason why Jesus has come to earth.

This mention of resurrection is by no means the only link in this passage with the rest of Mark’s gospel. For anyone familiar with the baptism scene at the beginning of Mark 1, there is a strong link with the voice from heaven. In the baptism scene in 1:11, the heavenly voice says συ ει ο υιος μου ο αγαπητος εν σοι ευδοκησα (“You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased”) and similarly here, the voice says ουτος εστιν ο υιος μου ο αγαπητος ακουετε αυτου (“This is my beloved son, listen to him!”). The heavenly voice in the baptism scene serves to give divine confirmation to Jesus, and similarly at the transfiguration scene, the heavenly voice serves to give divine confirmation to Jesus’ core group of disciples.

All of these things in the story seem to point to the fact that Jesus is the servant of God. He is sinless, perhaps somehow being similar to the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7. He surpasses the law and the prophets, and is transformed by his meeting with God so that even his clothes display radiance for that time. God again declares that Jesus is his faithful son, although to a wider audience this time. The next time that Jesus is declared to be God’s son is upon the lips of the Centurion at the cross, just after he has died. This story shows Jesus’ power too, with the fact that Moses and Elijah vanish and only he is left, glistening after his encounter with his Father.

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