Tag Archives: craig keener

Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, Part III

It seems to me that there are at least five established facts in the case for the resurrection. These “minimal facts” are the death of Jesus by Roman crucifixion, the empty tomb, the disciple’s resurrection claims, the conversions of James and Paul, and the rapid growth of the early church in the face of suffering and death.

This is compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus that every skeptic must confront with historical, logical, and consistent reasons of rebuttal if they wish to challenge mainstream biblical and historical scholarship or engage in an attack on the gospel of Jesus.

Furthermore, there are certain biases, presuppositions, and cultural conditioning that must be acknowledged on the outset of an investigation into the case for the resurrection. The skeptic, as well as the Christian, must be aware of this and seek openly and honestly with heart and mind.

III. Limitations of Science & Boundaries of Human Reason

The seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment has conditioned much of the West to separate faith and reason. The church has often been guilty of refusing to take serious the discoveries of science. The sloppy practice of using the Scriptures to attack and defend scientific theories has furthered the idea that faith and reason are at odds with one another.

Of course, there is such a thing as bad science, something that many evolutionary biologists and skeptics of religion today refuse to acknowledge. But who will argue that it was right for the church to denounce Galileo’s heliocentrism—that the earth revolves around the sun?

Like many European intellectuals who grew tired of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, some modern skeptics abandon faith altogether, reject any spiritual dimensions to life and the cosmos, only to rely solely upon science as the only infallible guide to epistemology (what we can know and how can we know it). This is just as arrogant and foolhardy as the fundamentalist preacher who tries to read the first chapters of Genesis as a literal scientific account of creation. It’s wrong. We should recognize it’s wrong. And start being honest about faith and reason.

In his book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, N.T. Wright describes spirituality as a “hidden spring” within our society. The ruling class has tried to pave over the spring of spirituality with concrete, regulate and dispense with it in ways that are best for them, and keep it from pouring out freely into the public square. Wright says, sooner or later, that spring is going to burst open!

I think we have been seeing that spring bursting open in American society. Despite the heightened sensitivity to religious fundamentalism, and the claims by the new atheists that God is a delusion—making most of the world’s population schizophrenic—people are not turning away from faith, they are merely beginning to question some of the old paradigms and practices of a church that is stuck in a bygone age—a church that has failed to give them Jesus.

Many people, young and old, are leaving the church to discover faith. While I don’t think abandoning the church is the answer, it may allow for some to discover the Lord’s idea for the ekklesia (i.e. called out community) of God in close-knit Christian relationships, enabling a spiritual revolution among the organized church of Christ within society.

Others who are seeking different forms of spirituality give evidence to the deep yearnings within us all. In fact, Tom Wright says they are “echoes of a voice” that serve as signposts to a future world where God sets the world to rights. These universal desires can be seen in our longing for justice in an unjust world, the continued need we have for relationships in a world broken with heartache and divorce, the dream of knowing a beauty that never fades, and the hunger for spirituality that fully expresses what it means to be human. Wright says the “echoes” are from the voice of God.

I don’t believe that science (i.e. a study of the physical world) can fully account for the way things really are in the universe. The naturalistic criteria laid down by a community that has set the rules according to human reason and observation limits our understanding of the world to what we can see, touch, quantify, and calculate. Life as we know it is too complex to fathom. There are simply too many mysteries in the known universe to let a few skeptics in the scientific community tell us that there is no God, and that the laws of nature are never suspended.

Naturalism may dictate that dead people stay dead. But if there is a God who created the world, and sent his Son to reveal his divine program, then how can we be so certain that this God wouldn’t raise Jesus from the dead in order to vindicate him and affirm divine revelation? I believe it is just the sort of thing God would do to reveal himself and redeem mankind for a new world—a world that he has not left to simply wind down, grow cold, and become stardust.

The thinking of philosopher David Hume has left an indelible mark on Western society. Hume rejected the idea of miracles, largely based on his naturalistic perspective that the laws of nature prohibit them from happening. Hume wrote:

“The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” (Concerning Human Understanding, 10.2.101.)

Did you catch that? Hume is saying that it is a miracle that anyone could ever be dumb enough to believe in the Christian faith!

Would the resurrection of Jesus be a violation of natural laws? Are miracles to be entirely ruled out because Hume concluded that they are contrary to nature and the whole of human experience? I don’t believe so. And I think further scientific investigation can get us there.

There are currently three main views of natural law: the regularity theory, the nomic necessity theory, and the causal dispositions theory. None of these theories actually allow for miracles to be understood as violations of the laws of nature. Instead, miracles are naturally impossible events that require an unknown or “supernatural” force to interrupt the natural world at a certain time and place. William Lane Craig writes:

“When a scientific anomaly occurs, it is usually assumed that some unknown natural factors are interfering, so that the law is neither violated nor revised. But suppose the law fails to describe or predict accurately because some supernatural factors are interfering? Clearly the implicit assumption of such laws is that no supernatural factors as well as no natural factors are interfering. Thus, if the law proves inaccurate in a particular case because God is acting, the law is neither violated nor revised. If God brings about some event which a law of nature fails to predict or describe, such an event cannot be characterized as a violation of a law of nature, since the law is valid only under tacit assumption that no supernatural factors come into play in addition to the natural factors” (Craig, 262).

I have found that it is important to do your study of the historical Jesus by first discarding of the presupposition that naturalism can fully account for the way things are in the world. As Craig has written, “If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but on definition” (Craig, 279).

Craig Keener has recently reminded us of the reality of miracles in contemporary times with his two-volume set, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011). I agree with Keener, there is good reason and ample evidence that ought to prompt us to believe in miracles today.

Miracles are not a problem for me simply because I believe that God exists, but because I believe this loving God is actively involved in creation. The very laws of nature (as we know them) are continually sustained by his power. He has revealed himself in the natural order and in the spiritual order. But more specifically, God’s good will for creation has been made known in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

And he has displayed his saving power by raising this Jesus from the dead.

Conclusion—Believing in the Face of Objections & Seasons of Doubt

I believe that once you exhaust all normal causations for the resurrection story, the evidence points to the “high probability” that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact, we have the sort of evidence we would expect to find if Jesus was raised from the dead. It’s actually not all that difficult to believe, depending on your presuppositions. I believe an honest search will lead a person to at least acknowledge the weight of the evidence.

However, a historical, biblical, or scientific investigation is not enough to push someone over the edge of skepticism into belief. In the end, it’s not the intellectual inquiry that produces and completes faith. While faith involves reasoning with the intellect, there is still yet another dimension of faith that must be embraced: mystery. Once a person reaches the boundaries of human reason, they will be faced with the mystery of it all.

What do you do with the mystery?

If you don’t allow for mystery, there can be no such thing as real faith. Don’t confuse mystery with ignorance. To recognize mystery is simply to take notice of the boundaries of human reason—the finite mind of man in contrast to the infinite mind of God—and revel in the majesty of God’s power.

When I was in the sixth grade, Mrs. Fuller was my English teacher. There were many times when I apparently tried to take over the class, insert my all-knowing wisdom, and stand in the place of Mrs. Fuller. She would always patiently respond with a kind reminder that she was the teacher and I was the student. She would point to herself, “teacher,” and then to me, “student.” After a while, all she had to do is say those words to me when I got too big for my britches. Now I use this with my students.

In the face of objections by skeptics, and in my own seasons of doubt, the living Lord continually reminds me that he is the Teacher, and I am merely the student. So, as the student, I will take the evidence that has convinced me of the resurrection of Jesus, and then go sit down amidst all the objections and doubt, in order to be taught by the risen Lord.

Happy Easter!

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Suggested Reading:

“The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?” by F.F. Bruce; “Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament” by Daniel B. Wallace; “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” by Craig Blomberg; “What are the Gospels?: A Comparison of Graeco-Roman Biography” by Richard Burridge; “Who Was Jesus?” by N.T. Wright; “Jesus & the Victory of God” by N.T. Wright; “Historical Jesus: Five Views” by James Beilby; “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E.P. Sanders; “Lord or Legend: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma” by Gregory Boyd & Paul Rhodes Eddy; “The Aims of Jesus” by Ben Meyer; “Jesus & the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” by Richard Bauckham; “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Gary Habermas & Mike Licona; “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by N.T. Wright; “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” by Mike Licona; “The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” by Raymond Brown; “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth & Apologetics” by William Lane Craig; “Jesus & His World: The Archaeological Evidence” by Craig Evans; “Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ” by Darrell Bock; “Lost in Transmission: What Can We Know About the Words of Jesus” by Nicholas Perrin; “Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels” by Craig Evans

Films & Documentaries:

“The Life of Jesus: Who He Is & Why He Matters” by John Dickson (book & DVD); “Jesus: The Complete Story (BBC, 2004); “Resurrection” by N.T. Wright; “The Gospel of John” (Philip Savile, 2005); “Passion of the Christ” (Mel Gibson, 2004); “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel (book & DVD); “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? A Critical Examination of the Facts About the Resurrection of Jesus” by Ignatius Press (2008).

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The Transfiguration

Theological Interpretation of the Glorified Christ

Dale Allison has written, “Reducing the theological Jesus to the historical Jesus is no more plausible than reducing the mental world to the physical world, even if a lot of smart people have tried to do both.”[1]

There is hardly a pericope in the Synoptic Gospels that presents such a challenge to critical historical Jesus scholars than that of the transfiguration of Christ. It is no wonder why this bizarre epiphany is chalked up as yet another mythological fabrication of the historical Jesus—the sad divinizing of a failed would-be Messiah.

It is this post-enlightenment rationalism that refuses to believe in miracles of any sort. If there is a god, he most certainly does not become human flesh, make the lame walk and the blind see, or raise folks from the dead.

This is of course not an issue for those who believe that the theological Jesus is also the historical Jesus, and that the earliest testimony about Jesus is reliable and trustworthy. Those believers who affirm the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon are open to God breaking forth from heaven with divine power into that realm in which human beings live, and move, and have their being. The transfiguration of Jesus is one of those breaking-in-moments where God visibly manifests his power and favor upon the one he claims to be his Son—the glorified Christ—the God-man.

Oddly enough, the transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most “neglected” stories in the entire New Testament.[2] Many widely acclaimed theology textbooks used in seminaries over the years say little to nothing about this magnificent display of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.[3]

What is the reason for so many pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars distancing themselves from the transfiguration narratives? To be truthful, not everyone is ignoring the transfiguration. Dorothy Lee states that the neglect is committed largely by the Western tradition.

Lee writes, “Christians in the East regard the transfiguration as central to the symbolism of the gospel, disclosing as much about themselves as about God.”[4] So, what is happening in the West?

In the West, contemporary scholarship has not given the transfiguration story as significant a place in the discussion on New Testament theology as might be expected. This is not to say that there has been a total absence of discussion, but the difficulties which the text itself poses to the modern exegete—literary, historical, and theological—have led scholars to give it relatively little attention.[5]

The purpose of this paper is to give a theological interpretation of the transfiguration of Jesus found within the Synoptic Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament by: (1) giving a brief critical examination of the more recent scholarship, (2) appreciating the slight nuances between the Synoptic redactors, (3) revealing a Christology from “above” with feet still on the ground of real history, (4) proving that multiple attestation of the event adds to its significance. This paper will move past the often-debated concerns of origin, genre, and nature of the Synoptic account.

The author makes an informed assumption that the biblical text is accurate in what it reports about Jesus of Nazareth and the mysterious happenings on the mount of transfiguration. This paper will conclude with a challenge for Western traditions of Christianity to rediscover the transfiguration of Jesus with its theological and Christological implications for faith and practice.

THE TRANSFIGURATION IN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS

It is of first importance to notice that each of the Synoptic Gospels places the transfiguration within the same sequence of events:

(1) Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah; (2) Jesus commands the disciples not to tell anyone; (3) Jesus predicts his coming suffering, death, and resurrection from the dead; (4) Jesus calls his disciples to follow him sacrificially; (5) the transfiguration; (6) Jesus commands the disciples to keep quite until after his resurrection; (7) a discussion on the coming of Elijah (except in Luke); (8) the miraculous healing of a demonized boy; and (9) a second prediction of the passion of Christ.[6]

W. L. Liefeld declares, “The assumption is clearly that the event [transfiguration] took place at this juncture in the life and ministry of Jesus.”[7] This event must have taken place somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, and it stands alone as a one time occurrence. The transfiguration only finds meaning as a unique event occurring in the life and ministry of Jesus prior to his death, resurrection, and ascension. The case for a “misplaced resurrection account” has been laid to rest once and for all.[8]

The Gospel of Mark (9:2-10)

The vast majority of scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Marcan priority), and probably written in the mid to late 60’s to a predominately gentile audience.[9] Matthew and Luke are commonly thought to have borrowed from Mark—possibly using earlier source material and oral traditions to compose their biographies for their own purposes. Therefore, it is best to begin with the account in Mark.

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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 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. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.  (Mark 9:2-10 NRSV)

As an ancient literary genre, the transfiguration is known as an “epiphany” because of the sudden manifestation of a divine being where the witnesses are invited to participate in the plan of God.[10] Marks says that the transfiguration took place “six days” after Jesus’ words that “some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). The “some” are Peter, James, and John—the power is seen in the glorification of Christ on the mountain.

Scholars are not certain on what mountain this occurred, but the most likely spot is Mount Meron located in Galilee about eight miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. It is the highest peak in Palestine and close to Caesarea Philippi, the place of Peter’s great confession.[11] It comes as no surprise that this epiphany happens on a mountain. Mountains and other “high places” were viewed as the setting for divine experiences. For Jesus to lead Peter, James, and John up a “high mountain” prepares the audience for a forthcoming revelation.

Moses ascended the “mountain of God” (Exod 19:3) and had a divine encounter by way of a theophany on Sinai (Exod 19:16-20). After this encounter Moses took with him Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-10). Mark sets his readers up for a similar event, but it turns out to be something much different—far more extraordinary than anyone could expect or imagine. Jesus gives three of his disciples more insight into the previous confession that he is Messiah (8:29).

Mark says that Jesus was temporarily “transfigured” or “transformed” (metamorphoo) externally before them, and that his clothes were dazzling white. He emphasizes this fact with “no one on earth could bleach them” (9:3) that white. The shining white clothing is characteristic of heavenly beings, thus it draws attention to the heavenly nature of Jesus. R. T. France writes, “The point is presumably that no naturalistic explanation can account for what the disciples witnessed.”[12]

The story continues with its bizarre happenings as the OT prophets Elijah and Moses appear, and then begin “talking with Jesus” (9:4). Mark does not tell his readers what they are discussing, but the mere appearance of these two prophets speak a great deal to those sensitive to the Jewish Scriptures. It is probably best the traditional idea that these two men represent the Law and the Prophets be rejected.[13] Elijah was not a writing prophet, and his name is mentioned ahead of Moses.

The presence of these prophets triggers the eschatological promise of the coming of Elijah (6:15; 8:28) who was taken to heaven without dying (2 Kgs 2:11) and was expected as a forerunner to the new age (Mal 3:23-24). Moses had an experience where his face was left radiant from the glory of God (Exod 34:35). He prophesied in eschatological hope that a prophet greater than himself would come (Deut 18:15-19). The appearance of these two prophets symbolizes the arrival of the messianic age. The suffering and rejection of these prophets prefigure the experiences of the passion of Christ.

The Messiah has indeed arrived in Jesus. But as the rest of the pericope will reveal, he’s not the Messiah they expected.

Mark says that Peter responds to this mysterious event with words that have been greatly debated: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (9:5). Mark tells us that Peter said this because he was terrified and did not know what to say (9:6).[14] It is worth noting that Peter may not have fully grasped the full meaning to his previous confession in Caesarea Philippi. Here he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi” (teacher), and appears to interpret this event as signifying the equality of Jesus and the prophets.[15] Then from the heavenly cloud—representing the divine presence—came a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (9:7)![16] Jesus is the glorified Christ—the Word of God.

In an instant things return to normal and Jesus tells the three disciples not to speak of what they have seen until after the “Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9:9). Mark reports that they did not understand what Jesus meant. The confusion of the disciples is common in Mark’s Gospel. Dorothy Lee writes, “Mark sees discipleship as flowing from Christology—that is, from his understanding of Jesus—so that the revealing of Jesus’ identity is bound up with the calling of the disciples.”[17]

Lee succinctly describes the symbolic significance of the prophets and the purpose for their appearing during the transfiguration:

Moses and Elijah are thus complex symbols, representing God’s ancient people, Israel, and associated with mountain epiphanies and the events of the end time. One thing is clear in the range of possible meanings. For Mark, the symbolic significance is unmistakably Christological: their presence acts as a dual pointer to the identity of Jesus himself. It is no coincidence that they appear at the very moment of Jesus’ metamorphosis, opening up past, present and future to the heavenly world, and giving a cosmic perspective on the human world embodied in Israel.[18]

The Gospel of Matthew (17:1-9)

Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, yet his Gospel is at the same time universal in its scope (13:38; 21:33-43; 28:18-20). The “Jewishness” of the Gospel can be seen in the extensive use of OT Scriptures and the substitution of “heaven” for God’s name. Matthew is intent on proving that Jesus is the new and greater Moses—the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

Matthew is interested in the church and the needs of the growing Jewish community. His Gospel comes later than Mark’s Gospel, and he abridges Mark’s material to make it more easily remembered by the new Jewish believers.[19] Matthew also stresses the inevitability of God’s judgment, apocalyptic eschatology, and that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Matthew focuses on the significance of Jesus and the cost of following Christ for the sake of the kingdom.

Matthew uses Mark’s narrative of the transfiguration, but there are clear nuances and variations that Matthew has added to the story in order allude more clearly to the OT, as the true identity of Christ is revealed in a call to discipleship. Matthew also says that it is “six days” after Jesus told the disciples about seeing the Son of Man “coming in his kingdom” (16:28). The six days may be a literary device used to set up a glorious seventh day event.[20]

In Matthew’s account, it is not only his clothes that are transformed into a dazzling white, but he says that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” (17:2). He undoubtedly intends to evoke remembrance of the radiant face of Moses after having been in the presence of God (Exod 34:29-35). Moses is of course mentioned before Elijah in their appearing. Moses and Elijah had important roles as precursors to Jesus, now Christ comes to be more than an eschatological prophet. Matthew presents Jesus as coming to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He himself is the fulfillment.

How did the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah? None of the Synoptic narratives tell us how they knew them, but it was most likely because of the conversation they overheard.[21] Matthew has Peter responding to Jesus with “Lord” instead of “Rabbi” (17:4). Where Peter’s folly in addressing Jesus as “Rabbi” is clear in Mark, Matthew may not want to use this title more as a literary avoidance of the words later to be spoken by Judas (26:25, 49).

Therefore, Matthew is able to keep Peter from speaking words that might sound like denial to readers, but maintain his clear confusion with what is happening. For Peter to suggest the building of three tents is in some manner to express that confusion (17:4). He may have suggested this for several reasons: (1) he wanted to honor each figure in a commemorative way; (2) he wanted them to stay on the mountain and continue communicating with them, like that of the Tent of Meeting; (3) he was simply being hospitable in seeking to provide habitations for them.[22]

Regardless of Peter’s true intentions (even if he himself knew what he meant), it was wrong to place Jesus on the same level with Moses and Elijah during this temporary event. The voice from heaven speaks (actually interrupting Peter), like the voice at Jesus’ baptism, testifying to the superiority of Christ over his predecessors. The enveloping cloud restrains Peter much like the cloud that kept Moses from entering the tabernacle (Exod 40:35).[23] The disciples fall down in fear after the hearing of the voice from heaven, indicating worship of the heavenly Christ.

Lee writes that the transfiguration “is the outward manifestation of the inner person, as revealed by God. Jesus is shown as he is in his true self, hidden from the eyes of the world…”[24]

The response of the church is to worship!

The Gospel of Luke (9:28-36)

The Gospel of Luke is the longest of all four gospels and is the first volume in his “orderly account” (Luke-Acts) of the life and teachings of Jesus. For those believing in the two-source theory with Marcan priority, both Matthew and Luke used Mark, as well as an unknown “Q” source.[25] Is Luke’s account of the transfiguration a simple redaction of Mark and Matthew? Maybe not.[26] There are similarities, but striking differences as well.

Luke begins his narrative with “eight days after” instead of the six days that both Mark and Matthew use. Is this a plain contradiction with what happened? Also, Luke will provide insight into the conversation that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were having, not found in Mark and Matthew. Luke mentions the disciples being “weighed down with sleep” during the event, and uses slight differences in vocabulary and sequence. How do scholars account for the differences, and what do they mean?

Luke may have been relying on an unknown source, but explanation can be given apart from knowing that source and what it actually contained. As a historian, Luke smoothes out the “six days” to an approximate week. For Luke’s Gentile audience, it is not necessary to maintain such a direct connection to the OT. Luke says that Jesus went up with his disciples to pray (9:28). Prayer is a major theme in Luke-Acts as the author draws attention to this act in order to reveal its relationship to heaven (e.g. Lk 3:21-22; Acts 1:14; 2:1). The prayer of Jesus brings about the transfiguration event.

It would appear that in order to speak with the heavenly prophets Jesus would need for himself to be transfigured into heavenly form. Luke says that Jesus and the prophets were “speaking about his departure” that was coming in Jerusalem (9:31)—an exodus which leads to the playing out of salvation history.

So why does Luke mention that the disciples were sleepy? Luke intends to prefigure the prayer scene in the Garden of Gethsemane (22:39-53). At the transfiguration there is glory, in the garden there is agony. Luke ties these two scenes together in order to emphasize the confusion and misunderstanding of the disciples.[27]

The glorified Jesus will overcome this agony in resurrection (24:5). And the confusion of the grief-stricken disciples will be transformed into a bold confession of the glorified and resurrected Christ (24:52-53). As Luke says, “in those days” they told no one about what they had seen. But they would not stay silent forever.

THE TRANSFIGURATION ELSEWHERE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

The Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is missing the transfiguration narrative. Why is that? George Ladd says, “John differs from the Synoptics in making the entire ministry of Jesus a manifestation of glory.”[28] It is clear that John seeks to portray the glory of Jesus throughout his Gospel, so why does he not include the narrative? It is hard to say. However, there is some evidence that John may have this event in mind in a couple of places.

John testifies to seeing the “glory of the one and only” (1:14). This could refer to the transfiguration, or he might be speaking of the entire life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Also, there is the Father’s voice from heaven, which proclaims that he had “glorified” the name of Jesus, and would do it again (12:27-33).

There is no way to be certain if John is referring to the transfiguration, but it does seem unlikely that such an event would not find its way into his Gospel, considering his theological emphasis and having experienced something as glorious as Jesus being transfigured before his very eyes.

Lee writes the following on the “absence” of the transfiguration:

If there is cross-fertilization between the two traditions, the Synoptic and the Johannine, the question of why John did not use the transfiguration story becomes more insistent. And here an answer can be suggested: that John did know something of the transfiguration and chose to use it, not as a single tale, but as a motif—a series of symbols—throughout his Gospel. If so, this would mean that, instead of re-telling the story with his own editorial changes, John has chosen to weave the threads of the transfiguration into the warp and woof of his tale, so that the main symbols are rehearsed again and again throughout the Johannine narrative. If so, the whole Gospel could be viewed as a ‘transfiguration’ story: ‘the glory which in the Synoptics flashes into the story on the mountain is perceived by Saint John to pervade all the words and works of Jesus.’[29]

Lee’s suggestion to view the entire Gospel as a transfiguration story is profound. This only further highlights the sheer beauty of John’s Gospel. John didn’t include the transfiguration narrative because it is not his style. He prefers to stretch such a grand event throughout his work.

The Second Epistle of Peter (1:16-18)

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (NRSV)

In an effort to validate the “power and coming” of Christ, Peter reminds his audience that the disciples were eyewitnesses to the transfiguration. He actually uses a first-person-personal-pronoun to emphasize, “we ourselves heard” a voice that exalted Christ in the glorious event.[30]

This event is treated as a historical and spiritual reality which confirms the certainty of the future parousia of Christ.

The transfiguration actually happened and was observed. It is not legend or a mythical tale used much later to deify a crucified Messiah. In Peter’s mind, the disciples witnessed many mysterious things that present overwhelming evidence of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.

CONCLUSION—MOTIFS & MEANING

The many motifs within the transfiguration narrative can now be summarized before clarifying the theological interpretation of the glorified Christ. The first motif encountered is the “after six days”—used as a common literary pattern in Semitic literature.[31] This immediately parallels Exodus 24:16. The mountain ascension is the next feature reminiscent of Mount Sinai, as well as other events of divine revelation.

Also, the cloud on the mountain symbolizes the presence of the Lord on many occasions throughout the OT (Exod 19:16-19; Isa 4:5; Dan 7:13). The appearance of Moses and Elijah is significant for they are precursors to Christ and they represent eschatological prophets. This immediately identifies Jesus as eschatological prophet, but the unfolding of the vision reveals that he is much more than that—he is the Son of Man.

The voice from heaven is the climax of the experience. This “voice” alludes to Psalm 2:7. And it might even be possible that there is an allusion to Isaac, making Jesus the willing sacrifice.

Finally, what can be said and done for the recovery of the transfiguration in Christian faith and practice within the church? What difference does this make for the doctrine of Christ?

Western Christianity in many places is struggling for survival against a deadly secularism that smothers any sense of transcendence or mystery, too much of which has penetrated its own ranks. The Church needs to regain the vision of Christ on the mountain, the light in which we see light, the echo of the divine voice acclaiming Jesus the beloved Son—the biblical symbolism of a majestic, incarnate, crucified God as the only source of hope for the transfiguring of a disfigured world.[32]

The transfiguration affirms the church’s eschatological hope in the resurrected Christ, as the One who is greater than all the prophets—equal only to God—who reigns the universe supreme.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

[1] Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 79.

[2] Dorothy Lee, Transfiguration. New Century Theology Series. (New York: Continuum, 2004), 1.

[3] For example, Millard Erickson in his Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 1241, only gives passing mention to the pericope in order to speculate about heavenly bodies; Stanley Grenz doesn’t mention it at all in his Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); George Ladd briefly addresses the implications of the Matthean account in his A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 222.

[4] Lee, 1.

[5] A. D. A. Moses, Matthew’s Transfiguration Story and Jewish-Christian Controversy (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 13. For a bibliography of scholarship before 1981, see T. F. Best, “The Transfiguration: A Select Bibliography.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 24, no. 2 (June 1, 1981): 157-161. Also see Dale Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[6] W. L. Liefeld, “Transfiguration,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, 834-841 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 834.

[7] Ibid., 835. Something out of the ordinary occurred on that mountain prior to the resurrection!

[8] Wellhausen, Bultmann, Carlston, and other liberal scholars have promoted this view. See Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963), 259-260. The case for a misplaced resurrection appearance has been convincingly refuted. See Robert H. Stein, “Is the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) a misplaced resurrection-account.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 95, no. 1 (March 1, 1976): 79-96.

[9] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), 111; 163; also Stanton’s The Gospels and Jesus, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 34.

[10] John Paul Heil, The Transfiguration of Jesus: Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9:2-8, Matthew 17:1-8 and Luke 9:28-36, (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2000), 38-39. The divine being remains invisible in a theophany. In the transfiguration, the disciples are being called to play a role in God’s salvific plan for the world.

[11] Liefeld, 835.

[12] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek New Testament, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 351.

[13] Ibid.

[14] This is very telling since it is believed that Mark was largely dependent upon the testimony of Peter.

[15] Heil, 161.

[16] The first time this heavenly voice is heard is at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:11.

[17] Lee, 10.

[18] Ibid., 19.

[19] Robert H. Mounce, Matthew. New International Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 4.

[20] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 436. See Exodus 24:15-18. This and other features of the narrative are recalling the Sinai revelation.

[21] Ibid., 438.

[22] Heil, 127.

[23] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 704. The call to “listen to him” echoes that of Dt. 18:15.

[24] Lee, 47. See James A. Penner, “Revelation and Discipleship in Matthew’s Transfiguration Account.”

Bibliotheca Sacra 152, no. 606 (April 1, 1995): 201-210. He claims the event is about revelation and discipleship.

[25] Brown, 116-122. See R.E. Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament for an overview of “Q”.

[26] Barbara O. Reid, “Voices and Angels: What Were They Talking about at the Transfiguration? A redaction-critical study of Luke 9:28-36.” Biblical Research 34, (January 1, 1989): 19-31.

[27] Lee, 74.

[28] Ladd, 312.

[29] Lee, 101.

[30] Leifeld, 836.

[31] Liefeld, 839.

[32] Lee, 2.


Give Up On the Historical Jesus?

A Response to “The Jesus We’ll Never Know”

This post is in response to Scot McKnight’s cover story on The Jesus We’ll Never Know in Christianity Today, April 2010.  I encourage you to read the responses of N.T. Wright, Craig Keener, and Darrell Bock.

Let me begin my response by saying that I believe McKnight makes some good points.  Principally that historical studies of Jesus “can only do so much.”

As Jonathon Wilson has written, “Jesus Christ is not merely a figure of the past.  Therefore, our Christology cannot be confined to a study of the past” (God So Loved the World: A Christology for Disciples, p. 187).

McKnight is right to recognize that some scholars find a Jesus in their image; a Jesus they wanted all along.  However, I think it is a huge mistake to lump all those involved in historical Jesus studies together in one pot and communicate the idea that it is not helpful nor is it necessary.

There is a world of difference between the men and the historical quests described in the article. (As Tom Wright has pointed out in his response.)

I’m sure that McKnight would acknowledge that he himself has benefited in some way from his own studies. How can you teach at the university level and deny the fruit of such a quest?  Historical studies may not prove that Jesus died for our sins, or other faith claims, but its benefits are not then cancelled out because of this.

I myself have undergone a period of setting intellectual pursuits aside to touch the Lord in the spirit.  I have previously written:

“It is with our mind that we may learn of the historical Christ of the past, but it is with our spirit that we know of the living Christ today.”

And I still believe it.

The Lord is helping me to see that there is a worthwhile scholarship that is born out of a genuine revelation of Christ in the spirit where the human mind is governed by the Spirit of God.  I can find the Lord in the spirit with a little assistance from the mind.  He is resurrecting spirit, soul, and body.

I’m convinced that there can be great reward in studying the historical Jesus of Nazareth. There is much to be learned from the many believing scholars who have devoted their lives to helping others meet the historical Jesus.  Not only has it helped the agnostics among us, but those who profess him as “Lord” and God.

Unfortunately, I fear that McKnight’s article will only serve to fuel those “spiritual” anti-intellectuals who have not learned a study of theology and history that is consistent with the spiritual life.

The same people that are reticent to historical studies of Jesus may even be tempted to think it’s no concern of theirs that their skeptic friend reads books by Albert Schweitzer or Bart Ehrman and really believes what they have to say about Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s a tragedy that many Christians can’t carry on an intelligent conversation about the historical Jesus and discuss the reliability of the New Testament.  For some… there is simply no room in the spiritual life for “intellectual” exercises.

It reminds me of the older man that responded to those who had educated themselves. He said, “Some people read too many books.” What he was really saying was, “Don’t bother me.  I don’t need you challenging my view of Jesus.”

When’s the last time you read the book of Romans?  Peter even said that Paul’s writings are “hard to understand” at times (2 Pet. 3:16).  I hardly think we are ready to throw Paul’s epistles out the window and say, “Forget trying to clear away the cobwebs Paul. We just need a mystical experience of Jesus.”

Once again, instead of reconciling faith and reason, we often overcompensate and fall headlong into the gutter on the other side of the road.  I suppose that if everyone runs in the direction that this article seems to suggest… there will come a day when we will rise up out of the one ditch to find the historical Jesus in the other.

How long will the balanced Christian life elude us?

I do believe that the growing hunger for a real spiritual connection with Jesus will cause many to say “Amen, I agree!” to the article and move on thinking we now have no need of history or theology.

I guess this is necessary for some on their journey… at least for a season. For some, leaving behind the world of academia may be a breath of fresh air!  But I do hope that many believers will soon realize that God often teaches us through the swinging pendulum of faith.

Where is that pendulum presently swinging in your life?

I must continue to hold that the true spiritual life makes use of what we can know about the historical Jesus.  Lord, help us to stay on the spiritual road that leads us to the same Jesus that lived, died, and was resurrected in the first-century.

“Jesus is either the flesh-and-blood individual who walked and talked, and lived and died, in first-century Palastine, or he is merely a creature of our own imagination, able to be manipulated this way and that.” N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? p.18


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