Monday, March 25, 2013
Did the transfiguration take place about eight days after Jesus’ passion teaching (so Luke 9:28) or six days after (so Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2)?
Note: When preparing to preach last Sunday on Luke’s account of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), I ran across an apparent discrepancy among the Gospel accounts.
Here are the three Synoptic Gospel passages:
Matthew 17:1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,
Mark 9:2 And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.
Luke 9:28 And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.
The issue: Did the transfiguration take place about eight days after Jesus’ passion teaching (so Luke 9:28) or six days after (so Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2)? Is this an insoluble contradiction among the Synoptics?
Responses: It seems there are at least two solutions to this apparent contradiction:
First, the perceived problem might be resolved by pointing out that Luke uses less specific language than Matthew and Mark. While Matthew and Mark agree verbatim, precisely saying that the transfiguration took place “after six days” (meth hemeras hex), Luke’s description is less specific. According to Luke, Jesus was transfigured “about an eight days after these saying.” He makes use of the qualifying adverb “about” (Greek hosei, which might be rendered as “approximately”). If one assumes the traditional views on authorship, then he understands Matthew to have been written by an apostle who was an eyewitness. Mark, though not an apostle, is affirmed to have been the interpreter of Peter, an apostle and eyewitness (cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Luke, however, was an apostolic associate of Paul and not an eyewitness (cf. Luke 1:1-4). It might make sense, then, for his description of the time sequence to be more general.
Second, the perceived problem might be resolved by considering that Luke uses an alternative manner of describing the time sequence. If Luke counted the day of Jesus’ passion teaching and the day of the transfiguration plus an intervening six days (as noted by Matthew and Mark), then the total is eight days and the perceived contradiction is resolved. This is the resolution of various Reformed commentators:
John Calvin in his Harmony of the Evangelists (1555) notes on Luke 9:28:
The difference as to time ought not to give us uneasiness. Matthew and Mark reckon six entire days, which had elapsed between the events. Luke says it happened about EIGHT days afterwards, including both the day on which Christ spoke these words, and the day on which he was transfigured. We see that, under a diversity of expression, there is a perfect agreement as to the meaning.
Norval Geldenhuys in his commentary on The Gospel of Luke (1951), likewise, concludes:
Luke says about eight days, probably taking into account the day when Jesus uttered the words of verses 23-7 as well as the day on which the transfiguration took place, so that there is no conflict between his dating and that of Matthew and Mark (p. 282, n. 1).
Conclusion: It is possible to harmonize Luke 9:28 with its Synoptic parallels. We must remember that those early Christians who accepted these Gospels as authoritative and collected them into the fourfold Gospel collection would have known of such a discrepancy, and yet they did not see this as offering an insuperable contradiction.
Comparison of these passages also lends support to the notion that the Synoptic Gospels (here, Luke, in particular) developed independently (for Luke, without literary dependence on Matthew or Mark). If Luke had had either of these Gospels before him, why would he not have simply followed their wording and say that the transfiguration took place six days after the passion teaching.