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From Hilary of Poitiers to Peter of Blois: a Transfiguration journey of biblical interpretation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2008

Kenneth Stevenson*
Bishopsgrove, 26 Osborn Road, Fareham, Hampshire PO16 7DQ,


The Transfiguration narratives have received considerable attention from New Testament scholars, but so far very little has been written about them from the point of view of their reception-history. The purpose of this article is to examine the ways in which they have been interpreted in the Latin West from the time of Hilary of Poitiers in the fourth century to Peter of Blois in the early thirteenth. Among these writers, from the big names like Jerome to the lesser known figures like Peter of Celle, a varied tapestry emerges where light allegory plays an important part, whether in the symbolisms given to the choice of the three disciples, Peter, James and John, or to the dazzling clothes of Christ as baptismal – a particular insight of Bede, which keeps recurring in subsequent writers and preachers. Unlike the East, where the Transfiguration became a major festival on 6 August from the seventh century onwards, the Latin West was slow to absorb it; but it was given particular impetus by Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, in the twelfth century. Whether read as narrative in connection with Lent (‘glory before cross’), or as a festival in its own right, the Transfiguration emerges as an unusually rich source of biblical interpretation that poses real challenges to the use of the religious imagination today. And it provides a significant contribution to the development of a balanced view of reception-history in our own time.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2008

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1 See recently e.g. Lee, Dorothy, Transfiguration (New Century Theology; London: Continuum, 2004)Google Scholar; and Heil, John Paul, The Transfiguration of Jesus: Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9:2–8, Matt 17:1–8 and Luke 9:28–36 (Analecta Biblica 144; Roma: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000)Google Scholar.

2 A notable example is McGuckin, John Anthony, The Transfiguration of Christ in Scripture and Tradition (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 9; Lewiston, NY, and Queenston, Ont.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986)Google Scholar, which covers the patristic period in both East and West.

3 Ramsey, Arthur Michael, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London: Longmans, 1949)Google Scholar.

4 See Stevenson, Kenneth, Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 2007)Google Scholar; the title is a small homage to Ramsey, who uses ‘rooted in detachment’ near the end of his book, The Glory of God, p. 146. See also Kenneth Stevenson, ‘From Origen to Palamas: Greek Expositions of the Transfiguration’ (a paper read at the First Meeting of the Society of Oriental Liturgy, Eichstätt, Germany, July 2006), in Bolletino della Badia Greca di Grottaferrata. Series 3, Volume 4 (2007), pp. 197–212.

5 See Pfaff, R. W., New Liturgical Feasts in Later Medieval England (Oxford Theological Monographs; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 1339Google Scholar.

6 See Andreopoulos, Andreas, Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography (Chestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

7 See Stevenson, ‘From Origen to Palamas’, passim.

8 See Doignon, J. (ed.), Hilaire de Poitiers: Sur Matthieu II (Sources Chrétiennes 258; Paris: Cerf, 1979), pp. 60–7Google Scholar; for Origen, Commentary on Matthew XII.31–43, see text, Greek in Klostermann, Erich, Origenes Werke, vol. 10, Origenes Matthäuserklärung, part 1, Die Griechisch Erhaltenes Tomoi (Leipzig: Hinrich, 1935), pp. 137–70Google Scholar; Eng. tr. in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 10 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1995), pp. 466–73. The literature on Origen is prodigiously vast, but for a survey of the overall scholarly views, see McGuckin, John (ed.), The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Westminster Handbooks to Christian Theology; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)Google Scholar, esp. the essay by McGuckin on Origen as biblical expositor, in which he suggests (p. 20) that it may have been Origen who influenced the primacy of Matthew's gospel in liturgical reading and preaching.

9 For Ambrose, On St Luke 7.4–21, see Tissot, Gabriel (ed.), Ambroise de Milan: Sur S. Luc I (Sources Chrétiennes 45; Paris: Cerf, 1956), pp. 1016Google Scholar.

10 For Jerome, Homily 80 (6), see The Homilies of St. Jerome, vol. 2, tr. Sister Marie Liguori Ewald, IHM (Fathers of the Church 57; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1965), pp. 159–68; Latin text in Morin, G. (ed.), Sancti Hieronymi Presbyteri: Tractatus Sive Homiliae in Psalmos, In Marci Evangelium, aliaque Varia Argumenta (Corpus Scriptorum Series Latina 78; Turnhout: Brepols, 1958), pp. 477–84Google Scholar; for Jerome's Commentary on Matthew, see Bonnard, Émile (ed.), Jérome: Commentaire sur S. Matthieu, vol. 2 (Sources Chrétiennes 259; Paris: Cerf, 1979), pp. 2635Google Scholar. See also the useful article by Gourdain, Jean-Louis, ‘Jérome exégète de la Transfiguration’, Revue des Études Augustiniennes 40 (1994), pp. 365–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar (where these resemblances with Chrysostom are not noted, although he does draw attention to a small parallel, in relation to ‘seeing Jesus alone’ (Mt 17) in respect of anti-Arian polemic, p. 369 n. 25); see Stevenson, Rooted in Detachment, pp. 23–9. See also Kelly, J. N. D., Jerome (London: Duckworth, 1975), pp. 222–5Google Scholar.

11 See Homilies of St Jerome, tr. Ewald, p. 149; Latin text in Morin, Sancti Hieronymi Presbyteri Tractatus, p. 471.

12 See Chrysostom, John, Homily on Matthew 56:3, 4, 5, 6; Greek text in Bareille, Jean-François (ed.), Œuvres completes de Saint Jean Chrysostome, vol. 12 (Paris: Vives, 1868), pp. 427–33Google Scholar; Eng. tr. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (1st Series), vol. 10 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1993), pp. 346–7. See also Kelly, J. N. D., Golden Mouth: The Story of St John Chrysostom, Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (London: Duckworth, 1995), p. 90Google Scholar, where these ninety sermons are described as ‘the earliest and most extensive patristic commentary on the first gospel’. This particular homily, thanks to the authority of its author, becomes highly influential on subsequent Greek expositions, well into the time of the adoption of the Tran-sfiguration festival from the seventh century onwards: see Stevenson, ‘From Origen to Palamas’, pp. 205–7. On Jerome's dislike of Chrysostom, see Kelly, Jerome, p. 177.

13 See Augustine, Sermon 78, in The Works of St Augustine, tr. Edmund Hill, vol. 3, part 3 (New York: New City Press, 1991), pp. 340–4; Sermons 79 and 79A (pp. 345–9) are very short, and do not add to what is contained in 78, which Edmund Hill thinks may have been Lenten; for Latin texts, see Migne, PL 38.490–3 (78), 38.493 (79), and PLS 2.808–9 (79A). For a study of this sermon, together with a comparison with Origen, Ambrose and Jerome (though not Hilary), see the excellent article by Andrew Louth, ‘St Augustine's Interpretation of the Transfiguration of Christ’, Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum 68 (Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 2000), pp. 375–82.

14 See Leo the Great, Sermon 51 (38), in René Dolle (ed.), Léon le Grand: Sermons 38–64 (Sources Chrétiennes 74; Paris: Cerf, 1961), pp. 14–21: Eng. tr. in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (2nd Series), vol. 12 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989), pp. 162–5. It is important to note that, at this early stage, by the time the gospel was read at the Embertide Saturday mass, it was already Sunday morning, thus obviating the need for a separate Sunday provision – which did not come along until later.

15 See Bede, Homily 1.24; Latin text in Migne, PL 94.96–101; Eng. tr. in Bede the Venerable: Homilies on the Gospels: Advent to Lent, tr. Martin, Lawrence and Hurst, David, OSB (Cistercian Studies Series 110; Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991), pp. 234–44Google Scholar; for the Gospel Commentaries, see Hurst, D. (ed.), Beda Venerabilis: Opera Exegetica 3: In Lucae Evangelium Expositio et in Marci Evangelium Expositio (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 120; Turnhout: Brepols, 1960), pp. 543–5Google Scholar (Mark) and 204–8 (Luke); and Migne, PL 92.215–20, 453–6; the Commentary on Matthew, which does not mention the Gal. 3:27 exegesis (Migne, PL 92.81–2) is spurious. I am indebted to Benedicta Ward for assistance here; see also her excellent essay, ‘Bede the Theologian’, in Evans, G. R. (ed.), The Medieval Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 5764Google Scholar.

16 John of Damascus, Sermon 1, Migne, PG 97.549–50; Eng. tr. in McGuckin, The Transfiguration of Christ in Scripture and Tradition, p. 208.

17 For texts, see Rabanus Maurus, Commentarium in Matthaeum 5, Migne, PL 107.996–1001; Paschasius Radbertus, Expositio in Matthaeum VIII XVII, Migne, PL 120. 577–89; Druthmar, Expositio in Matthaeum 36, Migne, PL 106.1401–3.

18 For Latin text, see Migne, PL 89.1505–50; Eng. tr. in McGuckin, The Transfiguration of Christ, pp. 293–316.

19 For Latin text, see Migne, PL 158.602–16; it does not appear in F. S. Schmitt's edn of Anselm's works.

20 For Latin text of Homily 28, see Migne, PL 174.187–91; on Cluniac observance/non-observance of the feast from 1132, albeit in England only, see Pfaff, New Liturgical Feasts in Later Medieval England, pp. 20–23.

21 See Robert Boenig (ed. and tr.), with preface by Emmerson, Richard K., Anglo-Saxon Spirituality: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), pp. 154–61Google Scholar, and notes, pp. 295–7.

22 For Latin text, see Bruno of Segni, Commentarium in Matthaeum III.XVII, Migne, PL 165.217–19.

23 For Latin text, see Anselm of Laon, Ennarrationes in Matthaeum XVII, Migne, PL 162.1399–1402.

24 For Latin texts, see Ralph of Laon, Glossa Ordinaria, Migne, PL 114.143–4 (Matthew), 212–13 (Mark), and 279–82 (Luke); see also Jenny Swanson, ‘The Glossa Ordinaria’, in Evans, (ed.) The Medieval Theologians, pp. 156–67.

25 For Latin text, see Peter Comestor, Historia Scholastica: In Evangelia 86, Migne, PL 198.1581–2.

26 See Pfaff, New Liturgical Feasts in Later Medieval England, pp. 13–15; V. Grummel, ‘Sur l'ancienneté de la fête de la Transfiguration’, Revue des Études Byzantines 14 (1956), pp. 209–10; J. Tomajean, ‘La Fête de la Transfiguration (6 août)’, L'Orient Syrien 5 (1960), pp. 479–82; and Stevenson, ‘From Origen to Palamas’, p. 205.

27 See Pfaff, New Liturgical Feasts in Later Medieval England, p. 15 n. 4.

28 See John of Würzburg, Monumenta de Bello Sacro, Migne, PL 155.1089–90; John Beleth, Rationale Divinorum Officiorum 144, Migne, PL 202.147; and Sicard of Cremona, Mitrale 38, Migne, PL 213.419; see also Alan of Lille (1120–1203), monk of Cîteaux, Contra Haereticos Libri Quattuor 1.19, Migne, PL 210.521, where he makes belief in the transfigured Christ a point of orthodoxy.

29 Peter the Venerable, Sermones 1, Migne, PL 189.953–72 (for ‘carnem deificatam’, see 959, 965, 968); see also Dom Jean Leclercq, Pierre le Vénérable (Figures Monastiques; Fontenelle: Abbaye S.Wandrille, 1946), pp. 325–40, and pp. 379–90 (on the Office); see also Stevenson, Rooted in Detachment, pp. 122–6 and ‘The Transfiguration Sermon of Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny’, in Jones, Simon and Ross, Melanie (eds), The Serious Business of Worship: Essays in Honour of Bryan D. Spinks (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 2009)Google Scholar

30 Peter of Celle, Sermones 65 and 66, Migne, PL 202.840–3, 843–8; see also Jean Leclercq, OSB, La Spiritualité de Pierre de Celle (1115–1183) (Études de Théologie et d'Histoire de la Spiritualité 7; Paris: Vrin, 1946), esp. pp. 147–67, where he is strong on the Tabernacle of Moses, which, however, does not figure at all in his treatment of Moses in either sermon.

31 Peter of Blois, De Transfiguratione Domini, Migne, PL 207.777–92.

32 For Anastasius of Mount Sinai, see Guillou, A. Le, ‘Le monastère de la Théotokos au Sinaï’, Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire 67 (1955), pp. 237–57Google Scholar.

33 For Andrew of Crete, Sermon 7, Migne, PG 97.931–58; on deification, see Russell, Norman, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford Early Christian Studies; Oxford: University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

34 See e.g. the sermon attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, but probably preached either by Ephrem of Amid (Patriarch of Antioch 527–45) or Isaac of Antioch (d. 460/1), with its lengthy section contrasting the divine/human natures of Christ, text in Assemani, J., Sancti Patris Ephraem Nostri Syri Opera Omnia, vol. 2 (Rome: Vatican, 1732), pp. 41–9Google Scholar; see also Stevenson, ‘From Origen to Palamas’, pp. 203–4.

35 On Maximus, see Russell, Doctrine of Deification, pp. 262–95; See also Stevenson, ‘From Origen to Palamas’, p. 206 n. 30.

36 See e.g. Hanson, R. P. C., Allegory and Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen's Interpretation of Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002)Google Scholar. I am indebted to Martin Kitchen for much assistance here.

37 See Stevenson, Kenneth, ‘“Rooted in Detachment”: Transfiguration as Narrative, Worship, and Community of Faith’, Ecclesiology 1/3 (2005), pp. 21–2Google Scholar (whole article, pp. 13–26); the feast was retained, but only in the Calendar, in the 1662 Prayer Book; its first proper reintroduction, with collect and readings, was in the American Episcopal Prayer Book of 1886; thereafter it reappeared in the Scottish Episcopal Prayer Book in 1929, and has experienced wider Anglican (and other support); Ramsey, The Glory of God, p. 143.

38 See Stevenson, Rooted in Detachment, pp. 146–57.