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.

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