Historical Cultural Context
Visions of Transfigurations
In her [study] of the transfiguration of Jesus, Chicago biblical scholar and Dominican Sister Barbara Reid concluded that Luke’s account probably contains the earliest form of the story. Two men appeared in glory and spoke of Jesus’ “exodus,” which he was to fulfill in Jerusalem. Peter and those with him saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. The two men are most likely angels presenting an instructive message about forthcoming events for earthbound listeners. Influenced by Mark, the Lucan redactor equated these angels with Moses and Elijah and added other information from Mark.
Like many historical-critical biblical scholars, Reid considers the evidence of this text as too fragmentary to provide scientifically certain results about what that experience really might have been. Such skepticism, however, is unwarranted. It is based upon the unexamined and unquestioned Western cultural biases that so permeate science as to be almost indistinguishable from it.
In the ancient Mediterranean world, experiences of alternate reality in vision and trance were common. Devotees of the healing god, Asciepius, routinely learned about their illness and appropriate therapy for it from this god in a “sacred” dream. Prophets like Isaiah (6:1-13), Jeremiah (1:11-19), and Ezekiel (1:4-28) described their experiences of God in alternate reality. The entire book of Revelation is a report of what the author, John, experienced in an altered state of consciousness that could be called “ecstacy” or “trance” (the literal Greek is “in spirit” in Rev 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10).
In Luke’s Gospel, the baptism of Jesus (Lk 3:21-22) could be viewed as an experience of alternate reality in which one could see the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and hear a voice from heaven speaking intelligibly. The Lucan temptation story, created as it is by tradition (cf. Mk 1:12-13), can also be interpreted as an experience of alternate reality in an altered state of consciousness.
The transfiguration story makes good, culturally plausible sense as another such experience. It is similar to an ancient report by a translator of a book of healings by Asciepius. He took ill and went with his mother to the temple for healing. In a waking vision, she saw the god come to him, and when she woke him to relate what she saw, before she could say anything he informed her that he saw the same in his own dream.
Jesus and his select circle of disciples share an experience of alternate reality. The text does not tell us what Jesus saw or heard, only that his face gave external indication of his experience. The text reports what Peter, James, and John saw and heard. The scene concludes with an assurance from heaven: “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.”
A common function of experiences of alternate reality is to provide enlightenment about some puzzle, or guidance regarding a proper course of action to take. In Luke’s story line, Jesus’ teaching and healing activities gain for him friends (Lk 4:38-39; 8:40) and enemies (Lk 5:21; 6:46; 7:31 and 39; 8:43). His fellow villagers (Lk 4:29) and others (Lk 6:11) wanted to kill him.
It would take an experience like the transfiguration to set the minds of Jesus and his chosen followers at ease. In spite of ominous signs, God was pleased with Jesus and encouraged the trio to heed what he says. Even if a scholar insisted in denying that this is what “really” happened, the scenario makes very plausible Mediterranean sense. One can only admire an evangelist who created the scene if it did not happen in actual fact.
The Western infatuation with science has brought in its wake blessings and curses. No one can deny the many benefits that science produces. The challenge is not to lose precious human gifts like the capacity for mystical experiences and other experiences of alternate reality that hold an honored place in Christian tradition and piety.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University