Friday, November 27, 2020

Christ's Hidden Divinity?: Davies and Sonderegger on the Markan Transfiguration

One side effect of spending 3+ years working on a particular Gospel is that, while you recognise you still have plenty to learn, you feel rather protective of it and resentful of those who publish on passages where you have particular ideas waiting to be published. One such passage where I think my research has arrived at a new and not unimportant interpretation is the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-9. So, it was with some trepidation I read Jamie Davies' new article on the same passage.

"Apocalyptic Topography in Mark’s Gospel: Theophany and Divine Invisibility at Sinai, Horeb, and the Mount of Transfiguration", Journal of Theological Interpretation Vol. 14, No. 1 (2020), pp. 140-148 

Davies is an expert in NT apocalyptic and appears to work mainly in Paul and Revelation. In this article he discusses both Mark's Transfiguration account in light of the theology of Katherine Sonderegger. 

For Davies "much discussion of apocalyptic theology in the New Testament has had a tendency to foreground eschatology in a way that has displaced the the importance of epistemology to its detriment" (p143). For him a key feature of Mark's Transfiguration account is the way that it reflects the "distinctly veiled" theophanies of Exodus 24 and 33 and 1 Kings 19, where "divine appearance is marked by a distinct ambiguity" (p141). In Davies' reading he finds it "most unusual" that "it seems like Mark goes out of his way to create a scene that does not so much clarify as obscure the divine identity of Jesus" (p144). He does not explain where in Mark he finds passages that are clear regarding Jesus' divine identity. Most likely (but possibly not) he means the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41 ) and the walking on the water (Mark 6:45-52), usually considered the high point of Mark's narrative Christological portrayal, but I'm not sure these are any clearer in terms of divine identity than the Transfiguration - certainly their Christological implications are fiercely contested. 

Regardless, from this analysis Davies goes on to argue that Mark's Gospel has a doctrine of God similar that of Katherine Sonderegger in her The Doctrine of God (Fortress, 2015). Davies moves on to discuss Sonderegger's explication of "hiddenness as the mode of God's immanence and omnipresence" (Davies, p145). He uses Sonderegger's exegesis of 2 Kings 6 (Elisha and the blinded Arameans) to critique J. Louis Martyn's approach to Pauline apocalyptic: rather than warfare and invasion (Martyn) Davies sees apocalyptic as revelation of what is hidden (p145). Categorising the story of Elisha and the blinded Arameans as an apocalypse he writes, "This apocalypse is surely an epistemic claim, underlined, in a further narrative twist, when the armies of the Aramean king are defeated through blindness." Davies then relates Sonderegger's metaphysics of hiddenness to Mark's Transfiguration, "The apocalyptic theophany in Mark is both the visible disclosure of Jesus' glory and the (paradoxical) revelation of the invisibility of God in Christ" (p.146-47). In his reading, the Transfiguration is Mark's "narrative expression of an apocalyptic epistemology" and "reveals the presence of the One God in Jesus Christ precisely in his hiddenness" (p147).

Some quick thoughts . . .

1. I'm not convinced he's really got to grips with Mark if he sees obscurity as a "most unusual" feature. In terms of divine Christology, Mark is arguably the most obscure Gospel - and consistently so. Also, I'm not sure why "Apocalyptic Topography" in the title, he just cites Elizabeth Malbon on topography, his real focus is epistemology. 

2. I like his focus on apocalyptic epistemology. I have a half baked idea for a paper on Mark's epistemology and this has inspired me to look into it some more . . . sometime.

3. I'm out of touch with apocalyptic and Paul but I didn't think Martyn was representative of the field, I thought he was more a Barthian exegete influential on pro-Barth systematic theologians. Anyway, sounds like I need to read up on the subject!

4. I'm intrigued by Sonderegger's work. Both by its apparent basis in exegesis, and by the fact she is there honing in on a pet theological thought revealed to me by my (then) five year old daughter one night at bedtime: if God is everywhere then God has to be invisible or we wouldn't be able to see anything else!

5. This was an intriguing and fun article, rather short and under-referenced, especially when making a few claims that needed some more backing up. I haven't been forced to rethink my own ideas about Mark's Transfiguration (watch this space), but I do think I'll be returning to some of the ideas in this article for other things in the future.

Let me know what you think :-)

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