2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Translation: And after six days, Jesus took Peter and James and John and he brought them into a high mountain, by themselves alone, and he was transformed before them, and his clothes began glistening dazzling white, such as no bleacher on the earth is able to make white, and it appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking together with Jesus. And Peter answered, saying to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah." For he did not know what he was thinking, for they became afraid. And a cloud happened, overshadowing them, and a voice happened out of a cloud, "This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him." And suddenly, looking around, they saw no one any longer but Jesus alone by himself. As they were coming down out of the mountain, he ordered them to describe to no one what they had seen until the son of man might rise out of death.
Background and situation: The transfiguration of Jesus is smack dab in the middle of Mark's gospel. This numinous and mystical scene is literally at the center of Mark's message.
The scene recalls both Daniel and Moses. See Daniel 10:5: "I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen...his face like lightning." Even more to the point, including the formula "six days," is Exodus 24: 15: "Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud."
The transfiguration--this "glimpse" of resurrection--immediately follows Jesus' rebuke of Peter, his first prediction of the passion, and his instruction on the way of the cross (8:22ff). Mark thus juxtaposes both cross and resurrection at the heart of his story. Cross and resurrection, held together in tension, are the "hinge"--the center point--around which revolves all of Mark's gospel.
Metamorphosis: The episode is unusual for Mark. With its oft-repeated themes of cross and suffering, accompanied by the repeated failure of the disciples, most of Mark has a rather "dark" feel to it. Mark is all about what Luther called "the theology of the cross." Yet here, along with the cross, at the heart of Mark, is also the Glory of the Lord!
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John--the inner circle of the inner circle--to a high mountain. (This episode is, incidentally, the only mountaintop story in Mark.) Jesus "was transformed" before them--metamorphothe means "changed" in form.
N.T. Wright uses these transfiguration texts to argue that the Biblical symbol of resurrection is fundamentally a "transformation" into a new mode of existence--not a continuation of time and history as we know it, but rather a "new heavens and a new earth."
Time and history are not rejected, but "transfigured" into God's new reality. (The Markan phrase, "such as no one on earth could bleach them" seems to say that the transformation of the cosmos is beyond the capability of humankind and can be done only by God.)
The garments of Jesus are "flashing white brilliantly." This recalls Daniel--"his clothing was white as snow (7:9)" It also points forward to the "white robe" of the young man who meets the women in Jesus' tomb at his resurrection. These are all signs of resurrection.
The association of light and God begins in Genesis, and is frequent through the rest of the Old Testament. Here, we might especially recall Psalm 104: 1-2: "O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment."
Elijah is "with" Moses and they are "talking together" with Jesus. Ched Myers calls this a "salvation history summit conference." He argues that both Moses and Elijah had their own epiphanic experiences in the Old Testament, and that these occurred precisely at times of special difficulty for their mission.
That would be true also in this instance. Jesus has just told the disciples of the difficult road ahead, one culminating in suffering and death (8:31-38). This transfiguration vision of Christ in Glory is an encouragement to Mark's community, and subsequent readers, to hang in there in the face of trial and difficulty.
Peter promptly blows it, which he does in three ways. First, he calls Jesus "rabbi." The only other person to call Jesus "rabbi" in Mark's gospel is Judas (14:45). For Mark, Peter is lumped in with the arch-traitor!
Second, Peter proclaims the awesomeness of their presence--"it is good for us to be here"--and wants to get right in there and get to work--"let us make." He makes it sound like they should all get busy right away.
Third, in a spasm of enthusiastic though utterly misplaced piety, Peter wants to make three booths, "one for you, one for Elijah, one for Moses." In effect, Peter wants to make three shrines, three worshipping centers.
In response to a glorious epiphanic experience, Peter proposes religion. (No way Jesus wanted to start another religion--or three. He had enough trouble with one, his own.)
Mark quickly discounts Peter's comment, saying flatly that Peter didn't know what he was talking about because he was affected by fear--and not only Peter, "for they became afraid." Peter's remark is quickly rejected, but all three of the disciples are indicted for fear.
The cloud overshadowed them--clouds are a frequent symbol for direct encounters with God--and a voice spoke out of the cloud with words that recall those spoken at the baptism of Jesus: "This is my Son, the Beloved." Instead of "with him I am well-pleased," now this injunction is made to the disciples: "Listen to him."
These two episodes--baptism and transfiguration--are the only ones in Mark's gospel in which a heavenly affirmation is made about Jesus. At his baptism, the heavenly message was only for Jesus only. At the transfiguration, the divine Voice begins to branch out and now shares the message with Peter, James, and John.
In the passage previous, Jesus had rebuked Peter (8:33). Here, alas for Peter, God breaks into Peter's speech and tells them all to listen to Jesus. In effect, now God rebukes Peter. Ouch!
Jesus then appears alone. As they are decompressing and coming down from the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he "might rise out of death." Mark always rejects any interpretation of Jesus which is made before his crucifixion. They are all, ipso facto, incomplete.
Only after the crucifixion may one tell the story of Jesus, only after the whole story has been told may we understand that the same one we see at the transfiguration is the one who was also crucified--and even that is just the beginning (1:1).
Image: Transfiguration, Fra Angelico