Jesus' Transfiguration

Commentary by Bishop John Shelby Spong

Two people appeared with Jesus in this unusual tale. They were Moses and Elijah. A search of the Jewish scriptures will reveal that both of these Jewish heroes had unusual deaths. Moses, said the Book of Deuteronomy, died alone and was buried by God and no one knew the place of that grave (Deut. 34) In Jewish thought that mystery was explained by suggesting that Moses had not really died at all, that God had taken him directly into the Divine Presence as a reward for his extraordinary life. Such a fate was not unknown in Jewish circles. A man named Enoch, the father of Methuselah, was said to have "walked with God" so closely that God took him into the heavenly realm without his having to go through the gateway of death (Gen. 5:24). So it was that Moses was also accorded this status in the tradition.

Later in Jewish history the same fate, but a bit more elaborately drawn, was said to have been the destiny of Elijah. At the time of Elijah's departure from this world, a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses was said to have come out of heaven to fetch Elijah and to take him directly into God's presence (2 Kings 2:11-12). So in Jewish folklore three people—Enoch, Moses, and Elijah—were thought to be dwellers with God in heaven.

In the second century before the birth of Jesus, one of these figures, Enoch, was said to have written a book from this heavenly perspective that chronicled his vision of things to come. This Book of Enoch was very popular and exercised great influence on Jewish thought from that time through the life of Jesus.

The remaining two heroic figures who were thought in some way to have defeated death were thus available to become part of the transfiguration story. So it was that Moses and Elijah were pictured as talking together with Jesus on the mountaintop. The three of them were believed to have had in common the conviction that each had conquered death. So the story of the transfiguration incorporated this part of the Jewish tradition of the past and spoke of Jesus in this new way. But that is not all that this story reveals.

Next we are told that the quality of a translucent brilliance came upon Jesus. This phenomenon was also not unknown in the Hebrew scriptures. In the Book of Exodus (24:1 ff). Moses was said to have gone up the sacred mountain with three disciples, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, except that Moses also took with him in addition seventy elders. There was a cloud in this Moses story also. Moses entered this cloud of God on top of the mountain. He stayed for forty days, during which time the covenant was formed. Later, when he returned, the text stated that "the skin of his face shone" (Exod. 34:30), Moses, after appearing with God, was transfigured.

Other Hebrew texts point to this same transforming reality. Aaron's clothes were on one occasion transformed into a radiant glory (Exod. z8:r ff.). (Exod. 28:1 ff). On another occasion the priest, Joshua, had his "filthy garments" taken away and was then reclothed in God's splendor (Zech. 3:3-6). (Zech. 3:3-6).

When these notes are added to the tradition that God's holy light had always connected the people of Israel to God's presence, the midrashic elements in the story of Jesus' transfiguration become even more obvious. This tradition of being connected to God's light began in the wilderness, when the pillar of fire guided Israel by night and the pillar of cloud guided Israel by day. Both the fire and the cloud were symbols of the divine connecting light.

[Commentary from the book by Bishop John Shelby Spong, LIBERATING THE GOSPELS: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, pg. 78-80.]
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