5 Reasons Why the Transfiguration Really Happened

If you get rid of the supernatural from religion, it’s not a religion anymore — it’s just a set of table manners.

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You probably know that most liberal New Testament scholars don’t have time for miracles. All those miracles stories and supernatural events?

They’re all pious fiction. Somebody made it up. It’s “mythical.” They say the early Christians added that fairy tale stuff to make Jesus more special. They added that stuff to make it seem like he was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. They cooked up those stories to make him into the Son of God.

“Pshaw!” they sneer, “It never happened! How gullible are you? C’mon. Get real. He was just an ordinary country preacher who had a run of bad luck.”

They might continue the debunking: “What could be more supernatural than the experience of the Transfiguration? Jesus takes his friends up a mountain and hey! He starts to float off the ground and goes all radiant, and guess what — he conveniently fulfills the prophecy of Daniel who saw a radiant man in the sky who was the Son of God. Then Moses and Elijah appeared — but how did they know they were Moses and Elijah — did they wear labels?”

Okay. Let’s get down to earth a little and look closely at the story. There are five reasons why this story must have happened as it was written.

Let’s look at the story from the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus took Peter, James and his brother 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 fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.

As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.

The first reason this must have happened as reported is something New Testament scholars call the “criterion of embarrassment.” Basically, if part of a story puts Jesus or the disciples in a bad light it is not likely to have been either invented or airbrushed. Let’s face it — Peter looks like a dunce in this story. He doesn’t really get what is going on, and puts his foot in his mouth with his comment about building tents for everyone.

Furthermore, this is from Mark’s gospel and the tradition says that Mark’s gospel was based on Peter’s memoirs and sermons. Therefore the homely detail about Peter not knowing which end was up was likely to come from Peter himself. The same goes for the detail at the end that they didn’t have a clue what Jesus was talking about concerning rising from the dead.

The second reason why the story is likely to be true is the “tents” themselves. 

Mark is writing to a Gentile audience, and like us, they wouldn’t know what on earth the line about the tents is about. In fact Peter was suggesting that he build three little tabernacles for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. This was like the Tent of Meeting that Moses built when the glory of God came down. This connects with the Jewish feast of Tabernacles when they all built little tents to serve as holy places — like the Tent of Meeting. The fact that this detail was kept in rather than excised for the Gentile audience attests to the story’s authenticity.

Thirdly, Matthew places this story directly after Jesus’ conversation with Peter in which Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus says, “You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church.” That Peter not having a clue what was going on is placed directly after the bold claim for Peter in the chapter before indicates that this detail of the story is a direct memory of an eyewitness account — otherwise, Matthew (out of respect for Peter) would have airbrushed that embarrassing detail out of the story.

Fourth: the criterion of impossibility comes into play. Basically, the more supernatural a story is, the less it was likely to have been made up. If someone reports to you that they saw a ghost you tend to believe that they really saw something and had some sort of weird experience because to tell people that you’ve seen a ghost or a Jewish rabbi all radiant like a god is overwhelmingly embarrassing. While you can’t say what happened when weird things are reported, it is very reasonable to say something happened. If people are making up stories they would make up believable ones. Because the transfiguration is so “unbelievable” they must have had a genuine mystical experience.

Finally, the idea that the supernatural stories about Jesus were just a pious fiction or a myth were clearly circulating in the early days of the Church. The first reading from the second epistle of Peter says this:

Beloved:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
“This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Scholars debate whether 2 Peter is really written by Peter (here’s a good article supporting Petrine authorship) but there is no reason to reject the idea that the epistle at least echoes Peter’s voice and may be based on Peter’s preaching. Therefore we can hear Peter himself correcting any idea that the Transfiguration was some kind of pious fiction.

De-mythologizers? They were clearly around within the first few decades of the Church, and Peter puts paid to the idea that the supernatural dimension to the story is a “cleverly devised myth.”

Peter, the first pope, says clearly that he was an eyewitness to that extraordinary revelation.

So we should be skeptical of the skeptics. Most of all we should ask a more fundamental question. “Why do people want to get rid of the supernatural element in religion?” After all, that’s what religion is about. It’s about the encounter between God and human beings, about the interface between this world and the next, the interruption of this order by the divine.

If you get rid of the supernatural from religion, it’s not a religion anymore — it’s just a set of table manners.