The Transfiguration of Jesus – Literary Criticism

Literary criticism


The Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-13) is often being regarded as one of the most important miracles that took place during the course of the Savior’s earthly service (second only to the Resurrection). This miracle was meant to prove to the most loyal disciples of Jesus (Peter, James and John) that he was indeed the Son of God and that there was no contradiction between the prophecy of Malachi (3:1-5), regarding the coming of God’s Messenger, and Jesus’ claim to be the embodiment of divinity.

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The Transfiguration occurred in the aftermath of Jesus having realized (while in the area of Caesarea Philippi) that, while being exposed to the sight of the Pharisees trying to accuse him of not being thoroughly respectful of the Jewish religious rituals, many of his Apostles began to have second thoughts about whom he really was: “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elijah; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16: 13-14).

Therefore, it was crucially important for Jesus to have his divine status being confirmed by God himself: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (Matthew 17: 5). Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to assume that the Transfiguration of Jesus was something that created the discursive context for his sub-sequential Resurrection from the dead, which occurred forty days later. The following parts of this paper can serve as the proof that my pages are indeed affected by this context.

Form criticism

In the formal sense of this word, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration is best defined as a narrative with the elements of dialogue between the Savior and his disciples. The most notable indication that this is indeed being the case is the fact that the story of what happened to Jesus on the Mount Tabor has been narrated by the Apostle Matthew, who was not the actual eyewitness of the event. In its turn, this explains the unmistakably ‘narrative’ flow of events, as described in the passage.

At first, readers are being told about the actual manner, in which the miracle transpired. Then, they are being exposed to the dialogue between Jesus and his Apostles – something that was meant to enlighten readers, as to the actual significance of the miraculous event in question. At the end, readers are being reassured that the Apostles did recognize the message, conveyed to them by the Transfiguration.

In this respect, a certain parallel can be drawn between the passage from Matthew (17:1-13) and that of from John (2:1-11), in which Jesus turns water into a vine, while at the wedding in Galilee.

It is not only that the literary formats of both passages (narrative) appear to be closely matched, but also that the concerned passages convey essentially the same message – Jesus never strived to have his ability to perform miracles/adopt miraculous appearances being acknowledged by as many people, as possible. The reason for this is that Jesus wanted people to accept his divinity without being provided with any ‘hard’ proofs that he was indeed the Son of God.

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Structurally speaking, the discussed passage consists of three major parts: 1) The narrator describes the actual Transfiguration, 2) Peters expresses his awe of what has been transpired before him and ends up being provided with God’s confirmation that Jesus is his beloved Son, 3) Jesus explains to his Apostles that Elijah (John the Baptist) has already come, while instructing them to keep what they saw to themselves: “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead” (Matthew 17: 9).

Essentially the same structure of the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration is being maintained in the rest of the synoptic Gospels; even though they do differ in describing some of the miracle’s details. For example, Luke (9:28-36) does not only mention that Jesus was having a conversation with Elijah and Moses, but also specifies what they talked about – Jesus’ eventual ‘exodus’ (departure).

Yet, the most notable instance of parallelism between how the mentioned Apostles describe the miracle of the Transfiguration has to do with the fact that they emphasize that during the miracle’s duration, Jesus’s clothes became white and shiny as the Sun. Thus, just as it is being the case with Matthew, the authors of the rest of the synoptic Gospels promote essentially the same idea, while elaborating on the account of the Transfiguration.

This idea can be formulated as follows: Jesus’ endowment with the material body was nothing else but yet another proof of his love of humankind, because by adopting the form of a mortal man he made it possible for believers to be able to attain salvation.

Redaction criticism

The close analysis of the Transfiguration-related passages in all four Gospels provide us with the rationale to conclude that it is specifically Matthew’s account of what happened on the Mount Tabor, which appears to be the most heavily edited of them.

The reason for this is that there are a number of indications that Matthew was not only aware of what the rest of the synoptic Gospels tell about Jesus’ Transfiguration, but that he also made a deliberate point in coming up with the adjusted account of the same story, in order for it to make more sense (Harrington 62).

For example, unlike what it is being the case with the description of the Transfiguration my Mark, Luke and John, Matthew’s description mentions the fact that, while Transfigured, Jesus’s face “did shine as the Sun” (17: 2). In its turn, this was meant to strengthen the link between the story about Jesus’ Transfiguration, on one hand, and the one about Moses having received the divine commandments at the Mount of Sinai, on the other – hence, justifying Jesus’ claim that he did not come to abolish the Mosaic law but to fulfill it (Kee 191).

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Another indication that Matthew did edit the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration rather substantially can serve the fact that, unlike the mentioned Apostles, he recalls that in the middle of conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah “a bright cloud overshadowed them” (Matthew 17: 5). In its turn, this was done for the purpose of adding more plausibility to the scene, in which God (which is a bodiless spirit, by definition) confirms that he is indeed the Father of Jesus.

Moreover, Matthew wanted to present Jesus as the figure much superior to Moses himself, which is why God in Matthew’s passage does not only proclaim Jesus being his Son, but also mentions that he is pleased with him and instructs Mark, Luke and John to obey the ‘Son of Man’. The same can be said about the significance of the episode in Matthew’s passage, where Jesus’ face is described radiating light – in the rest of the Gospels only the amazing whiteness of Jesus’ garments is being mentioned.

Key words

Among the most notable key words in the discussed passage can be named:

‘Sun’ – the evangelist clearly strives to encourage people to associate Jesus with the celestial body in question, as something that is meant to emphasize the divinity of Jesus and to prompt readers to consider that the words of the Savior do represent the shining truth. The implicit reference to Jesus as the Sun can also be found in all four synoptic accounts of the Last Supper, which provide the allegorical description of the relationship between the Sun (Jesus) and the twelve signs of the Zodiac (Apostles).

‘Cloud’ – as it was mentioned earlier, Matthew refers to a ‘bright cloud’, out of which was heard the voice of God. This is the reason why in the Christian theology a cloud symbolizes the residing place of the Creator. This specific symbol is also being featured rather prominently in the Biblical account of Jesus’ Crucifixion, as yet the additional reminder of the divinity of the Savior.

‘Mount’ – The fact that Jesus’ Transfiguration took place at the top of the Tabor Mount was meant to emphasize that he was about to ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven. There is even more to it – the concerned key word inaugurates Jesus as the fulfiller of the Mosaic Law by the mean of drawing parallels between Christ and Moses. As Lee pointed out: “The mountain symbolism (of the Transfiguration) does not bestow a new identity on Jesus. Rather, the transfiguration reveals Jesus full identity.. (and) emphasizes that in the incarnation, the glory of God gleams through the flesh of Jesus” (153). This once again establishes the New Testament as such that organically derives out of the Old one.

Theological analysis

As it was mentioned earlier, the Transfiguration of Jesus followed the events in Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus realized that people clearly lack the understanding of who he really was. Therefore, there can only be a few doubts that Jesus’ Transfiguration was primarily meant to serve the educational purpose, in this respect. Apparently, even prior to the time of his consequential Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus wanted to confirm the legitimacy of his claims.

However, the significance of the Transfiguration cannot be discussed strictly within the context of what accounted for the relationship between Jesus and his Heavenly Father. Let us not forget that, along with having claimed himself to be the Son of God/Man, Jesus used to insist that he was in fact the King of the Jews.

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Yet, while telling everybody about it, Jesus never ceased suffering from the material hardships: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8: 20). This, of course, could not result in anything else but in strengthening Jesus’ desire to be recognized as someone who indeed has what it takes to be possessing the royal authority over his subjects.

The best way to achieve it, on Jesus’ part, was representing himself as a person who does not only proclaim the existence of the Kingdom of Heaven, but who is also fully aware that this Kingdom is hierarchically structured – just as it happened to be the case with the worldly kingdoms.

This explains why Jesus never ceased promoting the concept of ‘Christian meritocracy’ – something that opposes the idea of equality, by definition: “The Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Matthew 16: 27). The manner, in which Jesus acted during the course of the miracle of the Transfiguration, is fully consistent with this suggestion.

Apparently, the Savior wanted to stress out that even many his own Apostles should be regarded as having been ‘favored’ and ‘disfavored’ by him. The reason why Jesus chose in favor of Peter, James and John out of the rest of the Apostles to witness the Transfiguration is that these three were the most loyal of his disciples – even though they (especially Peter) did not fully understand God’s plan for Jesus to undergo suffering and death, while causing him to get angry at times.

For example, while in Caesarea Philippi: “He (Jesus) turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matthew 16: 23). This suggests that, contrary to what many people believe, Jesus was no very ‘meek’ and ‘tolerant’, in the contemporary sense of his word.

Above all, he could not stand insubordination, on the part of his disciples: “Jesus’ harsh words to Peter and, by extension, the other disciples, show how seriously Jesus takes their reaction… Peter and the other disciples have lapsed into a kind of insubordination about what Jesus says concerning his future” (Tarrech 163).

Thus, the discussed miracle can be considered reflective of what was the actual point of Jesus’ service on Earth – to offer the chance of salvation for those people who did not seem to be deserving to be saved, in the first place (such as prostitutes and tax-collectors).

Even though Jesus did not approve the willingness of Peter, James and John to question the validity of God’s plan for him, he nevertheless appreciated their sincerity in not wanting to see any harm being done to the one, whom they aptly recognized to be the Son of God: “He (Jesus) saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16: 15-16).

This, of course, suggests that the Transfiguration of Jesus was intended to serve two major purposes – to emphasize the significance of Jesus’ would-be sacrifice to humanity and to endow his disciples with the preliminary awareness of what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about.

There was, however, yet another commonly overlooked reason for Jesus to undergo the Transfiguration – by having appeared in front of Peter, James and John in the form of a truly divine being, Jesus provided them with the rational (and not merely faith-based) reason not to succumb to bitterness in the aftermath of his Crucifixion. This once again establishes Jesus as a great lover of humanity, because the realization of the Apostles’ weaknesses, on his part, did not cause him to be willing to help them (and the rest of humanity) any less.

Works Cited

Harrington, Daniel. Interpreting the New Testament. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1980. Print.

Kee, Howard. Understanding the New Testament. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1965. Print.

Lee, Dorothy. “On the Holy Mountain: The Transfiguration in Scripture and Theology.” Colloquium 36 (2004): 143–159. Print.

Tarrech, Armand. “The Glory on the Mountain: The Episode of the Transfiguration of Jesus.” New Testament Studies 58.2 (2012): 151-172. Print.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 2001. Print.

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