[Texts: Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36]
The Synoptic Gospels are so-called because they often “see together” (Greek optic + syn) — that is, they retell many of the same events. John’s Gospel, written much later, does not typically trace the same ground. When two (or all three) of the Synoptics relate a tale, it’s intriguing to keep track of the differences. Sometimes the diversity is minimal, and sometimes it’s significant in one way or another.
Here’s some significant diversity at the start of the account of the Transfiguration. There are other differences in the story, too, but this one struck me right off. Here are the lines that tell of Jesus’ transformation:
“His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” (Matthew 17:2 ESV)
“His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no cloth refiner on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:3 ESV)
“The appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29 ESV)
All three accounts tell of a change, of brightness, of whiteness — but each has his own way of putting it. None of these writers were with Jesus on the mountain, so they are reporting what they learned from others. Even if they all interviewed the same person — say, Peter, who was likely Mark’s source, at least — either the eyewitness reached for different words to say the same thing more than once, or the Evangelists took what they heard and found different ways to convey the sense. (Because of the variety, I am presuming that this particular report came in each case from a person who was there, rather than from a common written source; one would expect more stability of wording if the source was written — which in fact we usually find with two of the three Synoptics in other places where their narratives overlap.)
In any case, precisely because of their unity of idea and diversity of language, these three simple statements read with all the authenticity of eyewitness testimony to a startling but true event, rather than mere rehearsals of a traditional formula about some details of a folk hero’s life. There is no set way of communicating Jesus’ transformation; and even the same source might have naturally altered his words at different times to report the event to different people. The essential details are intact, but their packaging — vocabulary and even figurative language — retain the natural variety inherent to repeated retellings of a true story. (Next time any of you have to sit through two services back-to-back, note how this sort of natural variety plays out in the unwritten speeches of the worship leaders and even the preacher! It’s always a different script the second time, even though the essential details remain the same.)