Bible Review 3:3, Fall 1987

What Really Happened at the Transfiguration?

A Literary Critic Deepens Our Understanding

By Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

In the Gospel miracle stories, Jesus does wonderful things. But the divine power that he dispenses flows through his person while leaving him untouched. In the Transfiguration episode, however, that power transforms Jesus completely. His face shines with the brilliance of the sun. His garments become dazzlingly bright. His true nature is revealed in glory. What had previously been hidden beneath the ordinariness of his daily life is made manifest to the privileged disciples who witness it—Peter, James and John. The Transfiguration story is thus unique among the stories about the ministry of Jesus.

The Transfiguration story is recounted, with variations, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The episode is therefore part of what scholars call the triple tradition.

Ignoring for the moment the variations in the three accounts, Jesus takes three disciples—Peter, John and James—on a mountain to pray.a There Jesus is transfigured: His face changes, and his clothes become brightly white. Moses and Elijah then appear. Peter proposes that three tents be made, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. As Peter makes this proposal, a cloud descends on the disciples, and a voice—the voice of God—speaks to the disciples, identifying Jesus as God’s son and admonishing the disciples to listen to Jesus. When the disciples look up, Moses and Elijah have disappeared, and they are alone with Jesus.

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