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The Transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel

Simon S. Lee’s book Jesus’ Transfiguration and the Believers’ Transformation: A Study of the Transfiguration and its Development in Early Christian Writings (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009) lists 8 options for how to interpret Mark 9:2-10 on pages 9-10. The options are that the transfiguration was:

  1. originally an account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance that was transformed into an event during Jesus’ ministry.
  2. a story of a “divine man” (theios aner), an extraordinary human who was divinized due to that person’s amazing wisdom or miraculous abilities. However, scholars such as Carl R. Holladay, Barry Blackburn, and Jack Dean Kingsbury have been very critical of how this modern category has been applied to the ancient texts.
  3. an apocalyptic revelation. Think of how Mark 9:1 ties the event in with the prediction about the kingdom or, even more specifically, Matthew 16:28 with the coming of the Son of Man.
  4. a representation of Jesus as a new Moses. After six days, Jesus takes three witnesses up on a mountain where his appearance is transformed and a voice from heaven commands the audience to “listen to him” (see Exodus 24; 34:29-35; Deuteronomy 18:15). It is striking that Mark focuses on Jesus’ clothes rather than his face, but Matthew 17:2 makes the parallel with Moses stronger by having Jesus’ face shine.
  5. a representation of Jesus as a new Isaac, the beloved son about to be sacrificed. Notice that Jesus discusses his imminent “departure” or death with Moses and Elijah in Luke 9:31
  6. an allusion to the feast of tabernacles. Peter desires to set up tents, perhaps in fulfillment of the eschatological promise of an international celebration of this festival in Zechariah 14:16-21.
  7. symbolic of Jesus’ royal splendor and enthronement.
  8. an epiphany of a divine being. For instance, Candida R. Moss points out a parallel with the goddess Demeter, who was disguised as an elderly woman yet her divine glory radiates from her robes when she casts the disguise aside (Homeric Hymn II [To Demeter] 275-280).

Although he allows that there may be several influences at work, Lee highlights the importance of Moses traditions, epiphany tales, and messianic ideas and sees both a Christology from “below” (the suffering Messiah) and from “above” (the heavenly Son of God and Son of Man) in Mark’s account (page 10). For my part, I lean towards the parallel with Moses on Mount Sinai, though I would not necessarily deny that there is some shared imagery with stories in the Greco-Roman world too. I do, however, disagree with Lee in that I think that Mark probably did not intend the transfiguration as a revelation of Jesus’ true heavenly nature before his incarnation and life on earth. Since this narrative occurs between Jesus’ promise that some would be alive to see the kingdom of God manifested in power (Mark 9:1) and closes with the command to keep silent until Jesus is raised from death (9:9-10), I agree with James Dunn (Christology in the Making, pages 47-48) that Mark is giving the disciples a vision of Jesus’ future resurrection form along with other glorified saints when the kingdom arrives.


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