Review of Crispin Fletcher-Louis, “The Revelation of the Sacral Son of Man: The Genre, History of Religions Context and the Meaning of the Transfiguration,” in Auferstehung – Resurrection (The Fourth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium Resurrection, Transfiguration and Exaltation in Old Testament, Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity – Tübingen, Sept, 1999), edited by Friedrich Avemarie and Hermann Lichtenberger.
This article is not new, but it was brought to my attention by my friend, Bryan Thomas, and because of its relevance to topics that are of interest to me, I decided to give it a good read and write up this review. Crispin Fletcher-Louis is a British scholar who has (at least up until recently) been the principal of the Westminster Theological Centre, was educated at Oxford and has taught at Durham University and elsewhere. His research is very interesting, if sometimes controversial, and I would recommend his work to anyone interested in angelology, apocalyptic, Dead Sea Scrolls, messianism, liturgical traditions or Jewish and Christian mystical traditions. My analysis here will be probably more extensive than some may care to read, but as I imagine that many will not have access to the original article, I summarize it here more extensively than might be necessary otherwise.
In this article, Crispin Fletcher-Louis (I’ll refer to him hereafter as CFL – hoping that’s not too disrespectful) debunks the most common viewpoint on the Transfiguration, that it is proleptic — a preview of the glory that Jesus would receive at the Resurrection, or as he states the view elsewhere, a “sneak preview of the future eschatological state” of the righteous. CFL has a much different perspective – he sees this pericope as something more along the lines of Moses’ experience on Sinai or the ascension of Enoch into heaven, stories that he views as being based on ancient liturgical traditions involving the high priest’s experience in the festivals of the New Year.
For those familiar with CFL’s work (e.g., Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology and All the Glory of Adam: Liturgical Anthropology in the Dead Sea Scrolls), in this article he continues to promote his view of the centrality of the high priesthood and temple liturgy for later Jewish apocalyptic and messianic traditions. CFL’s position is an important one that should not be ignored, but he misses here some opportunities to illuminate more fully the context he is investigating because his agenda, or his focus, remains fixated on this one source behind the imagery portrayed in this pericope.
CFL begins by arguing that formally, the Transfiguration account is not favorably compared to texts about the future transformation of the righteous. He observes:
- there is no simultaneous transformation en masse — Peter, James and John are on the outside looking on with fear and trembling
- no indication that the apostles are witnessing an eschatological glorification or general resurrection
- Jesus is singled out and singularly declared to be the Son of God
For him, the Transfiguration story is more like the account of Moses on Sinai than an account of the resurrection of the righteous. Jesus’ experience here is transitory — he is transfigured and then goes back to normal life. While admitting that the evangelists do understand it in relation to the future glory of Christ, he argues that the pericope itself should be viewed in light of the accounts of righteous individuals who enjoy a temporary transformation into a divine or angelic being during their mortal life. He stresses the difference between the literary setting in which the story now finds itself and the pericope’s own “independent meaning.”
He argues that the contemporary Jewish traditions about Enoch and Moses are the most similar accounts to the Transfiguration of Jesus story – in these traditions, the protagonist ascends to heaven and is transformed into a glorious angelic/divine being — during their earthly life.
In 2 and 3 Enoch (and, to some extent the Similitudes), Enoch ascends to heaven and is anointed and clothed in garments of glory — this transformation is part of the process of making Enoch a mediatorial figure and is not necessarily tied to the Eschaton.
The Exagoge of Ezekiel the Tragedian relates a story of Moses’ ascent to heaven and enthronement that is similar to the Transfiguration account. CFL argues that it is clear that the Transfiguration account is modeled on Moses’ Sinai experience. He notes how in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Sinai account is elaborated upon in ways that claim an angelomorphic or divine status for Moses:
- In 4Q374, the author uses Exodus 7:1 to designate Moses as elohim and applies Divine Warrior themes to him — Moses descends from Sinai with a shining face, which is either a source of destruction or healing for the people — this is all part of the description of Moses’ ascent into heaven, transfiguration, and descent as a mediatorial figure — this is a present experience with no immediate reference to eschatology
- In 4Q377, Moses is taken up into the theophanic cloud and emerges as a super-human divine messenger, speaking as an angel
The Transfiguration, CFL argues, is clearly closer to these stories of Moses, an individual who is transformed into angelic status, than to stories of a future glorification of all the righteous. However, there are also differences — the emphasis in the Moses stories is on his shining face — glorious garments of light do not play a part in the Moses stories as they do in the Transfiguration account. The fact that Moses (as well as Elijah) accompanies Jesus on the Mount is evidence that Jesus was not understood to simply be a “New Moses” — Jesus is portrayed as greater than Moses and Elijah. The emphasis on clothing may be seen as borrowing from the Enochic tradition, but there is no real evidence that Jesus was to be seen as a “New Enoch.” So how do we account for these shared elements?
In the larger textual context of the Transfiguration story we find the conversation of Jesus with his apostles regarding his identity – where Peter testifies that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus goes on to declare how he, as the Son of Msn would have to suffer at the hands of the leaders of the Jews — Son of Man will be rejected, but then come in the glory of his Father with the angels. CFL observes that the Son of Man language is used here more extensively than in any other section of the Synpotic Gospels. He designates the larger pericope as the “Caesarea Philippi Transfiguration cycle,” which featured Son of Man speculation.
An understanding of what the Jews of the time would have understood by this reference to the “Son of Man” is important, for CFL, to our understanding of the Transfiguration event. So he then moves into a discussion of the “Son of Man” as this figure is depicted in Daniel 7. Any discussion of the “Son of Man” necessarily opens a proverbial huge can of worms, but CFL sticks to how scholars have viewed the vision in Daniel 7:
- there are those who see him as an angel
- as a human being (royal messiah)
- or as a collective (Israel)
CFL argues that the figure is actually a combination of these views — “he is angelic, he represents the people of God and yet he is a concrete individual figure.” He asserts that there is no need to have separate categories of angelic OR human if you have an angelomorphic humanity in view – in other words, there was a tradition that humans could become angelic or divine beings, and it is exactly this tradition that we should see in play here in Daniel. He makes a point here to insist that Daniel is not interested in a royal messiah, but in a priestly one. I really don’t see the necessity for pushing this point, but I will reserve my comments on this issue for later.
He then discusses the influences of the ancient Canaanite and Mesopotamian Chaoskampf motifs on Daniel and compares the Son of Man here to the role played by Baal as the Divine Warrior. He notes that this idea is widely accepted, but laments the fact that the centrality of this theme for Israel’s mythology of Zion and Temple is often not fully appreciated.
He describes how the High Priest in Israel plays the role of the Divine Warrior in the cosmological drama of the Tabernacle and cites 1 Enoch 14 and 11QMelch in support of this idea. The High Priest, in his liturgical duties on Yom Kippur (and other festal days) plays a role comparable to that of the Son of Man in Daniel 7.
“In this context Enoch’s heavenly ascent is a primeval counterpart to the high priest’s entry into the holy of holies on the tenth of Tishri. Within the cosmological symbolism of the Jerusalem Temple this would be conceived of as a movement from earth to heaven. The clouds of heaven correspond very well to the clouds of incense which accompany the high priest on his entry into the sanctuary” (emphasis in original).
The high priest coming as the Divine Warrior in judgment on the Day of Atonement, he argues, is easily understood in the setting of Yom Kippur and the Mesopotamian Akitu festival. He will go on to expound extensively on how this imagery is central to the Jewish New Year festivals.
Now it is at this point (if not before) that CFL may lose some readers who automatically discard his ideas as essentially being the same as those long-since disregarded as “refuted” or “untenable,” such as the theories of Sigmund Mowinckel or the Myth and Ritual School. However, it should be noted that CFL never attempts to prove the existence of a single expansive New Year Festival in First Temple times. When he refers to New Year festivals (plural), he is talking about those that have existed since Second Temple times, namely Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth (Tabernacles). These are indisputably “New Year” festivals, the first (Rosh Hashanah) still marking the Jewish New Year today. CFL associates with these festivals the motifs of the Chaoskampf, including the ideas of God’s kingship, his defeat of Chaos and creation of the world, the building of the temple, judgment and fertility. These elements are all demonstrably still a part of the traditions that surround these festivals today. CFL effectively uses this line of argumentation while avoiding some of the more extreme speculation on the New Year Festival of the past that has been denounced by most scholars.
The relation of the High Priest and his work of atonement to the Divine Warrior motif is something I’ve found very illuminating, but CFL doesn’t spend too much time expounding on it here. He does state
In the wider history-of-religions context there are also good grounds for thinking that the high priest incarnates the divine warrior in his struggle and conquest over the forces of chaos. In the earlier, pre-exilic period, as throughout the ancient Near East, the king embodies the divine warrior (Baal, Marduk, Assur et al.). In the post-exilic priestly tradition the high priest takes over royal prerogatives and so the high priest is given a garment, an ephod, which in the Ugaritic Baal Epic is worn by the divine warrior when he slays Leviathan. Within the cosmological drama of the Tabernacle the high priest plays the role of Yahweh the divine warrior.
For a more in-depth treatment of this topic by CFL, see here: http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/dan1.pdf
CFL then continues on with a convincing argument that the Transfiguration should be seen in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles. He notes how Peter refers to building booths (tabernacles) for the holy triad involved. In the post-exilic period, he claims, the Feast of Tabernacles began to take on eschatological expectations. Its themes of temple, judgment, etc., began to be seen as events that would happen in the Last Days.
He launches into an explanation of how Mount Hermon, the site of the Transfiguration, would have been seen as the Cosmic Mountain — the place marking both Heaven and Sheol – and notes how Jewish tradition links Mount Hermon with Jerusalem/Zion (the Jordan was thought to have its source at Mt. Hermon), especially for cultic events like the Yom Kippur liturgy. He also makes a connection with the Enoch tradition, explaining that Mt. Hermon is the place of the Watchers’ descent and Enoch’s ascent. On the Day of Atonement, the cult re-enacts God’s punishment of the Watchers on Mt. Hermon (i.e., the goat designated for Azazel which is chased out from the community is meant to represent Asael and the Watchers being punished). I think that CFL is on the right track here, but I would be hesitant to say that the cultic ritual is based on the Watchers story. It seems likely that they go back to similar roots, but I don’t think we can argue that the ritual would be based on the story as it can be found in the Enochic literature.
CFL argues that because the “Caesarea Philippi-Transfiguration cycle” (CPT) is modeled on the New Year festivals and mythology of cosmos and temple, we should view Jesus calling Peter “Rock” as an allusion to the building of the temple. Peter is to be the “foundation stone,” where the defeat of Chaos and the creation of the world take place (compare Matt 16:18, with Peter as the foundation stone to Eph 2:20, where apostles and prophets are foundation of church). The laying of the foundation stone is a New Year event:
- Ezra 3:1–6 begins the rebuilding of the Temple with the setting up of the altar on its foundation and the keeping of Tabernacles
- Zech 4:7–9, Zerubbabel sets the primeval stone of creation as the foundation for the new temple on the eve of the New Year
- In the Mishnah, the foundation stone is where atonement takes place on Yom Kippur
- The setting of Matt 16:18 is at the foot of Mt. Hermon, where there was a chasm that descended to the Abyss — this is the place for authority over Chaos to be asserted, the place where the foundation stone should be established — foundation stone is a lid on the forces of Chaos
From this discussion of authority over Chaos, CFL then provides his analysis of the meaning of “binding and loosing,” the power that is promised by Jesus to Peter. He says that this likely has to do with Peter being given authority over Church boundaries/membership: “Jesus inaugurates a new Temple state which is to be administered by his apostolate, headed by Peter.” He also argues that it likely has to do with exorcism, or authority over demons. The fact that they are in the vicinity of Mt Hermon, he claims, must indicate an invocation of the Watchers — Azazel and the Watchers were imprisoned in the chasm at the foot of Mt Hermon. He argues that there had been a cult to the god Pan (who was part goat) at Caesarea Philippi and the abolishment of that cult in this area, understood in light of the banishing of the Azazel goat at Yom Kippur, may be behind the reasoning for Jesus using these associations here. “Binding” also refers to the people: expelling the evil from the community bolsters unity. “Loosing” has reference to the forgiveness of sins. The power of expelling demons (and apostates) and offering God’s forgiveness (accepting individuals into full membership), the power to bind and loose, “sum up the power that is activated at Yom Kippur.” The message that we should take from all this, according to CFL, is that the ministry that is assigned to Peter has strong priestly characteristics and the imagery that Jesus uses here should be understood in light of the themes of the Jewish New Year festivals.
CFL then returns to the subject of the Son of Man and Jesus as the Messiah. He argues that Jesus preferred the title Son of Man over that of Messiah. He states: “It is generally reckoned that hereby Jesus qualifies a particular kind of political messianic expectation and subordinates a theologia gloriae to a theologia crucis. This should also now be seen as a subordination of a royal messianic hope to Jesus’ priestly self-perception.” He claims that in post-exilic times there was a loss of interest in the royal figure at the center of the New Year celebrations, and that this royal figure is replaced by a priestly figure. Although he admits that 4 Ezra 13 interprets Daniel 7 as referring to a royal messiah and not a priestly one, he argues that a distinctly priestly context is preserved in the Similitudes of Enoch — punishment of the Watchers, Day of Atonement, Tabernacles, etc. What the Transfiguration and the Enoch traditions have in common, he claims, is the ideology of the “true priesthood.”
What I don’t understand is why CFL finds it so necessary to subjugate the traditions regarding a royal messiah to those speculating on a priestly figure. On the one hand, the transfer of these themes from a royal to a priestly figure would seem obvious due to the loss of the monarchy and the rise of the priestly caste in socio-political and theological importance. As CFL himself notes, the imagery that surrounded the king in pre-exilic times passes to the high priest after the Exile. We can see this transition within the Book of Zechariah, where the epithets applied to Zerubbabel (most likely) in chapters 3 and 4 are transferred to the high priest Joshua by chapter 6. Although a joint Davidic and priestly rule is depicted at the end of chapter 4, chapter 6 sees Joshua as the lone figure crowned by the Lord. A transition from royal to priestly rule has been effected.
On the other hand, the fact that the Psalms, many prophets, the histories, and other scriptures preserve the idea that the king filled these roles is something that never went away. The idea that the king is God’s mediator and that he is saved from suffering and death, and that he will be the instrument of God’s justice is impossible for any reader of Scripture to fully ignore. I believe that this is why we don’t see the figure of the Davidic/royal messiah abandoned at Qumran. While there is nothing close to a consensus view of the messianic expectations among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Davidic messiah emerges over and over. As can be expected in the post-exilic Jewish society, there is discrepancy over what role the Davidic messiah should have. A number of Qumran texts seem to promote a view that there would be two messiahs – one royal and one priestly, which would be in line with an early view of a diarchic leadership. Some texts have the royal messiah as appearing to be subordinate to the ruling priestly messiah. Others depict the Interpreter of the Law as a priestly leader who guides the community while the royal messiah is a figure that they are expecting to come in the eschatological future. These examples, in my view, demonstrate that there was still a place in the messianic hopes of some for a Davidic/royal messiah, although there were many discrepancies as to what his exact role would be. In the New Testament, we see Jesus as having the roles of prophet, priest, and king all applied to him. Although we must certainly leave room for differences in perspective between NT authors and likely also between different pericopes within each composition, I reiterate my sentiment that CFL’s efforts to downplay royal messianic expectations are somewhat exaggerated. It may be seen as useful (although I don’t really see it) for the case he is trying to make for this story, but he brings up this debate in practically every book or article that I’ve read of his, so I am left to wonder why it is so important to him to make this argument. Especially considering the fact that he acknowledges that these motifs are borrowed from the ancient royal ideology, why make it so much of an issue every time?
Continuing on with his argument, CFL asserts that Jesus portrays himself as more of an eschatological suffering priest than a royal messiah. He cites 4Q541 and 11QMelchizedek as texts that support the idea of a suffering priestly figure (note that although Melchizedek is presented in the context of the eschatological Day of Atonement, the biblical figure of Melchizedek is both priest and king). CFL claims that the Qumran community may have seen their own Teacher of Righteousness as such a figure, having been attacked by the Wicked Priest on the Day of Atonement.
“There was then a well established tradition according to which the priesthood gave itself over to hostile forces on the Day of Atonement. Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering and death in Mark 8:31 (and parrs.) is not without precedent in Jewish “messianic” expectation, but echoes a number of recent literary and historical traditions many of which are associated with Yom Kippur. “
He argues that in the Similitudes and also in Sirach, the high priest identified as the Divine Kavod. In 4Q405 (Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice), we also likely have the high priest as the embodiment of the Kavod. Although CFL doesn’t make this connection so explicitly, there is likely a relationship between the high priest as Kavod and the idea of the transfigured individual being clothed in bright, shining clothing. He does note that the light-emitting clothing of Jesus’ transfiguration have parallels in the Enochic texts:
- Sirach 50 highlights the shining garments of the High Priest
- Jewish tradition, DSS, Letter of Aristeus, Philo, Josephus attest to the idea that the Urim and Thummim give off light
These factors indicate that Jesus was to be more than the New Moses, he was the true eschatological high priest. Matthew and Mark say that the transfiguration took place 6 days after the declaration of Jesus as Christ, which CFL sees as the 6 days between Yom Kippur and the Feast of Tabernacles, noting that the Feast of Tabernacles is the time when high priest was inaugurated into his office.
I agree with Crispin Fletcher-Louis on the general direction of his argument, and on most of the details as well. The idea that the Transfiguration pericope should be read in light of high priestly, New Year, and temple traditions and heavenly ascent narratives is an important one that definitely should be better recognized in academia. That these traditions also be seen as integral to the Son of Man debate is also essential. I am not so interested in his speculations on Caesaria Philippi and the Pan cult, nor do I see the story of the Watchers as necessarily central to a discussion of this pericope, but he makes some fine points in their regard that support his overall thesis. As I’ve stated, I don’t see why he needs to make the subjugation of the royal messiah motif so prominent (in all his writings), but he is not wrong to emphasize the priestly themes that are certainly prominent here and in other contemporary Jewish writings. However, in doing so he ends up marginalizing an aspect of the messianic hope that was clearly still alive in the thinking of some Jews at the time.