Historical Cultural Context
Throughout his Gospel, Matthew is intent upon presenting Jesus as a Moses-like figure. Here Jesus’ face shines like Moses’ did (Ex 34:29-30). Moses is named before Elijah.
Scholars agree that it is impossible to say exactly what “really” happened in this event in Jesus’ ministry. Mediterranean culture, however offers some helpful insights.
(1) Honor, the main Mediterranean cultural value. Jesus’ demonstrated power over demons gave him a solid claim to honor in his culture. This ability stood in contrast to his known origins. Remember Nathanael’s sarcastic question to Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).
(2) Power and shame. Jesus’ power over demons also placed him in jeopardy. No one ever denied the reality of this power (Mt 13:54), but many leaders wondered about the source of Jesus’ authority (Mt 21:23). Some concluded that he was in cahoots with the devil (Mt 9:34).
If Jesus does not possess legitimate power and authority; then he is arrogating to himself something to which he has no right. This is very shameful.
(3) Power and politics. To complicate matters; power belongs to the realm of politics. In the Gospels, Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are viewed by all—friend and foe alike—as political activities. This is the concern behind the puzzlement in Mt 21:23. Unapproved political activities could lead to death.
Jesus was not unaware of these potential consequences of his ministry. He told his disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). Fully accepting the risk of his ministry, Jesus was also convinced that God would grant him ultimate, honorable vindication. He would be raised by God! What an honor!
Only Matthew refers to this experience as a vision (Mt 17:9), but this is a most important piece of information. Modem psychological anthropology points out that alternative states of consciousness like visions and dreams are normal human experiences common to the majority of the world’s cultures. Cultures in which these are not so common, like the contemporary United States, are the ones to be explained.
In Matthew’s lifetime, many actual and potential Mediterranean believers in Jesus were troubled by his shameful death. If this man’s life and ministry were pleasing to God, why did it seem that God abandoned him?
Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as another Moses shows that God no more abandoned Jesus than he abandoned Moses. Matthew exhorts his Church to stand under the Lordship of the risen Lord who is a second Moses and lawgiver to his Church. Jesus will come at the end to judge that Church according to the new or better righteousness that he taught, just like Moses, on a mountain (see Mt 5-7, especially Mt 5:1, 20).
What does the transfiguration story say to contemporary Western believers? In his honor and shame culture, Jesus maintained steadfast trust in God no matter how shameful his life experiences appeared. To a large degree, he had no other choice in his culture. But his faith and trust paid off: God restored honor to him in a way that no human ever could have.
In our very different culture, where self-reliance is highly valued, it is equally challenging to trust in God, especially when we feel we are fully in control of our life and destiny. Would that the behavior of all believers in every culture would merit divine approval: “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to what this person says!”
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 St. Louis University