Last week we traced the origins of the Jewish festival known as “Dedication,” but in our day popularly called “Hanukkah.”. It celebrated the moment when a guerilla army of Jewish people, led by man named Judas Maccabeus, dealt a series of hammer-like blows to the army of the Syrians led by their king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This series of defeats forced Antiochus to abandon Jerusalem and thus he allowed this Jewish force to reclaim both the city and the Temple for “true worship.” This victory came in the dead of winter, near the winter solstice, which marked the end of the sun’s retreat into darkness and its reemergence into the light.
At last, the Jewish people had a Jewish reason to celebrate what had previously been for them only a pagan feast. In the winter’s darkness they could now commemorate the return of the light of God to the Temple. Once that connection was made and this new holy day had been proclaimed, the Festival of Dedication began to attract to itself lots of stories about how God as light had come previously to dwell in the midst of God’s people. Today I will trace those developments. This will, I hope, enable us to see what Matthew was trying to do, as he, following the example of Mark, developed the content of his gospel.
First we will seek to understand how the story of Jesus’ transfiguration got attached to the eight-day Jewish Festival of Light. Second I shall try to demonstrate why Matthew never assumed that this story ever actually happened at some specific place in time. This will continue to drive my operative thesis in this study of Matthew’s gospel, namely if this book is read through Jewish lenses, biblical literalism is an impossibility.
Once Dedication/Hanukkah was established to celebrate the return of the light of God, the Shekinah as it was called, to the Temple, then the Jewish people began to mine their history for other episodes that would enable them to enrich the narrative surrounding this celebration. This was not the first time in the Jewish faith story that the light of God had come to dwell in the midst of the covenant people. So they worked backward in Jewish history until they came to the account of the rebuilding of this Temple about a century later. It too, said Nehemiah, would be heir to the “light of God” (Neh. 9:12). The Temple and light were always associated.
Continuing this journey back into their history, they recalled that somewhere around the year 940 BCE, when King Solomon, carrying out the plans developed by his father, King David, built the first Temple, it was dedicated in a solemn assembly with speeches and prayers (I Kings 8). On that occasion, it was said that the light of God, the Shekinah, had descended upon the Temple and true worship was thereby established in that moment in the land of the Jews. So this ancient narrative was also brought into and re-read at this eight-day midwinter celebration. Narratives about light being restored to the Temple were deep in the tradition of the Jews and when they began to look back at their history they discovered examples, even earlier than this.
Long before there was a physical Temple, God was thought to have been present in the midst of the people in a mobile tabernacle that these nomadic people carried with them through their wilderness years between Egypt and what they called their “promised land.” The promise of God’s presence was portrayed in that early time as a light connecting the God, who was thought to live above the sky, with the earth-bound Hebrew people. It was said to look like “a pillar of cloud” by day and “a pillar of fire by night” (Exod. 13:21). God was light and the light of God “tabernacled” in the midst of God’s people, they said, changing the noun into a verb. God’s light, God’s Shekinah, always came to God’s people as a sign of God’s presence.
There were two other stories in the Jewish tradition in which light was said to have transformed, first, a person and, second, a person’s raiment. In time, both of these stories were attached to and became part of the Dedication/Hanukkah observance, each being featured in the liturgical readings on one of the eight days of the celebration. To make our analysis complete we have to relate both of them.
The first of these stories takes us back to Moses, the founder of the Hebrew nation. He lived somewhere around the years 1250-1200 BCE. Moses was the one, who in the “corporate mind” of the Hebrew nation was believed to negotiate regularly with God on their behalf. On this particular occasion, Moses had journeyed to Mt. Sinai, which God seemed to occupy regularly. Moses’ purpose on this occasion was for God to re-issue the law, with the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone because Moses had thrown the earlier tablets down, breaking them (thus becoming the only person to break all ten of the commandments at one time!), when he discovered that the people had begun worshiping a golden calf (Exod. 32).This new Moses trip up the mountain was to be the people’s “second chance” at the covenant. There was to be no mistaking on this occasion that Moses was the voice of God to the people.
When Moses, following this divine consultation, began his descent from the mountain peak, unknown to him, we are told, the light of God was shining through his person. He had become translucent and the skin of his face revealed an unearthly brightness. When Moses had finished delivering the words of the new covenant to the people, he put a veil over his face to keep the light of God from blinding the people. From this time on, the biblical text tells us, Moses removed this veil only when he went up the mountain to speak directly with God. When he returned to the people, he would put the veil on again. The light of God shining in Moses was a sign that God was present in this human being. This episode occurred long before the first Temple was built (Ex. 32: 27-35). The transfiguration of Moses was thus added to the growing traditions that came to surround the observance of Dedication/Hanukkah.
When Dedication/Hanukkah became established in the worship life of the synagogue, the regular rituals began to shape the celebration. Torah readings had to be found and assigned to the liturgy. It came as no surprise that the story of Moses, shining with the light of God, became a primary Torah lesson attached to the day. The readings from the prophets were a little more difficult to locate, but, in time, a story from the prophet Zechariah seemed to fit the occasion and thus was deemed to be appropriate. So to that book we now turn our attention.
The book of the prophet Zechariah appears to be divided into two distinct halves. What we now call I Zechariah includes the first eight chapters and II Zechariah includes chapters 9-14. The two parts seem to be separated by about a hundred years. I Zechariah is a series of utterances, called prophesies, by one named Zechariah and written down in the later years of the sixth century BCE. We can date this section of Zechariah fairly accurately because it makes reference to a post-exilic governor whose name was Zerubbabel. References to Zerubbabel also appear in the book of Ezra (chapters 3-5), in Nehemiah (chapters 7 and 12), in Haggai (chapters 1 and 2) and in I Chronicles (chapter 3). This governor is accompanied in the writings of the prophet Zechariah by a high priest whose name is Joshua.
This is only the second time that a person named Joshua has appeared in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first Joshua was Moses’ successor, the hero of the battle of Jericho, who was a dominant figure in the Old Testament, being mentioned in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. Joshua the high priest, on the other hand, was referenced only in the books of Haggai and Zechariah.
The fascinating thing about this name is that Joshua, when written in Hebrew, is “Yeshuah,” but written in Greek, it is “Jesus.” When, therefore, the early gospel writers would read the Old Testament in Greek (most of them did not speak Hebrew), they would read “Joshua” as “Jesus.” Joshua, the high priest mentioned in Zechariah, would be read as “Jesus, the high priest.” This reading from this prophet was soon to become a lesson attached to the celebration of Dedication/Hanukkah, because it was a narrative of how this high priest’s vestments had been transfigured by the light of God. Joshua, the high priest, in this narrative was standing before the angel of God and Satan was there to accuse him, but the angel rebuked Satan, leaving Joshua alone, but standing in what were described as “filthy garments” (Zech. 3:3).
The angel then ordered Joshua’s filthy garments to be removed and for him to be clothed in rich apparel so that all “the guilt from this land will be removed in a single day” (Zech. 3:9). The early Christians, who were primarily Jews, could not refrain from seeing a messianic text in this story of the one named Jesus, who would remove the guilt from the land in a single day after his rags had been transformed into “glorious apparel.” So this story was assigned to the liturgy for Dedication/Hanukkah.
With these stories now associated with the Jewish observance of Dedication, the early gospel writers, including Matthew, simply attached Jesus to this holy day by portraying him as the one to whom the story of Moses’ translucent skin would be related; the one whose raiment would be transformed with the light of God, and finally as the one to whom both Moses and Elijah would be subservient. We recognize all of these elements in the synoptic gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. The Jewish readers of this story in each of the three synoptic gospels would have understood immediately what the authors were doing, because they had heard these stories being read annually when Dedication/Hanukkah was being observed.
Later Gentile readers, however, would have been ignorant of these stories so they would tend to interpret the story of the transfiguration of Jesus as a literal event that happened in history. Biblical literalism is a Gentile heresy born in Gentile ignorance of things Jewish. With this, I hope not too tedious, ground work laid we will turn next week to Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus, as this series continues.