Eric Vanden Eykel deposited You Shall Die on the Mountain? On Moses’ Presence in the Synoptic Transfiguration Narratives in the group Biblical archaeology on Humanities Commons 4 years, 1 month ago
In the Synoptic accounts of the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus and the disciples. One of the more common interpretations of their presence in this scene is that together they symbolize “the law and the prophets.” But from a canonical/narrative perspective, the situation is more complex that this explanation would imply. Elijah is accounted for easily: he was taken into heaven alive and will come again to help usher in the day of YHWH (so 2 Kings 2:11-12; Mal 4:5). Moses, on the other hand, dies and is buried outside the promised land at the close of the Pentateuch. So why is he standing on a mountaintop (presumably, inside the promised land) with someone who, at least according to overarching narrative of the Hebrew Bible, did not die? How might ancient readers have understood his presence there? The story of Moses’ death in Deut 34 is not particularly complicated: he and YHWH are the only characters; there is no dialogue; and the ensuing details of his passing are hazy at best. But, as is frequently the case, narrative gaps engendered a host of alternate versions of the story in which Moses doesn’t die but, like Elijah, is taken into heaven alive. In this paper I examine first-century interpretations of Moses’ demise — most prominently, those of Philo, Josephus, and Pseudo-Philo — all of which imply that what happens on the mountain at the end of Deuteronomy is not a “death” in the traditional sense. I do not wish to argue for literary dependence between these sources and the Synoptics. Rather, borrowing terminology from Umberto Eco, I suggest that they shed light on the “cultural encyclopedia” shared by the authors and intended readers of the Synoptics. And this, I will argue, allows for a more nuanced understanding of Moses’ presence at the transfiguration either as expressing the belief that he did not die, or at the very least that death outside the promised land would not be his final sentence.