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Patristic Perspectives on Luke’s Transfiguration: Interpreting vision by Peter Anthony

14 October 2022

Robin Gill considers a new study of Luke on the transfiguration

THIS scholarly and engaging book by the Vicar of All Saints’, Margaret Street, in London, is part of a series concerned with “critical perspectives on the reception and influence of the Bible”. Its narrow focus — on the way in which Luke’s distinctive account of the transfiguration (Luke 9.28-36) was interpreted by Patristic writers and artists — betrays the fact that it originated as an Oxford doctoral thesis. But do not be put off by this! It is well written and raises some fascinating theological issues. So, if it is beyond your book budget, do try to get it through a library.

Dr Anthony argues that historical-critical scholarship has tended to focus on such issues as the intentions and sources of the authors and the historicity of the transfiguration; you can confirm this if you have a copy of C. F. Evans’s seminal Saint Luke and go to page 413. In contrast, Patristic writers and artists were more concerned with the spiritual significance of the transfiguration and, so Anthony argues, displayed a theological interest in the unique features that Luke added to Mark.

Luke alone mentions “glory” (twice) and has the disciples actually entering the cloud. In Luke (and Matthew, but not Mark), the face of Jesus, and not just his clothes, shines. In Luke alone, the disciples fall asleep and are then afraid when they awake; Peter is apparently so confused that he does not know what he is saying. For many early Christian theologians and artists, this is an account of (disturbing) spiritual ecstasy that transmogrifies both the disciples and Jesus.

An interesting chapter compares and contrasts the interpretations of Tertullian and Origen. Both theologians view the transfiguration as “a significant model of the participation in Jesus’ transfigured presence”, but Origen detects an ambiguity about some forms of spiritual ecstasy, especially the inappropriate (his term is “demonic”) way that Peter responds.

Other chapters detect differences between Western and Eastern Patristics — divided, for instance, on whether the disciples “see” this theophany/Christophany with their eyes or with their souls and about the devotional significance of the disciples waking from sleep (perhaps not unusual during late-night monastic offices).

Another chapter compares early mosaic depictions of the transfiguration, especially the two dazzling sixth-century apse mosaics of St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, and Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. The black-and-white reproductions of both are poor, but, fortunately, much better ones can be found readily on the net.

The depiction of James’s and John’s ecstasy (with Peter asleep), with the transfigured Jesus between them, and Elijah and Moses on either side (all within a golden cloud), is particularly striking in St Catherine’s — itself having strong associations with Moses. The bucolic scene depicted in Sant’Apollinare is notoriously difficult to interpret, but Anthony sees it as influenced by Peter’s heavenly journey as depicted in the extra-canonical, second-century Apocalypse of Peter.

He concludes that: “Far from being theologically naïve, or critically worthless, the patristic hermeneutic we have examined is highly attentive to complexities present within the biblical text and sensitive to the different ways in which those complexities might be read or understood.” He is right. In many churches today, the transfiguration is largely lost except when the feast, 6 August, falls on a Sunday. Yet its relevance should be obvious after the dazzling light of the egregious atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima on that very day in 1945.

In a context of the sometimes fraught Muslim-Christian relationships of today, it is also worth recalling that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all feature positively in the Qur’an. And perhaps it is time to reverse Bultmann’s claim that the transfiguration is a misplaced post-resurrection and (following Luke) pre-ascension appearance. It might then be seen as Mark’s lens through which to view any post-resurrection appearance/presence (otherwise absent from Mark), including Paul’s Damascus-road experience and, less dramatically, that of countless Christians sharing the eucharist together.

There is much to ponder and enjoy here.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.

Patristic Perspectives on Luke’s Transfiguration: Interpreting vision
Peter Anthony
T & T Clark £85
Church Times Bookshop £76.50

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