Philip Seddon writes: We are so used to speaking of ‘transfiguration’ in Christian terms that we have not realised how remarkable it is that Mark and Matthew used the Greek verb metamorphoō (in the passive: metamorphoumai) at all. In classical Greek and Latin literature, the verb, and the noun metamorphōsis, are both slippery, ambivalent words, largely used in mythological or magical contexts. It does not appear at all in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament’. So Mark took a bold and dramatic step by deciding to use the word for the central revelation of Jesus’s hidden identity. Why? And how did Mark want us to understand who Jesus is?
1. The Broader Picture
Greek and Latin background
In February 2022, noting that Luke does not use Mark’s verb metemorphōthē (was transformed/ transfigured), Ian Paul asked ‘What does the Transfiguration mean in Luke 9?’
A different question immediately sprang to mind: Why did Mark use that verb at all in the first place? It’s a rare word, without any of the positive connotations that we assume today. Consider three examples.
Firstly, a classic example from Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium (aka Caligula), written between 41 (the death of Caligula) and 50 AD (the death of Philo). Philo mocks the ways in which Caligula used to dress himself up, in his desire to transform himself into one or several of the great gods:
‘(93) Gaius’ madness, his wild and frenzied insanity, reached such a pitch that he … began to … go in for the worship paid to the greater gods, Hermes, Apollo, and Ares … (94) It was the worship due to Hermes first. He dressed himself up with herald’s staff, sandals and cloak, displaying order amid disorder, consistency amid confusion, and reason amid mental derangement. (95) Then, when he saw fit, he discarded these attributes, and changed his appearance and dress (metemorphouto kai meteskeuazeto) to those of Apollo … (96) [Then] he assumed the costume of Dionysus … (97) [Then he would] be hailed as Ares … (E Mary Smallwood (ed.), Philonis Alexandrini Legatio ad Gaium (The Embassy to Gaius), Brill, 1970 (2nd ed), 13. 93-97 (pp 76-77)
This is political charade via self-transformation, turning himself into whatever deity he wishes, to impress the crowds: divinity as showmanship. Caligula’s plan in c. 40 AD had been to install a statue of himself as Jupiter in the Jerusalem Temple, but Philo joined a delegation of Jews to Rome to dissuade Caligula, because of the inevitable riots and political turbulence that would ensue.
A second example is provided by Lucian’s satirical story of Lucius or The Ass of perhaps c. 150 AD, where metamorphoumai appears in parallel to the verb manganeuō, used in the context of secret ritual incantations, as in many Greek magical papyri:
Dearest lady, show me your mistress casting spells or being transformed
Ō philtatē, deixon moi manganeuousan ē metamorphoumenēn tēn despoinan (11).
Aristophanes had already used manganeuō of Homer’s Circe, Demosthenes of trickery, Polybius of superstitious propitiation of the goddesses, and Appian conversely used metamorphoō of disguise. So Lucian’s pairing of manganeuō and metamorphoumai emphasises the dark side of ‘transformation.’ Perhaps this is why the sensitive Hellenist historian Luke hesitates to use a word that is too reminiscent of the bizarre transformation accounts of Greek mythology, and uses the more general ‘the appearance of his face changed’ (Lk 9.29).
But thirdly, the greatest source of relevant material is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Published in 8 AD, this epic of some 12,000 lines in fifteen books covers over 250 Greek and Latin myths under the broad category of transformation, including what is often called today ‘shape-shifting’. He describes the instability of liminal figures – gods, heroes, ecstatics, etc., such as Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s lust (human -> arboreal), Ariadne’s crown being set in the stars as the Corona Borealis following her rescue by Bacchus (human -> celestial), Zeus’ abduction of Europa in the form of a bull (divine -> animal), and Zeus’ disguising of himself in a shower of gold to impregnate Danaë, princess of Argos inter alia (divine -> material).
Interestingly, using the cognate verb metaschēmatizō in 2 Corinthians 11.13-15, Paul denounces ‘false apostles’ disguising themselves (metaschēmatizomenoi) as apostles of Christ, of Satan disguising himself as an angel of light, and of his ministers disguising themselves as ministers of righteousness; but conversely, in Philippians 3.21, that God ‘will transform (metaschēmatisei) the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.’
Was Mark bilingual?
The question arises: did Mark know of Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Did he deliberately risk using the language of metamorphōsis in order to highlight in the tightly-wrought structure of 8.27-9.13 Jesus’ own visible, historical transformation in front of three disciples, to reveal who he was, what his vocation and destiny were, and what the destiny of the disciples would also be (Mk 8.34-38)? Such a question was not outside the range of Mark’s own thought-world. Greek novelists expected their readers to know Latin literature (such as Ovid) in the early first century AD; the transition from Greek to Latin language and culture is at least part of the achievement of Virgil’s Aeneid; Greek was the language of the Septuagint (c. 250 BC); and though Latin was the language of administration in Judaea, most of the earliest Christian writing was in Greek. Much to explore …
(I happily express my deep gratitude to Denis Feeney, Emeritus Professor of Classics and Emeritus Giger Professor of Latin at Princeton University for some very suggestive questions and thoughts on the issue of inter-linguistic fluidity in the ancient world. See his Beyond Greek, The Beginnings of Latin Literature, Harvard, 2016; Daniel Jolowicz, Latin Poetry in the Ancient Greek Novels (Oxford Classical Monographs), Oxford, 2021.)
I find it a fascinating possibility that Mark is writing his Gospel (perhaps in Rome) for a Graeco-Roman readership at roughly the same time – the late 50s AD – that Paul is writing to Christians in Rome and the Roman provincial capital of Corinth. Was Mark aware of Paul’s language? Was he, in deliberately saying that Jesus ‘was transfigured’ immediately after recording Jesus’s prophecy of his own death, pointing up the extreme tension between Jesus’ glory in this central revelation in comparison with his degrading crucifixion at the end of his gospel? Do we need to read Mark’s gospel backwards as well as forwards? Mark consistently works with the theme of ‘hiddenness and revelation’; so was he – the first ancient author to give us a detailed account of a crucifixion – presenting a challenge to his Greek and Roman readers in the figure of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1.1 -> 1.11, 9.7, 15.39) (and not any Roman imperial claimant), the one in whose earthly rejection God’s glory was manifested, and whose glory embodied the scandal of the crucifixion? As if to say, this is what true divinity looks like: in technical terms, kenōsis = theōsis (self-giving is the path of glory); the Son of man pours out his life (Mark 10.45) to redeem humanity (cf. Philippians 2.5-11.)
Mark and Paul
Even though metamorphoumai only appears four times in the New Testament, Mark is probably not the first author to use the word. Yes, he and Matthew both use the word of the transfiguration of Jesus (Mk 9.2, Mt 17.2); but Paul uses it twice in his epistles: first in 2 Corinthians 3.18, where he speaks of our being transformed ‘from glory to glory’; and again in Romans 12.2 where he similarly offers a challenge to us to resist social con-formity and to allow an inward and mental-spiritual transformation through the work of the Spirit of the risen Jesus; Paul, who saw Jesus enthroned in glory (Acts 9, 22, 26) does not speak of an external transfiguration of Jesus, but always of the resurrection. (Why Paul uses the verb would constitute a separate investigation!)
The Old Testament and Septuagint background
Beyond that, each Synoptic gospel writer uses some distinct and rare words, and, in several cases, words that only appear in this account, and nowhere else in the Gospels or the New Testament, to describe the event. Most significantly, as Crispin Fletcher-Louis has shown, the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration are deeply indebted, not only to a range of Old Testament passages, but to a magnificent chapter in Sirach/ Ecclesiasticus (50.5-7), which speaks of the High Priest Simon son of Onias (c. 300 BC?), whose face, ‘as he came out of the house of the [sanctuary] curtain … [was] like the sun shining on the temple of the Most High’:
5 How glorious he was (lit. how he was glorified: edoxasthē) surrounded by the people,
as he came out of the house of the curtain …
7 … like the sun shining (eklampōn) on the Temple of the Most High
and like the rainbow gleaming (phōtizon) in splendid clouds (lit. clouds of glory (doxēs)) …
11 When he put on his glorious robe (lit. robe of glory (stolēn doxēs)) …
and clothed himself in perfect splendour,
when he went up to the holy altar,
he made the court of the sanctuary glorious (lit. he glorified the court of the sanctuary: edoxasen peribolēn hagiasmatos) …
Note in Sirach 50.7 the compound form of the verb lampō – eklampō, used eight times in the Old Testament, including four in Sirach, and the concluding phrase of that verse en nephelais doxēs (‘in clouds of glory’) – high-priestly references that are variously incorporated in the Synoptic Transfiguration accounts, but often missed.
On this, see Crispin Fletcher-Louis, All the Glory of Adam. Liturgical Anthropology in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah XLII, ed. F García Martínez, Brill, 2002, 56-87, esp. 61-81; and ‘The Revelation of the Sacral Son of Man. The Genre, History of Religions Context and the Meaning of the Transfiguration,’ in Friedrich Avemarie and Hermann Lichtenberger (eds.), Auferstehung – Resurrection. The Fourth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium: Resurrection, Transfiguration and Exaltation in Old Testament, Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, Mohr Siebeck, 2001, 247-298. These are incredibly important works, to which I am greatly indebted
2. Focussing on the detail
Matthew and Mark
Matthew’s emphasis on light is noticeable. He speaks of Jesus’ clothes becoming like ‘white light’ (lit. ‘white as the light’). Only he speaks of ‘a cloud [filled with] light’ (17.5: nephelē photeinē) in a unique fusion of images, but one that still echoes Sirach 50.7’s ‘clouds of glory’ (nephelais doxēs, above); and only Matthew uses the word here and – in 6.22 – of inward light.
Matthew, like Mark, uses metemorphōthē of Jesus’s transformation:
i) But only Matthew uses the common Greek and LXX verb lampō (17.2), of Jesus’ face: it ‘shone, or gleamed, like the sun’ (cf. Judges 5.31, Song of Songs 6.10, 2 Samuel 23.4 – and Sirach 50.7). No New Testament author (I think) was thinking of Apollo here, even though early Christian artists soon picked up the Greek theme, by way of contrast and fresh claim.
ii) Jesus’ clothing becomes as white as light (17.2), where Mark simply says ‘white.’ It almost feels as if Matthew knew about ‘white light’ – though of course anyone who has sat round a camp-fire has seen that, and anyone who has been anywhere near a foundry has also seen the blinding, incandescent quality of white light. Gavin Ashenden has spoken of Jesus’ searing ‘nuclear holiness’; and perhaps another 20th century experience, that of the discovery of the atom and the exploding of the atom bomb, can give us another insight into the ‘transformation’ of – we might even say – the particles of Jesus’ body, to reveal his glory.
As for Mark, he alone uses the verb stilbō (9:3) of Jesus’ clothes becoming a gleaming brilliant white. This is a common enough Greek verb, but it is only used here in the New Testament. stilbō is thus Mark’s first New Testament hapax (a unique use of a word by a writer). Cf. Ezekiel 40.3:
kai idou anēr, kai hē horasis autou ēn hosei horasis chalkou stilbontos:
… a man was there, whose appearance was like that of glistening bronze
Mark alone, secondly, uses the word gnapheus (launderer) – a second hapax, and another rare word that notably appears twice in the same phrase in Isaiah of ‘the Fuller’s Field’ (tou agrou tou gnapheōs), where Isaiah urges Ahaz to sheer trust (7.3), and then, later on, when the king of Assyria’s front man the Rabshakeh mocks Hezekiah’s official palace spokesmen (36.2-3).
Thirdly, Mark’s brilliant image of the launderer fuses the menial and pedantic image of a labourer (washing the dirty clothes of wealthy and prominent members of society) with the corresponding key concern among the aristocracy, senators, Rabbis (perhaps) and high-ranking public figures in Greek and Roman society to wear clothes of purest white to demonstrate their social standing. Mark alone also uses the verb leukainō (9.3) – a third hapax in the gospel, otherwise found only in Revelation 7.14 in a dramatic symbolic image of the worshippers in heaven who have ‘whitened their robes in the blood of the Lamb’. Bleached linen was expensive and fashionable, and predominantly the colour of the priestly vestments and Temple worship in general. All the Synoptists mention the supra-terrestrial, atom-splitting brilliance of Jesus’ clothing.
Finally, all the Synoptists mention the overshadowing cloud – using the verb (episkiazō), which in the New Testament only occurs in these Transfiguration accounts and in Lk 1.35, in the prophecy of the birth of Jesus, when ‘the Holy Spirit will overshadow you …’ Here, in the priestly context of the Transfiguration, the backwards echo is to the tent of witness and the tabernacle (Exodus 40.34-35), where ‘Moses was not able to enter the tent of witness because the cloud was overshadowing it (epeskiazen), and the tabernacle was filled with the glory of YHWH’ (doxēs kuriou, twice).
Why does Luke not use the word metamorphoō?
i) Negatively, as I suggested earlier, perhaps because he is well aware of the dubious ambivalence of the verb in classical Greek;
ii) positively, because he has his own strong imagery of Exodus and glory to convey ‘Echoes of Scripture.’
Luke has one key hapax in the entire New Testament: exastraptōn (9:29), referring to Jesus’ clothes flashing like lightning. The word is extremely rare outside this occurrence, Ezekiel 1.4 & 7 being of key significance. Ezekiel 1.4 speaks of ‘fire flashing’ (pur exastraptōn) out of God’s throne chariot, and 1.7 of gleaming, dazzling, burnished bronze (exastraptōn chalkos). Luke wants to take us right into the heart of the coruscating presence of the burning, fiery furnace of the holiness of God, and he does so, not via metamorphoō, but by emphasising Jesus’s ‘glory’ (9.31 & 32).
He also takes us back to Moses and the Exodus. First Moses, with Elijah, ‘appeared in glory’ (31a), and they speak of the Exodus which Jesus is going to accomplish in his death and resurrection (31b); then the three disciples ‘saw his [Jesus’s] glory’ in advance of the glory to come (32). ‘Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ (Lk 24.26).
Finally, Luke reminds us not only of the Moses who was not allowed to see God’s glory, but only his back (Exodus 33.23), but of ‘Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel’ who extraordinarily ‘went up, and they saw the God of Israel … also they beheld God and ate and drank’ (Exodus 24.9-10, following the Hebrew, where the Septuagint is more reticent).
(Some have argued that the Transfiguration is a kind of resurrection account retrojected into the ministry of Jesus; but they have not noticed that none of the gospel descriptions here appear in the accounts of Jesus’s resurrected body. Jesus’s resurrection body was by no means instantly recognisable; here there is no doubt that it is still the Jesus they know and recognise.)
3. Putting it all together
Why did Mark use metemorphōthē? For all sorts of reasons!
- In authorial terms, he was addressing the Graeco-Roman world, and wanted to use a wide range of means to appeal to that world; theologically, he was a far more subtle author and sculptor of his material than is often realised.
- He created a new genre – ‘the gospel’: not mere abstract history, but history as ‘Eyewitness Testimony,’ located in very specific times and places recognisable to his readers.
- Mark used more Greek transliterations of Latin words, and of Aramaisms, that any other gospel writer.
- Ovid filled his Metamorphoses with a fusion of mythology and history. Mark also spoke of Jesus’s metamorphosis (9.2), but only after Jesus himself announced his rejection and coming death. This is not mere day-dreaming fantasy, but a profound conceptual interlocking of truths.
- Mark does present Jesus as a ‘liminal’ figure where heaven and earth meet: heaven is ripped open at his baptism (1.10); the Temple’s sanctuary curtain is ripped from top to bottom at his death (15.38). But his transfiguration is not a metabasis eis allo genos (a transition to something else), but a revelation of who he most fully is: Son of God, cosmic Son of Man, Messiah (8.29; 14.62). ‘Jesus is revealed as the true, eschatological high priest (and Son of Man)’ (Fletcher-Louis, ‘Revelation,’ 295 and throughout).
- This ‘multiple identity’ of Jesus is strengthened by realising that the transfiguration took place on Mt Hermon (‘a high mountain’, Mk 9.2, Mt 17.2), rather than the unimpressive Mt Tabor, only identified as the Mount of Transfiguration since the fourth century (Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm. Recovering the Supernatural World of the Bible, Lexham Press, 2015, 281-287, here 285-6). The 9,000 foot Mt Hermon was already in the Old Testament an ancient Canaanite sacred and symbolic site (Deuteronomy 3:8, Song of Songs 4:8, Psalm 48:2 (Heb.), Isaiah 14.13, Ezekiel 28:14-16), and in Jesus’s time hosted a temple to Zeus. Mark specifically gives us these detailed items of location in order to crystallise the complex of history, humanity and divine revelation that now point to Jesus.
- The critical debate about Jesus’s identity took place around Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27; renamed by Philip the Tetrarch to please Augustus), near the ancient grotto and cult site of Banias, with its own temple to the Greek god Pan, where the melt-water of Hermon flows into the river Jordan.
- The revelation of Jesus’s double identity – by Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah (Mk 8.29), and by Jesus, that he is going to be killed (Mk 8.31) – is thus given at key sites of traditional pagan worship by way of contrast and witness. The ‘Son of God’, God’s vicegerent, is not a wilful tyrant like Zeus, Minos, Augustus or any current Roman puppet-kings who lord it over others (Mk 10.42), but rather he is the ‘Son of man’ who will give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10.45).
- In the famous Priene inscription in Asia Minor of 9 BC, ‘the birthday of the god Augustus’ was celebrated as ‘the beginning of [all] the good news for the world that came by reason of him’ (Craig Evans, ‘Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel’ (PDF). Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism. 1: 67–81, 2000). Mark, in common with Paul, however, deliberately never uses the word ‘gospel’ in the plural, as Priene does, but only in the singular, for Jesus Christ is the singularity of the Good News. He, not Augustus Caesar, is designated Son of God.
Mark was addressing the entire Graeco-Roman world … Jesus’s metamorphosis had transfigured everything … and would shortly demonstrate that in absolute terms in his death and resurrection.
Philip Seddon taught Biblical Studies and Christian Spirituality in Umuahia (Nigeria), Nottingham, Cambridge, Birmingham and Salisbury. He continues teaching and writing in retirement, especially revisiting the Classics he studied prior to theology at Cambridge and Tübingen. He was a founding member of the Grove Spirituality group, wrote several booklets for the series, and co-edited The Lord of the Journey: A Reader in Christian Spirituality.