Historical Cultural Context
The Test of Honor
The story of Jesus’ “transfiguration” is more appropriately described by the technical term “theophany” that is, an appearance of God to an individual person.
The Bible reports a number of theophanies, the most notable being those experienced by Moses (Ex 19-20; 34) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:4-18).
The appearance of God to Jesus reported by Mark includes elements that are common to all these accounts.
(1) Mountain. The setting for the appearance is customarily a mountain (Mk 9:2b; Sinai for Moses; Horeb for Elijah).
(2) Witnesses. Frequently there are “eyewitnesses” to the event (Mk 9:2a), though they may not see and hear exactly the same things experienced by the one to whom God is appearing.
(3) Signs. The witnesses or the accounts report visible signs that the event is occurring. Jesus was “transfigured before them” (Mk 9:2c); “his garments glistening, intensely white” (Mk 9:3a); “a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice” (Mk 9:7).
(4) Shared experience. The witnesses sometimes share in the experience. Peter, James, and John see Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus (Mk 9:4).
It is not clear whether the disciples heard intelligible conversation between Jesus and the prophets, or whether they heard the statement of the heavenly voice.
At the end, Jesus forbids them to tell what they had seen (Mk 9:9) but says nothing about what they had heard. Only Matthew (Mt 17:9) calls the event a “vision.”
Scholars in general agree on the function of this experience: God commissions the recipient of the theophany to some new role and status. The Baptism of Jesus was a theophany in which Jesus was authorized by God to preach and perform mighty deeds (Mk 1:15-Mk: 8:30).
At the midpoint in Mark’s Gospel, the transfiguration is a theophany that authorizes Jesus to make his way to Jerusalem to meet his destiny, the cross, and his vindication (Mk 8:31-Mk:16:8). Clearly, theophanies involve revelation.
There is less agreement on the nature of the experience. Some have interpreted the transfiguration as a resurrection appearance retrojected into Jesus’ life, but this opinion is not well supported and is generally rejected.
Recent commentators interpret the transfiguration as a prophecy of Jesus’ parousia, that is, something like a prelude or foreshadowing of Jesus’ future coming in glory as judge.
We might term this a “preview of coming attractions.” Still others call it “eschatological” without explaining in plain English exactly what that means.
There is a much simpler explanation for the nature of the event. The technical description is “an experience of alternate reality,” or an altered state of consciousness.
Anthropologists note that such experiences are universal human phenomena, experienced in a wide variety of forms by all human beings. Ninety percent of 488 societies from all parts of the world studied by scientists routinely had this kind of experience.
Anthropologist Erika Bourguignon concludes that “societies which do not utilize these states clearly are historical exceptions to be explained, rather than the vast majority of societies that do use these states.”
Physician and anthropologist Arthur Kleinman observes that the modern, secular West has been particularly effective in blocking access to these pan-human dimensions of the self.
The human potential is still there and can be developed, though scientifically oriented Westerners seem fearful of anything over which they cannot exert complete control.
Viewing the story of Jesus’ transfiguration as an experience of God commonly available in more than 90 percent of the world’s cultures presents an exciting new challenge to Western Christians this Lenten season.
The Advent prayer, “Come Lord Jesus,” inspires a new Lenten prayer: “Lord God, help me to see you face to face as did Moses (Deut 34:10) and Jesus (Mk 9) and many other of your servants through the course of history even to this day.”
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University