When I was doing my Ph.D. on Matthew I remember having a conversation with my supervisor Markus Bockmuehl, I think it was in the accompany of others, about the question of historicity in the Gospels, particularly the Transfiguration. Markus has a high view of Scripture, but holds it critically. I was thankful for a mentor who, by example more than by explicit advice, gave me a way to hold on to the historicity of the Gospels while dealing with them honestly and critically, a manner that in the words of Tom Wright let’s the Bible be the kind of book it is. By the way, if you’ve never read Wright’s article “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative” I can’t recommend it more highly (you can find it here).
At the time when I had this conversation with Markus, I was still quite naive, to be honest, about such questions. His response was one that I’ve never forgotten and have since continued to mull over and develop. This year I’ve taught a course on Jesus which I inherited from Scot McKnight when he left North Park for Northern Seminary – perhaps the only advantage of his departure. In this course, I’ve been able to think more about these issues and the attempt to harmonize the discrepancies between the Gospels.
Markus’s comment to the question of the historicity of the Transfiguration was “It depends on what you mean by historicity”. This is in fact the crucial question. What do we mean when we label something “historical”? Is there one blanket, one size fits all, way to think about the historicity of the events in the Gospels? Robert Gundry (Matthew, a Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art) brought this point home to Evangelicals in the early eighties in his Matthew as Midrash approach, which, by the way, remains a very significant evangelical work even if his application of redaction criticism seems slightly dated now. Further, today we can appreciate just how much of a pioneer Gundry was at the time. Because of his views, he was ostracized at the time by the Evangelical Theological Society, but now it is hard to find an evangelical gospel scholar that would reject Gundry’s approach outright.
Here’s the question: Can we say an event like the Transfiguration is historical, even if we conclude that it didn’t actually happen the way described by the gospels? Would, for example, Matthew and his readers have assumed the same definition of “historical” as we do? Would they have read the story with the same criterion we use? Is there any historical precedent for “embellishment”?