Progressive reflections on the lectionary #3
Mark 9: 2-9 (The transfiguration)
There’s a consistent tension between those who seek the ‘plain meaning’ of Bible passages, and others who, like me, seek something altogether less plain.
To insist on a plain reading is to do two difficult things. Firstly it is to draw a qualitative distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in ancient literature. (A mistake that has led to vast sums being spent on the search for a monster in Loch Ness – following Adamnan’s sixth century biography of St Columba’s which includes his encounter with a monster. Perhaps Nessie hunters also think that St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland and St Brendan and his pals got out of their boat and stood on a Whale).
Secondly it is to say that plain or ‘factual’ truth is somehow more true than ‘other’ forms of truth. This is plainly false, ably demonstrated recently when ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’, a fictionalised account of a true story, accomplished something no journalist could manage.
So yes, this week, we return to Mark, and jump ahead to his account of the ‘transfiguration’ in chapter 9, one of the most obviously ‘supernatural’ parts of Mark’s writing.
The only justifiable reason to read this story literally would be if we were to believe that the evangelist intended it to be read literally. Given that he uses allusion, allegory and parable throughout his writing, this seems like a fool’s errand.
Mark, like the other gospel writers, was writing in a deliberately symbolic way, we should therefore look for the symbolism and try to understand it – it’s unfortunate that we’re 2000 years later and in another culture altogether, but that can’t be helped.
Crossan says Mark refers back to the so called ‘Cross Gospel’ – aka the Gospel of Peter. This, though, is a text from the second century CE (post-Mark(?)) which only survives today in fragmentary form. It remains thoroughly extra-canonical partly due to its lack of wholeness, and partly because of its somewhat virulent anti-Judaism (typical of the period).
The fragment of the Peter’s gospel we do have doesn’t mention the transfiguration, (although Crossan, an excellent scholar, may know of texts that I don’t). Look for Bart Ehrman’s ‘Lost Scriptures’ for this and other extra-canonical books.
I think a more helpful approach for most of us is to look at what the evangelist signifies in his account. First Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white, ‘whiter than anyone on earth could bleach them’ (albeit this was pre-Daz). Transformation of ‘special’ humans was a common motif of apocalyptic literature – it was intended to show that they were ‘more than’ human.
To demonstrate this we can turn to the Book of Enoch, another non-canonical (and heretical) text which was widely read in the second temple period (we know this because lots of copies were found in the dead sea scrolls). In Enoch the transfiguration blurs the distinction between human and divine.
After the change of appearance Elijah and Moses appear, and begin talking with Jesus.
In Luke’s version of the same story, following the encounter with Elijah, Jesus then goes on to copy the journey that Elijah took, heading towards his death and ultimately ascending into heaven (the heavens = the sky), albeit sans fiery Chariot.
Mark’s narrative is similar, and begins immediately after the transfiguration with a clear allusion to the role of John the Baptist, and another dig at the scribes. The way the writer describes John in Chapter 1 has already made the link between him and the early prophet clear.
A link is deliberately being made between the role of Elijah, and the role of John and then Jesus. Both evangelists are keen to portray Jesus as being greater than Elijah (and John), and rely on using apocalyptic imagery to do so.
Similarly with Moses: again various parallels are there through the gospels (leaving Egypt, miracle baby, sermons on mountains, etc.) The writers intend to show, clearly, that Jesus supersedes this great Jewish hero.
If this weren’t already enough, they have a voice from heaven make things quite clear: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” This is Mark’s second time around for this phrasing, the first time comes back in Chapter 1, when he has a voice speak from the heavens after Jesus’ baptism (another piece of rich symbolism which we can explore another time). But here Mark hammers home the point, Jesus is the one sent from God. ‘Beloved’ in the Greek comes from the word ‘agape’ which partly means to bring everything together. Again and again the gospel writers present Jesus as the great restorer, the one sent from God, the heir apparent to the divinely ordered kingdom.
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