The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

The Epiphanies

Epiphany stories are very common among the ancient writings about holy men. These events are normally looked upon as a moment where the ultimate truth about the person is revealed in all its glory. We have looked at the Epiphanies of Jesus' birth in chapter seven (the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem etc.) and found them all to be just myths. We will be examining the story of Jesus resurrection, another Epiphany, in chapter ten later. This leaves us with one Epiphany story, the transfiguration.

In this episode, Jesus took his three main apostles (Peter, James and John) to a mountain. There he was "transfigured" before them. This account is given in Mark 9:2-8 and Matthew 17:1-8. The table below give these two accounts side by side. (I have left out the portion of the episode where Peter offered to make three booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah as it is not relevant to our discussion.)

Mark 9:2-8 NIV Matthew 17:1-8 NIV
2. After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.

3.His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
4. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who was talking to Jesus.
7. Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my son, whom I love, listen to him!"

8. Suddenly when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
1. After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
2. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
3. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
5...a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!".
6. When the disciples heard this, they fell with their face down to the ground, terrfied.
7. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid."
8. When they looked up they saw no one except Jesus.
The Transfiguration

We will first look at the Markan account. The formula of six days, the setting of the event on a mountain and the appearance of clouds are such common Old Testament themes that the whole episode immediately gives rise to skepticism. Both Moses and Elijah are said to have received revelation from God on a mountain:

Exodus 24:15-16
And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. And the glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud.

I Kings 19:8-9
And he [Elijah] arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And ... behold, the word of the LORD came to him

The presence of Moses and Elijah are also understandable on theological grounds. Elijah was the prophet promised by God to be sent to the end of the world (Malachi 4:5) and we shall see later, Mark obviously believed that the arrival of Jesus signifies the arrival of the last days. Moses, being the bringer of the old law, is another obvious choice to appear before Jesus, the bringer of the new law. The neat way into which every element fit into a theological scheme brings further doubts to the veracity of the whole episode.

In fact, an obvious question arises, how did Peter, James and John know that the two people with Jesus were Moses and Elijah? For they obviously have not seen them and would not have known how they looked like. It is easy, if this is a fictional account, to simply assume that they recognized them. But if the episode has any claims of being factual this difficulty must be satisfactorily explained by believers. It is not enough to say that perhaps Jesus introduced them as such. How do we know, if that was the case, that he was not pulling a fast one on the apostles?

The first part of the utterance of God in this episode (Mark 9:7) is also taken from an Old Testament passage:

Psalms 2:7
I will tell the decree of the Lord: He said to me, "You are my son, today I have begotten you."

This is an adoption formula on which the person becomes declared as the son of God and is usually conferred on a newly crowned king. [1] The whole passage in Mark is fictional with details taken from the Old Testament.

If we now turn to Matthew's account we become even more convinced of its mythical and legendary nature. Matthew's additions to Mark also come from the Old Testament. In Matthew 17:2 the phrase "and his face shone like the sun" was added to the Markan account. This is obviously derived from a similar account in Exodus:

Exodus 34:29
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.

Matthew's addition from verses six to eight comes from the book of Daniel:

Daniel 10:7,9,12
And I, Daniel alone saw the vision...I fell on my face in a deep sleep with my face to the ground...And he said to me, "O Daniel...stand upright..."..."Fear not, Daniel..."

Matthew had obviously embroidered Mark, not with historical details, but with more Old Testament passages. Now if such embroidery can happen to a written account how much more likely it would have occurred to the oral tradition before Mark recorded them. [2] Believers will have to come up with very compelling evidence before the transfiguration story, as it stands, can be accepted as historical. All our considerations show it to be derived almost wholly from Old Testament passages.

Back to the top


1.Guignebert, Jesus: p275-276
Nineham, Saint Mark: p233-237
2.Guignebert, Jesus: p276-278

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by