Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 1 (Jn 12:1-8)

John 12:1-8

Having discussed the Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) and Lukan versions of the Anointing of Jesus (cf. the previous two posts), it now remains to examine the version in John (12:1-8). Anyone who studies these three versions carefully will immediately recognize how close John’s version is to the Synoptic account (esp. that of Mark, 14:3-9). Indeed, the similarities far outweigh the differences. This marks the (Bethany) Anointing tradition as both early and authentic (on objective grounds), having been preserved in two distinct lines of Gospel tradition (John and the Synoptic). However, there are several significant differences in John’s account:

    • John’s episode is set six days before Passover (v. 1), compared with two days before in the Synoptic version (Mk 14:1 par).
    • The woman who anoints Jesus is identified as Mary, sister of Lazarus (v. 3, cf. verse 2 and 11:1ff). In the Synoptics, the woman is unnamed (Mk 14:3 par).
    • She anoints the feet of Jesus (v. 3), rather than his head (Mk 14:3 par).
    • The person who voices objection to this action is identified as Judas Iscariot (vv. 4ff); cp. Mk 14:4-5 and Matt 26:8-9.
    • The beautiful image in v. 3b of the smell of the perfume filling the house is unique to John’s account.

Each of these will be discussed briefly, in turn.

1. Six days—”Then six days before the Pesah {Passover}, Yeshua came into Beth-Ananyah {Bethany}…” The context in Mk 14:1 par indicates that the Anointing took place two days before Passover. More significantly, John clearly sets the Anointing before Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem (12:12ff), while in the Synoptics (Mk/Matt) it takes place after. Which chronology is correct, or more accurately reflects the original historical event (and tradition)? On the one hand, the Synoptic version may have relocated it, setting it within the Passion narrative, in order to bring out the association with Jesus’ death and burial (Mk 14:8-9 par; Jn 12:7). On the other hand, it is possible that John has intentionally placed it earlier in the narrative, in order to bring out the association with Lazarus and Mary in chapter 11. The traditional commemoration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, one week prior to Easter, is based on the chronology in John.

2. Mary—John is unique among the Gospels in identifying the woman with Mary, sister of Lazarus (v. 3). The episode follows immediately after the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11, in which both Mary and her sister Martha play significant roles in the narrative (vv. 5, 19-27, 31-33, 45). All three siblings appear at the dinner in chapter 12 (vv. 2-3), which may have taken place in the family’s house. Outside of John 11-12, Martha and Mary appear in Lk 10:38-42, but without any mention of Bethany or Lazarus. The identification of the woman with Mary is likely a secondary development, in line with the early Christian (and Jewish) tendency of identifying unnamed figures in the Scriptures with specific persons. Almost certainly, Mark reflects an earlier version of the tradition in this regard.

3. Judas Iscariot—Similarly, John identifies the person objecting to the anointing as Judas Iscariot (v. 4). Here, we can actually trace the development:

    • Persons present at the dinner, otherwise unidentified (Mk 14:4)

Interestingly, Matthew’s identification of the people with Jesus’ disciples is presumably meant to be positive—they object to the extravagant ‘waste’ of costly perfume which could otherwise have been put to the more practical use of caring for the poor. However, in John, the identification with Judas turns this around and is decidedly negative—Judas was a ‘thief’ and did not really have any concern for the poor. Here we must separate out for consideration two specific details (or traditions) which John includes:

    1. The person voicing objection was Judas (v. 4)
    2. Judas was a thief and did not care for the poor (v. 6)

The first of these fits with the information in Matt 26:8, that Jesus’ disciples were the ones objecting to the waste of perfume. The second is more difficult. Many scholars are naturally suspicious of such a detail since it seems to follow the early Christian tendency to vilify Judas and depict him in an increasingly negative and hostile light. This will be discussed further in an upcoming note on the traditions surrounding Judas in the Passion Narrative.

4. The feet of Jesus—In the Synoptic version, the woman anoints Jesus’ head (Mk 14:3 par), however, in John’s account, somewhat strangely, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume (12:3). Traditional-conservative commentators might be inclined to harmonize here, and say that she anointed both the head and feet, but the Markan account would seem to rule this out. In Mk 14:3 it is stated that the women shattered the alabaster jar—the implication being that she poured all the perfume over Jesus’ head. This helps to explain the objection to the “waste”—she used it all up in one extravagant action. More to the point, in each of the versions, the woman anoints either Jesus’ head (Mk/Matt) or his feet (Jn), but never both. Curiously, in Luke’s version of the Anointing, the woman’s action matches that of Mary’s in Jn 12:3:

“and standing behind (him) alongside his feet (and) weeping, she began to wet his feet with (her) tears and she wiped (them) out with the hairs of her head, and she ‘kissed’ his feet and anointed (them) with the myrrh-ointment” (Lk 7:38)

John’s description of the action is simpler (indicated by the words in bold above), but appears to follow the same basic tradition:

“Then Maryam…anointed the feet of Yeshua and wiped out [i.e. off] his feet with her hair…” (v. 3)

Some critical commentators feel that this represents the original tradition—i.e. anointing Jesus’ feet—and that, in the Synoptic version, it has been modified to the more understandable act of anointing Jesus’ head. The latter, of course, is more fitting for Jesus’ identity and dignity as the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) and King. However, the anointing of the feet is actually more appropriate, in some ways, for the symbolic embalming of a dead body (Mk 14:8-9 par; Jn 12:7).

5. The house was filled—It is likely that this beautiful and evocative detail in v. 3b is meant to symbolize the faith and devotion of Mary (and disciples/believers like her). In some ways this is parallel to the scene with Martha in the Lazarus narrative (11:20-27, esp. her declarations in v. 21 and 27). R. E. Brown (The Gospel According to John [AB vol. 29], p. 453) notes a (later) Jewish parallel from the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:1: “The fragrance of a good perfume spreads from the bedroom to the dining room; so does a good name spread from one end of the world to the other” (translation his). This quotation also seems to suggest a relationship between v. 3 and the declaration by Jesus in Mk 14:9 par.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 1 (Lk 7:36-50)

Luke 7:36-50

In the previous note, I examined the Anointing of Jesus in Mark and Matthew, in which it is set as the first episode in the (Synoptic) Passion Narrative. Luke likewise includes an Anointing scene, but one with a very different setting—earlier in the Galilean ministry period (7:36-50)—and with considerable differences in detail as well. These points of difference would normally be sufficient to mark the episode as deriving from an entirely separate (historical) tradition. However, at least two facts would argue against this:

    1. This is the only such Anointing scene in Luke; he does not include anything similar at a point corresponding to Mk 14:3-9 par. This might suggest that Luke felt that the episode properly belonged at a different point in the narrative. John’s version provides confirmation for an earlier setting of the episode, prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
    2. Luke’s account includes specific details common to the Synoptic (Markan) version:
      (a) The name of the host (Simon)—Mk 14:3 par; Lk 7:40.
      (b) The unnamed woman with an alabaster jar of perfume—Mk 14:3 par; Lk 7:37
      (c) As we shall see, the description of the woman’s action (v. 38) is nearly identical with that in John’s version (12:3), which otherwise is quite close overall to the Markan episode.

How are we to explain the relationship between the Lukan and Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) version? There are several possibilities:

    • They simply record entirely separate (historical) events, and the similarities between them are coincidental. This would probably be the normal traditional-conservative view, yet the points noted above seem to speak against it.
    • Luke has combined two distinct historical traditions:
      (1) that involving a “sinful” woman who wets Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair; the episode is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry, at the house of a Pharisee.
      (2) that of the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany; i.e. the Synoptic tradition, set close to the time of Jesus’ Passion in Jerusalem.
      This would tend to be the more common critical view—that Luke has added details from the Synoptic version (which he has otherwise omitted) to the other scene.
    • They record the same underlying historical tradition (and event), but that Luke has brought out very different details and points of emphasis, through the specific tradition he has inherited.

Unfortunately, each of these three views has its own problems, and none is entirely satisfactory as an explanation of both the differences and similarities between the versions. The situation is complicated still further when one compares these two versions of the Anointing scene with the third (in John). Insofar as Luke has developed the core (Synoptic) tradition, we must consider this from several different perspectives.

1. If Luke has otherwise made use of Mark (or a similar Synoptic narrative), why did he omit the Bethany Anointing scene of Mk 14:3-9? Different possibilities have been suggested, but, in my view, the most convincing is that his purpose was to emphasize more clearly two primary thematic elements of the narrative—(1) the Passover setting, and (2) the Betrayal by Judas. Eliminating the Anointing episode at this point serves to join immediately the narrative introduction (22:1-6) with the Last Supper scene (vv. 7ff), in which both of these elements are prominent. Luke has further enhanced the narrative introduction by weaving into it the tradition of Judas’ betrayal (compare vv. 3-6 with Mk 14:1b-2).

2. The author (trad. Luke) may also have wished to give greater prominence to the earlier Anointing scene, set in Galilee. Whether or not he has included details, otherwise found in the Bethany scene, within this episode (cf. above), there is tremendous power and beauty to the narrative in 7:36-50. The Anointing episode outline (on this, cf. the previous note) is essentially represented by vv. 36-40, the first part of the narrative. The second part (vv. 41-50) involves a parable (vv. 41-47) similar to others found in Luke’s Gospel (see esp. 10:25-37, of the “Good Samaritan”). The three-fold emphasis on repentance, forgiveness, and love, reflects important Lukan themes, such as we see, for example, in the parable of the Prodigal (15:11-24ff). All of these elements, of course, are unique to Luke’s tradition, and are not found in the Synoptic Anointing episode. Yet, as noted above, there is some indication that the author may have seen the two traditions as reflecting the same episode. In particular, the reference to the host Pharisee as “Simon” (v. 40) could suggest a conscious harmonization with Mk 14:3ff.

3. The similarity between Lk 7:38 and Jn 12:3 raises the possibility that Luke inherited a form of the (Bethany) Anointing tradition closer to Jn 12:1-8 than Mk 14:3-9. This should be seriously considered, especially since there is some evidence that, in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, Luke and John are drawing from a common tradition separate from the Synoptic (i.e. not found in Mark/Matthew). John’s account of the Anointing will be discussed in the next note.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 1 (Mk 14:3-9; Matt 26:6-13)

The Anointing of Jesus

As indicated in the introduction to this portion of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, the scene of the Anointing of Jesus (by a woman) is the first episode in the Synoptic Passion Narrative, as represented by the Gospel of Mark (14:3-9). Actually there is a similar Anointing episode in all four Gospels. The version in Matthew (26:6-13) follows Mark closely, both those in Luke (7:36-50) and John (12:1-8) contain significant differences. This has caused commentators to question whether we are dealing with one, two, or even three distinct historical traditions (and events). Only the scene in Mark/Matthew is part of the Passion Narrative proper, though John’s version still evinces a connection with the death/burial of Jesus that must have been part of the tradition from an early point. The many points of difference between Luke’s account and the Synoptic scene in Mark/Matthew, may seem to leave little doubt that at least two separate historical traditions are involved. However, the Anointing Scene in all four Gospels follows the same basic narrative outline:

    • Jesus is dining (as a guest) in a particular house, and his he is reclining at the table
    • A women enters, or is present, who anoints Jesus with perfume
    • Others who are present react negatively to this
    • Jesus rebukes them for this reaction, and
    • He speaks on behalf of the woman, in support of her, etc

This common outline has convinced a number of scholars that ultimately we are dealing with multiple versions of the same historical tradition. It may be worth recalling that there were similar questions related to the Miraculous Feeding episode(s) (cf. the earlier notes), as well as the scene of Jesus at Nazareth (cf. also these notes).

I begin this study with the episode as it is found in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 14:3-9

This episode, the first in the Passion Narrative, follows the narrative introduction in vv. 1-2. This brief notice contains two primary elements which run thematically through the narrative: (1) the Passover setting, and (2) the plans to arrest Jesus and put him to death. Mark sets the second element within the first, enveloping it:

    • “It was the festival of Pesah (Passover) and the Unleavened Bread after [i.e. in] two days”
      —”The chief sacred officials [i.e. Priests] and writers [i.e. Scribes] searched (out) how, grabbing hold of him in a (cunning) trap (right away), they might kill him off”
    • “For they said, ‘Not on the festival (day), (so) there will not be any clamor of [i.e. from] the people'”

The idea clearly is that the religious authorities wish to arrest and deal with Jesus prior to the day of Passover itself.

The narrative of the Anointing scene is generally simple and straightforward; it may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction/setting—the action of the woman (v. 3)
    • The reaction of those present (vv. 4-5)
    • Jesus’ response (vv. 6-9), including a climactic saying

This basic outline is common to many traditional narratives in the Synoptics, especially those which depict Jesus in dispute/conflict with religious authorities (on questions of Law and other beliefs)—cf. Mark 2:1-3:6 par, etc. It is worth noting that neither the woman nor those who respond negatively to her are identified. In this respect, Mark most likely preserves the earlier form of the tradition (compared with Matthew [cf. below] and John). Jesus’ response is comprised of four sayings or parts:

    • V. 6—”Leave her (alone)! (for) what [i.e. why] do you hold [i.e. bring] along trouble for her? It is a fine work she has worked on me.”
    • V. 7—”The poor you have with you always…but you do not always have me.”
    • V. 8—”She did that which she held (in her to do)—she took (the opportunity) before(hand) to apply ointment (to) my body, unto [i.e. for] the placing (of it) in the grave.”
    • V. 9—”Amen, I say to you, (that) wherever the good message is proclaimed, into the whole world, even th(at) which this (woman) did will be spoken unto her memorial [i.e. as a memorial for her].”

These may be divided into two groups, reflecting two aspects of the narrative:

    • The costliness of the anointing—Christian ideals of poverty and humility (represented by the onlookers’ objection) required that some explanation of this “waste” be given. The answer comes in vv. 6-7, especially Jesus’ saying regarding the poor in v. 7.
    • The connection with the death of Jesus—it is doubtless this aspect in vv. 8-9 which caused the episode to be set within the context of the Passion narrative. As we shall see, there is some indication that the original tradition/event may have originally occurred at an earlier point in the Gospel narrative.

Matthew 26:6-13

Matthew follows the Markan account rather closely. The Gospel writer has, in other respects, expanded the Passion Narrative considerably, such as can be seen in the narrative introduction (cp. vv. 1-5 with Mk 14:1-2). The main difference is found in vv. 1-2, which contain a transitional statement (v. 1) and a declaration by Jesus (v. 2) which echoes the earlier Passion predictions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19 par). However, the Anointing scene itself shows relatively little development. Typically, Matthew’s version is smoother and simpler, lacking some of the specific detail and color of Mark’s account. It also contains certain details not found in Mark:

    • Those who object to the woman’s action are identified as Jesus’ disciples (v. 8). This is a significant development; John’s version is even more specific.
    • In v. 10a there is the possible indication that Jesus is aware of the disciples’ thoughts/hearts (cf. 9:4, etc).
    • The woman’s action (v. 12) is described by Jesus through a somewhat different formulation:
      “For this (woman), casting [i.e. pouring] the myrrh-ointment upon my body, did (this) toward [i.e. for] my being placed in the grave.”
      Matthew’s version emphasizes the allusion to the process of embalming, prior to burial.

Two of the four sayings by Jesus here—the second and the last (vv. 11, 13 / Mk 14:7, 9)—seem to be especially fixed in the tradition, with little variation:

    • Mk 14:7 / Matt 26:11—in the saying regarding the poor, Matthew’s version is shorter (an abridgment?), but otherwise the wording is very close.
    • Mk 14:9 / Matt 26:13—the authenticity of the closing statement regarding the woman would seem to be confirmed (on objective grounds), by: (a) the nearly identical wording, and (b) the formula “Amen, I say to you…” (a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n), which is most distinctive and a sign of an early Jesus tradition. The solemnity of the saying was certainly influential in the preservation of the episode within the Gospel tradition.

There is more variation (between Matthew and Mark) in the other two sayings, especially that in Mk 14:8 par which associates the woman’s action with Jesus’ burial. This fluidity would suggest that the saying was not as well established in the tradition. As indicated above, Matthew’s version enhances the association between the anointing and the (symbolic) embalming of Jesus after death.

In the next note, I will examine the quite different Anointing scene recorded by Luke (7:36-50).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative

We now come to the third (and final) major section of the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series was devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. The second part dealt with the Galilean Period of Jesus’ ministry, especially as an organizing principle within the Synoptic Gospels. I had noted previously this basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). Luke, through his expanded treatment of the journey to Jerusalem, has a three-part division (+ the Infancy Narrative):

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

The Judean/Jerusalem period may likewise be divided into two main sections, along with shorter introductory and concluding episodes:

All three Synoptics essentially follow this basic outline, though it has been modified and expanded in places by Matthew and Mark (especially the Resurrection episodes in Luke). We may outline the Passion Narrative itself as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (Mk 14:1-2)
  • The Anointing Scene (14:3-9)
  • Excursus 1: The betrayal by Judas introduced (14:10-11)
  • The Passover: Jesus with his Disciples (14:12-25):
    —The Preparation (vv. 12-16)
    —The Passover scene at mealtime (vv. 17-21)
    —Institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (vv. 22-25)
  • Excursus 2: The denial by Peter foretold (14:26-31)
  • The Passion Scene in Gethsemane (14:32-52)
    —Jesus’ Passion and Prayer (vv. 32-42)
    —The Arrest of Jesus (vv. 43-52)
  • The Jewish “Trial”: Jesus before the Sanhedrin (14:53-72)
    —The Scene before the Council (vv. 53-65)
    —Peter’s Denial (vv. 66-72)
  • The Roman “Trial”: Jesus before Pilate (15:1-20)
    —The Scene before Pilate (vv. 1-5)
    —The Judgment (vv. 6-15)
    —The Preparation for Crucifixion (vv. 16-20)
  • The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (15:21-40):
    —The Crucifixion Scene (vv. 21-32)
    —Jesus’ Death (vv. 33-40)
  • Narrative Conclusion (15:42-47)

There are six principal episodes, each of which will be discussed in turn, beginning with the Anointing Scene (Mark 14:3-9 par).

It is generally felt by most scholars that the Passion Narrative was the first (and earliest) part of the Gospel Tradition to be given a distinct narrative shape. This can be glimpsed by the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, as well as by the kerygmatic elements common throughout the New Testament (especially the Pauline Letters). The death and resurrection of Jesus formed the center of the Gospel message, so it is natural that those traditions would be the first to take shape as a simple narrative, to make the details easier to communicate and commit to memory. This also means that a number of these traditions are relatively fixed, and evince less development than in other portions of the Gospel. Details such as Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial of Jesus simply had to be included in any telling of the story. Even so, each Gospel writer handles the material in his own distinctive way, “ornamenting”, if you will, around the core traditions.

In analyzing the Passion Narrative, I will continue utilizing the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

    • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
    • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
    • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
    • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

Generally speaking, this order of study is chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Gospel of John, usually thought of as the latest of the canonical Gospels (c. 90 A.D.?), contains early/authentic historical traditions in a form that may be older than those of the Synoptics. Wherever possible, I will attempt to trace the manner of development in the Tradition, and how/why it may have taken place.

The next note in this series will begin examination of the first episode of the Passion Narrative—the scene of Jesus’ Anointing.

March 19: Mark 9:2-10 par

Mark 9:2-10 (par Matt 17:1-9; Luke 9:28-36 )

The Transfiguration—from the Latin translation (transfiguratus) of the Greek (metamorfw/qh, “he was trans-formed”) in Mark 9:2—is one of the more famous episodes in the Gospels. It is part of the “Triple Tradition” (i.e., occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels: Mark 9:2-10; Matthew 17:1-9; Luke 9:28-36), and is to be found at the same point in the narrative framework: following Peter’s Confession, and in between the two pronouncements by Jesus of his upcoming betrayal and death (Mark 8:31; 9:31-32 par.); however only in the Lukan account, is it connected directly with the Passion (Luke 9:31, but see also the question concerning Elijah, Mark 9:11-13 par).

Still, the entire episode remains enigmatic; it has been, and continues to be, interpreted any number of ways. Particularly curious are the presence of Moses and Elijah (Peter apparently recognizes them without any explanation), “speaking with” (sullalou=nte$) Jesus (only Luke mentions their discussion, see below). The two Old Testament figures are commonly thought to represent the Law and the Prophets, with Jesus in the middle as a kind of fulfillment of the Scriptures. However, in the original context of the Gospels—and at the historical level—I think it is more likely that Moses and Elijah both represent prophetic figures. Jesus as a Prophet (or as the eschatological, coming Prophet) was an important concept during the time of his own ministry and in the earliest Christian period. That there was widespread (‘messianic’) expectation of an eschatological Prophet is confirmed by numerous passages in intertestamental Jewish literature (1 Maccabees 14:41, CD 6), the Qumran scrolls (1QS 9, 4Q175 [Testimonia], etc), and the New Testament (see esp. John 1:21, 25; [4:19, 25]; 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37). There were key Old Testament passages in this regard—(1) Deuteronomy 18:15ff (cf. Exodus 20:21 in the Samaritan Pentateuch), which speaks of a “prophet like Moses” who is to come; and (2) Malachi 3:1; 4:5 [MT 3:22], where a Messenger preceding the coming of the great Day of the Lord is mentioned, along with Elijah (cf. Sirach 48:10; Sibylline Oracles 2:187-189; Mark 9:11-13 par; Matthew 11:4; Luke 1:17; 9:8; John 1:21, 25; [Rev 11:1-13]). One might also mention a third prophetic paradigm from the Old Testament: the “Servant of the Lord” from the book of Isaiah (esp. Isa 61, which Jesus specifically applies to himself [Luke 4:17-21]); a text from Qumran (4Q521) describes an Elijah-like Messianic figure in language drawn from Isa 61 and Psalm 146. (For more on this subject, cf. especially Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”)

Of course, the climax of the Transfiguration scene is the Divine Voice (Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5; Luke 9:35), speaking out of the cloud. It seems to come in response to Peter’s desire to build three “tents” (in imitation of the Sukkot, Feast of Booths); after the Voice has spoken, the cloud, along with Moses and Elijah, has vanished. I would like to examine briefly this verse, from two vantage points: one, text-critical, and the other, source-critical (or historical-critical).

1. Text-Critical: Luke 9:35 differs notably from the parallel text in Matthew and Mark—instead of the articular adjective o( a)gaphto/$ (“[the one] loved”), it reads the articular (passive) participle o( e)klelegme/no$ (“[the one] chosen”). This is almost certainly the original reading, found in Ë45, 75 a B L C (579) 892 1241 pc, and in a range of Latin, Syriac (syrs, hmg) and Coptic manuscripts. In numerous MSS it was harmonized to the text of Mark (A C* W f13 33 ª et al) or Matthew (C3 D Y pc), but not the other way around; in a few MSS we also find the more common adjective e)klekto/$ used instead. By all accounts, the reading o( e)klelegme/no$ is more unusual (and difficult—lectio difficilior potior); it is hard to imagine how it could have come about if the reading common to Matthew/Mark were original, whereas a scribal tendency to harmonize with the “easier” reading in the other two Gospels is quite natural. Literally, e)kle/gw/e)kle/gomai should be translated “gather out [of/from]” (le/gw in its original, primary sense of “gather, collect”), and was used quite often in the LXX, normally translating the Hebrew rjb (“choose, chosen”); and, as such, often with real theological significance—’anointed’ kings and priests, David, the city of Jerusalem, the “Servant of the Lord”, etc., were all chosen by God. Jesus, then, as o( e)klelegme/no$, is “the one [being] gathered out” from all other beings. It is perhaps easy to see how such a title might make scribes and commentators in the early Church uncomfortable: the text could have been modified for doctrinal reasons, in order to avoid an “adoptionistic” view of Christ.  However, it would be dangerous to read later Christological concerns very far into Luke’s account: more vital to him, surely, are the Old Testament parallels: just like the people Israel, David, Jerusalem, and the Prophets, so Jesus was chosen by God.

2. Source-Critical: In studying any one of the Synoptic Gospels, it is always worth holding up the common passages for comparison, to look carefully at the differences between them. Here, for example, is the best text in each Gospel for the Divine Voice:

Mark 9:7:
ou(to/$ e)stin o( ui(o\$ mou o( a)gaphto/$
“This is my (be)loved son”
Matthew 17:5b:
ou(to/$ e)stin o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$, e)n w!| eu)do/khsa
“This is my (be)loved son, in whom I have good regard”
Luke 9:35:
ou(to/$ e)stin o( ui(o/$ mou o( e)klelegme/no$
“This is my son the (one I have) gathered out [i.e. chosen]”
or, “This is my son the Chosen (One)”

In each Gospel, the voice concludes, a)kou/ete au)tou= (Lk. reverses the two words), “hear him!” The question of the text of Luke 9:35 was examined above. But what of the relationship between the three Gospels here? The common critical theory—that Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark as a written source—encounters difficulties in the Transfiguration scene, as both Evangelists (Luke, in particular) use very different language in places and include numerous details not found in Mark’s account. This means, at the very least, that Matthew and Luke are drawing from other traditions (or their own inspired creativity), in telling the story. Luke, especially, seems to apply an extra layer of symbolism, drawn from the Old Testament, at key points in the narrative (on this again, see below). In Mark (and Matthew), the Divine Voice speaks much as it did at the climax of Jesus’ baptism, and Matthew may be intentionally drawing a closer connection (in Matthew the two pronouncements are identical). Is it possible to determine the text at the historical level? One might view Mark’s version as “original”, to which the other Evangelists have added details. From a traditional-conservative position, one may be tempted to combine all three, in which case the Voice would have said something like: “This is my (be)loved son, the Chosen one, in whom I have (good) pleasure”. However, there is really no basis for such a conflate reading, beyond a pious desire to avoid discrepancy. Instead, should we not consider that, at the level of the inspired received text, the Voice speaks all three ways?

Old Testament parallels in Luke:

In conclusion, I would like to note several details, unique to Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, which seem to be the result of specific Old Testament symbolism applied to the traditional text.

  1. Jesus’ Face (Luke 9:29):
    Instead of stating that Jesus metamorfw/qh (“was trans-formed”), Luke indicates that the ei@do$ [“sight” i.e., appearance] of his face [prosw/pon] was e%tero$ [“other, different”, i.e. altered]. Matthew also mentions Jesus’ face (one of several minor agreements between Matthew and Luke, against Mark); however, here, especially, a reference to the glorification (LXX dedo/castai) of Moses (Exodus 34:29-33) seems to be in mind. Luke also refers twice in this context to “splendor” [do/ca], once referring to the appearance of Moses and Elijah (v. 31). Also, as Moses speaks (LXX e)la/lhsen) to the (chosen) representatives of Israel (34:31), so he speaks with (sunela/loun) Jesus.
  2. The Conversation (Luke 9:31):
    Luke records something of the nature of the conversation Jesus has with Moses and Elijah, that they recounted [i.e. spoke of] th\n e&codon au)tou= h^n h&mellen plhrou=n e)n Ierousalh/m (“…his way out [i.e. departure], which he was about to [ful]fill in Jerusalem”). The Greek word e&codo$ (éxodos, lit. “way out [of/from]”) unmistakenly references the “Exodus” of the Israelites, under Moses, out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
  3. The Cloud (Luke 9:34-35):
    All three Gospels mention the cloud (nefh/lh), and the Divine Voice issuing out of it, as well as the cloud overshadowing (e)piskia/zw) them; but only Luke mentions the unusual detail: e)fobh/qhsan de\ e)n tw=| ei)selqei=n au)tou\$ ei)$ th\n nefe/lhn, “and they were afraid in their coming into the cloud”—apparently the disciples (with Jesus) enter into the cloud. This would seem to be an echo of Exodus 19:20, where God calls Moses up onto the mountain to the “thick cloud” (LXX nefe/lh, v. 16) where God Himself is; see also 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, in reference to the “pillar of cloud”. The image of believers “entering into” the dark cloud of God’s Presence, proved to be a powerful symbol in Christian mystical tradition (cf. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses II:162-169; Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology §1ff; and many other references).

The archetypal imagery of the Transfiguration was particularly prominent in the mystical tradition of the Greek Church. Especially noteworthy is an episode in the Hesychast controversy of the 14th century. “Hesychasm” (from h(suxi/a, “quiet, stillness, silence”) was a characteristic term applied to mystic-ascetic monks and hermits in the Eastern Church, reflecting a life of contemplation and unceasing prayer [“prayer of the heart”], with the ultimate goal of union with God and qe/wsi$ (“deification”, i.e., man becoming like God, cf. John 1:12-13 and Athanasius’ famous axiom, On the Incarnation 54.3). Part of this mystical contemplation involved a special vision of the Divine “Light”—not the essence of God, but his “energy” (e)ne/rgeia)—an uncreated, “hypostatic” light, synonymous with the Glory of Christ (as manifested especially during the Transfiguration [traditionally on Mt. Tabor]), and sometimes referred to as the “Taboric light”. Famously, Barlaam of Calabria and Gregory of Akindynos opposed the possibility of such a transcendent vision, while the Hesychast position was powerfully defended by Gregory Palamas in his Triads.