Sunday, February 19, 2017

Transforming Vision

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Matthew 17:1-9, the story of the transfiguration and the gospel reading for the Transfiguration Sunday.  If you are looking for the reading to the 8th Sunday after Epiphany, click here.

Matthew 17:1-9

1 Καὶ μεθ' ἡμέρας ἓξ παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ Ἰάκωβον καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀναφέρει αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν κατ' ἰδίαν.
And after six days Jesus takes Peter and James and John his brother, and leads them into a high mountain privately.
παραλαμβάνει: PAI 3s, παραλαμβάνω, 1) to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self 
ἀναφέρει: PAI 3s, ἀναφέρω, 1) to carry or bring up, to lead up
1. The word ἰδίαν can mean a number of things, such as “oneself”, “one’s own”, etc. When combined with κατά it can mean “privately” or “alone.” Even though it is feminine and singular, it is regularly translated here to mean that Jesus and the three disciples are getting away from the others.

2 καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, καὶ ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος, τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰ ὡς τὸ φῶς.
And was transformed before them, and his face shone as the sun, then his clothes became bright as the light.
μετεμορφώθη: API 3s, μεταμορφόω, to transform, transfigure.
ἔλαμψεν: AAI 3s, λάμπω, 1) to shine
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
1. Outside of Mark’s and Matthew’s use in this story, the only other uses of μεταμορφόω in the NT are Romans 12:2 and II Corinthians 3:18. 
2. See Jesus’ description of the resurrection life in Mt. 13:43, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” and Matthew’s description of the angel at the resurrection in Mt.28:3, “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.”

3 καὶ ἰδοὺ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας συλλαλοῦντες μετ' αὐτοῦ.
And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elijah speaking together with him.
ἰδοὺ: AMImp of εἶδον, a form of ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
ὤφθη: API 3s, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind,
συλλαλοῦντες: PAPart npm, συλλαλέω, 1) to talk with
1. Luke’s double use of the verb ὁράω (“behold” and “appeared”) here feels almost like an invitation for the reader to experience the same thing as the “them” – presumably the three disciples. As it ‘appeared’ to them, so the reader is invited to ‘behold.’
2. “Behold” is one of those verbs (which takes on the sense of a particle in Greek) that I believe defies the categories that we have built up around verbs. In the middle voice, it is neither active nor passive – or, rather, it is both active and passive. One actively beholds by paying attention; one is passively beholden by what appears. I would call it a “participatory” verb, if I were making up a new category for grammar. I would add “let” to the category as well.
3. Moses and Elijah = law and prophets, ‘speaking together’ with Jesus. I find this imagery to be stunning. For P, J, and J, it is hard to imagine a better fellowship to behold.
4. One has to wonder whether Matthew intends this revelatory experience to be the fulfillment of Jesus’ words which immediately precede it: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (16:28) If so, the “kingdom” of the son of man is depicted as a conversation with the law and the prophets. I just bolded and italicized that comment because I like what it suggests. A lot. It circles back to Jesus’ comments in Mt. 5:17 and 7:12 and forward to 22:40.

4 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ, Κύριε, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι: εἰ θέλεις, ποιήσω ὧδε τρεῖς σκηνάς, σοὶ μίαν καὶ Μωϋσεῖ μίαν καὶ Ἠλίᾳ μίαν.
Yet Peter having responded said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you are willing, I will make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 2) to begin to speak, but always where something has preceded  (either said or done) to which the remarks refer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
εἶναι: PAInf, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
θέλεις: PAI 2s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
ποιήσω: FAI 1s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct, 
1. I typically translate ἀποκρίνομαι as “answered” when it comes as part of a conversation. Nobody was speaking to Peter at this point – in fact, Matthew rather emphatically says that Moses, and Elijah were speaking to one Jesus. Still, Peter is “responding” to what he is beholding, which is one of the shades of meaning for ἀποκρίνομαι.

5 ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἰδοὺ νεφέλη φωτεινὴ ἐπεσκίασεν αὐτούς, καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης λέγουσα, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα: ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ.
While he is speaking behold a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold a voice out of the clouds saying, “This is my son the beloved, in whom I delighted; listen to him.”
λαλοῦντος: PAPart gsm, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound  2) to speak 
ἰδοὺ: AMImp of εἶδον, a form of ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
ἐπεσκίασεν: AAI 3s,  ἐπισκιάζω, 1) to throw a shadow upon, to envelop in a shadow, to overshadow
λέγουσα: PAPart nsf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
εὐδόκησα: AAI 1s, εὐδοκέω, 1) it seems good to one, is one's good pleasure 
ἀκούετε: PAImpv 2p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, 2) to hear 2b) to attend to
(Compare Mt. 3:17)
1. A perplexing verbal choice here is Matthew’s decision to put εὐδοκέω (delight) in the aorist tense, a simple past tense. One expects a present tense. I don’t know what the significance might be for Matthew to make it aorist. Most translations don’t either, apparently, since they simply make it present tense. Perhaps they are trying to even the score from making the present verb “saying” into a past tense.
2. The imperative “Listen” is important. While it could be translated “pay attention,” the primary meaning of ‘hearing’ in the word ἀκούω seems to indicate that of all of the phenomena attached to this moment – transformation, Moses and Elijah, brightness, etc. – the significant thing is that one listens to Jesus. Even the elusiveness of Moses’ and Elijah’s physical presence – in contrast to the abiding presence of the law and the prophets via sacred texts – seems to indicate that the thing to behold in Jesus is not his momentary existence or his phenomenal appearance, but his words. Those words likewise abide via gospel accounts like Matthew’s.
3. I don’t know if every school of thought in Judaism felt that Elijah was the epitome of the prophets, but there are two reasons in my poor head as to why Elijah might be the prophet of choice for this event:
a) The ending of Malachi, the final book in the OT, which reads, “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord 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.” (4:4-6)
b) The fact that, like Jesus, Elijah did not write, but was an oral prophets whose words and deeds are remembered in story.
(If any biblical scholar of renown says that my proposals are hogwash – I yield, and you have my blessings to discard them. That’s always true, but especially here.)
4. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, the voice from the heavens also says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). In that case, Matthew does not record any reaction by those who hear the voice.  

6 καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ μαθηταὶ ἔπεσαν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον αὐτῶν καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα.
And having heard the disciples fell on their faces and were greatly afeared.
ἀκούσαντες: AAPart, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear  2b) to attend to
ἔπεσαν: AAI 3p, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower 
ἐφοβήθησαν: API 3p, φοβέω, to strike with fear, scare, frighten.
1. Whenever I see ἐφοβήθησαν I turn into my Granddaddy from North Carolina and say “afeared” because “afraid” is an adjective and this is an aorist passive verb. The other option I’ve seen is “affrighted,” but that doesn’t feel like much of an upgrade to me, so I’m staying with my Granddaddy’s language. While φοβέω is the word that transliterates into “phobia” in English, it seems that it indicates a rather intense form of fear, more like terror than nervousness. “Terrified” would be a better word than “afraid” here, if one is not inclined toward “afeared.”
2. It is interesting that neither the transformation of Jesus, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, nor the bright light evoked fear in the disciples. Hearing the voice out of the clouds is what did them in.

7 καὶ προσῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἁψάμενος αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Ἐγέρθητε καὶ μὴ φοβεῖσθε.
And Jesus went and having touched said to them, “Arise and do not be afeared.”
προσῆλθεν: AAI 3s, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach
ἁψάμενος: AMPart nms, ἅπτω, 1) to fasten to, adhere to 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ἐγέρθητε: APImpv 2p, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise 
φοβεῖσθε: PMImpv 2p, φοβέω, to strike with fear, scare, frighten.
1. Everything the disciples do is undone by the words of God or Jesus. Peter speaks in response to what he is seeing, and the voice tells him to listen. All three fall and are afeard and Jesus tells them to rise and not to be afeared.
2. Perhaps we are too tough on Peter for speaking out as he does. Perhaps his speaking out is no different in kind than all three of them falling and being afeared. Rather than a sign of stupidity or rashness, perhaps his speaking, like their falling and fearing, is normal human response to things holier and more wonder-filled than much of human life. Who knows how to react correctly to the phenomenal?

8 ἐπάραντες δὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῶν οὐδένα εἶδον εἰ μὴ αὐτὸν Ἰησοῦν μόνον.
Then having lifted their eyes they beheld nobody except Jesus alone.
ἐπάραντες: AAPart npm, ἐπαίρω, 1) to lift up, raise up, raise on high 
εἶδον: AAI 3p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
1. Again, Matthew uses ὁράω rather than the more common word for ‘to see.’

9 Καὶ καταβαινόντων αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ ὄρους ἐνετείλατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων, Μηδενὶ εἴπητε τὸ ὅραμα ἕως οὗ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγερθῇ.
And leading them down out of the mountain Jesus commanded them saying, “Tell the vision to nobody until the son of man has been raised out of death.”
καταβαινόντων: PAPart gpm, καταβαίνω, 1) to go down, come down, descend 
ἐνετείλατο: AMI 3s, ἐντέλλομαι, 1) to order, command to be done, enjoin
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἴπητε: AASubj 2p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐγερθῇ: APSubj 3s, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise 
1. The verb ἐγερθῇ (has been raised) is an aorist passive subjunctive, but according to those who know more than I the aorist in the subjunctive voice is not an indicator of time as much as repetition. An aorist subjunctive would be a one time event; a present subjunctive would indicated a repeated event.
2. Regarding τὸ ὅραμα, “the vision.” That noun seems to throw this whole event into a different kind of light, since “vision” in the NT does not necessarily refer to something actual but to something seen and heard. This is the only use of the word in the NT outside of Acts, where it is used a lot. Two uses in Acts are particularly compelling. First, in Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7:31, Luke uses the word ‘vision’ to describe Moses wondering at the burning-but-not-consumed bush. Almost every translation makes it the “sight” instead of “vision” – but only in that instance. Everywhere else the translators use “vision.” I wonder if the translators are afraid that using the word ‘vision’ might imply ‘not real,’ or if they are simply recognizing that so far Moses only saw the burning bush and had not yet heard God speaking. Second, in Acts 12:9, when an angel delivers Peter from prison, the distinction is rather hard between ‘reality’ and ‘vision.’ Peter did not think the rescue was real, thinking it was a ‘vision’ instead. Because Matthew only uses the word once, it is hard to know what he intends by it. Mark does not use this word, but uses a relative pronounce and a related word meaning “that which they saw.” 
3. As one commentator [and I am sorry but I did not retain the source in my notes] has helpfully pointed out, this story and the previous story of Peter’s confession (16:16-20) seem related in three ways.
a) Peter’s words, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and God’s words, “This is my son the beloved” are similar.
b) Jesus’ response to Peter attributes his confession to a revelation that comes from God, as opposed to ‘flesh and blood’ (16:17). I wonder if Jesus’ words speak of a difference in understanding between what the incarnational presence of Christ discloses and what a revelation/vision discloses. That may be a rich theological theme to pursue from this text.  Could it be that the incarnational presence of Jesus led to something like what Lessing later called “the ugly ditch,” the gap between this flesh-and-blood reality and a beyond-flesh-and-blood confession of Jesus as the son of God?

c) In response to both Peter’s confession and Peter, James, and John seeing the vision, Jesus orders them to say nothing.


  1. This is an area in which I feel woefully undereducated: There seems to be a common belief either at that time, or by Matthew, or by Jesus, or whatever, in people being reincarnated. Just quickly looking at a few chapters, Herod says Jesus is John the Baptist raised (Mt. 14:2 - at least I think this is what Herod is saying). Jesus says Elijah lived, had come again (in John the B...Mt 17:12 - 13) and would come again (Mt. 17:11). All of this talk comes off as ordinary in the gospel. This is one of those passages I find hard to interpret because of the massive gulf between what I generally accept and what they seemed to accept then - meaning they felt no need to elaborate on it for my benefit.

    I feel like such a belief would have some impact on how Matthew understood this transfiguration thing. This goes to your #3 comment in vs. 5.

    1. Kirsten, Thanks for the comment. I agree that the gospels seem to take it in stride that someone has come back from the dead. Remember Moses' words in Jesus' story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, "Even if someone should come back from the dead they will not believe him."
      It's my understanding that anything like an afterlife was not really a central part of Jewish theology until around the 2nd century BCE. I'm wondering if what we are seeing is not so much a decided idea about reincarnation or resuscitation or resurrection but a thought-in-process that there must be something more to life-as-cradle-to-grave, yet what, exactly, is not quite clear. And perhaps there are any number of living possibilities floating around getting articulated in various forms as all kind of meaning the same thing.
      Or, perhaps I am confusing what I see there with how people talk about life-beyond-life today, mixing resurrection with the immortality of the soul, with reincarnation, with angels, etc.
      And to add to the mix, Elijah never died in his stories.
      It's a curious thing. Thanks for bringing it up.

  2. 2 Pet. 1:16-18 refers to eyewitnesses of the power and coming and majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ on the mountain. So this interprets the transformation as a coming in power of Jesus, which could confirm 17:1f. is a fulfillment of Jesus' words in 16:18 about the son of man coming in his kingdom before some taste death.

    I think this vision is especially meant to reinforce the earlier words of Jesus to his disciples in 16:21, about his future suffering, death, and resurrection. Peter does not want to listen to such words, and speaks strongly to Jesus against such a future. For Peter, still at this stage, the Christ/Messiah is about to bring glory to the kingdom of Israel. So Peter wants nothing to do with a suffering and dying Messiah (and perhaps did not even hear Jesus add that he would be raised). In that context, the emphasis is then on the heavenly voice that says to listen to Jesus above all (including above these heroes of the kingdom of Israel). And thus what Jesus commands them after the vision is that they should not tell anyone about the vision until the son of man is raised from the dead. Jesus reinforces his earlier words, that Peter wouldn't listen to, or didn't really hear--words about death, and resurrection.

  3. Thank you for your hard work. I appreciate your time and willingness to put this out there for the rest of us. A couple of comments

    IN VERSE 4, καλόν has overtones of "beautiful." See TDNT volume III. From a preaching perspective it might be helpful to reflect on beauty and awe as a revelation of God.

    REGARDING YOUR COMMENT ON VERSE 6 "A perplexing verbal choice here is Matthew’s decision to put εὐδοκέω (delight) in the aorist tense, a simple past tense. One expects a present tense. I don’t know what the significance might be for Matthew to make it aorist."

    The answer to your question is to contrast "aspects" of both εὐδόκησα and ἀκούετε. Greek verbs not only have "tenses" but also "aspects." The tenses are past, present and future. The aspects are punctiliar, linear and perfect. Punctiliar describes a completed action at a point in time. Linear describes an ongoing action over a length of time. Perfect describes a completed action that has continuing ramifications. If you represent them geometrically punctiliar is a point, linear is a line segment and perfect is a ray.

    Technically the aorist is a past, punctitliar indicative verb. Interestingly, the ἀκούετε is a present linear imperative verb. So "well pleased" describes Father's completed attitude towards Jesus, whereas the "listen to him" is God's command for us to continue listening to Jesus over an extended period of time.

    To paraphrase. "I delighted in him, so you keep on listening to him over and over and over again." This will preach.

    WITH REGARD TO YOUR COMMENT ON VERSE 9 "ἐγερθῇ is an aorist passive subjunctive, but according to those who know more than I the aorist in the subjunctive voice is not an indicator of time as much as repetition. An aorist subjunctive would be a one time event; a present subjunctive would indicated a repeated event."

    You have parsed the verb right but your explanation as to why it is a one time event is off. It is not because it is "subjunctive" but because it is aorist. Again it's all about the aspect. An aorist is punctiliar--something that happens only once--while the present is linear--something that happens repeatedly.

    Subjunctive is one of four "mood" that describe how real something is.
    The indicative is the mood of REALITY.
    The subjunctive is the mood of PROBABILITY.
    The optative is the mood of POSSIBLITY.
    The imperative is the mood of DESIRE or WISH.
    The further you move from the indicative the less real the action becomes.

    The reason Matthew uses a subjunctive in this case is not because Jesus believes that the resurrection is only probable but rather it has to do with the rules of Greek grammar. By using the word ἕως, the resurrection is placed in the future and by the rules of grammar can only be described with a subjunctive mood.

    ONE FINAL WORD. Thank you again for putting yourself out there. Your study is extremely helpful for me and saves me the work of having to parse all the verbs myself. I particularly liked your North Carolina Grandpappy translation of "afeared" and will probably use it this Sunday.

    Rev. Michael A. Weber,
    United Reformed Church,
    Clifton, NJ

    1. Michael,
      Thank you for your explanations of the 'aspects' of the verbs, in addition to their tenses. I am still not quite clear why - in the context of the narrative, not in the context of the Matthean community - Matthew would indicate that God's pleasure in Jesus is completed, when there is still a formidable journey ahead. From the perspective of the post-resurrection Matthean community, it makes ''perfect'' sense (that's a pun).

      And I'm not quite sure that we're really saying anything different regarding v.9, since my point is that it is the aorist v. present quality, and not the subjunctive v. indicative quality, that indicates a one time event. Still, your comments about aspect not simply being confined to the subjunctive mood is well taken.


  4. Thanks for your work as ever, and thanks too for the very complex grammar comments which are beyond my level of Greek but very much appreciated for continued learning! I'm using the Transfiguration text but also taking in elements of the 'don't worry' text so both commentaries have been extremely helpful.


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