Old Testament Laws: Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospels, chapter 2

Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Transfiguration


In this chapter we will examine the narrative of the Transfiguration as found in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk.9:2-13; Mt. 17:1-13; Lk. 9:28-36). All three accounts contain the same cluster of images and motifs which can be connected to the Feast of Tabernacles. The Transfiguration has been variously identified as a real experience undergone by Jesus, a vision of Peter, an antedated resurrection appearance, a story of the enthronement of the messiah, a forecast of the parousia, or a prolepsis of the glorified Christ in the consummation of his kingdom. While the primary concern of our investigation is to discover whether imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles can be said to serve as an underlying theme in the Transfiguration narrative, we will also consider whether the presence of festival imagery provides clarification or support for any of these identifications. Though we are not offering a comprehensive study or exegesis of each pericope, a determination of how imagery associated with the feast functions in the Transfiguration accounts should be helpful for any such study.

We will first examine the two most comprehensive attempts by scholars to interpret the Transfiguration against the background of the Feast of Tabernacles.1

We will then look at the imagery that is common to both the Transfiguration and the Feast. Finally, we will see what can be said about how the festival’s imagery functions in the Transfiguration narrative.

Interpretations of the Transfiguration Against the Background of the Feast

Henrich Baltensweiler

In his book, Die Verklärung Jesu, Henrich Baltensweiler examines the account of the Transfiguration against the background of the Feast of Tabernacles as well as what he believes to be the historical, religious, and political situation confronting Jesus in the first century C.E.2His methodology is that of the history of religions school, but he places a great deal of emphasis on the question of the historicity of the Transfiguration event.

Determining that Matthew and Luke only introduce secondary alterations in the Markan text, Baltensweiler’s examination uses Mark’s account of the Transfiguration. He sees Mk. 9:2-8 as an independent literary unit and 9:9-13 as a Markan redaction (Baltensweiler:28,125).

On the basis of the time reference in Mk. 9:2 and the reference to tents (tabernacles) in Mk. 9:5, Baltensweiler concludes that the Transfiguration took place at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. Since the feast lasted for seven days, the six days of Mk. 9:2 relate to the span of time from the beginning of the feast to the sixth day. According to Baltensweiler, Jesus and three of his disciples ascended the mountain “on the sixth day” in order to spend the seventh in solitude (50). Since the trip to the mountain took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, Peter’s offer to build booths is readily explained.

Baltensweiler notes that the Feast of Tabernacles awoke messianic hopes in the Jewish people and suggests that zealot nationalism was very active at the time of Jesus. Based on these considerations, Baltensweiler argues that the Transfiguration occurred during a time of crisis in Jesus’ life in order to fortify him against the concept of political messianism and to steer Jesus toward his proper destiny of suffering and death.

Baltensweiler views Mk. 9:9-13 as the result of the Markan redaction of this crisis event in Jesus’ life. He argues that the function of this redaction, in which the disciples figure more prominently, is to reveal Jesus to them as the Messiah and king even though he must undergo suffering and an ignominious death. Baltensweiler believes that an enthronement motif is present in the narrative and that the redaction draws on this to reveal Jesus as the Messiah and king.

The primary problem with Baltensweiler’s thesis is that he does not demonstrate convincingly that the Transfiguration narrative is a politically motivated story. He seems to impose a political environment of zealot nationalism, in light of which he interprets the text (Jordan:34). Another weakness in his argument is the attempt to establish that the Transfiguration occurred during the Feast of Tabernacles simply by linking the building of booths with the temporal phrase, “after six days.” It is possible that Peter’s offer to build booths might be taken as a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles by readers who annually observed the festival or were extremely well-versed in Jewish tradition. However, this reference alone does not seem sufficient evidence for concluding that the temporal expression must mean the first six days of the feast. Baltensweiler’s argument also suffers from a failure to examine additional elements in the Transfiguration account which could be connected to the feast, and from the lack of a cogent literary analysis of the narrative.

Harald Riesenfeld

In his book, Jésus Transfiguré, Harald Riesenfeld seeks to use the Feast of Tabernacles to interpret the meaning the Transfiguration had to Jesus’ disciples.3 In his attempt to accomplish this goal, Riesenfeld produces a work on the Transfiguration which pertains much more to the field of the history of religion than to the field of biblical exegesis. Most of his book is devoted to an intensive review of cult in Israel. This lengthy examination is followed by a relatively brief motif study of the Transfiguration account based on the cultic elements of the Feast of Tabernacles.

In developing his thesis, Riesenfeld takes the theories of Sigmund Mowinckel as his starting point. From there he makes a detailed examination of the cult and the eschatological beliefs of the people of ancient Israel as they are described in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish Apocrypha, and in rabbinical writings. His analysis of the material examined agrees with Mowinckel’s theory that the principal element in the cult of ancient Israel was the annual enthronement ceremony of Yahweh and the king. He argues that this ancient ceremony gradually broke up into a number of distinct rites which were primarily preserved in the later celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. He further argues that the various elements of the ancient ceremony lost their original function and developed into national messianic and individual eschatological interpretations. Riesenfeld then investigates these elements, or “motifs,” and their applicability to the Transfiguration narrative in the Synoptics. This results in the Transfiguration being seen as an enthronement directly connected to the Feast of Tabernacles, which had subsumed and preserved the many motifs of the ancient enthronement of Yahweh and the king of Israel. Riesenfeld concludes that the Transfiguration represents an expression of the Evangelists’ belief in Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic hopes of Israel (Riesenfeld:277-280; DeVine:464).

Riesenfeld’s work has been criticized as containing a number of methodological problems. Kümmel criticizes Riesenfeld for mixing the themes of all three seventh-month feasts indiscriminately in order to strengthen his case, for using the synagogue motifs at Dura-Europas uncritically (as if they were representative of early Judaism), and for his understanding of the Feast of Tabernacles in a primarily eschatological context (49-56). Riesenfeld has also been criticized for trying to assert a common aim in the Synoptic accounts, ignoring their individuality and minimizing the priority of the Markan text (Jordan:30).

The most serious weakness of Riesenfeld’s argument in Jésus Transfiguré is its basis on a reconstruction of a Jewish enthronement festival for which evidence is almost non-existent in the Second Temple Period. He relies on the often disputed theory of Mowinckel without adding any new supportive evidence. The effect of this weakness is that his arguments become arguments by analogy.

While Riesenfeld’s work rightly may be criticized in some areas, it also deserves some defense and praise. Kümmel’s negative critique is often quoted and has continued to limit the acceptance of Riesenfeld’s work (Jenney:41). It should be remembered that Kümmel’s review was written in 1948 before the completion of E. R. Goodenough’s comprehensive 13 volume work, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. Goodenough’s intensive research led him to substantially the same conclusion as Riesenfeld regarding the symbols of the Feast of Tabernacles. Jean Daniélou in many of his works since 1951 has confirmed Riesenfeld’s analysis of the elements of the feast.4

Riesenfeld clearly shows that certain enthronement motifs had become linked to the Feast of Tabernacles, even if he fails to prove that there was an ancient Jewish enthronement festival. He also shows that many of these enthronement motifs associated with the feast are to be found in the Transfiguration account. It is possible that his enthronement interpretation of the Transfiguration may stand without being based on an ancient enthronement festival. The eschatological and enthronement motifs that he develops appear to have strength on other bases (Gause:25).

In many ways Jésus Transfiguré is an important book. Riesenfeld gives a careful analysis of facts from the Hebrew Scriptures and pertinent data from later Jewish sources. His documentation, which includes a twenty-five page bibliography, is rich and copious. His work contributes to the study of Jewish messianic hopes, and his treatment of the suffering Messiah, especially the Ebed Yahweh theme in Isaiah, is valuable (DeVine:465). It should also be remembered that, prior to Riesenfeld’s comprehensive work, very few scholars had ever examined in any detail the presence of imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the NT.5 It can be said that Riesenfeld, more than any other scholar, opened the door to this field of investigation.

Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Transfiguration Account

After Six Days

The precise temporal reference “after six days” is unusual in Mark, perhaps indicating that the evangelist attached special importance to this episode. Apart from the Passion, this is the most exact of Mark’s notes of time and the reference is followed by Matthew (Luke changes the reference to “about eight days”). In its literary context, the temporal reference appears to refer back to the whole complex of teaching which followed Peter’s affirmation of Jesus’ messianic stature culminating in the promise of Mk. 9:1.

The reference to six days can also be seen as recalling Ex. 24:16 where this period of time designates a time of preparation for the reception of revelation. F.R. McCurley believes that the expression, “and after six days,” is a Semitic literary device which conceived the seventh day as a climactic day of revelation after six preparatory days (67-81). Jordan suggests that the six days may refer to the period of fasting and purification before great feasts (87).

The temporal reference of six days has also been seen by some as placing the Transfiguration event at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. Based on the temporal reference and the mention of three tabernacles (booths), Baltensweiler concluded that the Transfiguration took place at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles and viewed the six days as relating to the span of time from the beginning of the feast to its sixth day (50). F.J. Badcock, attempting a harmonized reading of the Gospels, states that the Transfiguration took place either shortly before the Feast of Tabernacles mentioned in Jn. 7:38 or on the first day of the feast itself, but he does not fully develop this line of reasoning (1923:169). Neither Baltensweiler nor Badcock offers cogent evidence to support his conclusions.

W. M. Ramsay, adopting a historical and harmonized reading of the Gospels, offers a thesis linking the Transfiguration and the Feast of Tabernacles in Jn. 7:38. He believes that the Transfiguration occurred at the Feast of Tabernacles in C.E. 28 and that this is what made it seem so obvious to Peter to offer to build three tabernacles (557). Ramsay states that there is general agreement that the Transfiguration in all three Synoptic accounts occurred later than the Passover of C.E. 28 (about which time, the incident of Mt. 14:14-21 and Jn. 6:4-15 must have taken place) and prior to the opening of the final period of Jesus’ life, about the end of 28 and the beginning of 29 (Mt. 19:1; Jn. 20:40). Ramsay reminds us that Jesus, according to Jn. 7:14, did not go up to Jerusalem at the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles that year, but remained in Galilee, and then appeared in Jerusalem during the middle of the feast. Ramsay perceives that here is a remarkable chronological agreement between John and the Synoptics. Working from this perception, he argues that the Transfiguration could have occurred at the time when tabernacles were being constructed, either on the day before the feast or the first day of the feast itself. He develops his argument by combining events from the Synoptic accounts with the events in Jn. 7:1-52 and 8:12. According to this scenario, while Jesus and his disciples were in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus’ identity as Messiah is revealed to Peter. Jesus then begins to tell his disciples openly of his approaching sufferings, death, and resurrection. The Feast of Tabernacles was approaching and Jesus’ brothers advise him to go celebrate it in Jerusalem and to reveal himself publicly to the Jewish world for what he claimed to be. Jesus refused, saying his time was not yet fulfilled, and remained in Galilee. Instead of going to Jerusalem, he took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain where the Transfiguration occurred. Because it was the Feast of Tabernacles, Peter offered to build three tabernacles so that the three heavenly ones could celebrate the feast while the three disciples enjoyed the spectacle. After descending the mountain, Jesus went up to Jerusalem and appeared in the Temple in the middle of the feast. He taught that he was the light of the world and that living waters would come forth from him. Some perceived that he was thus revealed as the Messiah. Others concluded that, since he was from Galilee and not from Bethlehem, he could not be the Messiah. The irony in this conclusion would be that, not only was Jesus actually from Bethlehem, but it was just in Galilee that he had been revealed as the Messiah (Ramsay:558-561).

Ramsay’s examination of the meaning of the phrase, “after six days” (Mk. 9:2; Mt. 17:1) appears to be contrary to the principles of sound exegesis. It seems that Ramsay has hammered out a framework into which he forces the accounts of the Transfiguration. With his theory in mind and a harmony of the Gospels as his text, Ramsay seems to ignore the individuality of purpose of each of the Gospel authors. In his argument, he assumes rather than gives evidence of the historicity of the Gospel events he discusses. He uses an unproven historical setting as a basis for explaining the presence of themes and imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Transfiguration account.

Other commentators also have adopted a historical and harmonizing approach in their examination of the temporal phrase in Mk. 9:2. Both Eric Burrows and A. M. Farrer advance a thesis that complements Ramsay’s conclusion. This thesis links the Transfiguration to the Feast of Tabernacles by understanding the expression “after six days” as a reference to the period of time between the Day of Atonement and the beginning of the feast. Farrer and Burrows argue that, according to Mark, Jesus’ Galilean Ministry ends with the Transfiguration. For it is then that Jesus reveals his passion and commits himself to it by turning south to Jerusalem. They state that the Feast of Tabernacles as a date for this event is implied by Mark with his

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suggestion of “boothmaking” (πoιησωμεv σκηvας = let us make booths) which could be readily associated with the Greek name for the festival (σκηvoπηγια = boothmaking). They also note that the Feast of Tabernacles had come to picture the dwelling of humans under the light and shadow of the presence of God and his glory, as does the Transfiguration account. Thus having connected the Transfiguration to the Feast of Tabernacles, they observe that, according to Mark, the Transfiguration was six days from the episode with Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples at Caesarea Philippi. Noting that the Day of Atonement occurs six days prior to Tabernacles, Farrer then observes that the scene at Caesarea expresses “the very spirit of Atonement Day” (214). Farrer arrives at this conclusion by comparing remarks made in Mk. 8:27-38 with the traditions associated with the Day of Atonement. Farrer and Burrows believe that it is possible to see in Jesus’ imperative to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” a reference to the restraining of the evil one, a tradition connected to the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8, 10, 21, 26; I Enoch 10:4-7; Rev. 20:1-3). They also state that another traditional reference to Atonement can be seen in the proclamation of Jesus as a means of obtaining mercy at the judgment (Farrer:214; Burrows 58). By this argument, Farrer and Burrows attempt to strengthen their thesis of the symbolism of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Transfiguration account by demonstrating that Mark’s definite temporal reference of “after six days” can be linked with an Atonement Day scene.

The thesis of Farrer and Burrows has the same basic flaw as that of Ramsay’s. They begin their argument by assuming that the Transfiguration was a historical event. Then, they suggest that the reference to the making of booths and the presence of the theme of humans dwelling in the light of God are sufficient evidence to place the Transfiguration event at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. There is not sufficient evidence in the text to support this conclusion. They are attempting to establish a historic and temporal setting of an event on the basis of analogies and parallel themes. The reasoning used is circular. The desire is to establish that the Transfiguration event occurs at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. In order to accomplish this, it is argued that the Day of Atonement occurs six days prior to Tabernacles (this requires inclusive counting as Atonement occurs on Tishri 10 and Tabernacles begins on Tishri 15). In the material preceding the Transfiguration accounts in Mark and Matthew, themes are noted which are said to be connected to Atonement. Then it is argued that, since this setting is the Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles follows six days later, the Transfiguration must have occurred at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. There seems to be insufficient evidence in the text for stating that the Transfiguration is meant to be understood as an event at Tabernacles. Conclusions and applications cannot be accepted until the starting point is proved.

Riesenfeld also attempts, through an indiscriminate use of texts, to strengthen the connection between the Transfiguration and the Feast of Tabernacles by linking Matthew’s use of the expression “after six days” to the time between Tabernacles and Atonement. Using Matthew’s account of the scene at Caesarea, Riesenfeld postulates that Jesus’ reference in Mt. 16:18 to Peter as a “stone” on which he would build his church, is a reminder of the high priest’s entrance on the Day of Atonement into the holy-of-holies in the Temple which is located at the summit of Mt. Zion, the site of the cosmic rock upon which God built the earth (277). It is also possible to see a comparison between the divine revelation to the high priest on the Day of Atonement as to the identity of the “goat for the sin offering” (Lev. 16:19) and the divine revelation to Peter as to the identity of Jesus as the suffering Messiah and Son of God in Mt. 16:16-17.

Riesenfeld’s argument has many of the same flaws as the other historical and harmonizing theses we have discussed. Riesenfeld also tries to force contrived or questionable allusions into a hypothetical setting. His thesis has one additional drawback in that it only works in the Gospel of Matthew.

Evidently, the attractiveness of a possible connection of perceived festival themes in the material and the resulting convenient explanation of the otherwise difficult “after six days” has led to the development of the hypotheses we have just discussed. In its Markan context, Atonement would correspond to the time spent at Caesarea Philippi. If this is so, it would make the references to suffering in Mk. 8:31 (cf. Matt. 16:21; Lk. 9:22) especially appropriate as Atonement was a time of “affliction” or self denial (Lev. 23:27,29). The suggestion that Peter’s confession and the complex of teaching which follows it take place on the Day of Atonement would also explain Mark’s uncharacteristic use of the definite “after six days.” The temporal reference would be the result of the knowledge of a particular calendrical period or, possibly, a traditional expression which Mark had received (Jordan:87). If accepted, this explanation would place the event of the Transfiguration at the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles. However, there does not seem to be sufficient evidence in the text to prove this thesis.

Baltensweiler, Badcock, Ramsay, Burrows, Farrar, and Riesenfeld constitute a majority of the scholars who have sought to interpret the Transfiguration accounts against the background of the Feast of Tabernacles. Each of these individuals has taken the approach of attempting to explain the presence of festival imagery and themes in the Transfiguration account by trying to establish that the Transfiguration was an event that occurred at the time of the feast. This approach is unprovable and unnecessary for explaining the presence of the festival imagery. We have seen in the first chapter of this work that the imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles was powerful and pervasive in the NT period. It may have been possible for this imagery “to stand on its own” and have its own literary value apart from the actual festival celebration. In regard to the temporal reference, as McCurley has noted, the expression “after six days” can be understood as a literary device used to highlight a “seventh day” of revelation (67-81). It can be said that in Mk. 9:2 and Mt. 17:1 the expression “after six days” sets the stage for a climactic event of revelation, the Transfiguration.

About Eight Days

For some reason, Luke has changed the specific Markan dating, “after six days,” to the general “about eight days.” Commentators have advanced several suggestions in attempts to explain the difference in the temporal expressions. An attempt at harmonizing the different temporal references is made by Geldenhuys who suggests that Luke’s expression “about eight days” probably considers the day when Jesus spoke the words of verses 23-27 as well as the day on which the Transfiguration took place, so there is no conflict between Luke’s dating and that of Mark and Matthew (282). Some have tried to see in Luke’s temporal reference evidence that the Transfiguration is a post-resurrection appearance interpreting the “about eight days” as a reference in Christian writing to “next Sunday,” i.e. the Sunday following Jesus’ resurrection (Goudoever:256). However, most commentators agree that the “eight days” does not suit the resurrection narrative of Luke (Fitzmeyer:I,797). Fitzmeyer states that the “eight days” may be nothing more than a rounded off way of saying, “about a week later,” but he feels that one cannot exclude the possible allusion to Lev. 23:36, the passage that tells how the Feast of Tabernacles should be celebrated and also defines its time frame (I,797). Daniélou states that the difference in temporal expressions indicates that there is involvement of a yearly event in which the interval of six to eight days has a special meaning. This yearly event would be the Feast of Tabernacles which begins six days after Atonement, lasts seven days, and is followed by an “eighth day” which has a particular importance (Daniélou, 1956A:340). There appears to be insufficient evidence to establish a definitive interpretation. It is likely that we are again dealing primarily with a literary construct.

Three Booths

For most commentators, the reference to three booths in the Transfiguration account is the primary factor which associates the narrative with the Feast of Tabernacles. All three Synoptic gospels use the term σκηvας. In the LXX, σκηvη is used primarily as a translation of the Hebrew ‘ohel (tent), mishkan (tabernacle, dwelling), and sukka(h) (booth or tabernacle) (Michaelis:369). σκηvη occurs 20 times in the NT with half of these occurrences appearing in the book of Hebrews with reference to the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Lk. 16:9 speaks of αιωvιoυς σκηvης (eternal booths). Michaelis states that this saying is unquestionably to be understood as eschatological (378). It appears that the idea of dwelling in eschatological σκηvαι (booths) was familiar to at least some Christian communities in NT times. Other examples which appear to indicate that the eschatological significance of σκηvαι was known in NT times can be found in Revelation, the Fourth Gospel, and possibly in 2 Corinthians. Revelation speaks of the tent of God and of those of the blessed ones in the world to come (7:15; 12:12; 13:6; 21:3). The writer of the Fourth Gospel uses the verb σκηvoιv to describe that the Word became flesh and “dwelt” among us (Jn. 1:14). In 2 Cor. 5:1-4 Paul seems to be thinking of the ” heavenly σκηvη” in contrast to the earthly.

Frequently in Judaism, the day of salvation was depicted as a day when Yahweh would once more pitch his σκηvη with his people, as he had done in the forty years of wilderness wandering.6 Even more than the Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles had acquired this eschatological significance. As well as looking back to the deliverance from Egypt and God’s preservation of his people in the wilderness journey, it also looked forward to the Messianic Age when Yahweh would again tabernacle with his people. One of the special features of that great day would be the assembling of all nations in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles and to worship God as King (Zech. 14:16-19). God and his redeemed were to live together in σκηvαι with one another on earth (Boobyer, 1940:134).

It is possible that Mark uses Peter’s offer to build booths as a means to extend both eschatological and messianic symbolism in the Transfiguration story. The imagery that Mark may have in mind is that of the booth as the abode of God and the Messiah with humanity in the Age to Come. While it is uncertain whether some of the Jewish eschatology of the period envisioned the Messiah as dwelling in σκηvαι with his people, some Christian eschatology of the NT period (as evidenced by Rev. 7:15-17) appears to have associated the Lamb with God in the eschatological tabernacling of the people of God (Boobyer, 1940:135).

How are we to view the fact that Mark’s narrative tells us that Peter’s suggestion of building three booths is inappropriate? There are many possibilities which fit well with the evidence so far presented. It could be that Peter’s intent is described as unfitting because it overlooks the transitory nature of the experience and that when the Messiah does come to dwell in σκηvαι with his people it will be with more than just the three who were chosen to be a part of the Transfiguration experience. If Mark is thinking of the event as a parousia forecast, then Peter’s words are out of place because they are made too soon. Jesus must first suffer, die, and be resurrected before he can come again. Perhaps Mark is again showing that Peter fails to understand the necessity of Jesus’ suffering just as he had “six days” before in Caesarea Philippi. Did Peter’s offer demonstrate an “incorrect Christology” by offering to build three booths, thus equating Elijah, Moses, and Jesus? Was Mark indicating that the construction of booths was not necessary for God’s dwelling with his people, for God was already dwelling with them in the person of Jesus? All of these suggestions fit well with the Markan theme of the disciples’ misunderstanding.

It may be questioned as to why, if the three booths represent the consummation of the kingdom when God will tabernacle with his people, Peter suggested the building of booths only for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Riesenfeld offers the suggestion that Mark wanted the disciples to be seen as remaining marginal, building but not dwelling in the booths (258). It could be Mark’s way of pointing out that until Jesus had actually suffered, died, and been raised, the disciples could not be fully included in the kingdom.

The Cloud

The cloud is associated with eschatological and Messianic expectations. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Yahweh often came to his people in a cloud and the tendency to describe the good times coming in terms drawn from the past led to expectation of a reappearance of the cloud at the “End” (Boobyer, 1940:135). In 2 Macc. 2:8 the appearance of the cloud is connected with the appearance of God in the future to gather his people. In this text it is also connected with God’s appearance to Moses and to God’s presence at Solomon’s dedication of the Temple at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles (2 Chr. 7:1-3, 8-9). The symbol of the cloud often represents God’s presence and is used to describe the way God manifests himself. In early Christian thought the cloud was also how Christ would appear at his final coming (Lk. 21:27; Mk. 13:26; 14:62; Mt. 24:30; 26:64; Rev. 1:7).

The expression “bright cloud” of Mt. 17:5 is interesting. The idea of brightness was rendered in the biblical tradition by means of the term “fire” (Ex. 24:14; Deut. 5:19; Num. 9:16). In the priestly tradition, the fiery aspect of the cloud symbolized its “glorious” attribute and so it can be said that “the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud” (Ex. 16:10; Num. 14:10). Later, the expression vεφελης δoξης (cloud of glory) is used (2 Chr. 5:13 LXX). This phrase often occurs in Aramaic or Hebrew in the rabbinical writings and is associated with the eschatological booths of the Feast of Tabernacles. In our study of the Feast of Tabernacles in and around the NT period, we discussed how the festival booth became a reminder of divine protection during the Exodus experience and became associated with God’s presence in the cloud which accompanied Israel during its wilderness journey. The Aramaic Targum of Lev. 23:43 discussing the lesson of the Feast of Tabernacles, refers to the children of Israel dwelling in “cloud-sukkot” (Braude, 1975:471). If the cloud in the Transfiguration account is understood to cover all those present on the mountain, the reference could be to the concept found in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Jewish tradition of the protecting canopy (sukka) over the eschatological Israel. Sabourin states that the cloud of the Transfiguration account is without a doubt a theophanic cloud from which God speaks as from his dwelling place (Mk. 9:7). He adds that its function on the mountain would be to picture God’s bringing a new revelation as well as to picture the occasion when God will make his dwelling with his people at the “end-time” (Sabourin:307).

The Voice

The voice from the cloud which proclaims Jesus as the Beloved Son and admonishes the disciples to hear him, is seen by Lohmeyer as associated with eschatological expectation. Based on an eschatological understanding of Zech. 14:16 and the tradition of reading the Law of Moses at the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 31:10-11; Neh. 8:18; Josephus Antiq. 4.8.12) and in the Messianic Age (Mi. 4:1-4), Lohmeyer views the pronouncement, “listen to him” (Mk. 9:7), as related to the Jewish anticipation of the New Age when all people would be instructed from the Torah. He concludes that the voice is thus appointing Jesus as the divinely commissioned eschatological Rabbi of that day (cf. Deut. 18:15) (Lohmeyer:176).

Riesenfeld states that the voice’s proclamation of Jesus as Son of God recalls the analogous proclamation belonging to the ancient royal enthronement ritual, which he connects to the Feast of Tabernacles (251). In the coronation formula found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Davidic king (the Messiah) was called “son” by Yahweh (2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 89:27). Ps. 2:6-7appears especially to provide a background for an association of the titles “Son of God” and “King of Israel” (Brown:88). Thus, the pronouncement of Jesus as Son in the Transfiguration accounts (Mk. 9:7; Mt. 17:5; Lk. 9:35) appears to reflect Jewish ideas regarding the Messiah being applied to Jesus. Riesenfeld further argues that although the title, Son of God, was in little use in Jewish messianology it was not totally foreign. Given the existing association between the figure of the Messianic King and the interpretation of Ps. 2:7, the proclamation of Jesus as Son of God here means at the same time that he is enthroned King (Riesenfeld:251-252).

The Transfiguration, the Glory, and the Garments

The element of the Transfiguration from which its name arises consists of a change in the external aspect of Jesus, who appears in unaccustomed splendor. Mark, followed by Matthew, uses the verb μεταμoρφouσθαι to describe the occurrence. The miracle described by the use of this word is a transformation from an earthly into a supraterrestrial form, as denoted by the radiance of the garments and also by the radiance of the countenance in Matthew and Luke. According to Behm, the use of the verb μεταμoρφouσθαι in the Transfiguration account has nothing whatever to do with metamorphosis in the Hellenistic sense where the dominant motif is that of the gods changing themselves into earthly and perceptible beings, but rather suggests the context of Jewish apocalyptic ideas where a miraculous change of form is one of the gifts of eschatological salvation which the blessed receive after the resurrection (758). What we appear to have in the account is a transformation into a “heavenly” form of light or glory. Burrows connects the light imagery of the radiance from the clothing and the features of Jesus in the Transfiguration account to the imagery of light as an element of the Feast of Tabernacles (284). The element of “glory” is explicit in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration and is connected with the radiant transformation of both the face and garments of Jesus. Although Mark does not use the word δ`ξα (glory) and the description of Jesus when he is transfigured is described differently by each of the evangelists, Riesenfeld still believes that their common aim is to tell of Jesus’ δ`ξα as a distinguishing quality of the Messiah (246). Outside of the Transfiguration’s depiction of Jesus’ visage and splendorous clothing only the book of Revelation gives a more detailed description of the exterior aspect of δ`ξα (Rev. 1:12-16; 14:14). Riesenfeld states that this glory is the characteristic glory of the celestial Christ and is especially important in reference to the parousia (246).

All three accounts of the Transfiguration make reference to the transformation of Jesus’ garments. His garments are described, by various translations of forms of the word λευκÎς, as glistening, dazzling, brilliant, and radiantly white. Riesenfeld sees in the Transfiguration account a connection between Jesus’ white garments and the clothing worn by the priests who officiated at the Jewish festivals. According to Riesenfeld, Jesus’ radiant, white garments are the typical attire of the high priestly messiah’s enthronement at the Feast of Tabernacles (105).

In the NT λευκις (white) is mentioned almost always in eschatological and apocalyptic contexts or as the heavenly color (Michaelis:246). NT descriptions of white clothing refer to angels surrounded with glory (Mt. 28:3; Mk. 16:5; Jn.20:12; Acts 1:10) or to the clothing of glorified saints in heaven (Rev. 3:4,5,18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9,13).

According to Jenny, the eschatological imagery of white garments arose from their association with festival attendance (183). Apparently many celebrants wore white like the Levites and priests who officiated at the festivals (2 Sam. 6:14). Festival-goers wore special white garments for the days when no work was required. White garments came, in time, to be associated with “holiness,” “purity,” and (festive or even nuptial) “rejoicing.” The prophetic and apocalyptic image of shining faces and shining white garments of the resurrected righteous (Lk. 9:28; I Enoch 38:4; 62:15-16; 104:2; 2 Baruch 51:3,10; 4 Ezrah 7:124) are undoubtedly eschatological heightenings of the freshly scrubbed faces of feast-goers, dressed in their festival best and anointed with fragrant oils (Jenny:183-184).


Riesenfeld understands that Peter’s words in Mk. 9:5, “it is good for us to be here,” reveal a joy like that typical of the Feast of Tabernacles and also like that accompanying the coming of the Messiah (259). Riesenfeld further points out that καλ`ς (good) renders the Hebrew word b w j which is used in the Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinical writings to describe holy days as b w j . w y. Riesenfeld finds in Peter’s words an exclamation of festival and eschatological joy which the disciple desires to prolong by the building of booths (261).

The Mountain

The Transfiguration occurs on an unidentified mountain in Galilee. Almost all commentators agree that the basic meaning of the mountain in the narrative is symbolic. The mountain has symbolic prominence in the NT, in other Christian writings, in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in other Jewish writings as the place for eschatological teaching or revelation (Gause:78). Riesenfeld states that the Transfiguration in Mark and Matthew pictures the messianic enthronement taking place in Galilee because in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Galilee is the place where eschatological hopes are fulfilled (280).

Elijah and Moses

The appearance of Elijah and Moses in the Transfiguration account has been variously explained as the appearance of holy ones who were anonymous in the original account, representative of the OT heroes or the “righteous fathers,” “ascension figures,” representative of the law and the Prophets, the eschatological precursors of the Messiah, or a part of the elect accompanying the Messiah at the Parousia. However the presence of Elijah and Moses is viewed, a connection to the other motifs found in the Transfiguration account would be helpful in understanding its function in the pericope.

There are a number of motifs in the accounts of Elijah at Horeb (1 Kings 19:8-18) and of Moses at Sinai (Ex. 19:1-25) that parallel the motifs of the Transfiguration. All three accounts involve a mountain, a theophany of God and/or his Glory, fire or light or brightness, the “voice of God,” the receiving of a commission or authority or divine endorsement, and the exiting of the meeting place by the agents involved. There are many similarities in the three accounts, but there are also differences. The most notable difference is the reference to the making of booths in the Transfiguration account which has no parallel in the accounts of Horeb or Sinai. A connection of the appearance of Elijah and Moses to the “making of booths” would be helpful in the understanding of its function in the Transfiguration narrative.

It is possible to connect the motif of the presence of Elijah and Moses to the motif of “boothmaking” through the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles. Moses is the figure from the Hebrew Scriptures who is mentioned most often in the NT, frequently as the Lawgiver. The appearance of Moses recalls the feast of the “Joy of the Law” which marked the termination of the liturgical reading of the five books of Moses and was celebrated at the close of the Feast of Tabernacles (Stanley:35). As we have previously seen, the Feast of Tabernacles in the NT period had come to foreshadow the Messianic Age which was to be the age of the renewal of the law (Gause:88; Smith 1962:143). According to Mal. 3:1-4 and 4:4-6, Elijah was the eschatological forerunner of the Messiah and of his Age (Gause:91; Smith 1962:143). Elijah and Moses were the most prominent among the figures of Hebrew history who had come to be associated with the event of the End, the coming of the Messiah, and the expectation of the New Age (Boobyer:130; Strack:I,753-758). The combination of Elijah and Moses with Jesus and three booths (tabernacles) was imagery which to the minds of many in NT times would have identified the Transfiguration experience as a foreshadowing of the eschatological Messianic Age.

Conclusions Regarding the Imagery of Tabernacles in the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration accounts in all three of the Synoptic Gospels contain a common cluster of images, with each image having been shown to be connected to the Feast of Tabernacles. Each evangelist has seen it important to preserve these images. As we have seen, the connection of images used in the Transfiguration account with the Feast of Tabernacles is so striking that it has led quite a number of scholars to conclude that the Transfiguration took place at the time of the feast. Most commentators recognize a Feast of Tabernacles’ symbolism in the Transfiguration account even if they do not attach a historical or literal connection (Gause:109; Smith, 1962:131). While it might be possible to interpret each of the individual elements of the Transfiguration which we have discussed without reference to the Feast of Tabernacles, it is striking to see such a large cluster of elements associated with the feast in this narrative. Based on the evidence we have seen of the connection of this cluster of elements with the Feast of Tabernacles it can be said that the images and themes of this festival are in the background of the Transfiguration narrative (Smith, 1962:131).

The Feast of Tabernacles’ imagery found in the Transfiguration account appears to provide an underlying theme for the narrative but does not define it as it stands in each of the Synoptic versions. The festival’s imagery could provide the background for a resurrection appearance, a story of the enthronement of the Messiah, a forecast of the parousia, or a prolepsis of the glorified Christ in the consummation of his kingdom. Whatever the precise interpretation (or interpretations) of the Transfiguration, the narrative is heavily imbued with eschatological imagery and obviously plays a key role in Jesus’ revelation as Messiah. By the time of the NT writings, the Feast of Tabernacles had become regarded as a foreshadowing of the Day of the Lord and the Messianic Age. The eschatological implications of this feast were especially forceful. Popular sentiment had connected it not only with the completed harvest and vintage, but with a future “harvest,” that of the final ingathering of the nations in the days of the Messiah (Lightfoot:182). It appears that the Christian fulfillment of themes from the Hebrew Scriptures was the basic apologetic and expository method of the early Church. Since the Feast of Tabernacles was perhaps the most popular of all the Jewish festivals, its eschatological and messianic imagery was readily available for the NT writers to find its fulfillment in Jesus.

Almost all commentators clearly see in the background of the production of the Gospels a tendency to associate events and teachings with the Jewish festivals. It is possible that, as Christian teaching developed over time, the kerygmatic events came to have an independent validity no longer needing explicit support from the festivals (Smith, 1962:144). Emphasis on the constant presence of the risen and ascended Lord fulfilled much of the Feast of Tabernacles’ theme of building booths in order to dwell with God. While the Gospels’ emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of festival themes in no way exhausted the eschatological imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles, it did offer a present, realized view of the Messianic Age and the Kingdom of God. The true function of the Transfiguration narrative may be to recast the eschatological imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles into a present realization, as well as clearly to identify Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God who presently dwells with humanity. Peter’s proposal to make booths is unnecessary.


1 Several notable, though brief, attempts to interpret the Transfiguration account against the background of the festival would include: Abrahams: 2:52-53; Badcock:169-170; Boobyer:119-140; Daniélou, 1951:457-462; Lohmeyer: 174-177; Ramsay:457-462.

2 Baltensweiler’s book is listed in the bibliography.

3 Riesenfeld’s book is listed in the bibliography.

4 For a listing of the works in which he analyzes various elements of the Feast of Tabernacles see the entries for Jean Daniélou in the bibliography.

5 Some notable examples of scholars who, prior to Riesenfeld, did make some limited observations regarding imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the NT are Badcock, Boobyer, Burch, Lohmeyer, and Ramsey. See the bibliography under each’s name for a listing of their pertinent works.

6 Examples of the eschatologization of the sukka can be found in: Pesiqta Rabbati 31,6: 31,10; Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana 188b; Tanhuma 10,11; Melkita 48. Texts from the Hebrew Scriptures in which the eschatologization of the sukka was seen include: Isa. 4:5-6; 35:10; 49:10; 50:4; Zech. 14:14. A convenient presentation of rabbinic sayings about the booth and its theological meaning is found in Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar, Vol. 2, 774-780. Also see: Abrahams:52-53; Riesenfeld:146-205; Weieder:35-45; Sabourin:303-305.

Author: Dan Rogers


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