Since it’s the holidays and the library is closed until next week, I can only work on the books I actually own, so today it’s Rudolf Bultmann’s seminal History of the Synoptic Tradition. I’m using the 1963 edition translated by John Marsh.
Let me tell you how much I hate form criticism. I really, really hate it. On paper it sounds great–you analyze a particular text or passage based on its form, which is the structure and sometimes particular vocabulary or other details that it shares with other texts of the same form. If you know anything about folklore studies, Proppian analysis is basically a type of form criticism.
See? Sounds nice. In fact, part of what I’m doing in my dissertation is form criticism. But for most of the 20th century, thanks to Bultmann, New Testament scholarship has been dominated by a hybrid of form and source criticisms that basically blows. Bultmann uses the differentiation of forms–“legends,” “miracles stories,” “healings,” etc.–to make judgements not only about the meaning of the text but its origins and history. The idea is that Mark didn’t actually write anything in his Gospel, he just patched it together from tradition. This obsession with sources leads interpreters to ignore the narrative flow of the Gospel as a whole and denies most of the author’s creative agency (which is kind of a paradox, since the author presumably made the choices to patch the tradition together in that particular way).
Bultmann classifies the transfiguration (Mark 9) among the “legends,” defined as “those parts of the tradition which are not miracles stories in the proper sense, but instead of being historical in character are religious and edifying.” He agrees with earlier scholarship that it was “originally a resurrection story.” He rejects the idea that it records a vision that Peter had before the crucifixion on the shaky grounds that “a visionary experience of Jesus while he was bodily present his hardly credible,” and the somewhat more solid ones that the verb metamorphothe precludes it.
He sees the placement of the story as “antedating” the resurrection tradition (and christology) into Jesus’s ministry, though not in an attempt to “put Jesus’ Messiahship back into the ministry, as he sees Mark’s baptismal account as a more obvious example of this. Rather, “it is much more likely to have been taken up by Mark to serve as a heavenly ratification of Peter’s confession and as a prophecy of the Resurrection in pictorial form.” It is unclear how such “heavenly ratification” is different from the purpose he discounts a few lines before. He also asserts that Mark interpolates vv. 2-10 between vv. 1 and 11.
Several details of the text, particularly the presence of the three disciples, prompt Bultmann to call into question any connection between this and the epiphany in Exodus 24. Because “the cloud is known to be a traditional form of a theophany,” the only detail that connection might explain is Mark’s enigmatic mention of the six days. This discussion leads him to consider the two figures that appear alongside Jesus on the mountain. He asserts that they were originally unidentified “angels or saints” and their presence “provid[ed] the accessories to the Lord who had ascended into the heavenly glory.” His only example of this “law of folk-lore” is from a fragment of the Apocalypse of Peter, but we cannot discount the possibility that the later text shows the influence of the former rather than an independent example of a Christian epiphany form, as Bultmann seems to have it.