The Transfiguration Of Jesus and Chiastic Structures

The Transfiguration Of Jesus and Chiastic Structures February 11, 2021
This Sunday we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain (Mark 9:2-8). There’s a lot to be said about the story itself, and we’ll focus on the events of the Transfiguration this Sunday in worship, but here I’d like to help us see how the Transfiguration is not just a peak or mountain top experience, but is actually told at the peak of the gospel of Mark itself. And why that matters.
In Scripture, as well as in much classic literature, authors favored a literary construction known as a chasm. Basically, a chiastic structure in literature works this way. The first sentence, chapter, etc. parallels the final sentence, chapter, etc. of the work. Then the 2nd parallels the second to last, and so on.
At the apex of his chiasm is a central verse or chapter. For the authors, it’s typical that this central verse or section is also central thematically. It’s the main point.
I invite you into a fun digression, before reading anything more here. Read the Wikipedia entry on chiastic structures. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. In the Wikipedia entry, you’ll see a number of examples of chiasms in Scripture, but you’ll also see such chiasms in other religious texts, as well as Beowulf, Paradise Lost, and more.
When biblical exegetes look at Mark, they see it is also structured chiastically. On this basically everyone agrees. Like any analysis of Scripture, there is some debate on precisely how it works, and what it means.
I’ve included images of two ways different exegetes have lined out precisely how Mark is structured chiastically. You’ll see they disagree slightly on what constitutes the peak or center of Mark (the first one sees the Transfiguration itself at the center, the second one sees the second of three times Jesus foretells his death and resurrection as the center.
What they all agree on is that these moments around the Transfiguration are at the center of the gospel of Mark.
Now, why does this matter?
Well, Mark is unusual among the gospels in that it does not include any formal resurrection appearances. Rather, it ends only with an empty tomb, and the witnesses to the empty tomb saying nothing, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8).
All the other gospels include resurrection appearances. Apparently these other gospels made redactors of the gospel of Mark uncomfortable enough that some added extra text onto the gospel of Mark, which is why Mark has multiple “endings.” But all modern biblical scholars agree that Mark originally ended with verse 8.
Instead of resurrection appearances, Mark has multiple announcements by Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection. And it has at its very center an event in Jesus’ life that basically looks like resurrection. Dazzling white. Walking with those who are already with God (Moses, Elijah).
In other words, Mark puts the resurrection at the very center of the gospel, instead of the end. Veiled and shining in the resurrection, but nevertheless there.
And here’s what’s especially amazing. Not only is the transfiguration on a mountain, it’s also at the top of a literary mountain. Chapters 1-8 have been a climb to this moment, with Jesus going about preaching with strength and performing amazing healings. But after the Transfiguration, he slowly seems to wane. He’s less able to perform miracles (one he has to attempt twice, and there are just less of them) and he’s on his way to the cross.
The Transfiguration is both at the top of a mountain and at the top of a chiasm.
I hope this is intriguing enough to many of you that you’ll dig around a bit more to learn about Mark for yourself. At the very least, take a bit of time to browse the two chiastic analyses pictured of the gospel of Mark, because they help you quickly get a sense of the whole.
Then we’ll see you Sunday for worship as we stay at the moment of the Transfiguration with attention a bit longer, and in the midst of corporate worship.
If you have extra time, I highly recommend this essay on the work of Don Juel, one of my favorite New Testament commentators who specialized in the gospel of Mark.
For Juel, “Jesus is no mere victim. Since his baptism (1:9–11) he has been possessed—by God’s Spirit. God will also vindicate him by resurrection. Even at his transfiguration (9:2–8), “He is a heavenly being. He will eventually appear in his ‘glory’ (8:38; 14:62)….[But t]here can be no final glory, no consummation until after the cross. That is the ‘necessity’ which dominates Jesus’ career.”
The second evangelist reasoned backward, from the passion to the beginning of Jesus’ story. Backwards, and chiastically. These are very different modes, but they bring us beautifully into alignment with a way of thinking and writing that keeps God central.
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