There are significant differences in the accounts of the Transfiguration in Matthew and Mark Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
Although Matthews account of the Lord’s Transfiguration seems at first to differ only slightly from that of Mark, closer inspection of its details, especially considered in the light of Matthew as a whole, shows a very different presentation of the event.
I want to start with what at first may appear to be an unimportant difference – namely, in Matthews narrative Simon Peter does not address Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ (as in Mark), but as ‘Lord’ -Kyrie [17.4]. This change is significant in two ways.
First, it conforms to a pattern found all through Matthew, who avoids the title ‘Rabbi’ with respect to Jesus. While Jesus was surely called ‘Rabbi’ (teacher) during his earthly time with the apostles, and although we do find him addressed thus in Mark and John (never in Luke), Matthew is more circumspect in his use of this title. Indeed, in Matthew the only person to address Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ is Judas Iscariot [26.25, 49]. Thus, when Jesus is addressed as or refers to himself as ‘teacher’ in Matthew, it is always through the Greek word didaskalos. In the Transfiguration scene, Matthew avoids the term ‘teacher’ altogether.
Secondly, in this scene Jesus is vastly more than a teacher. He is the ‘Lord,’ ho Kyrios, the name signifying the Church’s fully articulated faith in the risen Christ. As Kyrios, Jesus is the object of worship, and Matthew describes the Transfiguration as a scene of worship, which is why Jesus is addressed in his full, post-Resurrection title [Acts 2:36; Phil. 2.11].
This theological intent is the key to understanding other features in Matthew’s portrayal; for example, the posture of the apostles. Only in Matthew’s account do we read, ‘And when the disciples heard [the voice from the cloud], they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.’ This is an important detail, because throughout Matthew this full prostration is the proper Christian response to the revelation of God’s Son. Indeed, this is a distinguishing characteristic of Matthew’s Gospel, where the life of Jesus begins and ends with believers prostrate before him [2.11; 28.17].
This intent also explains Matthew’s omission of Mark’s comment that Peter ‘did not know what to say’ [Mark 9.6]. His omission here is consistent with Matthew’s sustained emphasis on ‘understanding’ as a component of the Christian life. For this reason, Matthew habitually leaves out Mark’s references to the apostles’ lack of understanding [e.g. Mark 6.52; 9.10, 32).
This preoccupation also explains why Matthew leaves out Jesus’ questions found in Mark [4.13]: ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?’ The parable in question is the parable of the sown seed, and it is significant that Matthew alone refers to ‘understanding’ in connection with that parable: ‘When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart’ [13.19; contrast with Mark 4.15].
At the end of the parable, Matthew writes, ‘But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty’ [13.23; contrast with Mark 4.20]. Finally, at the end of the series of parables, Matthew writes, ‘Jesus said to them, ‘Have you understood all these things?’ They said to him, ‘Yes, Lord” [13.51; no parallel in Mark]. True disciple-ship, that is to say, includes understanding.
Finally, Matthew alone mentions the gentle detail that ‘Jesus came and touched them and said, Arise, and do not be afraid” [17.7]. Here we are presented with another component of the Christians’ relationship to the transfigured Son of God – intimacy. The disciples are not only prostrate in fear; they are reassured in faith. This combination of transcendence and communion pertains to Matthew’s understanding of the Transfiguration, in which he portrays the response of the Church to God’s glorious revelation of his Son.