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Mark & the Transfiguration

Mark & the Transfiguration


One of the most enigmatic stories in the Synoptic Gospels is the ‘transfiguration’ of Jesus, originally found in Mark 9, and expanded in Matt 17 and Luke 9. In this episode, Jesus leads three of his disciples up a mountain, where they witness Jesus suddenly transform.

Mark 9.2–8

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 tents, 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 beloved son. Listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

The story is preceded by Peter correctly identifying Jesus as the messiah (8.29), Jesus predicting his death (8.31), and the imminent arrival of the son of man (8.38) and God’s kingdom (9.1). It is then followed by a discussion about the tradition that Elijah must arrive before the end times may begin (9.11–13).

Some of the basic features of this story are widely known and repeated from one commentary to the next pulpit. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets, thus the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets testify in favor of Jesus. The story is found immediately after Jesus’ prediction that ‘some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’; therefore, the disciples witnessing the transfiguration is the fulfillment of that prophecy. The importance of the transfiguration as the foundation of Peter’s faith is brought up in Peter’s second letter (2 Pet 1.16–18).

Yet, none of these three details is widely accepted among scholars. Instead, something very different is going on in this story.

Elijah With Moses

It is a misconception that Moses and Elijah were popularly invoked in the first century as representations for the Law and Prophets.1 Rather, this idea emerged later as an attempt to explain their dual presence here, since the two biblical figures have so little in common.

The detail that this story occurred ‘six days later’ is unusual, in that the Gospel of Mark almost never provides such specificity on the passage of time. Exo 24.16 also mentions a period of ‘six days’. In both the Exodus story and the transfiguration story, a period of six days pass before the central characters — Moses and Jesus, respectively — ascend a mountain. With this anchor-point connecting to the two stories, many scholars recognize several more allusions to Exo 24, showing Mark’s dependence on that book in how he shaped the transfiguration story.

These parallels include:

  • the presence of Moses
  • a passage of six days
  • ascending a mountain
  • three named followers
  • a cloud overshadowing the mountain
  • God speaking

Additional parallels include God instructing Moses to build a tent (Exo 25.8), and Moses appearing in a radiant form (Exo 34.29).2 The density of these allusions indicates their non-historical basis here in Mark, such that the transfiguration story resists a flatly literal interpretation. Mark is intentionally shaping the story to house these references to the Exodus, casting the transfiguration as a Sinai-like experience for the three disciples who witness it.3

A detail often overlooked is that when the transfiguration occurs, Mark names Elijah before Moses rather than after as might be expected. (Matthew and Luke ‘correct’ this.) The reason for Elijah’s primacy over Moses is found in the discussion which follows the transfiguration; the disciples recall the tradition which says Elijah must come before the end times may begin, derived from the prophecy in Malachi:

Malachi 4.5–6

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of Yhwh comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Throughout the Synoptics, Jesus repeatedly proclaims how imminent the eschaton was, and Elijah’s appearance here further substantiates that proclamation. The time of the end is near, and Elijah has come. Though Jesus’ response to the disciples strongly suggests he identified John the baptizer as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy (an identification also implied by Mark 1.6, spiritualized in Luke 1.17, explicit in Matt 17.13, and denied in John 1.21), the appearance of the actual Elijah in the transfiguration event also functions to fulfill the prophecy.

Why have Moses appear, then, and why secondary to Elijah? As mentioned, the claim that the two figures represented the Law and the Prophets in the first century is dubious. The more likely explanation is that — despite Moses’ death being narrated in Deut 34 — there was belief he had not died, but had been taken into heaven just as Elijah (2 Kings 2.11).4 In his retelling of the Torah’s narrative, Josephus claims that Deut 34 is deliberately misleading about Moses’ death (though for a noble reason):

as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him on the sudden, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God.5

The tradition that Moses had been taken into heaven is also alluded to in b. Soṭa 13b,6 albeit through tortuous midrash:

And some say: Moses did not actually die, as it is written here: “And Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there,” and it is written: “And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights.” Just as there, where it says: “And he was there with the Lord,” it means that he was standing and serving before God; so too, here, when it says: “And Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there,” it means that he was standing and serving before God.

Because it was thought Moses had been taken to heaven the same as Elijah, it was therefore believed by some that when Elijah returned to the earth in fulfillment of Mal 4.5–6, he would be accompanied by Moses.7 This was not simply because Moses was important for Israel’s story in his own right. Some believed Moses would appear alongside Elijah when ‘the prophet’ had finally arrived, another figure who would appear before the eschaton, an idea which ancient interpreters read into Deut 18.15–22.8 Early Christians believed Jesus was this prophet-like-Moses (e.g. Acts 3.19–23).

The primacy of Elijah, and the secondary presence of Moses, firmly situates the transfiguration scene as eschatological. In simple terms, Mark provides it as ‘a sign of the end times’.

Eschatological Fulfillment

The transfiguration is commonly interpreted as the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction in the previous verse:

Mark 9.1

some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power

This prediction comes immediately after Jesus’ statement that this eschatological event would entail the son of man’s arrival in God’s glory to execute judgment, accompanied by the angels (Mark 8.38).

In the Synoptics, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes the imminence of the eschaton. The son of man would come with the angels before that generation had passed away (Mark 13.26–27, 30). The son of man would come to execute judgment before the Gospel had reached every town in Israel (Matt 10.23). The son of man’s coming was connected to the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple, which would happen during that generation (Matt 23.32–39). The son of man’s judgment would involve all nations (Matt 25.31–46). This is in addition to other general warnings of the eschaton’s temporal proximity (Mark 1.15; Matt 3.7–10,12).

Mark 9.1 adds one more brick onto the pile, showing that Jesus fully believed the eschaton would take place in the near future. Yet, certain hermeneutics seek to interpret these passages in isolation from one another, consequently diluting the force of their cumulative insistence that the end of the world was so close. In this case, Mark 9.1 is most often interpreted in defiance of this prevailing theme of an imminent eschaton by identifying its fulfillment in the transfiguration.

There is a degree of truth behind this interpretation. It is, in fact, the interpretation the author of the Gospel of Mark intends to impress upon his readers.9 So why is this interpretation such a problem? The key reason is that it is theologically-motivated, driven by a desire to protect Jesus from the possibility that his prophecy was errant. If that verse is part of a larger prophetic paradigm which Jesus insisted would be fulfilled in a matter of decades, then his prediction in Mark 9.1 is — in a word — wrong.

Many of the contorted explanations which exegetes have managed to twist out of these words have been based on the conviction that Jesus could not have been mistaken.10

In other words, many readers begin with their conclusion already decided (Jesus cannot be wrong about when the eschaton would happen), then work backwards to find an interpretation to accommodate that belief (Jesus must not have been predicting the eschaton). Criticizing this interpretation is not to lay blame on the interpreters, since it is what Mark intends readers to come away thinking.

It can be seen that the author’s attempt to imply the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in 9.1 with the transfiguration in Mark 9.2–8 is undermined by the discussion of the Elijah prophecy (Mal 4.5–6) which immediately follows in Mark 9.9–13. The Elijah prophecy is explicitly about an eschatological judgment that will come upon the land of Israel. In the Gospel of Mark, the climax of Jesus’ career is his denunciation of Jerusalem, its temple, and its religious elite (most of chapters 11–12) and his prophecy that Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed, following by the arrival of the son of man in glory, accompanied by the angels (chapter 13).

Mark 8.38–9.1 is a brief prophecy summarizing Jesus’ whole eschatology.

However, Jesus’ appearance is briefly transformed in front of just three of his disciples, and he quickly commands them not to tell anyone what they saw. Contrary to Jesus’ prophecy, the transfiguration event does consist of the son of man arriving amid the heavenly angels to execute judgment upon all nations. Dropping the transfiguration story into the book’s narrative between Jesus’ prediction on the one hand, and his discussion of the Elijah prophecy on the other, doesn’t validate an interpretation where the transfiguration fulfills either item.

Jesus’ Appearance

When Jesus is transfigured before his three disciples, Luke 9.29 vaguely mentions that ‘the appearance of his face changed’, while Matt 17.2 directly says that ‘his face shone like the sun’. This stresses the connection to Moses’ face shining brilliantly in Exo 34.29. However, the detail that Jesus’ face changed in appearance is absent from Mark 9. In that earlier version of the story, it only says that Jesus’ clothing became a ‘dazzling white’ (9.3). Mark’s allusions to Exodus were strong enough the two authors added the detail about Jesus’ face shining (apparently independently of one another, given their verbal disagreement11).

Although many commentators connect Jesus’ shining clothes to Moses’ shining face, there may be another explanation for this detail.

Bright white or shining clothes are associated with angels or angelic figures.12 The word used in Mark 9.3 to describe Jesus’ clothes, στίλβω, is most often used for the shine of stars and metals,13 and stars are regularly associated with (or identified as) divine or angelic beings.14 If this is the connection the text intends to make, how does the transfiguration affect our understanding of Jesus’ identity in the Gospel of Mark? Is the story actually revealing Jesus is a divine being? I find this doubtful, due to Elijah’s presence (with Moses). The transfiguration is not meant to unveil the hidden divinity of Jesus. It is meant to unveil his identity as related to the end times.

The whole atmosphere, then, is numinous, even dreamlike. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah seem to exist on a plane of their own, separate from that of the three mortals who look on as though from afar, thunderstruck.15

The author of the Gospel of Matthew even calls the transfiguration a ‘vision’ (17.9), perhaps suggesting he interpreted what the disciples had witnessed as a revelation of something yet-to-be. While religiously conservative scholars are prone to taking the former interpretation — that this was a revelation of Jesus as the divine son of God (or even as God himself) — other critical scholars see the transfiguration instead as unveiling something about the future eschaton.

Hence the sudden appearance of “Elijah with Moses” in the Markan narrative suggests that the transfiguration is an anticipation of the wave of divine glory that is about the flood the earth.16

Since it is only Jesus’ clothes which change appearance in the earliest version of the story — not Jesus himself, as we might expect if this was a revelation he is really a divinity walking upon the earth as a man — there are a few ways this might be explained by an eschatological interpretation, compatible with what we’ve seen so far. One is that Jesus’ bright clothing come from a particular tradition of the time.

Adam’s “garments of glory” […] were the subject of immense interest among Jews and Christians in this period; among those speculations was that the Messiah would recover the glorious Adamic raiment at the eschaton. Jesus’ “flashy” clothing is also reminiscent of the dress of kings on important occasions, including enthronements […] Jesus’ dazzling apparel, then, is pictorial code suggesting his status as the new Adam and King Messiah on the way to enthronement.17

That Mark specifies Jesus’ clothes, not his face, as changing in appearance may have been an allusion to ideas about the messiah as restoring something which Adam lost. The belief was that Adam had a ‘beauteous glory’ (Sir 49.16) which was unknown to the rest of humanity, since they were born after Adam’s sin. Identifying Jesus’ brilliant clothing with this tradition is not disharmonious with Mark’s other allusions to Moses, as the rabbis believed Moses’ glowing appearance was an echo of Adam’s own glory.18

Interpreting the Transfiguration as Resurrection

While we’ve seen the transfiguration certainly contains several eschatological layers, there is still the problem that it lacks narrative cohesion with Jesus’ prophecy about the eschaton in Mark 9.1, and its dependence on traditions about Elijah’s return in the end-times is muddled by the ensuing discussion where Jesus identifies fulfillment of Mal 4.5–6 in John the baptizer. These two items might explain why Mark placed the transfiguration story where he did, but in musing over that authorial deliberation we recognize the transfiguration did not originate with Mark 9.1 and 9.11–13. (This is supported by the redactional character of Mark 9.9–10.)

Some scholars see a bigger ripple effect caused later in Mark’s narrative. According to Mark 9, Peter witnessed firsthand an event where Jesus was enveloped in eschatological glory, where Elijah and Moses manifested to converse with Jesus, and where God himself thundered ‘this is my beloved son’. How, then, could Peter possibly deny his association with Jesus in Mark 14.66–72? Shouldn’t witnessing the transfiguration have been more than enough to give Peter a faith easily able to endure Jesus’ crucifixion and wait for him to be raised from the dead, especially after Peter had been told that’s exactly what would happen?

This problem is swept up by some interpreters with the barest explanation that Peter was simply unable to understand something he’d been told multiple times.

fewer facts in the subsequent history of the disciples are more certain than Peter’s denial and the “cowardice” of all three disciples at the crucifixion; yet it seems a priori unlikely that such conduct would allow an experience of this kind, and it is a posteriori evident that doubt and fear were banished for these disciples by the Resurrection, not the Transfiguration19

In other words, Peter’s faith was cemented by seeing Jesus’ risen from the dead, not by seeing Jesus transformed in glory and accompanied by God’s own voice announcing his exaltation.

While this explanation is justified in response to the broader collection of all four canonical Gospels, the objection falls flat when we regard the Gospel of Mark on its own. The book abruptly ends with 16.8. The author of Mark was undoubtedly aware of Peter’s importance in the early Christian movement. However, this Gospel does not feature a scene where Peter repents after his denial. Because the author fails to address Peter’s restoration as one of the chief apostles following Jesus’ resurrection, the apparent contradiction is absent from the book’s narrative. Within the narrative of Mark, which does not show Jesus’ resurrection at all, we are left with the question of how Peter could abandon Jesus after witnessing the transfiguration.

Some scholars over the past century have found reason to suggest the transfiguration is, in actuality, a story of Jesus appearing to his disciples after his resurrection. According to these commentators, the author of Mark took this resurrection-appearance story and adapted it into its current location in Mark 9. This possibility becomes more plausible when we recognize the unnatural fit between the transfiguration and the surrounding text.

In ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the heavens — the abode of the gods — were literally up in the sky, and some mountains reached high enough to the borders of that domain. This is seen most clearly in Exo 24.9–11, where Moses and the leaders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai and ‘saw the God of Israel’, even dining with him. In some versions of this belief, the gods dwelled at the top of one particular mountain called Zaphon. See Isa 14.13–14, for example, where God is said to dwell on Mount Zaphon. Hence, here in the transfiguration story, the disciples are taken to the top of a mountain where ‘contact with heaven’ could occur most naturally.20

Several scholars argue the first generation of Christians understood Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension into heaven as a singular event.

Many Jews believed that those who had been killed innocently for the sake of God’s laws were vindicated by God through an exaltation into heaven. Accordingly, Jesus’ followers believed that God had raised Jesus into heaven directly after his death to vindicate him over against those who had killed him.21

The tradition that he physically woke up and walked out of a tomb he was buried in, and did not ascend to heaven until some number of days after, is a later development of Christian tradition. For the earliest generation of Christians, the ascension of Jesus into heaven was his rising from the dead.

At one end of the spectrum, at the earliest recoverable stage of nascent Christianity, it became evident that Christ’s exaltation to heaven or his session at the right hand of God coincided with the event of the resurrection; at the other end, from the late first and early second century CE onwards, the exaltation had been detached from the resurrection and transferred to a final act of ascension at the end of a series of appearances (Mk 16:9–20) or it was interpreted as an event which stretched out over a longer period of time to cover the Easter events in toto (Fourth Gospel).22

If we are to understand the transfiguration as originating as a story of Jesus’ resurrection, it would have consisted of Peter, James, and John ascending a mountain to draw near to heaven, and Jesus subsequently appearing to them, possibly in a vision. Under this interpretation, the presence of Elijah and Moses takes on additional meaning. They are present not only in fulfillment of popular eschatological expectations, but because they are also the most natural companions for Jesus after his ascension/resurrection: all three of these holy men were taken into heaven by God.23

Because of the eschatological themes deeply embedded into Mark 9.2–8 — the appearance of Elijah before the Day of Yhwh; casting Jesus as the prophet-like-Moses; the reclaiming of Adam’s lost ‘garments of glory’ — it has become common to identify the transfiguration as a sort of ‘preview’ of Jesus’ resurrection, since the resurrection of the dead was itself the key event of the eschaton: the world had ended and a new one would begin, starting with the dead being restored to life. The commonality of Elijah, Moses, and Jesus as each having been taken into heaven again pushes for reading the story as originally being a resurrection appearance.

Against the Resurrection Interpretation

Despite the strengths of interpreting the story as a resurrection account, scholars are generally resistant to this view. The contextual disunity with Mark 9.1 and 9.11–13 is broadly accepted, but they nevertheless insist the transfiguration story is not a ‘misplaced’ resurrection appearance.24 This is despite the acknowledgement that ‘the depiction of Jesus in this account is similar to the appearance of human beings who have been glorified after death’.25 Instead of a displaced resurrection appearance, these scholars argue the transfiguration has more in common with Greco-Roman theophanies (stories where a divine being is revealed to earthly witnesses), filtered by Mark’s author through language and pictures from the Sinai theophany in the Book of Exodus.26

It is argued that Mark 9.2–8 is not a story where the disciples witness the risen Jesus after he died, but a story where the disciples witness the risen Jesus before he died.

the transfiguration is a proleptic resurrection appearance […] What the three chosen disciples are experiencing, therefore, is a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection glory27

The recurring objection I find among scholars for why the transfiguration story cannot have originally been a resurrection-appearance story is because it doesn’t share the same features as the resurrection appearances found in other early texts.

There are very marked differences, however, between this story and the resurrection narratives found in the other gospels: normally it is Jesus (not Elijah and Moses) who is unexpectedly seen by the disciples, and his appearance, though altered, is not a dazzling one; here Jesus says and does nothing, and it is the voice from heaven which announces his identity, whereas in resurrection narratives it is the risen Lord who announces himself. The narrative therefore cannot be convincingly interpreted as a misplaced resurrection story.28

I find this rationale unconvincing.

The youngest resurrection story in the canonical Gospels is Mark 16.9–20, from an author dissatisfied with Mark ending so abruptly at verse 16.8. The dense parallels with Matthew, Luke-Acts, and John show the author was directly dependent on all those books.29 Although John does not incorporate the text from any of the Synoptics (i.e. not in the way, for example, Matt 17.1–13 is a direct redaction of Mark 9.2–8) it has been argued in many ways that John’s author had firsthand knowledge of the contents of the Synoptics, though there is still disagreement on how he went about using them.30 Matthew and Luke-Acts were directly dependent on Mark, yet their resurrection narratives differ immensely. Matt 28 picks up on loose threads in Mark, while Luke-Acts cuts those threads entirely and completely invents an alternate ending, one deeply contradictory to Matthew’s.

Every New Testament text that provides a pre-ascension resurrection narrative is dependent on the Gospel of Mark in some manner. Because Mark did not have a resurrection story for them to build from, they were left to write their own. They achieved this by attempting to fill in the blanks of an earlier text (Matthew), inventing resurrection appearances wholecloth (Luke-Acts), or both (John and Mark 16.9–20). Because of this chain of dependence, it can hardly be said Mark’s transfiguration story doesn’t match ‘standard’ resurrection stories, because no such standard existed until it was developed by authors who were dependent on Mark. The objection is circular.

Take, for example, the criticism that no other resurrection tradition depicts Jesus appearing to the trio of Peter, James, and John,31 then compare that argument to the other three Gospels.

  • Matt 28 The risen Jesus is first met by Mary Magdalene and another Mary. He later appears to the eleven surviving disciples on a mountain in Galilee. ‘Some’ of these eleven disciples doubt this is the real Jesus.
  • Luke 24 Jesus first appears to just two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus. The story incorrectly reports that Jesus has already appeared to Simon Peter individually (this doesn’t happen in Luke). Then Jesus appears to all the disciples in a private room in Jerusalem. They all believe.
  • John 20 Jesus first greets only Mary Magdalene. He later appears to all the disciples twice, both times in private rooms in Jerusalem. The disciple Thomas misses the first appearance, but witnesses the second one.
  • John 21 Jesus appears for the first time (contradicting the previous chapter) to some of the twelve disciples near the Sea of Galilee.

This is all muddied even further if we include sources outside the four canonical Gospels.

  • 1 Cor 15 Jesus first appeared to Peter, then to ‘the twelve’, then to several hundred disciples, then to his brother James, then to ‘all the apostles’.32
  • The Gospel of Peter The narrative cuts off just after getting just three disciples (Peter, Andrew, and Levi) into position to witness the risen Jesus.

None of the other resurrection traditions agree regarding who Jesus first appeared to, or even when or where those appearances happened. The argument that no other tradition has the risen Jesus meet Peter, James, and John apart from the other disciples is not a valid objection to the ‘transfiguration as resurrection’ theory.


The author of Mark wrote his Gospel based on traditions he received, though this is not as often discussed as Matthew and Luke’s use of sources, or John’s. While the discontinuity between the transfiguration and the surrounding context is not totally jarring, its lack of cohesion can be explained by Mark bringing together unrelated traditions, which he has redacted into a rough unity.

It cannot, of course, be stated with any certainty that the transfiguration must be a ‘misplaced’ resurrection account. Nevertheless, I find the arguments in favor of this reading compelling enough to take seriously as a possibility.

Mark 9.2–8 originated as a quasi-apocalyptic story, in which Jesus’ glory as the messiah is revealed to his closest disciples. It may have originated as a very early tradition about Jesus’ resurrection, in which he had been raised from the dead straight into heaven, and then appeared before his disciples when they sought him out, thus confirming to them he was the messiah. When the author of Mark received this story — whether or not it was originally a resurrection appearance — he saw loose parallels with the content which became Mark 8.27–9.1 and 9.11–13, and edited the story to sit between those two passages.

This process overrode most of the story’s symbolism, its intricate web of Judean eschatological traditions now buried due to the new, unfamiliar context. Now, the flow of the Gospel of Mark leads readers to make the errant interpretation that the passage functions as the ‘fulfillment’ of a prediction Jesus made regarding the end of the world.


1 Charles Carlston, ‘Transfiguration and Resurrection’, Journal of Biblical Literature 80.3, 233–240.

2 Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 417; Craig Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, 34.

3 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, 348.

4 Collins, 422–423.

5 Josephus, Judean Antiquities 4.8.48.

6 Evans, 36.

7 Ibid.; Joel Marcus, Mark 8:22–16:8: A Translation, 632–633.

8 Evans, 36. See, for example, John 1.19–21, which identifies three eschatological figures: the messiah, Elijah, and the prophet-like-Moses.

9 France, 346.

10 Marna Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, 211.

11 Marcus, 631.

12 E.g., Matt 28.3; Luke 24.4; John 20.12; Acts 1.10. Cf. France, 351.

13 Ibid.; Collins, 421–422.

14 E.g., Deut 4.19; Job 38.7; Psa 148.2–3; Dan 8.10; Wis 13.2; Bar 3.34; Jude 13; Rev 9.1.

15 Marcus, 636–637.

16 Ibid., 637.

17 Ibid., 636.

18 A.D.A. Moses, Matthew’s Transfiguration Story and Jewish-Christian Controversy, 79.

19 Carlston, 233.

20 Evans, 35.

21 Joost Holleman, Resurrection and Parousia: A Tradition-historical Study of Paul’s Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15, 139.

22 Arie Zwiep, The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, 145.

23 Collins, 422–423; Marcus, 637.

24 Collins, 415.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., 418–419. This compares Peter’s desire to build three tents for each Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to Greco-Roman theophanies, where witnesses frequently build altars or temples for the revealed gods.

27 Marcus, 633 and 637.

28 Hooker, 213–214; cf. Collins, 416 and 422; Evans, 34.

29 Collins, 807.

30 E.g., Mark Goodacre, ‘Johannine Thunderbolt or Synoptic Seed? Matt. 11:27 // Luke 10:22 in Christological Context’; Stanley Porter, John, His Gospel, and Jesus: In Pursuit of the Johannine Voice, 63–88; Ismo Dunderberg, ‘Johannine Anomalies and the Synoptics’, New Readings in John: Literary and Theological Perspectives (ed. Johannes Nissen, Sigfred Pedersen), 108–125.

31 Robert Gundry, Mark, 473.

32 Even Paul’s tradition contains its own confusing ambiguities when he lists ‘the twelve’ and ‘all the apostles’ separately. Are they mutually exclusive categories, or do they overlap, or are they identical?


  1. Anonymous4.8.22

    mark what do you think about universalism? It is the Christianity convention that makes the most sense. But does it have biblical foundations? Thanks for your answer

    1. I think 'radically inclusive' ideas can be found in a few of the Hebrew Bible texts. I also think a very reasonable case can be made that Paul likely believed some form of universalism. However, many biblical texts are completely silent on the matter, or assume alternate perspectives on an afterlife / final fate. Passages in Daniel, Mark, Matthew, Jude, Revelation of John, and perhaps a couple more NT books explicitly promote eternal torment as the final fate of the evildoers. Other texts, some of them also found in the synoptics and Revelation, instead support annihilationism. I can't say which one is 'true' or not.

  2. Anonymous6.5.23

    So in your view, do you see Mark 9:1 as referring to the transfiguration or not? In the section entitled eschatological fulfillment, you discussed both interpretations of Mark 9:1 (the first one being the transfiguration one and the second one being the “end-times” one). But it sort of seemed like you advocated for both positions, like when you quoted R.T. France when he suggested that Mark 9:1 probably WAS referring to the transfiguration, but then you seemed to disagree with that interpretation. Also, I’m a bit confused as to how if Mark 9:1 IS about the transfiguration, that it would be “theologically motivated”. It seems to me that the transfiguration interpretation would only be theologically motivated if that wasn’t what Mark originally intended to write. But if, as R.T. France suggests, it IS referring to the Transfiguration, then interpreting Mark 9:1 as being about the transfiguration shouldn’t be theologically motivated at all, because that’s what Mark originally intended to mean with that verse. Hopefully my questions make sense!

    1. I think it is most likely that the author was bringing together existing traditions about Jesus that were originally independent from each other. In our case, these were a prophecy about the imminent arrival of the eschaton, and a pericope about (the post-resurrection?) Jesus appearing to some of his disciples in a glorious form on a mountain. In the process of bringing this material into his document (the book as a whole), the author intended for the pericope to be interpreted by his readers as fulfillment of the prophecy. The connection between the prophecy and the pericope is an artificial construction of the author.

  3. Jacob Testa30.6.23

    Great article Mark!

    Just out of curiosity, where do you think the earliest followers of Jesus got the idea of resurrection from? I thought it was interesting to learn that Jesus’s EARLIEST followers probably didn’t believe in all of the details of the gospels, such as the empty tomb, bodily resurrection etc. But where do you think they would’ve gotten the idea of resurrection itself (however they originally viewed it) from? The general resurrection of the dead at the end of time was certainly around at the time of Jesus, but if I’m not mistaken, there is no evidence for Jews at the time of Jesus believing in INDIVIDUAL resurrection before the end times arrived. So where would this idea have come from? Even more embarrassing is the fact that their Messiah had just been executed; resurrection probably isn’t the first thing that would’ve come to mind.

    Also, if the earliest followers of Jesus DIDN’T believe in bodily resurrection early on, then where would the gospel writers have gotten the idea of a bodily resurrection for Jesus?

    1. I think the earliest years of the Jesus movement, and how precisely they arrived at their belief in the risen Jesus, are very opaque to us. Unless scholars make a world-shaking discovery of some long-lost papyrus, all we can offer are theories.

      Here is what I think is a possibility:

      An imminent eschaton was central to Second Temple apocalypticism, and Jesus appears to have been an apocalyptic preacher. Daniel 7 introduced ‘one like a son of man’, which the book indicates represented persecuted, Torah-observant Judeans during the Maccabean Revolt. Dan 8 and 11 show these people were being killed, and Dan 11 in particular idealizes a group called ‘the Wise’ (which undoubtedly included the author/s). Dan 12 depicts a resurrection of the dead, and the Wise are assigned a unique exaltation in this event. There are hints to the ‘suffering servant’ from Second Isaiah in these passages. The Book of Enoch reinterpreted that ‘one like a son of man’ to be a messianic figure who would arrive during the eschaton to preside over the final judgment, a concept which Jesus seems to have taught.

      Within the apocalyptic stream we also find a focus placed on righteous individuals afforded a special status in heaven. It was widely believed Elijah would return from heaven shortly before the eschaton. A tradition that Moses was taken to heaven is alluded to by Josephus, and a belief developed that he would return alongside Elijah. Second Maccabees 15 claims that Judah Maccabee experienced a vision in which the prophet Jeremiah appeared before him to confirm the success of the titular revolt. And in the first century gospels, we find Jesus associated with each of these figures. Elijah and Moses are shown arriving (Mark 9.4), and people allegedly thought Jesus was Elijah or Jeremiah (Mark 6.15, Matt 16.14; an early draft of John 1 may have also identified Jesus as Elijah, cf. 1.19–21, 25, 40–45).

      Revelation of John 20 explicitly outlines a two-stage resurrection event, where the elite righteous are raised to life first when the Messiah arrives during the eschaton, while the rest of humanity is raised later. I think a similar concept may also be found in 1 Corinthians 15, 4 Ezra 7, and possibly in a reconstructed ending to Didache 16. The concept of a multi-stage resurrection, while rare, was not completely unheard of in the first century.

      So what I think may have happened is this: Jesus and his followers were aware of various forms of the above traditions of resurrection, visions of righteous heroes waiting in heaven, and the connection between the ‘one like a son of man’ and the suffering and martyred faithful Israelites. Jesus was executed by Roman authorities on charges of sedition. His followers wrestled with cognitive dissonance: on the one hand they had their firm convictions that Jesus was a holy and wise man, perhaps even the Messiah, and on the other hand they had the reality of his death. However, they also had an interpretive system with a long history of solving such cognitive dissonance by claiming suffering was part of God’s cosmic plan. They also had spiritual practices which could affect their mental state, such as fasting. And, they also had their grief. Maybe someone (Peter? Jesus’ brother James?) experienced a vision that Jesus—like Elijah, like Moses, like Enoch, like Jeremiah—was now alive in heaven. They saw him seated at God’s right hand, soon to return. Others reported similar experiences. Shortly, many of Jesus’ followers shared the conviction that Jesus had been raised into heaven. Their cognitive dissonance had been solved, and the Jesus movement began.