The Depiction of the Transfiguration

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The Depiction of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration, depicted with minor variations in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is an event in which Jesus’ true glory is revealed to the privileged disciples (Peter, James, and John) who were there to witness the event. Our author, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., gives us a literary critical perspective on what he believes really happened atop Mt. Tabor in Lower Galilee.

As the story in The Synoptic Gospels goes, Jesus ascends to the top of a mountain with Peter, James and John to pray. It is here that Jesus is transformed completely, “and his face shone like the sun, but his garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). It is said that his true nature was revealed there when Moses and Elijah appeared and the voice of God spoke affirming that Jesus was indeed God’s son. Peter then offered to make three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

In the three Synoptic Gospels, the accounts are basically the same with moderate differences scattered throughout. But, who has the original story? Who copied their account from whom? These are the questions that our author attempts to answer.

Many scholars have a hard time dealing with Peter whom, after following Jesus up to the mountain and witnessing God’s presence, latter denies him (Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:56-62). Peter’s actions seem asinine given what he has experienced. This is one of the main reasons why people come to question the transfiguration story as it is given to us chronologically in the Gospels.

First, attempting to uncover the original story of the Transfiguration, our author decides to compare the accounts given to us by Matthew and Mark because

there are more similarities between these two than either to Luke. In trying to make a case for the seniority of Mark over Matthew, we are given two examples.

The first example shows the word “Rabbi” in Mark 9 being substituted for “Lord” in Matthew 17. According to the author, this substitution was made to accommodate the audience that they were trying to evangelize. “Rabbi” was widely understood in the Aramaic-speaking audience that surrounded the early Jewish-Christians. As the Gospels spread into the Hellenistic world, they would need to accommodate the now Greek-speaking audience. Thus, the need to substitute in the word “Lord” becomes clear.

In another example, we see Peter making the su...

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...eferred to is actually Jesus’ own death. In a flash of insight, he realized that his death would be the means whereby his ministry would be brought to fulfillment. His execution would be the saving event whose role in God’s plan would parallel that of the exodus from Egypt of the Jews. This as apposed to the end of everything; as it probably seemed to Jesus at the time. At the same time, it permitted Jesus to see his death as atonement for the sins of the world. According to references (Mark 10:45, 14:8,24; Luke 11:22, 23:24) in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus used Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to clarify his self-understanding of this idea.

According to our author, this is the true context and likely meaning of the original story embedded in Luke’s Gospel. Our author also goes on to elaborate on some of the additions in Mark’s Gospel and speculate on how they could have possibly affected later versions of Luke’s Gospel, which in turn affected later versions of other New Testament material. This type of development with the holy books is

natural and expected with an early church that is not as concerned with accurately recording the past, but wanted to make the force in the present.
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