The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Moses and Elijah, Part 2

Moses and Elijah (Part 2)

The Transfiguration Episode (Lk 9:28-36 par)

As I argued at the conclusion of Part 1, the Transfiguration scene, within the context of the Synoptic narrative, is set at the conclusion of the Galilean period and marks the beginning of the Judean period (the second half of the narrative). The second half of the Gospel narrative, I would maintain, properly opens with the first Passion prediction by Jesus (Mk 8:31 par), but the Transfiguration is the first major episode. It holds roughly the same place as the Baptism scene does in the first half of the narrative. Clearly there is an intentional (literary) parallel intended between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes. In particular, the Voice from heaven makes a declaration that matches (or nearly matches) the heavenly declaration at the Baptism (Mk 1:11 par); indeed, in Matthew’s version, the two utterances are identical.

It is clear from the position of the Transfiguration scene in the Synoptic narrative, that it marks the conclusion of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and the beginning of his Passion—the upcoming journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10; Lk 9:5118:34), and the events which would take place there. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration brings out this aspect more clearly (cf. below).

The presence of Moses and Elijah

Central to the Transfiguration scene is the presence of Moses and Elijah, who appear alongside of Jesus (Mk 9:4-5 par). It has been popular to interpret the presence of Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration scene as representing “the Law and the Prophets” which Jesus was fulfilling (Matt 5:17; Lk 16:16; 24:27, 44; Jn 1:45, etc). However, this does not seem to be correct. To begin with, Elijah is an odd choice to represent the Prophetic Scriptures (Isaiah would make more sense, cf. Jn 12:39-41). More importantly, Moses and Elijah each represent distinct Prophet-figures; and, in the original context of the Gospels, it is almost certain that Jesus, in the period of his Galilean ministry especially, was also seen as an Anointed Prophet.

That Jesus was seen as a Messiah of the Prophet figure-type seems clear enough from the Baptism scene, attested by different strands of tradition (Mk 1:7-8 par; Lk 3:15ff; 4:14-30; Jn 1:19-27), as well as the entirety of the period of his Galilean ministry, according to the Synoptic narrative. Principally, he fulfilled the role of Spirit-endowed, miracle working Prophet (like Elijah), identified more specifically with the anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff. For more on this, see the previous articles in this series, along with Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

I would suggest that in the Transfiguration scene the significance of Moses and Elijah is two-fold:

    1. It identifies Jesus as a Messianic Prophet (like Moses and Elijah), marking the conclusion of his Galilean ministry in which this role was primarily being fulfilled, but also pointing to his eschatological role inaugurating a new era for the people of God. It is no coincidence that, in Jewish tradition by the time of Jesus, Moses and Elijah were seen as prophetic figures who would appear at the end-time, as a fulfillment of specific prophecies (Deut 18:15-20; Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6).
    2. Moses and Elijah each experienced a theophany—manifestation of God’s presence—upon the holy mountain (Sinai/Horeb); similarly, Jesus (and his disciples) on this mountain experience the appearance of the cloud of God’s presence and the divine Voice from heaven. This theophany, in relation to Jesus, is of a different sort, reflecting his divine Sonship.
Jesus and Moses: Luke 9:28-36

Luke’s version of the Transfiguration scene (9:28-36) contains a number of important details which emphasize the association of Jesus with Moses (and the Moses/Exodus traditions). These will be discussed here in turn.

“after…eight days” (v. 28)—Luke curiously dates the Transfiguration episode differently than in Mark-Matthew (“after six days”). One can only guess at the reasons for this, but it is possible that an allusion to the time-frame of the festival of Booths (Sukkot) is intended (Lev 23:35-36, and cf. below).

he stepped up into/onto the mountain” (v. 28)—The mountain location of the Transfiguration fills the type-pattern of mount Sinai as the setting of the Sinai Theophany—the mountain Moses ascended to meet YHWH. This association is part of the core tradition; however, Luke’s wording here (“he stepped up into/onto the mountain,” a)ne/bh ei)$ to\ o&ro$) precisely matches the LXX of Exod 19:3.

“the visible (form) of his face (became) different” (v. 29)—The change in Jesus’ appearance is central to the Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:3); all three Gospels mention Jesus’ clothing becoming unusually bright/white, however Matthew and Luke specifically mention the shining of Jesus’ face. Luke emphasizes the transformation of Jesus’ face, stating that its visible appearance (ei@do$) became different (“other,” e%tero$). It is likely that this alludes to the tradition of the transformation of Moses’ face (Exod 34:29ff), even though the wording differs from the description(s) in Exodus.

“…who were being seen in splendor [do/ca]” (v. 31)—Luke adds the detail that Moses and Elijah appeared “in glory/splendor”. This can be taken as further emphasis on the tradition of the divine glory/splendor (do/ca) that was reflected on Moses’ face (Exod 34:30-35). Here it is extended to the figure of Elijah, so that all three figures—Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah—shine with heavenly/divine glory.

“…his way out [e&codo$]” (v. 31)—In the core tradition, Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah; however, only Luke provides information about the subject of their discussion. According to Luke’s version, the three spoke specifically about “his [i.e. Jesus’] way out, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem”. The expression “way out” is a literal translation of the noun e&codo$ (éxodus), which almost certainly stands as an allusion to the Exodus. If so, then Jesus effectively fulfills the role of Moses in leading the way for a “new Exodus”. It must be emphasized, however, that here the “exodus” refers specifically to Jesus’ “way out” of his life on earth—that is, his impending death (and resurrection) in Jerusalem.

“they saw his splendor/glory [do/ca]” (v. 32)—Only Luke includes the detail that the awakening disciples “saw the splendor/glory” of Jesus. In all likelihood, this again reflects the Moses tradition in Exod 34:29-35, where the people see the glory on Moses’ face. The wording here resembles the declaration in the Johannine Prologue (1:14ff), which also alludes the same Exodus traditions and contains a comparison between Jesus and Moses.

“we should make tents” (v. 33)—The declaration by Peter is part of the core tradition, which may contain an echo of the festival of Booths (Sukkot), as recorded in the Law of Moses (and which is part of the Moses/Exodus traditions, Lev 23:33-43; Neh 8:14-17; cf. also Exod 23:14-19; 34:22-24; Num 29:12-38; Deut 16:16-17; 31:9-13). As noted above, the specific dating of the Transfiguration in Luke (v. 28) may be intended to bring out this association.

“a cloud came to be and it cast shade upon them” (v. 34)—The overshadowing cloud is part of the core tradition, and almost certainly alludes to the Sinai Theophany (Exod 19:9ff; 24:15-18), though the theophanous Cloud, representing the manifest presence of YHWH, features throughout the Exodus narratives (Exod 16:10; 40:34, etc).

“…going into the cloud” (v. 34)—Only in Luke’s version do the disciples enter the cloud (with Jesus). This clearly echoes the scene at the Sinai theophany, where Moses enters the cloud of God’s glorious presence (Exod 24:18; cf. also 33:9). At the same time, this represents a shift in the significance of the two episodes, whereby access to the manifest presence of God is no long limited to the chosen representative (Moses/Jesus), but is opened up to (all) the faithful ones among God’s people.

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [i.e. chosen]” (v. 35)—The declaration by the heavenly Voice closely parallels that of the Baptism scene (in Matthew the two are identical). In the previous article on Isa 42:1ff, I discussed how the Baptism declaration likely alludes to this passage, and the same applies here in the Transfiguration scene. The Lukan form of the declaration, including the descriptive (substantive) participle o( e)klelegme/no$ (“the [one] having been gathered out”), more closely matches Isa 42:1 than that in Mark-Matthew.

In the aforementioned article, I also discuss how the “servant” of Isa 42:1ff can be interpreted as an inspired prophetic leader who follows in the pattern of Moses. That is to say, he functions as a “new Moses” who will lead the people of God in a “new Exodus” out of their time in Exile. It seems likely that the Transfiguration scene follows the line of interpretation that identifies Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” who is to come—that is, the Messianic prophet according to the figure-type of Moses (cf. above and Part 3 of “Yeshua the Anointed”).

“you must hear [i.e. listen to] him” (v. 35)—This directive, part of the heavenly declaration in the core tradition, almost certainly alludes to Deuteronomy 18:15, and the need for God’s people to hear/obey the words of the “prophet like Moses” who is to come. The implication, again, is that Jesus is to be identified with this Messianic prophet figure, even as his (more directly) in Acts 3:22; 7:37. The Lukan word order here is closer to the LXX of Deut 18:15 than is that of Mark-Matthew.

The transitional character of the Transfiguration scene is indicated by the way that Moses and Elijah vanish, leaving Jesus alone on the mountain. Their departure clears the way for the identification of Jesus with other Messianic figure types—most notably, the Davidic royal Messiah, as well as the heavenly “Son of Man” figure. Even more significant, from the standpoint of early Christian theology, is the heavenly declaration that affirms Jesus’ status as God’s Son. There can be no doubt that this episode marks Jesus as being superior to the prophetic figures of Moses and Elijah; however, it is important to realize that this superiority is expressed in the context of the Old Testament tradition.

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