Mark 9:2-13; Matt 17:1-13; Luke 9:28-36
This week, our illustrative studies on the Gospel tradition (specifically the Synoptic Gospels) will turn to the Transfiguration scene. This episode is especially interesting in the way that it parallels the earlier Baptism scene. The parallelism raises significant critical questions regarding the underlying historical tradition. The points to be discussed here in this study are:
- The position and significance of the Baptism and Transfiguration in the structure of the Synoptic narrative as a whole
- Similar/parallel details between the Baptism and Transfiguration, and how they may differ or function in context, and
- The similarity of the heavenly declaration regarding Jesus’ identity
Study of the Transfiguration is much simpler than that of the Baptism, since it seems to be attested only in the primary Synoptic narrative, with no parallel in the Johannine tradition, and relatively little specific adaptation by the Gospel writer. Continuing with the approach I have been using in this series, the core (Synoptic) narrative is represented by the Gospel of Mark, in line with the fundamental critical hypothesis that Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark. There is always the possibility that all three Gospels are drawing (independently) upon a common “Synoptic” tradition; however, it must be affirmed that, if Matthew and Luke did not use Mark, they must have used a source very similar in content and structure.
In Mark, the Transfiguration occurs at 9:2-13, with the Synoptic parallels being Matt 17:1-13 and Lk 9:28-36. It does not seem to have been part of the so-called “Q” material (common to Matthew and Luke), nor is any such tradition recorded in the Gospel of John. Commentators debate whether Matthew and Luke may have inherited traditions apart from the core Synoptic narrative (so-called “M” and “L” material), which they included, or whether they have simply adapted the basic narrative. A reference to the Transfiguration is also found in 2 Peter 1:17-18, but it is not clear whether the immediate source of this is historical memory (Peter, taking the text at face value), the Synoptic narrative, or an independent tradition.
1. The Structure of the Synoptic Narrative
The Synoptic narrative, as shared by all three Gospels, is divided into two main portions: (1) The Galilean ministry of Jesus, and (2) The time in Judea (Jerusalem). The Galilean period begins with the Baptism, and concludes, we may say, with Peter’s confession of Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, this covers the span of 1:2–8:30; Matthew and Luke generally follow this same outline (Luke being closer to the Markan order), but both Gospels “fill out” the narrative with additional sayings and episodes, i.e. the so-called “Q” material, along with other traditions (“M” and “L” content).
The Transfiguration is the major episode which begins the second half of the Gospel, much as the Baptism begins the first half; it follows the first (of three) announcements by Jesus of his upcoming Passion (Mk 8:31ff), and precedes the journey to Jerusalem. This journey is scarcely mentioned in Mark, serving as the setting for chapter 10 (vv. 1, 32, 46), but in Luke it is developed considerably as a prominent feature of the narrative, covering the entire collection of material from 9:51 to 18:34 (almost ten full chapters). Virtually all of Jesus’ activity in Judea is set in the second half of the narrative, giving the impression that the only journey Jesus made to Jerusalem was the one just before his death. By contrast, the Gospel of John records multiple visits to Jerusalem, coinciding with the major religious festivals, an arrangement which, in certain respects, one must assume more accurately reflects the historical situation.
2. Similarities between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes
I begin with the narrative as represented by Mark, noting differences in the other Gospels along the way. There are a number basic elements which can be pointed to as parallels between the two scenes:
- The isolated locale—the Judean desert/wilderness (1:4ff) vs. a high mountain [in Galilee?] (9:2)
- Visual/visionary phenomena appear, in relation to Jesus (1:10; 9:2b-4)
- These phenomena involve brightness/whiteness (1:10 [the dove image]; 9:3)
- The phenomena may be said to have a Prophetic and/or Messianic context— “anointing” by the Spirit (Isa 61:1ff, see Lk 4:14-20, etc) and the presence of Moses/Elijah with Jesus
- A cloud/presence, i.e. from heaven (1:10-11; 9:7)
- The declaration by a heavenly voice (cf. the next section below)
- A reference to John the Baptist as “Elijah” (1:2, 6; 9:12-13)
- The scenes are connected (in different ways) with Peter, James and John as disciples of Jesus (1:16-20; 9:2ff)
- Following closely after, Jesus works a healing (exorcism) miracle (1:21-28; 9:14-29)
In Matthew’s version, the parallel is made more precise by the fact that the heavenly declaration in both scenes is identical (Matt 3:17; 17:5b). The primary difference between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes is twofold: (a) the presence of Jesus’ disciples and their response to the visionary experience, and (b) the Transfiguration more fully reflects a theophany (divine appearance/manifestation), such as recorded in the Old Testament. Luke, in particular, has brought out more clearly a connection with the theophany at Sinai (9:30-31, 34; compare Exod 19). Luke also adds the detail of Jesus being engaged in prayer in both scenes (3:21; 9:29a), which creates another parallel unique to that Gospel.
3. The declaration of the Heavenly Voice
In both scenes there is a heavenly Voice (i.e., that of God). Note the similarity of wording (in Mark):
“and there came to be [egéneto] a voice out of [ek] the heavens” (1:11a)
“and there came to be [egéneto] a voice out of [ek] the cloud (9:7a)
The main difference is one of closeness and intensity—the voice at the Transfiguration comes from a theophanous cloud [nefél¢], indicating the presence of God (see the Exodus traditions, Exod 13:21-22; 19:9, 16ff; 24:15-16ff; 33:9-10; 34:5; 40:34-38), which overshadowed [literally, cast shade upon] Jesus and his disciples. Luke’s account enhances the detail of the cloud (Lk 9:34), drawing upon the image of Moses entering the cloud, to the place where God was present (Exod 24:18, cf. also 33:9). The declaration of the heavenly voice in both scenes is very similar; in Mark it is:
Matthew, insofar as he is following the Synoptic/Markan version, seems to have combined the two statements, so that they read as identical in both episodes:
The situation in Luke is a bit more complicated, as there are significant variant readings for the declaration in both scenes. For the baptism (3:22b):
- The Majority reading—identical with that in Mark (cf. above)
- The minority “Western” reading—a quotation of Psalm 2:7 LXX:
“You are my Son—today I have caused you to be (born)”
huiós mou eí su egœ¡ s¢¡meron gegénnhká se
On this textual variant, cf. my earlier discussion. For the transfiguration (9:35):
- Reading of Ë45,75 a B L, etc:
“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [i.e. elect/chosen]”
hoútós estin ho huiós mou ho eklelegménos
- The majority reading (A C* W 33 et al): identical with that in Mark
- Reading of Ë45,75 a B L, etc:
Most critical commentators consider the first reading as more likely to be original, the latter being adapted/normalized to the Synoptic parallel in Mark/Matthew and the baptism scene. A few manuscripts read the related adjective eklektós instead of the participle eklelegménos (cf. Lk 23:35), but with essentially the same meaning. This textual question will be discussed in relation to an interpretation of the Transfiguration scene, especially as it has been developed in the Gospel of Luke.
Finally, to round out the comparison, we should mention the version of the heavenly declaration at the Transfiguration, from 2 Peter 1:17, which is similar to that in Matthew, but with a different formulation in Greek (giving priority to the reading of Ë72 B):
“This is my Son, the (one) loved (by) me—unto whom I have good regard”
ho huiós mou ho agap¢tós mou hou!tós estin eis hón eudók¢sa
All of these extensive parallels relate to the underlying historical tradition, and how that tradition was shaped and adapted within the Synoptic narrative. It cannot be coincidental that the period of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, according to this narrative, begins and ends with two similar scenes (Baptism and Transfiguration)—each containing the declaration of Jesus’ identity by a heavenly voice. Of fundamental importance to the narrative is how each of these scenes establishes the Messianic identity of Jesus—and that this identity (announced by the heavenly voice) informs the entire narrative.
With this structure and thematic framework in mind, let us now consider how the historical tradition (of the Transfiguration) was interpreted within the Synoptic narrative. We can see this based by a careful study of the Lukan version of the scene (9:28-36). For this, however, it will be necessary first to bring out several key points that relate to the wider Synoptic tradition. By doing so, we can gain a better sense of how the earliest Christians understood Jesus’ Messianic identity. This will be the focus of next week’s study.