An event in Jesus' life in which his appearance was radiantly transformed. The transfiguration is recorded in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36) and in 2 Peter 1:16-21. The place of this event is "a high mountain" (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2). The association with a mountain is also found in Luke 9:28 and 2 Peter 1:18. Several geographical locations have been suggested: Mount Hermon (truly "high, " at 9, 200 ft.); Mount Carmel (out of the way for the surrounding events); and the traditional site of Mount Tabor (not a "high" mountain and the presence of a Roman garrison stationed on the top in Jesus' day makes this questionable). The biblical writers apparently were not interested in locating exactly where this event took place; they were more concerned with what took place.
Attempts have been made to interpret the transfiguration as a misplaced resurrection account. There are several reasons why this is unlikely: the title given to Jesus ("Rabbi") in mr 9:5 and the equation of Jesus with Moses and Elijah (Matt 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33) would be strange addressed to the resurrected Christ; the form of this account is quite different from resurrection accounts; the presence of Peter-James-John as an inner circle occurs in other accounts during the life of Jesus, but not in a resurrection account; and the temporal designations associated with the resurrection are "first day" or "after three days, " not "after six days" (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2) or "about eight days after" (Luke 9:28). Attempts to interpret the transfiguration as a subjective "vision" (Matt 17:9; RSV ) ignore the fact that this term can be used to describe historical events. The Septuagint does this in Deuteronomy 28:34 and 67. There is nothing in the accounts themselves that suggests that this is anything other than an actual event.
The transfiguration possesses one of the very few chronological connections found in the Gospel traditions outside the passion narrative. These temporal designations tie this event intimately with the events of Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13-28; Mark 8:27-38; Luke 9:18-27). The temporal tie between the transfiguration and the events of Caesarea Philippi extends to how this event is to be interpreted. The words, "This is my Son, whom I love" (Mark 9:7), are a rebuke of Peter's placement of Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah ("Let us put up three shelters one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah" [Mark 9:5]) as well as a divine confirmation of Jesus' identity given in Peter's confession (Mark 8:29). Whereas the voice at the baptism is directed to Jesus (Mark 1:11), here it directed to the three disciples. "Listen to him" is best interpreted in light of what had taken place at Caesarea Philippi, for Jesus does not speak in the present account. These words are best understood as a rebuke of Peter's unwillingness to accept Jesus' teaching concerning his future passion (Mark 8:31-33).
It is difficult to understand exactly what happened to Jesus during his transfiguration. Unlike Moses, who radiated the divine glory that shone upon him (Exod 34:29), Jesus' transfiguration comes from within. He is transfigured and his garments as a result become radiant. Some have interpreted this event in light of John 1:14 and Philippians 2:6-9. At the transfiguration the glory of the preincarnate Son of God temporarily broke through the limitations of his humanity; the "kenosis" of the Son was temporarily lifted. In 2 Peter 1:16, however, the transfiguration is interpreted rather as a glimpse of the future glory of the Son of God at his second coming (cf. Matt 24:30). Still another interpretation is that the transfiguration is a proleptic glimpse of the glory that awaits Jesus at his resurrection (Luke 24:26; Heb 2:9; 1 Peter 1:21). In light of mr 8:38 and 2 Peter 1:16 the second interpretation is to be preferred. The presence of Moses and Elijah is probably best interpreted as indicating that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Luke adds that Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus of his "departure" or forthcoming death (Luke 9:31). This fits well Luke's own emphasis on Jesus being the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Gospel writers seem also to have understood this account as the fulfillment of Jesus' words with respect to the disciples seeing the kingdom of God coming with power in their lifetime.
Robert H. Stein
See also Christ, Christology; Jesus Christ
Bibliography. G. B. Caird, ET67 (1955-56): 291-94; A. Kenny, CBQ19 (1957): 444-52; A. M. Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ; T. F. Torrance, EvQ14 (1942): 214-29; J. W. C. Wand, Transfiguration.