Christianity/Selected article/November 2007


Icon of the Transfiguration
(15th century, Novgorod)

The Transfiguration of Jesus is an event reported by the Synoptic Gospels in which Jesus was transfigured upon a mountain ( Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:1-8, Luke 9:28-36). Jesus becomes radiant, speaks with Moses and Elijah, and is called "Son" by God. The transfiguration put Jesus on par with the two preeminent figures of Judaism: Moses and Elijah. It also supports His identity as the Son of God. In keeping with the Messianic secret, Jesus tells the witnesses not to tell others what they saw.

In general, the events in Jesus's life that are said to have taken place in secret, such as the transfiguration, are given less weight by scholars of the historical Jesus than public events.

The original Greek term in the Gospels is metamorphothe, describing Jesus as having undergone metamorphosis.

The Synoptic Gospels, 2 Peter and the Gospel of John briefly allude to the event in their writings ( 2 Peter 1:16-18, John 1:14). Peter describes himself as an eyewitness "of his sovereign majesty." Neither account identifies the "high mountain" of the scene by name. The earliest identification of the mountain as Tabor is in the 5th century Transitus Beatae Mariae Virginis. In the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews, Jesus tells how his mother lifted him up by the hair and lifted him to Mount Tabor, which led Origen to identify the Holy Spirit as the Mother of Jesus.

Symbolic readings take Moses and Elijah to represent the Law and the Prophets respectively, and their recognition of and conversation with Jesus symbolize how Jesus fulfils "the law and the prophets" ( Matthew 5:17-19, see also Expounding of the Law).

In the narrative, after the cloud dissipates, Elijah and Moses disappear, and Jesus and the three Apostles head down the mountain, Jesus telling his Apostles to keep the event a secret until the "Son of Man" had risen from the dead. The Apostles are described as questioning among themselves as to what Jesus meant by "risen from the dead" (Mark 9:9-10) The Apostles are also described as questioning Jesus about Elijah, and he as responding "...Elijah comes first, and restores all things ... but ... Elijah has come indeed ..." ( Mark 9:12-13). It was commonly believed that Elijah would reappear before the coming of the Messiah, as predicted in the Book of Malachi ( Malachi 4), and the three Apostles are described as interpreting Jesus' statement as a reference to John the Baptist.

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