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Third Oxford Lecture on the Development of Christology

by Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis

NARRATIVE CHRISTOLOGIES: THE TRANSFIGURATION AND POST-RESURRECTION STORIES

Last week we devoted a whole lecture to a discussion of one title-- the Son of Man. In some respects my approach to the subject was very new. In one important respect that lecture was an example of a very old approach to New Testament christology: our attention was focused solely on a TITLE that is given to Jesus. This is the way all the older surveys of NT Christology were written However, in the last 10 years or so this approach has come under a good deal of criticism because it ignores much that is valuable in making sense of JesusÕ identity. We have already seen, for example, that if we are going to understand JesusÕ divinity in its Jewish context, due weight should be given to the fact that he is worshipped. Now that worship may lack the use of titles but is nevertheless an indication that Jesus is being included within the Jewish godhead. So events involving Jesus are equally important in assessing his characterisation.

There has been a general rediscovery in the last twenty years of biblical scholarship of more holistic literary critical methodologies and in a sense our subject for today is merely an application of that literary criticism and attention to narrative to the particular question of christology.

Two case studies: (1) POST-RESURRECTION APPEARANCES in Luke 24 and (2) the TRANSFIGURATION.

(1) POST-RESURRECTION APPEARANCES in Luke 24

(By way of opening caveat we should note that most of the interest in the role of the resurrection in Christology has been concerned to link the rise in exalted and developed christologies to this point in the Christian story. It is normally assumed that Jesus ÒdivinityÓ, ÒtranscendenceÓ, pre-existence etc.. flow from reflection upon the resurrection/ascension complex. There is, however, VIRTUALLY NO evidence within the texts for this. In particular, those witnesses to a belief in the resurrection/transfiguration never speak of a transformation at this point. We never encounter the kind of transformation-upon ascension into heaven experiences that are described in the apocalypses (1 Enoch 71; 2 Enoch 22 etc.).

Whilst scholarly attention has been distracted by this red herring other, more valuable data for the understanding of early christologies have been missed. One such example is the Lukan post-resurrection diptych in Luke 24:13-43.

In Luke 24:13-43 there are two stories describing the post-resurrection (pre-ascension Jesus): the road to Emmaus (vv. 13-32) and Jesus' appearance to the assembled disciples in the Jerusalem (vv. 36-43). Whilst modern christology has long been concerned to give a systematic presentation of the nature of the resurrection, Luke uses two narratives to explore a post-resurrection christology which is as fully developed as any credal formula. In the first story - JesusÕ appearance on the ROAD TO EMMAUS - Luke has Jesus aligned with the OT Angel of the LORD tradition. Ever since H. Gunkel, commentators have noted that stories such as this are very similar formally to OT theophanies or angelophanies, in particular those of Gen 18-19; Judg 6, 13; Tobit 5-12. The following features are shared by Luke 24:13-35 and this OT genre.

1. The angel of the Lord appears unrecognised. Compare esp. Tobit 5-12 when he travels unrecognised.

2. The point of recognition is when the angel of the Lord disappears - see Judg 6:21; Tob 12:11-21 - the angel Raphael reveals himself and then disappears.

3. The breaking of bread in v. 30 may well allude to the Eucharist, in which case it acts as a typological reference to the sacrificial offering which the angel consumes in Jug 6.19f; 13.15f. Of the OT texts Genesis chs. 18-19 are of particular relevance, since we find the common themes of:

4. The entertaining of a heavenly visitor coming in from a journey.

5. The intention of Jesus in Luke 24:28 (Jesus Òwalked ahead as if he were going onÓ) is reminiscent of Gen 18:3 ÒMy Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant.Ó

6 In Gen 19:3 and Lk 24:29 the mortals have to press the angelic visitor to stay. The Greek is similar in each case.

So in the road to Emmaus story Jesus behaves like an angel. This isnÕt surprising since any mortal in the post-resurrection state would be angelic (see e.g. Mk 12:25). But what is more significant is that LukeÕs story has Jesus act not just like any angel but describes Jesus in terms of the Angel of the LORD esp. Gen 18-19.

But off course this story could leave the reader with the impression that JesusÕ resurrection was asomatic. So Luke then moves to another story which provides a qualification to JesusÕ post-resurrection divinity.

In Luke 24:36-43 Jesus EATS FISH IN THE UPPER ROOM. At first Jesus appears from nowhere; he is angelic and not surprisingly the disciples think he is a spirit (within Luke a near synonym for angel). Jesus ÒprovesÓ he is more human than a spirit by having them touch his body and eating some fish before their eyes. The later action relies on the widespread contemporary belief that angels do not eat - or at least they donÕt eat ordinary food.

So Luke 24 presents a Christological dialectic through narrative and comes up with a picture of Jesus as certainly fully human and, it seems so close to God that he can be compared to the angel of the LORD - it is not, therefore, surprising, that the disciples worship him a few verses later in Luke 24:50-53.

(2) The TRANSFIGURATION.

What is the transfiguration at its core? The implicit Òson of GodÓ christology in the voice from the cloud is too little to go on: that could mean anything from Òtrue IsraelÓ (cf. Hos 11:1 etc.) to unique angelic being (cf. Gen 6 etc). What does the characterisation of Jesus in VISUAL rather than titular terms tell us about the synoptic christology at this point? This used to be thought of as a theios aner christology on the assumption that Jesus is presented as a divine being and that could only have been generated within a Hellenized form of Xy. But it is now universally recognised as a thoroughly Jewish and apocalyptic scene. The imagery is typically of the apocalypses and mystical literature (ascent up a mountain, voice from cloud, inner social group privy to revelation, strongly Mosaic imagery etc.) A seminal study is that by H.C. Kee ÒThe Transfiguration in Mark: Epiphany or Apocalyptic Vision,Ó in UNDERSTANDING THE SACRED TEXT ed. J. Reumann. Valley Forge: Judson, 1972, 135-52). Whilst Kee and those who have followed him are right in their reorienting of the genre to its properly Jewish context, two corollaries of KeeÕs argument are lacking in justification. (a) we can only speak of Jesus ÒglorificationÓ, not of any ÒdivineÓ identity at this point and (b) JesusÕ experiences is only ÒprolepticÓ of that he will attain after the resurrection. The assumption on which these judgements are made is that form critically, the Transf. best understood in relation to Jewish texts which speak of the transformation of the righteous at the eschaton or after death (2 Bar 51:10; Dan 12:3 etc).

But form critically this material is a poor fit: only Jesus, not all the disciples experience transfiguration as one would expect from the transformation-of-the-righteous-at-eschaton material. And, secondly, Jesus transformation is apparently not permanent. Form critically JesusÕ experience is better understood as a gospel example of the transformation of a righteous individual from a purely human identity into that of a superhuman angelomorphic or divine identity consequent upon movement upwards into the heavenly realm during this life. The transformation of Enoch in 2 Enoch 22 is particularly helpful parallel, because of the similarity in the larger life story of Jesus and Enoch.

If we read the text closely we find that all three synoptics have in mind Moses: (a) shining face on descent Exod 34:29-35; (b) ascent up mountain after six days (cf. Exod 24.16); three close companions (cf Aaron, Nadab and Abihu - leaving rest at the foot of the mountain (d) the cloud from which God speaks - Exod 24:16-17 etc.

Whilst the 2 Enoch 22 parallel illustrates the way a proleptic glorification of the righteous fails as an adequate form critical categorisation, comparison with Moses transformation traditions illustrate the impropriety of the denial of any divine Jesus at this point. Divine Moses traditions in Philo, the Samaritans and later Rabbinic texts have long been known, but have been rarely applied to the synoptics. They are regularly discussed in relation to the christology of John, on the assumption that the fourth gospel moves in a different world of thought - one more open to Hellenism.

But that dichotomy and the assumption that divine Moses were not shared by all the varieties of Judaism, including ÒPalestinian JudaismÓ is now unsustainable. (see my LUKE-ACTS 173-184 & and article in DSD 3 1996:236-52 for a thorough survey of the extent of the divine Moses tradition). In particular two recently released Dead Sea Scroll texts illustrate very well the way in which the gospel transfiguration should be read as a divine Jesus text.

In 4Q374 frag. 2 ii there an important witness to the combination of Exodus 7:1 ÒAnd He [God] made Moses as God to PharaohÓ and MosesÕ transfiguration at Sinai (Exodus 34). In 4Q376 Moses position in the cloud of Exodus 24:18f means he is likened to an angel.

To cut a long story short, the transfiguration is best understood as the narratival expression of JesusÕ ÒdivinityÓ/Glorification as a present reality during his earthly ministry.

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Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis
crispin.fletcher@wycliffe.ox.ac.uk


(c) 1998
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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