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Monday, February 07, 2011

the transfiguration - cultural assumptions (part 2)

Focusing on Matthew's account of the transfiguration, what sort of problems arise for the “modern” reader because of differences in cultural frameworks? First of all we need to situate our modern reader. We shall assume that she is a naturalist. In other words, she looks at the cosmos as a place where the uniformity of natural causes operate in a closed system. This would distinguish her from a neo-pagan. We will give her a name, Jane Studdok, after the leading character in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength. Jane's husband is a sociologist. She is a literary scholar who got married and didn't complete her dissertation. At the beginning of the story Jane is a naturalist[1].  Jane the naturalist is our “modern” reader for Matthew's account of the transfiguration.

The transfiguration narrative is full of obstacles for a naturalist:    
 Matt. 17:1 Καὶ μεθ᾿ ἡμέρας ἓξ παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ Ἰάκωβον καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀναφέρει αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν κατ᾿ ἰδίαν.  2 καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, καὶ ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος, τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰ ὡς τὸ φῶς.  3 καὶ ἰδοὺ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας συλλαλοῦντες μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ.  4 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ· κύριε, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι· εἰ θέλεις, ποιήσω ὧδε τρεῖς σκηνάς, σοὶ μίαν καὶ Μωϋσεῖ μίαν καὶ Ἠλίᾳ μίαν.  5 ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἰδοὺ νεφέλη φωτεινὴ ἐπεσκίασεν αὐτούς, καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης λέγουσα· οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα· ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ.  6 καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ μαθηταὶ ἔπεσαν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον αὐτῶν καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα.  7 καὶ προσῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἁψάμενος αὐτῶν εἶπεν· ἐγέρθητε καὶ μὴ φοβεῖσθε.  8 ἐπάραντες δὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῶν οὐδένα εἶδον εἰ μὴ αὐτὸν Ἰησοῦν μόνον.  9 Καὶ καταβαινόντων αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ ὄρους ἐνετείλατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων· μηδενὶ εἴπητε τὸ ὅραμα ἕως οὗ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγερθῇ. — NA27
Matthew 17:1  And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3  And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4  And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5  He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6  When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8  And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 9  And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” — ESV
Matthew's narrative slips back and forth between the “normal world” and the supernatural without making a big fuss about it. When Jane Studdok reads the Greek text, μετεμορφώθη transformed in verse two is her first indication that something outside of “normal world” is going on in this story. Jane makes a genre adjustment and assumes she is reading a fairy tale. In the “real world”[2] people are not μετεμορφώθη transformed. The fairy tale notion is reinforced by the description of Jesus' appearance, the arrival of Moses and Elijah, the cloud, and the voice from the cloud. All of these elements fit into Jane's notion of a fairy tale. 

In verse nine Jesus commands the three disciples μηδενὶ εἴπητε τὸ ὅραμα  Tell no one the vision ... which is the narrator's first explicit indication of how this story is to be understood. We might think of τὸ ὅραμα vision as both a type of event and a story genre. For Matthew's audience the content of the story indicates that something special is taking place. Beginning with  μετεμορφώθη transformed in verse two, all the elements that Jane used to support her reading the story as a fairy tale, are elements that fit  τὸ ὅραμα vision as a type of event.

Jane reading is wrong headed because she assumes as a naturalist that this story is filled with features that don't actually happen in the “real world”. Her framework is alien to the framework of the text where an ὅραμα vision is something that happens in the “real world”. Jane's system of categories for “real world” events distorts her reading of the story. If you have read the novel, That Hideous Strength you will know that Jane's framework changes as the plot develops.

[1] for the purpose of this argument Jane is a naturalist in opening of the novel. It is quite conceivable that someone could argue that point from the text of That Hideous Strength but we will assume she is a naturalist a prior to her first dream.

[2] real world  is code word for naturalism as a cognitive framework.


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