How do you figure Transfiguration?

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Christ at the Transfiguration
Transfiguration, St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Toledo  (Flickr)

This question engages Scripture scholars and casual gospel readers alike. The Transfiguration is easy enough to describe: Jesus the teacher and miracle worker is suddenly and visibly changed on a mountaintop. He is revealed to his three closest disciples as a heavenly-connected personality claimed by a celestial voice as the Beloved Son. Jewish scholars also note that the other two heavenly beings appearing with Jesus—Moses and Elijah—shared with Jesus special roles in the age to come because of their unique end-of-life celestial "translations". This event seems more like the metamorphoses of gods familiar to Greco-Roman mythology than the Jewish tradition, however. So what's it doing in the New Testament?

First thing to note: Gospel Greek deliberately avoids the term metamorphosis in this account, an attempt to sever any "pagan"
comparison. The brilliance of Jesus' face recalls the radiance of Moses after his mountaintop communication with the Divine. The enveloping cloud also echoes the Sinai experience, and Peter's suggestion of booths or tents evokes the Tent of Meeting where Moses later encountered the Holy Presence. The simultaneous appearance of Moses and Elijah, representatives of Law and Prophecy, serve as firm anchors to the Hebrew story. No reference outside the tradition is intended or necessary.

But what are we to take away from this event? Scholars offer three possibilities. One is that this event, first noted in Mark and later retold in Matthew and Luke, is Mark's misplaced resurrection story. Early versions of Mark did not include the resurrection narrative, so this story might have been intended to foreshadow the hope of Easter. The second idea is that this story is a theological reflection of the first-generation church: a symbolic way of reconstructing what Jesus meant to them—and to us. He is the New Moses, the ultimate Prophet, the Teacher-Messiah anticipated by both Moses and the prophets.

The third theory is that the Transfiguration is a private vision Peter had—perhaps on the feast of Tabernacles or Booths while reading the appropriate Scriptures—in which the truth about Jesus "came together" for him, before or even well after Easter. Both the gospels and the Second Letter of Peter suggest that Peter had a special understanding of this event that carried with him into anticipation of the Second Coming of Jesus. Saint Paul goes further to declare that we will ALL be transfigured if we keep our sights trained on Christ.


Scripture: Mk 9:1-13; Matt 17:1-13; Lk 9:28-36;Deut. 18:15; Exod. 24:15-16; 34: 29, 35; Lev. 23:42; 2 Kgs 2:11; 2 Cor 3:18; 2 Pet. 1:16-18; see also Jn 12:28-30

Books: Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration - Kenneth Stevenson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)

Seeing the Word: The Transfiguration (The Saint John's Bible series) - (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010)

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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