Mark 9:2-13; Matt 17:1-13; Luke 9:28-36
Today’s note represents the final part of the series of notes on the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition. In it we will examine the parallel of the Transfiguration scene in the Synoptic Gospels, in comparison with the Baptism. I have already touched upon this in the Introduction to the larger series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”. The points to be discussed in this note 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. In the method I have been using in this series, this core narrative is represented by the Gospel of Mark, following the fundamental critical hypothesis that Matthew and Luke 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); for more on this, cf. “Did You Know?” below.
- The phenomena may be said to have a Prophetic and/or Messianic context—”anointing” by the Spirit (Isa 61:1ff, cf. Lk 4:14-20, etc) and the presence of Moses/Elijah with Jesus (more on this in the next note).
- 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; cp. 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):
The main difference is one of closeness and intensity—the voice at the Transfiguration comes from a theophanous cloud [nefe/lh], indicating the presence of God (cf. the Exodus traditions, Exod 13:21-22; 19:9, 16ff; 24:15-16ff; 33:9-10; 34:5; 40:34-38), which overshadowed [lit. 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)”
ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/ e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se
- Reading of Ë45,75 a B L, etc:
“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [i.e. elect/chosen]”
ou!to/$ e)stin o( ui(o/$ mou o( e)klelegme/no$
- 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 e)klekto/$ instead of the participle e)klelegme/no$ (cf. Lk 23:35), but with essentially the same meaning. This textual question will be discussed in related to an interpretation of the Transfiguration scene, especially as it has been developed in the Gospel of Luke, in the next note.
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”
o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$ mou ou!to/$ e)stin ei)$ o^n eu)do/khsa
|One detail which entered the Gospel tradition regarding the Baptism of Jesus was a great light/fire which flashed in the water around him at the moment of his baptism, presumably associated with the presence of the Spirit. This tradition was relatively widespread, appearing in the Old Latin MS (a) and one Vulgate MS between Matthew 3:15 and 16, with similar references in Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 88), and Epiphanius (Panarion 30.13.7). It came to be immensely popular and influential in the Syrian Church, being described in the Gospel Harmony (Diatessaron) of Tatian (cf. the Commentaries of Ephrem [IV. §5] and Ish‘odad of Merv). In the Syrian baptismal tradition, a principal motif was that Jesus’ glory, ‘left behind’ in the water, is picked up by the believer when he/she “puts on” Christ—restoring the “robe of glory” originally lost by Adam & Eve. On this, cf. my earlier Epiphany note.|