The Transfiguration, Cosmic Symbolism, and the Transformation of Consciousness in the Gospel of Mark

by David Ulansey ©

(A paper presented at the 1996 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature)

In a paper that I presented at this meeting several years ago, and that was subsequently published in the Journal of Biblical Literature (110:1 [Spring 1991] pp. 123-5), I showed that the author of the Gospel of Mark intentionally linked the image of the tearing of the heavens which occurs at the precise beginning of Jesus's career-- i.e., the baptism (1:10)-- with another image of tearing which occurs at the precise ending of Jesus's career: namely, the tearing of the "veil of the temple" immediately after his death (15:38). The evidence proving this consists in the fact that the temple veil to which Mark refers was in reality, according to Josephus, a gigantic tapestry, 80 feet high, on which was portrayed "a panorama of the entire heavens...." In other words, in Mark's gospel the heavens are torn not only at the baptism, but also at the crucifixion where the curtain that is torn is precisely an image of the starry heavens.

These two moments of baptism and death are also linked by the fact that the voice that speaks from the torn heavens at the baptism naming Jesus as "my son" is paralleled at the moment of the tearing of the heavenly veil at the death of Jesus, since immediately after the veil is torn a Roman centurion repeats the announcement that Jesus is "son of god." Further, the heavenly disturbance of the tearing of the heavens at the baptism is also mirrored by the heavenly disturbance of the "darkness over the whole land" at the crucifixion. Thus the moments of the baptism and death of Jesus are inextricably linked together by a complex of symbols.

However, this diptych of the baptism and death of Jesus in Mark cannot be fully understood without the recognition that they are actually part of a triptych, the third element of which is constituted by the event known as the "Transfiguration."

The Transfiguration in the Gospel of Mark, which occurs roughly at the middle of the gospel, focuses on a dramatic metamorphosis of the clothing that Jesus is wearing, in which "his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them" (9:3). This event is accompanied by the appearance of a dark cloud in the sky overhead from which a voice says, "This is my beloved son...." This voice accompanying the heavenly apparition of the dark cloud, of course, leads us inescapably to the beginning of the gospel and the baptism of Jesus, where, again following a heavenly apparition-- Jesus sees "the heavens torn open"-- once again a voice exclaims "Thou art my beloved son..." (1:10-11). And just as inescapably, the cloud that darkens the scene at the transfiguration leads us to the moment of the death of Jesus, at which point there is suddenly "darkness over the whole land," and again a voice-- that of the centurion-- declares that Jesus is "son of god." Thus the transfiguration forms an obvious triptych with the baptism and death of Jesus.

As we have seen, the baptism and death of Jesus are explicitly linked in the Gospel of Mark by the presence of the motif of the "torn heavens" at both moments. Of course, the baptism and the crucifixion are both events of extreme metamorphosis and boundary-crossing: at the baptism Jesus is initiated into a radically new life, and at the crucifixion he passes from life to death. Thus the fact that the heavenly fabric is torn through at precisely these two moments suggests that this cosmic fabric is symbolic (consciously or unconconsciously) of the barrier or boundary that is being crossed at those points, and that it thus signifies as well (consciously or unconsciously) the transformative or initiatory nature of those moments.

It is therefore of great interest that the deities presiding over two of the most important initiatory cults of later antiquity-- Isis and Mithras-- are both pictured as being clothed in heavenly or cosmic garments made out of fabric that is covered with stars. In his Metamorphoses Apuleius describes Isis as follows:

What obsessed my gazing eyes by far the most was her pitch-black cloak that shone with a dark glow.... Upon the embroidered edges and over the whole surface sprinkled stars were burning; and in the center a mid-month moon breathed forth her floating beams. (Marvin Meyer, Ancient Mysteries, p. 178)

Mithras, for his part, is often depicted wearing a billowing cape whose inside surface is covered with stars. The starry fabric of the garments of Isis and Mithras reminds us, of course, of the veil of the temple in Mark's gospel on which was portrayed "a panorama of the entire heavens," and whose tearing at the death of Jesus is linked by Mark with the tearing of the heavens that occurs at Jesus's baptism.

There is thus an intriguing parallel between Mark's starry veil, which he introduces at the two decisive moments of initiatory passage in the life of Jesus, and the starry garments of Isis and Mithras, deities whose nature is to preside over sacred rites of initiatory passage. In addition, the association of this starry cloth with moments of transformation, initiation, and boundary-crossing suggests that in later antiquity the imagery of garments in general possessed as an inherent potentiality the ability to evoke hints of spiritual metamorphosis.

The initiatory or transformative implications of the symbol of the starry garment in later antiquity could also be transferred to other sorts of garments, as is made quite clear by Apuleius, who, after having described the starry robe of Isis the initiatrix, goes on to tell of the initiation of his hero Lucius into the mysteries of Isis. After his initiation, Lucius is clothed by the priests in extraordinary garments which, however, are not astral in their decoration (rather, they are covered with flower and animal images). Still, the astral implications of the moment are explicitly indicated, since Lucius holds a torch and wears a rayed crown which, Apuleius says, gives him the appearance of being "decorated like the sun" (Meyer, p. 189). The elaborate detail which Apuleius uses to describe the extraordinary garments of Lucius cannot fail to remind the reader of the elaborate detail used earlier by Apuleius in describing the spectacular starry robe of Isis: the robe of Isis and the garments of Lucius are clearly linked, and the transformative implications of Isis's starry robe are shared by Lucius's non-astral garments.

The cosmic character of garments that are not explicitly described as astral is also made clear in Jewish apocalpytic texts. For example, in Enoch's great vision in chap. 14 of I Enoch, he ascends into the heavens where he enters an extraordinary space described as a cosmic temple made of fire and crystal. There in the center of this sacred space Enoch sees "the Great Glory" who is wearing a "gown, which was shining more brightly than the sun, it was whiter than any snow." This description cannot help but call our attention back to the "transfiguration" of Jesus, where Mark says that Jesus's "garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them" (9:3). The heavenly context of Enoch's vision of the figure in the shining white garments suggests that a cosmic atmosphere may lie beneath the surface of Jesus's transfiguration, and we have in fact already noticed that the transfiguration is accompanied by an apparition in the sky and is symbolically linked with the "starry veil" of Jesus's baptism and crucifixion.

These sorts of symbolic connections can also be traced in the opposite direction. For Jesus's transfiguration is, as its name suggests, a moment of transformation. We could, therefore, at this point safely predict that there would occur in apocalyptic texts motifs of transformation linked with garments , and of course we would not be disappointed. For although the shining white garment of the Great Glory seen by Enoch in his heavenly journey is not explicitly connected with transformation (other than the fact that it appears at the moment of Enoch's initiation into knowledge of the heavenly secrets, and that it appears at the spatial boundary of the universe), Jewish apocalyptic texts are of course permeated with the symbolism of heavenly garments that mark or produce a transformation.

In the "Parables" of Enoch, for example, Enoch, having been carried off into the heavens, is instructed that on the day of judgment "the righteous and elect ones shall rise from the earth and shall cease being of downcast face. They shall wear the garments of glory. These garments of yours shall become the garments of life from the Lord of the Spirits. Neither shall your garments wear out, nor your glory come to an end before the Lord of the Spirits" (62:15-16). Here the apocalyptic transformation of the cosmos itself is associated with the reception of magical garments possessing glory, life, and imperishability.

Likewise in the Testament of Levi, Levi, having seen the heavens open, beholds "seven men in white clothing," who proceed to dress him in wondrous garments that mark his initiation into a celestial priesthood: "The second washed me with pure water... and put on me a holy and glorious vestment. The third put on me something made of linen.... The fourth placed... around me a girdle which was like purple" (8:5-8).

In the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, just before the heavens are opened Zephaniah is surrounded by angelic beings: "Thousands of thousands and myriads of myriads of angels gave praise before me. I, myself, put on an angelic garment" (8:1-4). Here the garment and the opening of the heavens are linked with what appears to be tantamount to the transformation of Zephaniah into an angelic being, since the garment that he puts on is described as "angelic." The basic structure of this event is identical with Levi's investment with the garments of a cosmic priesthood: it would thus seem that the core of these symbolic events is a transformative investiture, and it is of only secondary importance that in the Testament of Levi the garments are those of a priest while in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah they are the garments of the angels. It is important to re-emphasize here the significance of the fact that these investitures are associated with ascents to the heavens, for the heavens are of course the boundary of the cosmos, and passage through them is thus a tremendously powerful boundary-crossing, and thus an extremely significant image of transformation and initiation.

The profoundly transformative nature of these cosmic garments is made absolutely clear in II Enoch, where Enoch, having ascended to the heavens, hears God say to the angel Michael, "Take Enoch, and extract (him) from the earthly clothing. And anoint him with the delightful oil, and put (him) into the clothes of glory." Enoch's description continues: "And Michael extracted me from my clothes. He anointed me with the delightful oil; and the appearance of that oil is greater than the greatest light, its ointment is like sweet dew, and its fragrance like myrrh; and its shining is like the sun. And I gazed at all of myself, and I had become like one of the glorious ones, and there was no observable difference" (22:8-10). Here Enoch is explicitly described as being transformed into an angelic being by means of a change of garments. The transformative implications resonating throughout the other texts we have discussed are here brought resoundingly to the surface.

Perhaps the most remarkable and far-reaching invocation of the image of the garment to be found anywhere in the literature of later antiquity occurs in the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl, one quarter of which is devoted to a description of a mysterious garment of initiation. The Hymn tells the story of a young prince who has been sent by his royal parents to go "down into Egypt" to retrieve a magical pearl guarded by a dragon. At the moment of his departure, the prince removes his royal garments: "And they took off from me the bright robe, which in their love they had wrought for me, and my purple toga, which was measured [and] woven to my stature" (Robert M. Grant, ed., Gnosticism, p. 117). He then descends to Egypt, where he eats the food and (interestingly) dons the clothing of the Egyptians, as a result of which he falls into a sleep and forgets who he is and why he has come to Egypt. But his parents above send him a letter which takes the form of a bird and then speaks to him, recalling him to knowledge of his true nature and destiny. He awakens from his sleep, takes the pearl from the dragon, and proceeds to return to his homeland. As he crosses the boundary from Egypt back to his native country, he discovers that his parents have sent ahead to him "my bright robe, which I had stripped off, and the toga where it was wrapped" (p. 120).

The prince's robe is thus the marker of the precise moments of departure and return, of the boundary-crossings from the homeland to the land of the unknown. Thus the robe performs the same role here that the "tearing of the heavenly fabric" performs in the Gospel of Mark: each motif appears at both the precise beginning and the precise end of the adventures of the texts' respective heroes. Here again, therefore, we discover the same suggestive parallel between the sort of heavenly fabric imagined by the author of the Gospel of Mark and the image of the garment which we noticed earlier in our discussion. And here again, also, we see the transformational, initiatory role of the garment brought into the foreground, since in the Hymn the garment functions as the marker of the crucial boundary-crossings embedded in the narrative. The prince removes his garments at the beginning as he crosses the boundary from his home to the unknown, just as in Mark the heavens, like a piece of cloth, are torn-- the cosmic boundary is ruptured-- at the moment that Jesus's adventure begins. Likewise, the prince regains his garments at the moment of his return as he again crosses the boundary from the unknown back to his homeland, just as in Mark the moment of Jesus's crossing the boundary from life to death is marked again by the rupture of the cosmic boundary symbolized by the tearing of the heavenly cloth of the temple veil.

The resonances that this array of images has with the other material we have discussed-- the transfiguration of Jesus, the clothing of Isis and Mithras, the initiation-garb of Lucius, the heavenly transformative garments of the apocalyptic seers, and so on-- are obvious and do not require further discussion. However, the Hymn of the Pearl posits a deeper significance to this garment imagery: a significance that may underlie the entire symbolic complex. Let us listen to the manner in which the Hymn describes the garments of the prince at the moment he regains them:

On a sudden, as I faced it,
The garment seemed to me like a mirror of myself.
I saw it all in my whole self,
Moreover I faced my whole self in [facing] it,
For we were two in distinction
And yet again one in one likeness....
My bright embroidered robe,
which was decorated with glorious colours;
With gold and with beryls,
And rubies and agates
And sardonyxes varied in colour,
It also was made ready in its home on high,
And with stones of adamant
All its seams were fastened;
And the image of the King of kings
Was depicted in full all over it,
And like the sapphire-stone alse
Were its manifold hues.
And again I saw that all over it
The motions of knowledge were stirring,
And as if to speak
I saw it also making itself ready....
And in its kingly motions
It was spreading itself out towards me,
And in the hands of its givers
It hastened that I might take it.
And me too my love urged on
That I should run to meet it and receive it,
And I stretched forth and received it,
With the beauty of its colours I adorned myself.
And my toga of brilliant colours
I cast around me, in its whole breadth.
I clothed myself therewith, and ascended
To the gate of salutation and homage...
(Grant, pp. 121-2)

The most important insight that this text affords us is that the religious imagination of later antiquity was able to project into the image of the garment a symbol for a radically transformative self-knowledge. The prince sees the robe as a mirror of himself. But it is not an ordinary self reflected here, for the robe is a spectacular object of crystals, brilliant colors, and the hauntingly mysterious "motions of knowledge" that stir all over it. What is this "self" that the prince sees reflected in the garment?

By attributing extraordinary beauty and power to the "self" relected in the mirror-garment, the Hymn is clearly suggesting that the "self" is something worth looking at. In other words, the Hymn functions as a call to introspection, a promise of tremendous gifts to be attained by looking within. But as we have seen, the robe in the Hymn is also a marker of transformation, initiation, and boundary-crossing. The Hymn is therefore identifying the process of initiation and transformation, represented by all of the garment-imagery we have examined, with the dynamics of introspection, the "motions of knowledge." The dazzling robes of the transfigured Jesus and of Enoch's "Great Glory," the cosmic cloak of Isis, the starry curtain of the Jerusalem temple, the heavenly angelic garments of the apocalyptic seers: all of these can be seen from the perspective revealed by the Hymn as a collective summons to an inwardness that results in radical transformation.

Thus the entire complex of late Hellenistic garment-imagery, of which Mark's transfiguration acccount is merely one example, may constitute a symbolically expressed collective intuition that the introjection of psychic energy can result in a decisive transformation of the self. Just as the alchemists at this time began to speculate about the positive transmutational potential of concentrating energy on the internal contents of a sealed vessel-- a potential represented by the fiery glow of pure gold-- so in a more diffuse way the imagination of the time also speculated on the positive transformational potential of the concentration of energy within the closed vessel of the psyche: a potential represented by the image of the dazzling garment of heavenly light.

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