The Transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel

Christ’s mission vs. Messianic ideals

Mt Hermon

Mark’s account of the transfiguration brings a brief climax to a section in which Jesus is trying to help his disciples to understand his true identity and mission. It serves to elevate Jesus above all other intermediaries between God and man, even the two great Jewish figures Moses and Elijah.

World behind the text

Historical Context

In the historical context of first century Palestine, a suffering Messiah was not what they expected. At this juncture in Mark’s narrative, as Jesus heads towards his fate in Jerusalem, he is at pains to make his disciples grasp the true nature of his mission versus the common Messianic ideals they clung to. The transfiguration narrative in Mark 9 is a key part of that story.

There was some historical precedent for the kind of event depicted in the transfiguration. The strongest canonical link is the Moses story in which he ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Law (Ex 24). There are many points of connection with this narrative, which will be explored more fully below.

Authorship and Composition

We cannot know definitively who wrote the gospel that we call “Mark’s”. The title “according to Mark” is probably quite early but not necessarily original. We know of one (or more) Marks from the New Testament, but there is no guarantee that any of the Marks mentioned are the gospel writer. However, a case can be made for traditional Markan authorship as Stein does1 but definitive exegetical points ought not to be built on this foundation.

World in the text

Form Analysis

Broadly speaking, the genre of this text is historical narrative with miraculous elements. It does not easily align with a particular form such as we see elsewhere in the gospels (like parables or wisdom sayings). Whilst not entirely without precedent, it does not fit into easy classification with many other known texts.

Some have suggested this transfiguration account is actually a post-resurrection story inserted in the narrative here well outside its original chronological setting. There has been some discussion of the matter but scholars do not typically seem to find this idea plausible.2 It is possible the narrative has been flavoured somewhat by the resurrection stories, but this does not make it an out of place resurrection story itself.

Collins points out that the text falls into the same kind of genre as Old Testament theophany narratives and whilst the description of Jesus as a glowing, semi-divine (?) figure has some parallel in Roman and Hellenistic texts, its clearest parallel is with the theophany of Moses at Sinai.3 Heil describes the genre as “epiphany” and outlines the epiphanic elements, being Jesus’ transfiguration, the appearance of Elijah, the appearance of Moses, and the voice from the overshadowing cloud.4

This section can be broken down into three parts: Introduction, Peter’s response, Conclusion.

  1. Setting the scene – who, where, and what Mark 9:2-3
    1. Time and place Mark 9:2a
    2. Jesus’ transformation Mark 9:2b-3
    3. Appearance of Moses and Elijah Mark 9:4
  2. Peter’s terrified response Mark 9:5-7
    1. Peter tries to prolong the moment Mark 9:5-6
    2. Voice from cloud corrects Peter’s error Mark 9:7
  3. Conclusion and Descent Mark 9:8-9
    1. Moses and Elijah vanish, scene returns to normal Mark 9:8
    2. Jesus charges silence until after his resurrection. Mark 9:9

Key Literary Features

The passage opens with a temporal indicator – “Six days later…” This phrase appears to be functioning at two important levels. Firstly, within Mark’s narrative flow it connects this pericope to the previous one in which Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Secondly, it also appears to function as an allusion to the Moses narrative in which he ascends Mt Sinai after six days and then experiences a theophany on the mount.

Jesus separates out Peter, James, and John to share in this experience with him. This is not the first or last time that this happens in Mark’s gospel – it happened in the incident of the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:37), and would happen in the Olivet prophecy (Mk 13:3), and again when Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:33). It seems that these “inner circle” moments were what qualified these disciples for roles of leadership in the early church.5 The importance of this exclusive moment is underscored by the phrase “by themselves” (Mk 9:2).

Geographically, the mountain mentioned in Mark 9 is probably in the north of Israel given the locations mentioned up to this point. Mt Tabor has been a traditional choice, but there is very little evidence upon which to judge this.  Hermon is another suggestion given the disciples are at Caesarea-Philippi in the previous chapter. Evans notes that the primary reason for mentioning a “very high mountain” was to situate this event in a location that had access to heaven – a kind of “suburb of heaven”6. This proximity to heaven sets the stage for what is to follow. The reader ought not to be surprised when incidents take place in this setting, which betray the presence of the divine. McCurley remarks that the mountain must be symbolically understood as Sinai/Horeb based on the Old Testament parallels evoked by the presence of Moses and Elijah, the only other figures in scripture to have a mountain theophany in a similar manner.

Jesus is transfigured in front of his disciples. The Greek metamorphoō is a word only used a handful of times in the Greek New Testament – in Mark 9 and Matthew’s synoptic parallel (Matt 17:2), Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18. In Romans 12, Paul is using the term to describe the transformation of the believer to a new way of life, whilst in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul is using the term in the context of a discussion of Moses’ theophany at Sinai. The basic meaning of the word is, “to remodel, to change into another form… and outward change of form perceptible to the senses.”7 Whilst the term relates to change in bodily appearance, Mark describes it in terms of Jesus’ garments, which become, “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Matthew and Luke, however, add that “his face shone like the sun” (Matt 17:2) and “the appearance of his face changed” (Lk 9:29). This description, coupled with the sudden appearance of Elijah and Moses, would alert the Old Testament literate reader to connections in Malachi. Malachi 3 and 4 speak of Elijah coming as a messenger before the “day of the Lord” (Mal 4:5) and the importance of keeping the teaching of Moses in the meanwhile (Mal 4:4). Interestingly, Malachi describes the impending judgments of God as being like a refining fire and “fuller’s soap” (Mal 3:2). If Mark is indeed alluding to this passage, the implication here is that Jesus cannot be refined or whitened any further – God’s judgment finds him spotlessly clean and blameless.

The moment of Elijah appearing with Moses has been explained as these two figures representing the Prophets and the Law – the major parts of the Hebrew scriptures.8 There are a number of parallels that link these two figures – both mysteriously taken by God rather than dying regular deaths, both revolutionary leaders of Israel in times of crisis, both had mountain theophanies at Horeb/Sinai, and both were privileged to have direct dialogue with God.

As Jesus speaks with Elijah and Moses, Peter blurts out that he wishes to make three dwellings on the mount for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. It is unclear what Peter intended by this, although various suggestions have been made. Mark clearly implies the comment was misguided by the phrase in v6, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” In immediate response there is a divine voice declaring Jesus pre-eminence over the other figures on the mount: only Jesus is God’s Beloved son. Peter’s mistake appears to be twofold – wishing to prolong a moment that was only designed to be a foretaste of what would follow the suffering predicted in the previous pericope, and putting Elijah, Moses and Jesus all on the same level.

A voice from a cloud is a phenomenon known from Old Testament narratives like Moses and Elijah. Jewish writers have called it “bat kol” – the daughter of a voice.9 A heavenly voice also echoes the opening scenes of Mark’s gospel in which Jesus is declared God’s beloved son as he comes out of the baptismal waters (Mk 1:10-11). The difference is that at his baptism, the voice was addressed to Jesus, whereas here it is addressed to the disciples with an added imperative, “listen to him” (Mk 9:7).

Following the voice, the scene suddenly returns to normal and only Jesus remains with his disciples. They then descend the mountain and Jesus charges them to keep this incident to themselves until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead (v9). The reason for this charge seems quite apparent when considered in the broader narrative context. In chapter 8, Jesus has asked his disciples about his identity: the general crowds are confused and do not have any clear idea but Peter has a moment of insight, identifying Jesus as “the Christ, the son of the living God”. What is apparent though is that Peter himself did not understand the true meaning of this – he had no conception of a suffering Messiah. Given that even Jesus most inner circle could not fully grasp his mission, any wider knowledge of the remarkable events of the transfiguration could only perpetuate further misunderstanding, and in particular the misunderstanding that glorification could possibly come without suffering first.

World in front of the text

Theological Insights

The key message of this passage is about the status of Jesus. He is not comparable to Moses and Elijah—two of the most significant figures in Jewish memory—he is superior to them, as he alone is God’s beloved son. This passage must also be situated in Mark’s wider narrative though, in which Mark is highlighting the necessity of suffering before glory.

In response to Peter’s mistaken eagerness to build three dwellings, the voice from heaven highlights the unique sonship status of Jesus and commands the disciples to “hear him”. The source for divine instruction is no longer to be found in the law or prophets but in the man mostly closely connected to the father – his son Jesus.

Bibliography

  • Bernardin, Joseph B. “The Transfiguration.” Journal of Biblical Literature 52, no. 2/3 (1933): 181-89.
  • Collins, Adela Yarbro. Mark: A Commentary. Edited by Harold W. Attridge. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.
  • Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
  • Evans, Craig A. Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.
  • Freedman, David Noel, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins, and Astrid B. Beck, eds. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Heil, John Paul. The Transfiguration of Jesus: Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9:2–8, Matt 17:1–8 and Lk 9:28–36. Rome, Italy: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000.
  • Kittel, Gerhard, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976.
  • McCurley, Foster R. “”And after Six Days” (Mark 9:2): A Semitic Literary Device.” Journal of Biblical Literature 93, no. 1 (1974): 67-81.
  • Stein, Robert H. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.
  • Stein, Robert H. “Is the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a Misplaced Resurrection-Account?” Journal of Biblical Literature 95, no. 1 (1976): 79-96.
  • Wenham, David, and A. D. A. Moses. “‘There Are Some Standing Here….’: Did They Become the ‘Reputed Pillars’ of the Jerusalem Church? Some Reflections on Mark 9:1, Galatians 2:9 and the Transfiguration.” Novum Testamentum 36, no. 2 (1994): 146-63.

Footnotes

  1. Robert H. Stein, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Mark, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 2-8.
  2. See Robert H. Stein, “Is the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a Misplaced Resurrection-Account?” Journal of Biblical Literature 95, no. 1 (1976): 79-96.
  3. Adela Yarbro Collins Mark: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 416-417.
  4. John Paul Heil, The Transfiguration of Jesus: Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9:2–8, Matt 17:1–8 and Lk 9:28–36, (Rome, Italy: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000), 45.
  5. See David Wenham, and A. D. A. Moses. “‘There Are Some Standing Here….’: Did They Become the ‘Reputed Pillars’ of the Jerusalem Church? Some Reflections on Mark 9:1, Galatians 2:9 and the Transfiguration.” Novum Testamentum 36, no. 2 (1994): 146-63.
  6. Evans, Mark, 35.
  7. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 755–756.
  8. E.g. Joseph B. Bernardin, “The Transfiguration.” Journal of Biblical Literature 52, no. 2/3 (1933): 181.
  9. Bruce Chilton, “Transfiguration,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 640.

Author: Benjamin Williams

Ben lives in Adelaide with his wife Amy and cat Misty. His primary interests are Bible study methods, the story of how we got the Bible, and good Biblical studies from the Old and New Testaments. Outside of the Bible he enjoys good wine and decent music (i.e. Classical).