Transfiguration of Jesus

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Portable icon with the Transfiguration of Christ, Byzantine artwork, circa 1200, depicting Elijah, Jesus, and Moses with the three apostles.
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The Transfiguration of Jesus is an episode in the New Testament narrative in which Jesus is transfigured (or metamorphosed) and becomes radiant upon a mountain.[1][2] The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1–9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28–36) describe it, and 2 Peter 1:16–18 refers to it.[1]

In these accounts, Jesus and three of his apostles go to a mountain (the Mount of Transfiguration). On the mountain, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light. Then the prophets Moses and Elijah appear next to him and he speaks with them. Jesus is then called "Son" by a voice in the sky, assumed to be God the Father, as in the Baptism of Jesus.[1]

The Transfiguration is one of the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels.[2][3][4] This miracle is unique among others that appear in the Canonical gospels, in that the miracle happens to Jesus himself.[5] Thomas Aquinas considered the Transfiguration "the greatest miracle" in that it complemented baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven.[6] The Transfiguration is one of the five major milestones in the gospel narrative of the life of Jesus, the others being Baptism, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension.[7][8]

In Christian teachings, the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.[9]

New Testament accounts[edit]

"This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" — Mark 9:7

In the Synoptic Gospels, (Matthew 17:1–9, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36) the account of the transfiguration happens towards the middle of the narrative.[10][11] It is a key episode and almost immediately follows another important element, the Confession of Peter: "you are the Christ".[1][12] The Transfiguration narrative acts as a further revelation of the identity of Jesus as the Son of God to some of his disciples.[1][11]

Transfiguration in the Gospel of Mark, 1300.

In the Gospels, Jesus takes Peter, James, son of Zebedee and John the Apostle with him and goes up to a mountain, which is not named. Once on the mountain, Matthew (17:2) states that Jesus "was transfigured before them; his face shining as the sun, and his garments became white as the light." At that point the prophets Elijah and Moses appear and Jesus begins to talk to them.[1] Luke is specific in describing Jesus in a state of glory, with Luke 9:32 referring to "they saw his glory".[13]

Just as Elijah and Moses begin to depart from the scene, Peter begins to ask Jesus if the disciples should make three tents for him and the two prophets. This has been interpreted as Peter's attempt to keep the prophets there longer.[13] But before Peter can finish, a bright cloud appears, and a voice from the cloud states: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him". The disciples then fall to the ground in fear, but Jesus approaches and touches them, telling them not to be afraid. When the disciples look up, they no longer see Elijah or Moses.[1]

When Jesus and the three apostles are going back down the mountain, Jesus tells them to not tell anyone "the things they had seen" until the "Son of Man" has risen from the dead. The apostles are described as questioning among themselves as to what Jesus meant by "risen from the dead".[14]

In addition to the principal account given in the Synoptic Gospels; in 2 Peter 1:16–18, Apostle Peter describes himself as an eyewitness "of his sovereign majesty." The Gospel of John may also briefly allude to the same episode in John 1:14.[15]

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Apostle Paul's reference in 2 Corinthians 3:18 to the "transformation of believers" via "beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord" became the theological basis for considering the Transfiguration as the basis for processes which lead the faithful to the knowledge of God.[16][17]

Although Matthew 17 lists the disciple John as being present during the Transfiguration, the Gospel of John has no account of it.[18][19][20] This has resulted in debate among scholars, some suggesting doubts about the authorship of the Gospel of John, others providing explanations for it.[18][19] One explanation (that goes back to Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century) is that John wrote his gospel not to overlap with the synoptic gospels, but to supplement it, and hence did not include all of their narrative.[18] This is not the only incident not present in the fourth gospel, and the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper is another key example, indicating that the inclusion of material in the fourth gospel was selective.[19] The general explanation is thus the gospel of John was written thematically, to suit his theological purposes, and has a less narrative style than the synoptics.[18][19][20]

Theology[edit]

Significance[edit]

Mosaic of the Transfiguration, Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

Christian theology assigns a great deal of significance to the Transfiguration, based on multiple elements of the narrative. In Christian teachings, the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.[9]

The Transfiguration not only supports the identity of Jesus as the Son of God (as in his Baptism), but the statement "listen to him", identifies him as the messenger and mouth-piece of God.[21] The significance of this identification is enhanced by the presence of Elijah and Moses, for it indicates to the apostles that Jesus is the voice of God "par excellence", and instead of Elijah or Moses, he should be listened to, surpassing the laws of Moses by virtue of his filial relationship with God.[21] 2 Peter 1:16–18, echoes the same message: at the Transfiguration God assigns to Jesus a special "honor and glory" and it is the turning point at which God exalts Jesus above all other powers in creation, and positions him as ruler and judge.[22]

The Transfiguration also echoes the teaching by Jesus (as in Matthew 22:32) that God is not "the God of the dead, but of the living". Although Moses had died and Elijah had been taken up to heaven centuries before (as in 2 Kings 2:11), they now live in the presence of the Son of God, implying that the same return to life can apply to all who face death and have faith.[23]

Historical development[edit]

The theology of the Transfiguration received the attention of the Church Fathers since the very early days. In the 2nd century, Saint Irenaeus was fascinated by the Transfiguration and wrote: "the glory of God is a live human being and a truly human life is the vision of God".[24]

12th century icon of the Transfiguration

Origen's theology of the Transfiguration influenced the patristic tradition and became a basis for theological writings by others.[25] Among other issues, given the instruction to the apostles to keep silent about what they had seen until the Resurrection, Origen commented that the glorified states of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection must be related.[25]

The Desert Fathers emphasized the light of the ascetic experience, and related it to the light of the Transfiguration – a theme developed further by Evagrius Ponticus in the 4th century.[25] Around the same time Saint Gregory of Nyssa and later Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite were developing a "theology of light" which then influenced Byzantine meditative and mystical traditions such as the Tabor light and theoria.[25] The iconography of the Transfiguration continued to develop in this time period, and there is a sixth-century symbolic representation in the apse of the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe and a well known depiction at Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt.[26]

Byzantine Fathers often relied on highly visual metaphors in their writings, indicating that they may have been influenced by the established iconography.[27] The extensive writings of Maximus the Confessor may have been shaped by his contemplations on the katholikon at Saint Catherine's Monastery – not a unique case of a theological idea appearing in icons long before it appears in writings.[27]

In the 7th century, Saint Maximus the Confessor said that the senses of the apostles were transfigured to enable them to perceive the true glory of Christ.[28] In the same vein, building on 2 Corinthians 3:18, by the end of the 13th century the concept of "transfiguration of the believer" had stabilized and Saint Gregory Palamas considered "true knowledge of God" to be a transfiguration of man by the Spirit of God.[29] The spiritual transfiguration of the believer then continued to remain a theme for achieving a closer union with God.[17][30]

One of the generalizations of Christian belief has been that the Eastern Church emphasizes the Transfiguration while the Western Church focuses on the Crucifixion – however, in practice both branches continue to attach significance to both events, although specific nuances continue to persist.[31] An example of such a nuance is the saintly signs of the Imitation of Christ. Unlike Catholic saints such as Padre Pio or Francis (who considered stigmata a sign of the imitation of Christ) Eastern Orthodox saints have never reported stigmata, but saints such as Seraphim and Silouan have reported being transfigured by an inward light of grace.[32][33]

Transfiguration and Resurrection[edit]

Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824

Origen's initial connection of the Transfiguration with the Resurrection continued to influence theological thought long thereafter.[25] This connection continued to develop both within the theological and iconographic dimensions – which however, often influenced each other. Between the 6th and 9th centuries the iconography of the transfiguration in the East influenced the iconography of the resurrection, at times depicting various figures standing next to a glorified Christ.[34]

This was not only a view within the Eastern Church and in the West, most commentators in the Middle Ages considered the Transfiguration a preview of the glorified body of Christ following his Resurrection.[35] As an example, in the 8th century, in his sermon on the Transfiguration, the Benedictine monk Ambrosius Autpertus directly linked the Supper at Emmaus appearance in Luke 24:39 to the Transfiguration narrative of Matthew 17:2, and stated that in both cases, Jesus "was changed to a different form, not of nature, but of glory."[35]

The concept of the Transfiguration as a preview and an anticipation of the Resurrection includes several theological components.[36] On one hand it cautions the disciples, and hence the reader, that the glory of the Transfiguration, and the message of Jesus, can only be understood in the context of his death and resurrection, and not simply on its own.[36][37]

When the Transfiguration is considered an anticipation of the Resurrection, the presentation of a shining Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration as the Son of God who should be listened to can be understood in the context of the statement by Jesus in the Resurrection appearance in Matthew 28:16–20: "all authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth".[37]

Presence of prophets[edit]

The presence of the prophets next to Jesus and the perceptions of the disciples have been subject to theological debate. Origen was the first to comment that the presence of Moses and Elijah represented the "Law and the Prophets", effectively referring to the Torah or the Pentateuch.[25] Martin Luther, continued to see them as the Law and the Prophets respectively, and their recognition of and conversation with Jesus as a symbol of how Jesus fulfils "the law and the prophets" (Matthew 5:17–19, see also Expounding of the Law).[38]

The real presence of Moses and Elijah on the mount is rejected by those churches and individuals who believe in "soul sleep" (Christian mortalism) until resurrection. Several commentators have noted that Jesus describes the transfiguration using the Greek word orama (Matthew 17:9), according to Thayer more often used for a supernatural "vision" than for real physical events,[39] and concluded that Moses and Elijah were not truly there.[40]

Location of the mountain[edit]

The Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor in Israel. Mount Tabor is traditionally identified as the Mount of Transfiguration.

None of the accounts identifies the "high mountain" of the scene by name.

Since the 3rd century, some Christians have identified Mount Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration, including Origen.[41] Tabor has long been a place of Christian pilgrimage and is the site of the Church of the Transfiguration. In 1808, Henry Alford cast doubt on Tabor due to the possible continuing Roman utilization of a fortress which Antiochus the Great built on Tabor in BC219, and which Josephus records was in use by the Romans in the Jewish War.[42] Others have countered that even if Tabor was fortified by Antiochus this does not rule out a transfiguration at the summit.[43] Edward Greswell, however, writing in 1830, saw "no good reason for questioning the ancient ecclesiastical tradition, which supposes it to have been mount Tabor."[44]

John Lightfoot rejects Tabor as too far but "some mountain near Caesarea-Philippi" [45] The usual candidate in this case is Mount Panium, Paneas, or Banias a small hill situated at the source of the Jordan, near the foot of which, Caesarea Philippi was built.[46]

R. T. France (1987) notes that Mount Hermon is closest to Caesarea Philippi, mentioned in the previous chapter of Matthew.[47] Likewise Meyboom (1861) identified "Djebel-Ejeik."[48] but this may be a confusion with Jabal el Sheikh, the Arabic name for Mount Hermon.

H. A. Whittaker (1987) proposes that it was Mount Nebo primarily on the basis that it was the location where Moses viewed the promised land and a parallelism in Jesus' words on descent from the mountain of transfiguration; "You will say to this mountain (i.e. of transfiguration), ‘Move from here to there,’ (i.e. the promised land) and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.[49]

Feast and commemorations[edit]

First Fruits brought to be blessed on the Feast of the Transfiguration (Japanese Orthodox Church)

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated by various Christian denominations. The origins of the feast are less than certain and may have derived from the dedication of three basilicas on Mount Tabor.[26] The feast was present in various forms by the 9th century, and in the Western Church was made a universal feast on August 6 by Pope Callixtus III to commemorate the Siege of Belgrade (1456).[50]

In the Syriac Orthodox, Indian Orthodox, Revised Julian Calendars within Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches, the Feast of the Transfiguration is observed on 6 August. In those Orthodox churches which continue to follow the Julian Calendar, August 6 falls on August 19 of the Gregorian Calendar. Transfiguration is considered a major feast, numbered among the twelve Great Feasts in Orthodoxy. In all these churches, if the feast falls on a Sunday, its liturgy is not combined with the Sunday liturgy, but completely replaces it.

In some liturgical calendars (e.g. the Lutheran and United Methodist) the last Sunday in the Epiphany season is also devoted to this event. In the Church of Sweden and the Church of Finland, however, the Feast is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Trinity, the eighth Sunday after Pentecost.

In the Roman rite, the gospel pericope of the Transfiguration is read on the second Sunday of Lent, whose liturgy emphasizes the role the Transfiguration had in comforting the Twelve Apostles, giving them a powerful proof of his divinity, and a prelude to the glory of the Resurrection on Easter and the eventual salvation of his followers in view of the seeming contradiction of his Crucifixion and death. This theme is expounded in the Preface for that day.[51][52]

Gallery of images[edit]

Paintings[edit]

Icons[edit]

Churches and monasteries[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Transfiguration by Dorothy A. Lee 2005 ISBN 978-0-8264-7595-4 pages 21-30
  2. ^ a b Lockyer, Herbert, 1988 All the Miracles of the Bible ISBN 0-310-28101-6 page 213
  3. ^ Clowes, John, 1817, The Miracles of Jesus Christ published by J. Gleave, Manchester, UK page 167
  4. ^ Henry Rutter, Evangelical harmony Keating and Brown, London 1803. page 450
  5. ^ Karl Barth Church dogmatics ISBN 0-567-05089-0 page 478
  6. ^ Nicholas M. Healy, 2003 Thomas Aquinas: theologian of the Christian life ISBN 978-0-7546-1472-2 page 100
  7. ^ Essays in New Testament interpretation by Charles Francis Digby Moule 1982 ISBN 0-521-23783-1 page 63
  8. ^ The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key by Vigen Guroian 2010 ISBN 0-8028-6496-1 page 28
  9. ^ a b Transfiguration by Dorothy A. Lee 2005 ISBN 978-0-8264-7595-4 page 2
  10. ^ The Cambridge companion to the Gospels by Stephen C. Barton ISBN pages 132–133
  11. ^ a b The Content and the Setting of the Gospel Tradition by Mark Harding, Alanna Nobbs 2010 ISBN 978-0-8028-3318-1 pages 281–282
  12. ^ Matthew 16:16, Mark 8:29, Luke 9:20
  13. ^ a b Transfiguration by Dorothy A. Lee 2005 ISBN 978-0-8264-7595-4 pages 72–76
  14. ^ Mark by Douglas R. A. Hare 1996 ISBN 978-0-664-25551-0 page 104
  15. ^ Transfiguration by Dorothy A. Lee 2005 ISBN 978-0-8264-7595-4 page 103
  16. ^ Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer 1993 ISBN 978-0-8254-2340-6 page 86
  17. ^ a b The Synoptics: Matthew, Mark, Luke by Ján Majerník, Joseph Ponessa, Laurie Watson Manhardt 2005 ISBN 1-931018-31-6, page 121
  18. ^ a b c d Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology And Iconography by Andreas Andreopoulos (Oct 30, 2005) ISBN 0881412953 pages 43-44
  19. ^ a b c d The Gospel According to John by D. A. Carson (Dec 31, 1991) ISBN pages 92-94
  20. ^ a b The Bible Knowledge Commentary by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Jul 1, 1983) ISBN 0882078127 page 268
  21. ^ a b Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography by Andreas Andreopoulos 2005 ISBN 0-88141-295-3 pages 47–49
  22. ^ The Bible knowledge background commentary: John's Gospel, Hebrews-Revelation by Craig A. Evans ISBN 0-7814-4228-1 pages 319–320
  23. ^ The Gospel and Its Meaning by Harry Lee Poe 1996 ISBN 0-310-20172-1 page 166
  24. ^ Andrew Louth, "Holiness and the Vision of God in the Eastern Fathers" in Holiness: past and present by Stephen C. Barton 2002 ISBN pages 228–234
  25. ^ a b c d e f Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography by Andreas Andreopoulos 2005 ISBN 0-88141-295-3 pages 60–65
  26. ^ a b Festival icons for the Christian year by John Baggley 2000 ISBN 0-264-67487-1 pages 58–60
  27. ^ a b Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography by Andreas Andreopoulos 2005 ISBN 0-88141-295-3 Chapter 2: "The Iconography of the Transfiguration" pages 67–81
  28. ^ Rossi, Vincent. "Orthodoxy & Creation: The Transfiguration of Creation". The Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration. Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  29. ^ Gregory Palamas by Saint Gregory Palamas, John Meyendorff 1988 ISBN 0-8091-2447-5 page 14
  30. ^ The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: The Complete New Testament by Warren W. Wiersbe 2007 ISBN 0-7814-4539-6 page 167
  31. ^ The Gospel and Its Meaning Harry Lee Poe 1996 ISBN 0-310-20172-1 page 177
  32. ^ The Divine Trinity by David Brown 1985 ISBN 0-87548-439-5 page 39
  33. ^ The Catholic tradition by Thomas Langan 1998 ISBN 0-8262-1183-6 page 139
  34. ^ "Transfiguration and the Resurrection Icon" Chapter 9 in Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography by Andreas Andreopoulos 2005 ISBN 0-88141-295-3 pages 161–167
  35. ^ a b Image and relic: mediating the sacred in early medieval Rome by Erik Thunø 2003 ISBN 88-8265-217-3 pages 141–143
  36. ^ a b The Gospel according to Mark by James R. Edwards 2002 ISBN 0-85111-778-3 pages 272–274
  37. ^ a b Reading Matthew: a literary and theological commentary by David E. Garland 1999 ISBN 1-57312-274-2 pages 182–184
  38. ^ Church Postil 45 "When he was transfigured on the mount, Math. 17, 3, Moses and Elijah stood by him; that means, the law and the prophets as his two witnesses, which are signs pointing to him."
  39. ^ Thayer orama Acts 12:9 "Peter thought he was seeing a "vision"" etc.
  40. ^ Thomas S Warren II Dead Men Talking: What Dying Teaches Us about Living 2005 p85 "The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–13) At first glance, this passage may seem to indicate that Moses and Elijah are alive even though Moses was ... The same Greek word, (Grk. orama), is used to describe the action in each scene..."
  41. ^ Meistermann, Barnabas (1912), "Transfiguration", The Catholic Encyclopedia XV, New York: Robert Appleton Company, retrieved 2007-08-15 , citing Origen's Comm. in Ps. 88, 13
  42. ^ The New Testament for English Readers: pt.1. The three first gospels Page 123 "It was probably not Tabor, according to the legend ; for on the top of Tabor then most likely stood a fortified town"
  43. ^ Johannes Jacobus van Oosterzee Theological and homiletical commentary on the Gospel of St-Luke: Volume 1 – Page 318 "The only really formidable difficulty is that adduced by De Wette, from Robinson, that, at this period, the summit of Tabor was occupied by a fortress. But even if Antiochus the Great fortified this mountain BC 219, this by no means proves that a fortress existed in the time of Christ ; while if, as Josephus tells us, it was fortified against the Romans, this must certainly have happened forty years later."
  44. ^ Greswell, Edward (1830). "which+supposes+it+to+have+been+mount+Tabor"&hl=en Dissertations upon the Principles and Arrangement of a Harmony of the Gospels II (second edition ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 335. Retrieved 2011-12-25. 
  45. ^ The whole works of the Rev. John Lightfoot Volume 1
  46. ^ see Lamy's Harmony
  47. ^ France, Richard. Tyndale Commentary Matthew 1987 IVP
  48. ^ Louis Suson Pedro Meyboom (1817–74), Protestant theologian and pastor at Amsterdam. An adherent of the so-called "modern" school in theology, he wrote many books, including Het Leven van Jezus (7 vols., 1853–61).
  49. ^ Whittaker Studies in the Gospels Biblia, Cannock
  50. ^ Christian liturgy by Ignatius Puthiadam 2003 ISBN 81-7109-585-2 page 169
  51. ^ Word & Worship Workbook for Year B: For Ministry in Initiation, Preaching, Religious Education and Formation, Mary Birmingham, 1999, p. 188
  52. ^ Roman Missal, 2002, Second Sunday of Lent

External links[edit]

Transfiguration of Jesus
Preceded by
Peter's Confession of Christ
Ministry of Jesus
New Testament
Events
Succeeded by
Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
Parables of Jesus