Matthew Chapter 17:1-9

This is the story of the Transfiguration. The narrative follows that of Mark fairly closely, so I don’t think it will be necessary to add too much line-by-line commentary. But I always think these will be shorter than they actually are.

1 Καὶ μεθ’ ἡμέρας ἓξ παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ Ἰάκωβον καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀναφέρει αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν κατ’ ἰδίαν.

And after six days Jesus took Peter and James and John his brother, and carried them up the high mountain by themselves.

This is almost verbatim from Mark.

1 Et post dies sex assumit Iesus Petrum et Iacobum et Ioannem fratrem eius et ducit illos in montem excelsum seorsum.

2 καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, καὶ ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος, τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰὡς τὸ φῶς.

And he was transformed before them, and shone his face like the sun, his clothing became white as light.

This is slightly different from Mark, who does not have Jesus’ face becoming like the sun. Mark spent his description describing Jesus’ clothing as being impossibly white. This added description by Matthew would seem to be an expansion of the myth, or is it just a more graphic description? The other question worth asking is whether this is pagan imagery?  It’s probably not necessary to take it as such, but it’s worth noting that this is the only time this simile is used. Even Luke, who is often considered to be a pagan, does not use it. So here again we have something peculiar to Matthew. Of course a detail like this is not significant because just because it’s unusual

2 Et transfiguratus est ante eos; et resplenduit facies eius sicut sol, vestimenta autem eius facta sunt alba sicut lux.

3 καὶ ἰδοὺ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας συλλαλοῦντες μετ’ αὐτοῦ.

And he was seen by them speaking together with him with Moses and Elijah.

Pardon the bad English. I was trying to preserve the Greek, but there was no real way to do that, so I had to repeat the “with”. Again, Moses and Elijah, perhaps the two most important figures of the HS, taking that with some latitude. The point is it’s Elijah, and not Isaiah, whom I think a lot of Christians might expect given his prominence in NT citations and thinking.

3 Et ecce apparuit illis Moyses et Elias cum eo loquentes.

4 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ, Κύριε, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι: εἰ θέλεις, ποιήσω ὧδε τρεῖς σκηνάς, σοὶ μίαν καὶ Μωϋσεῖ μίαν καὶ Ἠλίᾳ μίαν.

And answering Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will make here three tents, one for you alone, one for Moses alone, and Elijah alone”.

I’ve never been sure how to take this. Is Peter just babbling? It seems like it. Now contrast this with him being the rock upon whom Jesus would build the church. The two images do not quite go together, do they? In fact, this is almost comic relief, just as his attempt to walk on the water was almost comic relief. This seems to provide further evidence that the “rock” passage of the last chapter was interpolated. Here and when he tries to walk on water, Peter is bordering on buffoonish behaviour, and yet we are told that he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. There seems to be some inconsistency in the portrayal. Or what we’re probably seeing is a layering of the traditions. As time passed, more stories were told, and not all would have portrayed Peter in the same manner. This is the way legends grow. The stories told of Ronald Reagan now, just under two generations after he left the presidency, do not necessarily bear much resemblance to the person who actually sat in the White House. The legend has begun to conflict with itself, to the point of contradiction. 

Despite all of this, the significant thing here, I believe, is not the way he is portrayed, but that it is Peter who is speaking and not one of the others. Throughout the gospels, it is Peter with whom Jesus interacts. He is the one who got out of the boat, the rock, the one speaking here, the one who denies him, etc. And it’s always a little surprising to note how little James and John actually say or do, despite their positions of supposed prominence. What this tells me is that, as Paul corroborates, Peter was Jesus’ loyal follower, one who played a leading role in the ministry. James and John are likely later creations. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are like time travelers, individuals who played significant roles after Jesus’ death, and they have been teleported back in time to justify their leading role in the aftermath. And if James and John are retro-projections, I think it’s very safe to say that the other members of the Twelve are as well. I still suspect they were named by James, brother of the Lord, after the latter’s death. Of course, it would be interesting to speculate that the James here named was perhaps the son of Zebedee and Mary.

4 Respondens autem Petrus dixit ad Iesum: “ Domine, bonum est nos hic esse. Si vis, faciam hic tria tabernacula: tibi unum et Moysi unum et Eliae unum ”.

5 ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἰδοὺ νεφέλη φωτεινὴ ἐπεσκίασεν αὐτούς, καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης λέγουσα, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα: ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ.

Upon him speaking, behold, a shining cloud obscured them, and, behold, a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him”.

The details are only slightly different from Mark’s version. The “shining” cloud is new, and rather an interesting concept. Meteorologically speaking, there are times when clouds do seem to shine, usually when the sun is beside or behind them, but here the intent is purely poetic, I believe. This was not a standard-issue or garden-variety cloud, dull of hue and brightness, but a luminous cloud, one that shines. The object is to contrast this to “ordinary” clouds, to indicate the divine aspect, one that was numinous as well as luminous.

5 Adhuc eo loquente, ecce nubes lucida obumbravit eos; et ecce vox de nube dicens: “Hic est Filius meus dilectus, in quo mihi bene complacui; ipsum audite”.

6 καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ μαθηταὶ ἔπεσαν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον αὐτῶν καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα.

And hearing, the disciples fell upon their faces and they were exceedingly afraid. 

I dearly wanted to render this as “sore afraid”, and I did so at first before changing it. The KJV actually does render this as “sore afraid”, but that says more about Stuart-era English than it does the Greek. In the famous passage of Luke, the shepherds actually “feared a great fear”. It’s just that the passage of Luke has been lodged very deeply in the cultural vernacular of the English-speaking world. Hearing Linus repeat it all those years in A Charlie Brown Christmas certainly helped.

6 Et audientes discipuli ceciderunt in faciem suam et timuerunt valde.

7 καὶ προσῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἁψάμενος αὐτῶν εἶπεν,Ἐγέρθητε καὶ μὴ φοβεῖσθε.

8 ἐπάραντες δὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῶν οὐδένα εἶδον εἰ μὴ αὐτὸν Ἰησοῦν μόνον.

And Jesus came forward and touched them, saying “Get up and fear not”. (8) And raising their eyes the saw no one except Jesus alone.

Normalcy returns, the aperture to the divine is closed. What had happened? Had it happened? Surely, the disciples must have thought something like that.

In the discussion of Mark, I toyed with the idea that the Transfiguration may have been the climax of the story at one time. In Mark, it comes sort of at the point where the wonder-worker tale gives way to the Christ tradition, and it seems possible that this was meant to be the turning point, where Jesus true identity is revealed. That is an attractive thesis, but on further consideration it is probably more appealing than it is substantiated. I am not at all sure the thesis can be defended. It’s pretty to think this, but it’s not a sound position. This story does, of course, reveal Jesus’ identity, but I doubt very much that it was ever meant to be a climax. Rather, it’s more like a second baptism story; this is hardly a novel idea, given the repetition of the voice from the heavens declaring Jesus as “my son”, with the tacit understanding that we are hearing the voice of God.

But once we’ve granted that it’s a second baptism, what do we make of this? From a stylistic perspective, from how the stories of the baptism and the transfiguration mirror each other, it’s very easy to see them as brackets, or bookends. It was from thinking on these terms that the idea of the transfiguration as the end of the story occurred to me. And even now, this idea still seems appealing, and I suppose it could be argued if we think in terms of a fairly primitive story. But further reflection leads to another possibility that warrants at least some consideration. Rather than beginning and end, it’s probably more appropriate to think of the transfiguration as a second beginning. Here is where the identity of Jesus is fully revealed. The baptism, with it’s heavenly voice, opens us up to an adopted Jesus; the transfiguration gives us a truly divine Jesus, whose face shines like the sun, and who converses with Moses and Elijah. As such, I would suspect that this is a later addition to the story, one that came after the baptism and the wonder-worker stories. It was designed to elevate Jesus above the role of wonder-worker, and place him more securely in the realm of the gods.

7 Et accessit Iesus et tetigit eos dixitque eis: “Surgite et nolite timere”.

8 Levantes autem oculos suos, neminem viderunt nisi solum Iesum.

9 Καὶ καταβαινόντων αὐτῶν ἐκτοῦ ὄρους ἐνετείλατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων, Μηδενὶ εἴπητε τὸ ὅραμα ἕως οὗ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγερθῇ.

And they coming down from the mountain Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell no one this thing having been seen until the son of man from the dead has been raised.

Once again, this is almost verbatim from Mark, so there’s really not much new to say. This is part of the Messianic secret that Mark perpetuates. We’ve speculated on why; my position is that Mark–or an intervening source–came up with this idea to explain why Jesus was not followed more widely by Jews than he was. Were there assemblies in Galilee? We don’t know of any–to the best of my limited knowledge. Why weren’t there? Or why weren’t there more? Because Jesus kept his identity as the anointed one secret, so only a few people knew about this. But how does this square with the enormous crowds that Mark says followed Jesus? Well, they were only interested in the healing powers Jesus demonstrated. Because if you read Mark with any perspicacity, you will note that it’s the healings that draw the crowds. And there is where Mark joined the two traditions, that of the wonder-worker and that of the Christ.

This story belongs to the latter element, and could be seen as the splashy intro to the Christ tradition in Mark. By retaining Mark’s basic structure, Matthew repeats aspects of Mark–like the messianic secret–even when they don’t exactly make a lot of sense. In the context of Matthew, this secret of Jesus is not terribly appropriate, whereas it’s a key part of Mark. This is yet another indication of why it’s obvious that Mark wrote first: things like the messianic secret only make sense when the idea of Jesus as Messiah wasn’t the prevailing attitude.

9 Et descendentibus illis de monte, praecepit eis Iesus dicens: “Nemini dixeritis visionem, donec Filius hominis a mortuis resurgat”.

 

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 7, 2015, in Chapter 17, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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