- Exodus 24:12-18 & Psalm 2
- 2 Peter 1:16-21
- Matthew 17:1-9
This Sunday sees the end of an unusually long Epiphany season. The lectionary texts for Epiphany in Year A—derived mostly from the first part of the Sermon on the Mount—are as follows:
- First Sunday after Epiphany (Baptism of Jesus): Matt 3:13-17
- Second Sunday after Epiphany (John’s disciples find Jesus): John 1:29-42
- Third Sunday after Epiphany (Jesus in Galilee): Matt 4:12-23
- Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (The Beatitudes): Matt 5:1-12
- Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Light, Salt and Torah): Matt 5:13-20
- Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (The New Torah): Matt 5:21-37
- Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Love of Enemies): Matt 5:38-48
- Eighth Sunday after Epiphany (On Anxiety): Matt 6:24-34
- Last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration): Matt 17:1-9
First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18
The story of the Transfiguration is a classic instance of a NT story imitating—and elaborating upon—a story from the Tanakh. In this case one of the key OT texts that serves as an intertextual stimulus and model for the NT is the story of Modes being called up the mountain to commune with God:
The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24:12–18 NRSV)
We can note numerous points where the latter story imitates the earlier tradition in a process known as mimesis:
- an epiphany atop a sacred mountain
- the hero is summoned to the top for an encounter with God
- Moses accompanied by his assistant/disciple
- this assistant happens to be named Joshua (the Hebrew form of Jesus)
- they were initially accompanied by a larger group but the others are left at the base of the mountain
- the epiphany occurs “after six days”
- a cloud covers the mountain
- God speaks to Moses from the cloud
- the divine glory settles on the mountain
In the case of the NT story, this primary account of Moses being called UP the mountain may have been influenced by the matching tradition of how Moses’ DESCENT from the mountain was characterised by a mysterious transfiguration experience as his face shone with the glory of God:
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Exodus 34:29–35 NRSV)
While we were with him on the holy mountain: 2 Peter 1:16-21
The Second letter of Peter is certainly is not a letter by Peter the Fisherman, as I have outlined elsewhere:
Second Peter tries even harder to represent itself as coming from Peter. The opening sentences identify the author as “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ.” This is really more like a testament of Peter than a letter from Peter, as the description of the aged apostle in 1:12–15 demonstrates. Perhaps operating on the assumption that offense is the best form of defense, the author claims to have been on the mountain with Jesus at the time of the transfiguration.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Pet 1:16–18)
However, it is soon clear that the author has recycled material from the letter of Jude, and shares Jude’s anxiety over the prevalence of false teachers in these last days, when “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (2 Pet 3:10). … 2 Pet 3:15–16 reveals an awareness of Paul’s letters and a concern over the way false teachers abuse them “as they do the other Scriptures.” It is perhaps the last of the NT books to have been written—unless we accept the recent proposals for Acts to be dated around 150 CE. (The Once and Future Bible, 2011: 182f)
What we seem to have in 2 Peter is a snapshot from the middle of the second century. Almost 100 years after the death of Peter we find some anonymous Christian leader invoking the authority of Peter to address the pressing pastoral challenges of his own time. By this stage the Transfiguration has ceased to be an epiphany of Jesus and has become a device to assert the authority of an unbroken line of tradition back to the apostolic period. The subversive spiritual power of direct spiritual experience is being supplanted by appeals to traditional authority.
That struggle continues in the contemporary church, but in our time the momentum seems to lie with those who are transformed by the experience of the divine, while the traditional shepherds find fewer people wishing to be told what to believe and how to behave. As traditional theological controls crumble, chaos becomes more typical of contemporary Christianity. A new Christianity is coming to birth as the future of what Jesus began comes into sight. An epiphany. A transfiguration. A new creation.
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
Crossan suggests that the underlying tradition can be discerned in the resurrection scene from GPeter as part of a very early document that he calls the Cross Gospel, and which he argues was the original passion narrative:
34Early, at first light on the sabbath, a crowd came from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside to see the sealed tomb. 35But during the night before the Lord’s day dawned, while the soldiers were on guard, two by two during each watch, a loud noise came from the sky, 36and they saw the skies open up and two men come down from there in a burst of light and approach the tomb. 37The stone that had been pushed against the entrance began to roll by itself and moved away to one side; then the tomb opened up and both young men went inside.
38Now when these soldiers saw this, they roused the centurion from his sleep, along with the elders. (Remember, they were also there keeping watch.) 39While they were explaining what they had seen, again they see three men leaving the tomb, two supporting the third, and a cross was following them. 40The heads of the two reached up to the sky, while the head of the third, whom they led by the hand, reached beyond the skies. 41And they heard a voice from the skies that said, “Have you preached to those who sleep?” 42And an answer was heard from the cross: “Yes!” (GPet 35-40 [= ch2 9-10] Complete Gospels)
In the Synoptic Gospels, the story appears as an event during Jesus’ lifetime:
- Mark 9:2-10
- Matt 17:1-9
- Luke 9:28-36
The earliest version of this tradition seems to be the account in Mark 9, with the core verses being:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9:2–8 NRSV)
Interestingly, we get a kind of literary afterlife for this tradition in 2 Peter:
For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2Peter 1:17–18 NRSV)
In Mark’s original narrative — from which Matthew and Luke have each developed their versions of this story — the event which stands before the “six days later” is a comment by Jesus concerning the coming of the Son of Man in the glory of his Father with the holy angels, after which Jesus is represented as saying, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God has come with power.” Since there is no reason to assume that the location of the transfiguration is due to anything other than Mark’s editorial decisions, the proximity between the promise and its possible fulfillment in the transfiguration is worth noting. While we tend to think of winged creatures in white gowns when we read “holy angels” the original meaning is closer to “holy messengers” and could easily encompass Moses and Elijah.
Matthew’s changes to Mark’s story are minimal, and can be listed as follows:
- adds “his brother” to clarify the relationship of John to James
- unique wording of transfiguration: “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white”
- reverses the order of Elijah and Moses to reflect OT sequence for these characters
- (oddly) prefers “Lord” to the more Jewish “Rabbi” in v. 4
- omits implicit criticism of Peter for his bumbling response to this epiphany
- adds “with him I am well pleased” (v. 5)
- adds vss 6-7 (not found in either Mark or Luke): “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.'”
- omits reference (found in both Mark and Luke) to the disciples keeping this experience secret at the time
The transfiguration itself is difficult to categorise. It seems to have some echoes of the baptism traditions with the heavenly voice affirming the beloved Son. Yet many scholars have wondered if this is not a displaced (and possibly garbled) Easter appearance story. The other alternative, that it may be an authentic religious experience that Jesus underwent and which was witnessed by a handful of his most intimate followers also needs to be kept in mind.
Bruce Chilton (in Rabbi Jesus) has argued that Jesus was initiated into the Jewish mystical traditions while a disciple of John the Baptist. While that cannot be established beyond question, we should not exclude the possibility that Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission was formed and nourished by profound religious experiences. Certainly others in the early Christian movement had such experiences, in which Jesus himself played a critical role.
The words of the Jewish Jesus scholar, David Flusser, concerning Jesus’ baptism are worth noting here:
We can well imagine the holy excitement of that crowd who had listened to the words of the Baptist. Having confessed their sins and awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit to cleanse their souls from all the filth of sin, they plunged their bodies into the cleansing water of the river. Can it be that none of them would have had a special pneumatic-ecstatic experience in that hour when the Spirit of God touched them? (Jesus, p. 40)
… many scholars are right in thinking that in the original account, the heavenly voice announced to Jesus, “Behold, My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). This form is probably the original, for the reason that the prophetic word fits the situation. (Jesus, p. 41)
The gift of the Holy Spirit assumed a significance for Jesus that was different than for others who were baptized by John. Heavenly voices were not an uncommon phenomenon among the Jews of those days, and frequently those voices were heard to utter verses from scripture. Endowment with the Holy Spirit, accompanied by an ecstatic experience, was apparently something that happened to others who were baptized in John’s presence in the Jordan. (Jesus, p. 42)
If, however, the heavenly voice intoned the words of Isaiah, Jesus must have understood that he was being set apart as the servant of God, the Chosen One. For him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was part of John’s baptism, held another special significance that was to become decisive for his future. None of the designations Son, Servant or Chosen One were exclusively messianic titles–the last two could also denote the special status of the prophetic office. By these titles, Jesus learned that he was now called, chosen, set apart. Nothing we have learned casts any doubt upon the historicity of Jesus’ experience at his baptism in the Jordan. (Jesus, p. 42)
The presence of just the inner circle may be an authentic memory, or a bit of promotion to bolster their standing within the community. Given Mark’s generally critical attitude to the apostolic circle, it is unlikely that he added their names to the tradition. That detail was most likely already in the story as he received it. Matthew has modified it slightly, while Luke has simply preserved the information intact.
The location of the transfiguration up a high mountain is what the tradition would lead us to expect. High mountains were sacred places and thus ideal sites for theophanies. According to Jewish tradition, Moses spent 6 weeks (40 days) up the “mountain of God” in Sinai when getting a replacement copy of the Ten Commandments. Elijah retired to a mountain cave for his theophany. While no specific location is named in the gospels, later tradition chose to identify the “mount of the transfiguration” as Mt Hermon, the highest peak in the Galilee.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah alongside Jesus is a powerful claim to spiritual continuity with the most sacred traditions of ancient Israel. Interestingly, like Luke Matthew does not follow Mark when he lists Elijah first. Mark reverses their chronological sequence in the biblical narrative, and flies in the face of later views of the relative significance of Moses and Elijah. However, that may reflect the significance of Elijah as the expected prophet of the End times. In general terms, their presence alongside Jesus speaks to the claim that Jesus was fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.
- 184 Transfiguration of Jesus – (1a) GPet. 9:35-10:40; (1b) Mark 9:2-10 = Matt 17:1-9 = Luke 9:28-36; (1c) 2 Pet 1:17-18.
See also: 184 Horizontal Line Synopsis – for a line by line comparison of the three Synoptic versions of this story
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.