The transfiguration story, like others in gospels and other parts of the New Testament, proves on examination to have an underlying Jewish narrative, edited and adapted long ago by early Christian writers.
My analysis indicates that it has two other, unique and remarkable characteristics. It was moved, as a substantial and possibly almost entire passage, from another part of the text. It had provided, in its essentials, the climax to Mark, the original and prime source for the other gospels. It is, reordered and much mutilated, the ending of Mark that is now missing and had been thought lost.
This is what I consider to be the best available interpretation, on the basis of all the evidence, one which incidentally drastically reduces the number of otherwise inexplicable and discordant elements.
My conclusion breaks the deadlock between two great divisions that have been reached in textual analysis of the transfiguration. These are firstly between those who see it as entirely allegorical and those who see it as relating to some real event. It will be noted that, while there are grounds for arguing that the story may be fictional and as such would serve as allegory, my analysis of the evidence provides qualified support for the position that there is an historical basis. There is a real, underlying Jewish narrative and a strong possibility that this in turn relates to some real events. But these are not the events that Christian commentators bring with them, as a preconceived set of beliefs, to their studies of the text.
The early writer who examined the outcome of a misadventure, against prior prophecy, was seeking to understand it as part of God’s plan for the Jewish people. He was seeking to explain, or he was arguing for, or both, the survival of a messianic leader whose mission had failed. For Jews now and then, there was no resurrection.
As it can now be reconstructed, the early narrative expressed hope for the future liberation of Jews and a reward for the righteous in heaven. It sought to retrieve something positive from what had been a calamitous, misjudged confrontation.
This was, however, soon to be overshadowed and overwhelmed by an even greater disaster, the failure of the first Jewish uprising.
After this, even their original story was taken from them.
The second major division lies between those who have argued that the transfiguration sequence originated as a post resurrection story, which Mark then appropriated to use within his narrative, as against others who maintain that it is correctly located within the lifetime of Jesus.
The argument that the transfiguration may be a misplaced resurrection account appears to have begun around the beginning of the twentieth century with Bacon (The Transfiguration Story; A Study of the Problem of the Sources of Our Synoptic Gospels) and has since been taken up by others, including Carlston (Transfiguration and Resurrection).
My analysis indicates strongly that it was relocated from some other point by the early author or editor of Mark. However, the event to which the transfiguration relates is not post resurrection but post crucifixion, and as such it forms part of the continuation of the narrative.
This distinction is absolutely crucial and explains many of the difficulties that have been encountered in the debate.
For example, Stein (Is the Transfiguration (Mark 9, 2-8) a Misplaced Resurrection Account?) has argued, on a number of grounds, against those who maintain that the transfiguration story is a post resurrection account. His case includes the ‘form critical’ arguments initially put forward by Dodd (The Appearances of the Risen Christ: an Essay in Form Criticism of the Gospels) that distinguish it from post resurrection stories in the gospels.
In these stories, Jesus ‘appears’ to one or more of his family and followers and speaks to them. He is always alone, there is no voice from heaven and his clothes do not shine. But, in the transfiguration narrative, he is already there with three of his disciples and remains with them. It is Moses and Elijah, not Jesus, that ‘appear’ and just as suddenly disappear. Jesus’ clothes become radiant and the voice of God is heard from a cloud. On the basis of these several differences of form, it is argued that the transfiguration cannot have originated in the same way and be the same kind of material as the stories of appearances, following the crucifixion, that are in all of the gospels (except the more original, shorter version of Mark whose ending is cut).
This is, of course, entirely correct. But the objections raised by Dodd and Stein lose their force, once it is recognised that the transfiguration account is not in any case one of the recollections that have been passed on in retelling, eventually to be written down and used by gospel writers seeking to make good the absence of an ending to Mark. It is instead a continuation of the narrative, though of course much adapted in being reused and relocated in the text. It is therefore no surprise then that it reads as part of this narrative, rather than as one of the fragmentary, supernatural oral tales that have been used to augment the later gospels.
So it can be agreed that the voice from a cloud was added, as were the names of Moses and Elijah applied to the people that Jesus and his companions met. The shining of face or clothes may also have been an elaboration, or were there originally as a circumstantial detail, to be expected from an encounter on a high mountain where there was snow.
But Jesus in the story goes to the mountain with his three companions, because that is what is being described in the underlying narrative as having happened, after Jesus had survived and been revived, following the crucifixion. Because he is already there, he does not need to ‘appear’ to talk to his companions. He is indeed reported as talking to them on the way back down the mountain and then subsequently to the crowd waiting to see him.
Other commentators have had problems, perhaps in part because of their preconceptions but also because they have not looked at the text carefully enough.
The restriction of considering the transfiguration text limited to Mark 9, 2-8, or Mark 9, 2-10 is clearly misconceived. Heil, for example (The Transfiguration of Jesus: Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9, 2-8, Matthew 17, 1-8 and Luke 9, 28-36), deliberately limited his analysis to the text up to the point where the two other men at the meeting have left. He has thereby missed the significance of the (now dispersed) conversation with the scribes and the reaction of the crowd. He has failed to understand the significance of the crucial pronouncement attributed to Jesus, concerning John the Baptist and Elijah, which I have suggested forms part of the culmination of Mark. He has also been unable to spot the dislocation that defines the end of the transfiguration sequence, having left it out of his consideration.
The story has a beginning, when the four ascend the mountain, a middle part that describes what happened there and an end that describes what happened on the way back down and when they meet the other disciples, the crowd and the disbelieving scribes.
Whether or not some scribes were actually present at such an historical event, post the crucifixion, the reason that they are there in the story is to provide a foil for the argument over the return of Elijah.
It was believed that the last days could not happen until Elijah had returned. The argument in the underlying narrative of Mark, put succinctly, is that Elijah did return as John the Baptist, at least in spirit. Jesus’ remarkable survival, as the ‘suffering servant’, confirms the power of prophecy and is of itself a sign. So, also it can be believed that Elijah had come.
The story of the transfiguration is in form a coherent whole and it is at the beginning and end of this coherent whole that there are dislocations defining the passage as a whole, from 9, 2 to 9, 16 (plus maybe 9, 1), as having been relocated from somewhere else.
That somewhere else was, on the simplest and best interpretation, the early version of Mark or the underlying Jewish narrative from which the Christian compiler was working.
The very early editor (or editors) of Mark did not just move the text from one position to another. He reworked some details, so as to give them a supernatural slant. He added elements to support Christian doctrine and cut out others that conflicted with this, including the discussion of what Jesus should do next.
He rearranged the text internally to disguise what was the topic of conversation with the scribes.
What I suggest may have been the crucial culmination of Mark, that has Jesus as the physical sign that all was accomplished in order for the ‘last days’ to happen, was moved back within the story and qualified.
In this way, much of the Jewish text was preserved, while being made to serve another purpose. The word so retained could be regarded as still sacred, the word of God mediated by divine inspiration as the Christian word.
Surprisingly, in seeking to understand the transfiguration, another great mystery may have been resolved.
The ending of Mark that was thought to be lost has, in plain view, been there all the time.