The Transfiguration — Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36

Shane over at AnswersInGenes has been posting about the Transfiguration. He posted three synoptic accounts there.

I thought it might be interesting to show the accounts in their normal form as a synoptic parallel. Here in the NRSV (because I don’t have time this morning to translate them myself – sorry):

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Matthew 17:1–8 Mark 9:2–8 Luke 9:28–36
Six days later Six days later Now about eight days after these sayings
Jesus took with him Jesus took with him Jesus took with him
Peter and James and his brother John Peter and James and John Peter and John and James
and led them up to a high mountain, by themselves. and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. and went up on the mountain to pray.
And he was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, And he was transfigured before them, And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed,
and his clothes became dazzling white. and his clothes became dazzling white, and his clothes became dazzling white.
such as no one on earth could bleach them.
Suddenly there appeared to them And there appeared to them Suddenly they saw two men,
Moses and Elijah, Elijah with Moses Moses and Elijah,
talking with him. talking with Jesus. talking to him.
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
Just as they were leaving him,
Then Peter said to Jesus, Then Peter said to Jesus, Peter said to Jesus,
“Lord, it is good for us to be here; “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; “Master, it is good for us to be here;
if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, let us make three dwellings, let us make three dwellings,
one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
He did not know what to say, – not knowing what he said.
for they were terrified.
While he was still speaking, While he was saying this,
suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, Then a cloud overshadowed them, a cloud came and overshadowed them;
and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
and from the cloud a voice said, and from the cloud there came a voice, Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; “This is my Son, the Beloved; “This is my Son, my Chosen;
with him I am well pleased;
listen to him!” listen to him!” listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, When the voice had spoken,
they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And when they looked up, Suddenly when they looked around,
they saw no one they saw no one with them any more,
except Jesus himself alone. but only Jesus. Jesus was found alone.
And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

There are four significant differences, I think.

1. In Luke, he wants us to understand that the disciples should have been asleep (they saw something they weren’t supposed to, maybe).

2. Luke describes what Jesus, Elijah and Moses were discussing: “what he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”.

3. Matthew uses the Jewish convention of having those who hear God’s words fall to the ground in fear.

4. Luke tells his readers why they hadn’t heard this fanciful story at the time. This formula occurs in various places in the gospels. To me it is a good indicator of a story that received some resistance when it was later introduced to the Jesus community, and is therefore a good indicator of inauthenticity (if the rest of the story wasn’t a good clue for that!).

I don’t have any great theological point to make. But I thought it would be interesting to see the parallel in more formal style.

If you’re interested in this kind of parallel, then get yourself a copy of “Gospel Parallels” by Throckmorton, or if you do the Greek, “Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum” (yes, I know the title is in Latin) by Kurt Aland.


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12 responses to “The Transfiguration — Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36

  1. Thanks Ian, that’s nice. It’s an interesting little episode for sure; I wonder why the fear element is in three different places. Is it just Matthew’s Jewish conventionality; why the translocation in Luke also… Intriguing.

  2. Graham Veale

    Thanks Ian,

    Not an archangel in sight in your interpretation? Shurely shome mishtake?


  3. Graham Veale

    I think we’d get further if I chatted about this with my apologists hat off.
    I’m not totally sold on the “Messianic Secret” in Mark, never mind Luke. So I’m not convinced that the command to silence should be explained by a “Lukan Community” that had never heard of the Transfiguration.
    Surely a simpler explanation would be that Luke is explaining why Jewish outsidershad no knowledge of the event. “Secrets” also seem to go hand in hand with apocalyptic. To some extent readers may have expected secrets in the plot.


  4. Ian

    What do you mean by not being sold on the Messianic Secret in Mark? Do you mean some particular interpretation of it. The phenomenon itself is pretty clear isn’t it?

    I do think it is a formula, yes. And it is likely to be apocalyptic, yes. And it may be that readers did expect secrets (if they’d also read Mark they would, certainly).

    But you can’t do that with something everyone has heard of either. So in that sense, it is normally a good indication that the story is later and therefore less likely to be authentic. Of course, in this specific case, the earliest story doesn’t have that, so it is perhaps less clear cut.

  5. Sabio

    Loved learning about the formula to cover previously unacceptable material

  6. Graham Veale

    “What do you mean by not being sold on the Messianic Secret in Mark? Do you mean some particular interpretation of it. The phenomenon itself is pretty clear isn’t it?”

    1) I believe that there is a secrecy motif in Mark, but not a Messianic secrecy motif.

    A) Jesus’ Messianic status is not always silenced in the Gospel of Mark. Mark Chapter 10 v 46ff “Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging.When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.””

    B) Furthermore what was silenced was not always about Jesus’ Messianic status. “The Holy One of God” in Mark 1 v 24 seems to refer to charismatic or prophetic authority; it is not an obvious Messianic designation. Mark 4 uses the secrecy motif when discussing Jesus’ explanations of the Parables. In Mark 5 Jairus’ is instructed to remain silent about the manner of his daughter’s healing.

    C) The Triumphal Entry was clearly a public Messianic claim. Even Wrede acknowledged this; so he denied its historicity. However even if we allow that the event was not historical, Mark believed that Jesus’ entered Jerusalem in this manner, making a public claim to Messianic status. So Jesus’ Messianic status is not kept “under wraps” in Mark’s Gospel.

    2) I also reject the idea that the secrecy motif was an apologetic tool used to explain why certain stories were not widely known from the beginning of the Church.
    A) In many cases the injunction to secrecy was only in force until the Resurrection. So the disciples should have been teaching the Transfiguration from the day of Pentecost. In these cases the injunction to secrecy adds no apologetic force to the fact that the reported events and teaching were not part public ministry, but were witnessed by a small group within Jesus’ inner circle. In other words, the secrecy motif is redundant if it is interpreted as an apologetic tool.
    B) In many cases Mark reports that the injunction to secrecy failed, further undermining its value as an apologetic tool. (Mark 1 v 28; Mark 1v45 ( Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly); Mark 7 v 24 (Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.); Mark 7 v 36 (Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.)
    C) Demon’s are told to be silent. Now it is rather difficult to see what apologetic value this would have. It is one thing to imagine isolated Christian communities stating “we never heard any Christian teacher mention Jesus’ Messianic status before”. It is quite another to imagine them complaining that the local demon never mentioned that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah!

  7. Graham Veale

    What function does the secrecy motif serve in Mark? Mark tells us once directly, and several times indirectly. (I am not assuming, or even arguing, that the secrecy motif goes back to the historical Jesus.I am merely suggesting that we should examine how Mark uses the motif before leaping to conclusions).
    Mark 4 v10 “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”
    This alludes to a prophets ministry as described in Ezekiel 12 v 1-3 “Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people… set out and go from where you are to another place. Perhaps they will understand, though they are a rebellious people.”
    (Cf.Isaiah 6 v 9-10.)
    This is a theme in Jewish Apocalyptic, as illustrated by Daniel 12 v 9&10 “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.”
    The purpose is not to be mysterious and enigmatic for its own sake, but to communicate in a way that would bring about either faith or judgment. Those who wanted to understand, would; those who were stiff-necked would not. (Or so the idea went.)

    Every time that the injunction to secrecy fails large crowds follow Jesus. This drives the narrative of Mark on, raising questions about Jesus’ identity, and exposing Jesus to threats of misunderstanding. The large crowds are a persistent problem for Jesus in Mark. They force him to pray alone before sunrise, to preach from a boat, and to continually move from town to town. This last inconvenience, and the fact that Jesus continually moves between political “jurisdictions”, implies that the crowds bring about a political threat for Jesus.
    Politically it would have been in the interests of the first believers to play down any suggestion that Jesus expected or desired to gain political authority. Jesus eschews crowds, and refuses to make a public proclamation of his kingship throughout his teaching ministry. The secrecy motif allays any fears that Jesus followers pose a political threat to Roman authority. (The descendants and followers of Judas the Galilean certainly did pose a threat to Roman interests…so this was a point worth making!)
    We should also keep in mind that the Mediterranean culture self-testimony and self-boasting was frowned on. Messianic claimants generally felt that they had to produce some evidence of their “right to the diadem”. And Jesus, in Mark’s narrative, would not want to make a full Messianic claim until he had gone to the cross and conquered death (given that Mark’s whole Gospel seems to be an apology for, and explanation of, the Crucifixion


  8. Ian

    Gotchya Graham. Thanks for the full explanation. I really appreciate it.

    Yes, the strict Wrede interpretation of the Messianic secret in Mark isn’t common among modern scholars, and I wouldn’t want to defend it per-se either. But it is important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you read Wrede, notice he is specifically concerned with the Messianic secret *to the disciples* in Mark. He’s been remembered unfairly, I think, as making the general point, which he only really backs into.

    Still, it is perfectly possible to not even want to go where Wrede went, but yet still to find, in the culture of secrecy, a new literary Jesus who is emerging 40 years after the career of the historical Jesus.

    I think that a narrative explanation is orthogonal to that. I think a narrative purpose is pretty clear. Culminating, of course, at the point where Jesus does explicitly claim his messiahship – at his trial (14:52). Throughout, Mark plays a lovely narrative game where you as the reader know stuff, and various walk-on parts do, but the disciples bumble along in ignorance. Mark, despite being rather rustic linguistically, is nicely structured. It is the major reason its my favorite book in the NT.

    So some of your literary conclusion for Mark’s Messianic secret is good, I think, and fits my intuitions on the subject.

    But it doesn’t contract the general observation that when the first appearance of a story explicitly gives reasons for it not appearing before, then it is likely to be later and more likely to be inauthentic. It is no surprise, therefore, that the stories one would expect to be inauthentic on other grounds (miraculous, politically unlikely) are most commonly associated with the formula. Not always, of course*, but enough to make it a distinct pattern.

    * It has often been observed among NT scholars that the NT is such a contrary collection of texts that there is almost nothing one can say about it without some passages providing exceptions.

  9. Graham Veale


    I hope I didn’t sound patronising!

    I think that I’d state the point you’re making slightly differently: all other things being equal, a secrecy motif is a point against historical probability.


  10. Ian

    You didn’t at all. I did really appreciate the time you put in. I wasn’t being sarcastic (although, have you noticed that as soon as you plant the seed that something might have been sarcastic, it is absolutely impossible to make it sound sincere?).

    Yes, I’d agree with your summary.


  11. Graham Veale

    (I’m just a High School teacher, so the only area in which I have any expertise is crowd control and zombie management!)

  12. Graham Veale

    Oh, just noticed your reply! Cheers Ian!

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