18 January 2011

Transformations of the Transfiguration

OK, we're having some fun with crayzee interpretations of the Transfiguration yarn that appears in the Synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew). But what do they really say? It seems appropriate to post the actual texts, here rendered from the King James Version, seeing as how this is the 400th anniversary and all, and shed a little light on how this tale evolved.

First up is the first gospel (chronologically and the source for the other two tales), Mark 9:2-8:

 2And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.
 3And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.
 4And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus.
 5And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.
 6For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid.
 7And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.
 8And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves.
 9And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead.

Here's Matthew 1-9, which is clearly textually derived from the document of Mark (or a close precursor):
 1And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,
 2And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.
 3And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.
 4Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.
 5While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
 6And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.
 7And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.
 8And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.
 9And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.

And now for Luke, who was also working off the document we now know as Mark:

 28And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.
 29And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.
 30And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias:
 31Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.
 32But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.
 33And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.
 34While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud.
 35And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.
 36And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.

No serious scholar disputes the fact that these texts are intimately related from a documentary point of view. They are not (as a few evangelicals like to assert, in the teeth of the evidence) the work of "independent eyewitnesses" or the "guidance of the Holy Spirit", but Matthew and Luke working off Mark. That's OK, but it is the little embellishments and wrinkles that are fascinating.

For instance, have a look at v31 in the Luke rendering - the stressing of Jerusalem. Why Jerusalem? Luke has a serious thing about Jerusalem. In the other gospels, Jesus appears after the crucifiction to his disciples back in Galilee, but that is in direct contradiction to Luke's account - for Luke's developing story, he has to keep everything in Jerusalem, because he's going to bring Saul Paulus in later, and that requires a Jerusalem focus. Still, it sits very oddly in the text. You'll also notice that Luke makes it very clear that the disciples were in some sort of sleep-induced stupor.

I'm sure that Ian over at Irreducible Complexity (one of my favourite blogs) could do a funky textual analysis on it and draw some nice graphs based on the original Greek, but it's one of those wee things that gives us an insight into the spin and tweaking that the different gospel writers used to try to brand "their" Jesus. What was going through the minds of "Matthew" (not the real Matthew, obviously) or Luke as they copied "Mark"? Why did they feel the original text needed correcting?


  1. It isn't a funky computer generated image, but I posted the parallel in formal style on my blog at Irreducible Complexity.

  2. Ian, thanks - that's a good way of doing it. In this case, Luke seems to be the primary outlier. Interesting that while the others have Peter, James and John, Luke has Peter, John and James. Jockeying for the position of runner-up?

  3. Well, what a field for this race: Peter at 7-2 has shifted slightly from his early morning price, James is 11-2 and John is 8-1. Resurrection 100-1 and See me in Jerusalem at 5-1.

    18 fences ahead of us, Peter is told to keep off the tape, and that's it, we're off.

    They're heading to the first, Peter slightly ahead and lands just in front of James and John - and thy're all safely over the first. At the second it's Peter John and James as they run down to the next. Peter moves to the the inside, James and John keeping close behind, See Me In Jerusalem catching up and Resurrection, an outside shot, bringing up the rear.

    Peter still the leader, James and John change places and then change back again. See Me In Jerusalem making up ground and Resurrection, 4 fences behind, looks like no show.

    Five fences from home Peter begins to flag, James and John are neck and neck, one length from See Me In Jerusalem, no sign of Resurrection.

    And there's a wobble from See Me In Jerusalem, almost brings down James and John, Peter pulls ahead as they race for the finish line.

    But what's this? Resurrection gaining, this is completely unexpected. Resurrection overtakes See Me In Jerusalem, James and John still neck in neck closing in on Peter. Resurrection leaves James and John lying in its wake, catching Peter as they approach the finish... Resurrection's gonna win it!

    Resurrection first from Peter, James and John; See Me in Jerusalem following after.

  4. Very interesting, Peter. Well done. Keep your focus on the Transfiguration and the Resurrection. You never now, you might just get it.

  5. excellent writing .