By Spencer D Gear
This was the question posed on a message board on the Internet:
What are some of the main arguments or reasons that a large majority of biblical scholars today question the historicity of the transfiguration as a historical event. To many if not most biblical scholars today the story is interpreted as allegorical or symbolic. Why do so many place it in the genre of apocalyptic or epiphany literary form and not an actual historical event like the patristic up through the reformation Christians did?
Cut out supernaturalism
What is of note is that this poster provided not one example of what he (yes, he’s a male) was talking about. So I responded:
Theological liberalism, whether modernist or postmodernist, challenges understandings of the Bible that include the supernatural. Let’s face it. Jesus’ transfiguration was a supernatural event and that doesn’t quite fit into the Enlightenment worldview of the West.
Take supernaturalism out of Christianity and what do you have? Naturalism or a modernistic/postmodernistic deconstruction of the supernatural.
What this means is that instead of taking the Scriptures at face value, postmodernists impose their worldview on the Scriptures by doing away with the supernatural of the Transfiguration or redefining it.
If that were to happen in any other form of literature, where the content of what is written is rejected, how would it be described?
Why don’t you give a few examples (with bibliographical references) of those who reject the Transfiguration and why they reject it as an historical event?
Note that I asked for him to give a few examples of scholars who questioned the historicity of Jesus’ Transfiguration. What did he do? He provided not one example, but said:
I agree with you that there are those biblical scholars that could be labeled liberal that are overly skeptical regarding the historicity of many miracle stories in the bible. However there are many centrist scholars who accept miracles including the incarnation, virgin birth etc that question the transfiguration. My question regardless of their background (liberal, centrist, conservative) is what are the reasons or arguments put forth??
I pursued further:
It is disappointing that you have started this thread with not one example of scholars who doubt the Transfiguration and the reasons for their doubting. In my post, I asked you:
Why don’t you give a few examples (with bibliographical references) of those who reject the Transfiguration and why they reject it?
But in your response you continue to give no examples of scholars who reject or question the Transfiguration. Why have you not provided some examples of what you are addressing? Otherwise, it’s your opinion.
1. Luke Timothy Johnson wrote: ‘The Gospel narratives contain stories that flatly confound historical analysis. The synoptic transfiguration account, for example, is about a vision experienced by three of Jesus’ followers in his presence: In Luke, it is explicitly designated as an experience that took place during prayer. Now, even if this happened, even if it were “real” within the experience of those three persons, how can it be described as “historical”? Visions are not subject to confirmation or disconfirmation, for their only possible evidence must, by the nature of the case, be subjective testimony about a private experience’ (Johnson 1996:110).
2. John Dominic Crossan: ‘So the transcendentally magnificent apparition from the Cross Gospel [in the Gospel of Peter] was retrojected by Mark into the earlier life of Jesus and historicized as what we call the Transfiguration [Mark 9:2-9]…. If one is willing to accept the basic idea that Mark transfigured his source as he relocated it. First, those “two men” whose accompaniment honors Jesus in Peter 10:39 become identified as “Elijah with Moses” in Mark’ (Crossan 1995:201-202).
3. ‘The three disciples who witnessed the transfiguration had a vision of the Son of Man vindicated and glorified; they saw in graphic anticipation the fulfillment of his words about the powerful advent of the kingdom of God. Matthew, strikingly, in his report of the words speaks of the Son of Man instead of the kingdom of God: “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Mt 16:28 RSV). This is an interpretation of the words but a true interpretation. And Matthew follows Mark in saying that when the disciples had seen the vision, Jesus forbade them to speak about it to anyone “until the Son of man should have risen from the dead” (Mk 9:9 RSV). His rising from the dead would inaugurate the reality which they had seen in the vision on the mount of transfiguration, and would at the same time herald the coming of the kingdom “with power”‘ (Kaiser et al 1996:429-430).
The nature of the Transfiguration, the small number of witnesses, and the reliability of the Gospel tradition, could be issues in interpretation for some people. However, presuppositional bias against the supernatural could be a factor in understanding this report. What’s your view on the problem?
How many witnesses are needed to convict a person?
In the Old Testament, we have this evidence:
(courtesy Wikipedia )
- ‘One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’ (Deuteronomy 19:15 NIV). This is cited in Matthew 18:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:1.
- Numbers 35:30 states, ‘Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer only on the testimony of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness’(NIV).
What about witnesses of Jesus’ Transfiguration?
How many witnesses were there on the mountain to see Jesus’ transfiguration? This is what the historical evidence in the Gospels states:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist (Matthew 17:1-13 NIV).
The first eight verses of this passage are repeated in Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36. In each of these three historical records of Jesus’ Transfiguration there were three witnesses – Peter, James and John – as was required of the Jewish law. So there were three witnesses on the mountain of Transfiguration and there are three historical records in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Although there are slight differences in the three records, we have adequate historical witnesses of Jesus’ Transfiguration.
You might say, ‘Wait a minute! These three witnesses on the mountain were friends of Jesus’. It is not good enough having friends as witnesses. Please tell that to the police who are investigating a hit-and-run accident where a person may have been injured or killed. Friends who saw the accident are valuable witnesses. We have these recent examples near where I live:
- ‘Hit-and-run driver kills a rising star’ (news.com.au, 25 September 2017);
- ‘17-year-old killed in Brisbane hit and run accident’ (The Australian, 2 December 2012).
Friends and relatives can be used as witnesses to an accident in contemporary Australia. Why should a minimum of 2-3 witnesses be excluded from historical accounts of Jesus’ Transfiguration?
It was noted Tudor historian, G. R. Elton, who stated that ‘history deals with events, not states; it investigates things that happen and not things that are’. His perspective was that history’s concern is for ‘the transformation of things (people, institutions, ideas and so on) from one state into another’. His view on history was that it was about ‘those human sayings, thoughts, deeds and sufferings which occurred in the past and have left a present deposit; and it deals with them from the point of view of happening, change and the particular’ (Elton 1967:10-11, 12).
So history deals with phenomena – any observable occurrences – and attempts to make an interpretation if possible. Barnett’s statement about the historicity of Christianity was:
The phenomenon of the coming into existence of early Christianity is well attested. Its sudden emergence is as historically secure as any event in Palestine in that century. So the historian asks: what plausible explanation or explanations can be found for this event (Barnett 1997:19).
There is more than one witness to Christ’s Transfiguration and it is recorded in more than one Gospel for historicity to be affirmed. It’s historicity is as secure as the historicity of the Gospels. See Blomberg (1987) for a defense of the historicity of the Gospel records.
Blomberg, C 1987. The historical reliability of the Gospels. Leicester, England/Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press.
Crossan, J D 1995. Who killed Jesus? Exposing the roots of anti-Semitism in the gospel story of the death of Jesus. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.
Elton, G R 1967. The practice of history. Sydney: Sydney University Press.
Johnson, L T 1996. The real Jesus: The misguided quest for the historical Jesus and the truth of the traditional Gospels. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.
Kaiser Jr., W C; Davids, P H; Bruce, F F; and Brauch, M T 1996. Hard sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press.
 Christian Forums, Bibliology & Hermeneutics, ‘Transfiguration historicity???’, pathfinder77#1, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7698934/#post61893676 (Accessed 4 December 2012).
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 23 February 2018.