Friday, January 1, 2016

The Logic of Christianity 8: The Missing Link (the Transfiguration)

It is described in detail in three of the four gospels, the book of Second Peter, and, as I argue, in what even many liberal scholars consider to be the earliest Christian doctrinal statement in the New Testament (the “Philippians Hymn” in Paul’s writings). Yet, it does not get the respect it deserves, in the Logic of Christianity: The TRANSFIGURATION. Scholars have seen the parallel between Jesus’ baptism and His transfiguration. In both instances, a voice from heaven (which Jews call a Bat Qol) states: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” Certainly, Jesus’ BAPTISM is a pillar of the logic of Christianity, since it is described in three of the four gospels, even though it is not mentioned in Paul’s writings or any other New Testament book. Along with the CRUCIFIXION and the RESURRECTION, which are found or alluded to in virtually every part of the New Testament, and the ASCENSION, which is described in detail in Luke, Acts, Revelation, and Mark, and certainly assumed in Paul’s writings and the rest of the New Testament, these events are the pillars of the Logic of Christianity. So, why is the Transfiguration discussed so little among Christian theologians and biblical scholars? It’s a difficult issue to grasp.
WHAT IS ITS SIGNIFICANCE? I will present, in this post, an explanation of the Transfiguration that is capable of removing the confusion over why it was essential to the Logic of Christianity THAT JESUS BE THE ONE WHO OFFERS HIMSELF AS A SACRIFICE for the sins of Adam and all of Adam’s progeny. Incorrectly, I think, on various websites (such as, it is suggested that the point of the Transfiguration was to demonstrate the DEITY of Jesus to his disciples. Symbolically, these websites also suggests that Moses represents the Law and Elijah the prophets (following Origen, who was the first to make the connection and Luther, who agreed), so when the voice from heaven says to “listen to” His Son, it means that Jesus is more important than the Law and the Prophets. ALSO for the most part INCORRECTLY, Gospels scholar Charles H. Talbert presents the transfiguration accounts as Jesus’ disciples seeing Jesus—as something of a PREVIEW, in a dream vision—that predicted how Jesus would appear, at a LATER date, at his Parousia (Talbert, Matthew, 203-204). While I do not accept Talbert’s dream vision explanation, to his credit Talbert (206) points to the “Jewish apocalyptic expectation that MOSES AND ELIJAH would come together as part of the eschatological windup of history (e.g., Deut. Rab. 3.17 on Deut. 10:1: a saying attributed to Rabbi Johanan ben Zachai; Rev. 11:3-6; . . . MOSES was regarded by some Jews as one who was taken up, as were ELIJAH AND ENOCH, cf. Josephus, Ant. 4:323-26; Sifre 357 on Deut. 34:5; Clement of Alexandria Strom. 6.15.132; Joshua saw Moses ascend with the angel, Jerome, Comm. Amos 9.6; MOSES ASCENDS LIKE ENOCH AND ELIJAH).” IT IS THIS CONNECTION WITH ELIJAH, [ENOCH,] AND MOSES THAT MAKES THE TRANSFIGURATION LOGICALLY FOUNDATIONAL.
Talbert regards the 2 Peter 1:16-18 passage as a proof that the Transfiguration was understood to primarily signify a preview of Jesus’ power and coming (Parousia), but this passage certainly would not support Talbert’s position that this was a dream vision. The very “proof” being offered in this passage is that the writer was an “eyewitness” who actually “heard” the voice from heaven” when he was actually “on the mountain.” This passage is considered by the author of Second Peter to be proof that the disciples were not following “cleverly devised stories.” They actually witnessed the event.
Furthermore, Talbert’s “dream vision” interpretation overlooks a key PROOF CATEGORY for Jews at the time of Jesus—the Bat Qol (or Voice from Heaven). For Jews of that era, the time of “prophecy” had ceased with the last book of the Tanach (Old Testament). The only ways that God still spoke freshly to humans, for Rabbinic Judaism, were through children, fools, and the Bat Qol (or mysterious voice from Heaven). Jesus alludes to the proofs of God speaking through children during his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:15-16). And, while Christianity disagrees that the age of prophecy had ended (there are plenty of Christian prophecies), it certainly affords the proof that was still acceptable to Jews: The Bat Qol. This mysterious voice occurs at Jesus’ baptism and at his transfiguration. Jesus, himself, voices the Bat Qol when he speaks to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. In an earlier book, What Is a Gospel, Talbert seems to hint that the Transfiguration may just be a mythic element, along with the Ascension, that attempts to present Jesus as an “IMMORTAL.” He defines immortals as “gods who had a beginning to their existence and had not existed eternally” (26). He mentions a Roman belief from just before the birth of Christ that Hercules and Asclepius “ascended to heaven and . . . obtained the same honors as the gods.” To the mythology of Greek immortals “ascending,” Talbert adds “transformation” (as in transfiguration) as a proof of immortality (27). He further states: “whenever Mediterranean peoples spoke about the immortals constant in their description was . . . ‘he was taken up into heaven.’” This event was either “witnessed or there was no trace of physical remains.” Further evidence of this transformation/ascension, according to Talbert, were “a heavenly announcement at the end of his earthly career” and “appearances . . . to friends or disciples.” Additional evidence of being an immortal is “reference to the man’s being begotten by a god of a human mother” (28). Sure enough, according to Talbert’s hints, the story of Jesus sounds very much like the story of an immortal. If the New Testament story supplies “proofs” such as the “words of children” and the “Bat Qol” that are persuasive to Jewish audiences, it also supplies “proofs” such as the “proofs of immortality” that are persuasive to Greek audiences (and even “astrological” proofs such as the star of Bethlehem that are persuasive to Magi). But, did the Greeks actually invent the category of “immortals,” themselves, or did they somehow receive it from much older accounts, such as (Hebrew) scriptures?
THE CASE OF ENOCH In the fifth chapter of the very first book in the Bible, Genesis 5:22-24 records this account: 22”And Enoch walked with God after he begat Methuselah three hundred years, and begat sons and daughters: 23And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: 24And Enoch walked with God: and he [was] not; for God took him” (KJV). The New Testament book of Hebrews (11:5) interprets this passage as a statement that Enoch became an immortal: “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God” (NIV). Although it was doubtlessly influenced by Greek mythology, the Book of Enoch, written in Greek (AND CLEARLY NOT BY ENOCH HIMSELF!), between 300 and 1 B.C., presents Enoch as having become an immortal, but neither the Book of Enoch nor the book of Hebrews offers any claim (in any way similar to Talbert’s definition of a Greek immortal) that Enoch became a “god.” Nevertheless, the case of Enoch is the first Hebrew example of a human who appears to have achieved immortality without dying. While I wonder why Enoch was not included in the Transfiguration event, along with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the answer could pertain to the fact that Enoch was from generations prior to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, while Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were Israelites. Another explanation for the absence of Enoch might be that the Book of Enoch had become such a discredited book by the New Testament period that even Enoch himself was rarely mentioned, which point I make in my earlier blog post entitled “Angels & Demons 13: Who are the ‘Sons of God’ in Genesis”: “Louis Ginzberg notes that all of the Enoch legends ‘left no trace in the authoritative rabbinic sources,’ and Bamberger goes so far as to say that Enoch ‘is not mentioned at all’ in ‘the two Talmuds and in the tannaitic literature.’ Bamberger does admit, in the footnotes (p. 275), that ‘actually Enoch is mentioned (but just mentioned)” in Seder Olam Rabbah, chapter 1, beginning. Then, two or three more references in the standard midrashim round out the references to Enoch. One of those references (Bereshit Rabbah 25.1) mentions Enoch, but only to claim that he was NOT translated to Heaven. Other than the reference to Enoch in Jude 14 and the few allusions to I Enoch in Jude, the only reference to Enoch in the New Testament is Hebrews 11:5, which merely lists Enoch as an example of faith who did not die.”
THE CASE OF MOSES The Bible never states that Moses was transfigured, translated, or transported from Earth to Heaven in a fiery chariot. While there are other non-biblical texts (cited by Talbert earlier in this post) that suggest that Moses ascended and/or went to Heaven without dying in a fashion similar to Enoch and Elijah, this was a hotly debated point, even at the time of the New Testament, among Jews. The gospel accounts of the Transfiguration do not suggest how Moses managed to accompany Elijah to the mountain. Nevertheless, the biblical account of Moses’ “death” in Deuteronomy seems pregnant with possibilities: “34 Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, 2 all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, 3 the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. 4 Then the LORD said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’ 5 And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said.6 He buried him[a] in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, BUT TO THIS DAY NO ONE KNOWS WHERE HIS GRAVE IS.” Verses 5 and 6 are the curious ones. Prior to these two verses, there is no mention of Moses dying. Furthermore, the verses speak of Moses in third person and clearly cannot have been written by Moses, even if they correctly recorded his death and burial. No eye witness of this event is, however, mentioned in the Deuteronomy text. This point was not lost on Jewish readers, since the book of Deuteronomy is traditionally assigned Mosaic authorship. How can Moses record his own death and burial? And, if Moses DID record it (in past tense), does that then indicate that Moses was alive again after his death and burial, and thus able to record it? On top of these questions, Greeks who are aware of the “proofs” of immortality to which Talbert referred earlier will find the phrasing of verse 6—“And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day” (KJV)—strongly suggestive of immortals mythology: Talbert suggests that the immortalizing event was either “witnessed or there was no trace of physical remains.” There were no witnesses to Moses’ death and no trace of his sepulchre. If Moses is understood to have actually died and been buried, something strange has reportedly occurred. Moses is on the mountain WITH ELIJAH, according to gospel accounts. Was there a rapid-fire resurrection event for Moses? Did he still have the same body or was his an immortal body as he appeared on the mountain?
THE CASE OF ELIJAH If it is argued that the Genesis account of Enoch is too brief to be certain that it was an immortalizing event, and if the Deuteronomy account of Moses’ death is too confusing to reach any conclusions, still the account of Elijah being taken to Heaven in a fiery chariot is a much more conclusive evidence of a Jewish teaching of an immortalizing event. All three cases (Enoch, Moses, and Elijah) were recorded long before Greek mythology became an important factor in Jewish scripture and lore. Elijah was from the 8th century B.C., Moses was from the 16th century B.C., and Enoch was, according to Jude, the 7th generation after Adam. Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire which reached to the Middle East did not occur until the 4th century B.C. 2 Kings, chapter two, records the event: “2 When the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; the LORD has sent me to Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. . . . 11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’ And Elisha saw him no more.”
THE CASE OF JESUS The syllogism looks like this: MAJOR PREMISE: The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23—This is backed up by the first sin of Adam and Eve and their punishment for that sin: death.) MINOR PREMISE: Elijah (and Enoch?) did not die. CONCLUSION: Elijah (and Enoch?) did not sin. If, then, Jesus is found on a mountaintop with Elijah (and Moses), toward the end of his earthly life, and suddenly finds his own body metamorphosing into something of brilliance, one must assume that Jesus has accomplished the same feat as Elijah—living his life without sinning! Just as Moses was on a mountain for his departure, Jesus was on a mountain. Just as there was a fiery brilliance at Elijah’s departure, brilliant light and shining countenance were signs of what was happening to Jesus. JESUS WAS BECOMING IMMORTAL. He, like Elijah (and Enoch—and, possibly, Moses) had ACTUALLY EARNED ETERNAL LIFE. He didn’t accomplish this feat in the way Greeks purportedly became immortals; he accomplished it through piety.
Jewish scholars have noted that, at the time Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, Isaac had just reached the age of accountability. In the Hebrew, he is called a Na’ar. It means he has just reached the age for his bar-Mitzvah. From now on in his life, he must follow the Commandments. He is considered innocent, at that point. Therefore, Isaac might have made a good sacrifice for the sins of Adam and his progeny, but God said “No.” (The Jewish rabbis told a story of a young female equivalent to a Na’ar—the feminine is Na’arah—who was tested by angels to sin, and who successfully passed her test and went straight to Heaven. I relate this story in an earlier blog post entitled: “Angels & Demons 6: An ‘Innocent’ Fallen Angel Story.”) The principle is clear in Jewish logic: One who has not sinned is capable of being translated to Heaven. Nevertheless, someone who has just reached the age of accountability—or even an innocent infant—is not an acceptable sacrifice for the sin of Adam. It takes someone who has lived a significant lifetime, yet who did not sin. Not many people qualify. The blood of bulls and goats is not sufficient to remove sin. The blood of infants and young people who have just begun to be tested is not sufficient to remove sin. It takes the blood of an immortal—one who has lived a significant lifetime, sinlessly, to serve as the perfect sacrifice. Enoch might have qualified, but he apparently took eternal life when it was offered. Maybe Moses, but especially Elijah might have qualified, but they both apparently accepted immortality, when it was offered. Only Jesus, among biblical immortals—those who lived a significant lifetime, yet without sin—was willing and ready to relinquish the reward he had earned: eternal life.
This brings us to the Philippians Hymn, Philippians 2:5-11 (NIV): “5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very form God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very form of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Most Christians read this hymn from the perspective that the time when Jesus found himself in the “form” of God was some pre-existent period, before his birth, but the hymn never says that. I suggest that a more meaningful perspective would place this hymn in the context of Jesus’ Transfiguration. He found himself in the “form” of God. The Greek word I have translated “form” in both verses 6 and 7 is the word MORPH, as in the word METAMORPHOSIS, the very word that is translated TRANSFIGURED in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2, the Transfiguration accounts. Reading the Philippians Hymn from this perspective, we are encouraged to be SELFLESS, as Jesus was when he found himself transfigured into an immortal form. But, unlike Moses and Elijah, Jesus did not consider this immortal form something to be grasped, but returned to his earlier MORPH (that of a servant, a mortal), thus humbling himself and becoming obedient to death—EVEN THOUGH HE HAD PERSONALLY ACHIEVED IMMORTALITY! Furthermore, his death was not an ordinary death, or even the quick stabbing of a sacrificial animal. His death was the long, painful, excruciating death on a cross—the sentence of the very worst of criminals. And, therefore, because Jesus had paid the death penalty of even the worst criminals known to man, since he himself was worthy of immortality, the payment was not needed for his own account. It was applied to the account of EVERY SINGLE SINNING HUMAN FROM THE TIME OF ADAM TO THE END OF THE WORLD. That’s why God exalted him. That’s why every knee bows. That’s why every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!
Now, every great pillar of the Logic of Christianity has its own hymns or songs. There are Christmas songs celebrating the birth of Christ, like Joy to the World. There are baptismal songs. There are songs about the Last Supper. There are songs about the crucifixion on Calvary. There are Easter songs about the Resurrection and the Ascension. But, I’m hard-pressed to think of a strong doctrinal song about the Transfiguration. So, I wrote one and published a music video of it on YouTube. You may listen to it and view it at the following URL: COPY AND PASTE THIS URL INTO A NEW WINDOW.