Three of the four Gospels describe Jesus' Transfiguration on the mountain where Moses and Elijah appeared to him and three of his disciples. How do scholars talk about this event?
This event occurs in Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36. II Peter also mentions it, as does the Apocalypse of Peter. Given slight differences in the details, the essence of the story begins with Jesus and three of his disciples going up onto a mountaintop to pray. Once there, he was transfigured before them – his appearance changed, and his clothes became white as the light. Suddenly, Elijah and Moses appeared next to him. Only Luke tells us that they spoke to Jesus about his departure. Peter immediately offered to put up three shelters (booths), one for each of them. Then a cloud covered them; a voice from the cloud spoke to them saying, "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" Only Matthew tells us that the disciples were frightened and fell to the ground. Then Jesus touched them, and all was back to normal. Luke says the disciples kept all this to themselves and didn't tell anyone; Matthew and Mark say Jesus ordered them not to say anything until the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.
About the only thing scholars can agree on is that this event is unique; nothing resembling this can be found in any other ancient literature. As such, scholars suggest taking it at face value, though they diverge on what that means. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus was "transfigured." The Greek verb is metamorphoreo, which means "change of form," or in other words, "transfigured!" The word is also in the passive, suggesting God is the actor behind the scenes
Several explanations have developed over the centuries. One is that this is a resurrection appearance that was written back into the story. Scholars are no longer persuaded by this argument based on the many differences between the Transfiguration and any resurrection narrative. Another suggests it is symbolic in that it echoes the account of Moses on Mount Sinai. It was meant to enhance the idea of Jesus as Messiah. Another option is that it could simply be historical. Then there are several reasons why this might have happened. The first is that the glory of the preexistent Christ momentarily broke through his humanity. Another possibility is that a glimpse of his future glory was given to the disciples since this event follows right after his passion prediction. Still another is that this is what the Son of Man will look like when he returns at the Parousia. In short, if one finds Jesus' life and ministry believable, then the Transfiguration fits right in.
In addition, the meaning of the details of the event is also much debated. Why, for instance, do Elijah and Moses appear? Their presence is considered to be highly significant, but no one agrees on what that significance might be. Traditionally, it was felt that Moses represented the law and Elijah the prophets. That they were standing together represented the unity of scripture, the Law and the Prophets. Much attention is placed on their order; typically, the more important is usually mentioned first, and here it is Elijah. That concerns many because Moses had always been regarded as the first and greatest of the prophets. Yet, for the Synoptics, Elijah may play the more important role in his connection with the advent of the Messiah.
Scholars also disagree on the significance of the transfiguration itself. Some think it was for the benefit of the disciples. They had just been told about a Messiah who would suffer, be killed, and be raised in three days. This was in great opposition to what they expected of a Messiah. The tendency would be to flatly reject Jesus' teachings. But now, in light of the transfiguration and the Father's endorsement of Jesus, those words ring true.
Others think the transfiguration was for Jesus' benefit. He, too, was steeped in messianic images and tempted by Peter's words of glory. He needed a word of assurance, a clear sense of what was expected of him. That came in this form. Luke says Elijah and Moses talked with him about his death, about its significance. It is perhaps unnecessary to pick one over the other. Surely, it had a profound effect on all of them, as illustrated by Peter's response. It continues to confound and inspire to this day.