Out of Egypt

An educational Forum based on new
historical and scientific discoveries

Article # 6

Transfiguration on Sinai

© Ahmed Osman 2001
Ahmed Osman
Historian and Scholar


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The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke talk about a meeting that took place on a holy mountain between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Although Mount Tabor to the east of Nazareth in Galilee is reputed as the site of this event, which has become known as the Transfiguration, the tradition at St. Catherine confirms that it took place at the same scene as the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai.

he area at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the Monastery of St. Catherine now stands, is what tradition holds to be the biblical Burning Bush, which according to Exodus 3:2, "burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed." This is the same spot from which God spoke to Moses, commanding him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. In the biblical Book of Exodus, Mount Sinai is also the spot where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

The mountain, nearly 7,500 feet high, is one of many peaks in the arid southern Sinai peninsula that forms the wilderness through which Moses tried to lead the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land thirteen and a half centuries ago. From its earliest history, this area around the foot of Mount Sinai has drawn pilgrims from far and wide, and became a haunt of hermits. The long tradition of this mountain as a place of such pilgrimage is clear from inscriptions—in Nabatean, Greek, Latin and Arabic—on the rocks of Wadi Haggag, the Ravine of the Pilgrims, a narrow valley on the major road that led from Eilat at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba south to the Mount Sinai area. At a meeting in 1966 Archbishop Damianos of St. Catherine's monastery confirmed that this was the site of the Transfiguration.

Evidence from both archaeological finds and classical authors also confirm that this spot was the main site for early Christian pilgrims, who came from all parts of the Roman Empire, for the first four centuries of the Christian era. The situation changed only in AD 325 when the Emperor Constantine, who had recently converted to Christianity, gave Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem permission to dig up the tomb of Christ, believed to be underneath the Temple of Aphrodite. When it was declared that the tomb of Christ was finally brought to the surface, pilgrims instead flocked to Jerusalem from all over the Christian world. Nevertheless, Mount Sinai remained the central location for Christian hermits who lived there unprotected in the wilderness. It was the Byzantine emperor Justinian who, 1,470 years ago, ordered the Monastery of St. Catherine to be built around the site of the Burning Bush.

Although the Glory of Christ appeared to his disciples in the early part of the 1st century AD, historical Jesus lived and died 14 centuries earlier than when his disciples claimed to have seen him. This throws new light on events described in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke—the meeting of Jesus and Moses at the time of what has become known as his Transfiguration: "And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them."We are told that in an attempt to remove him, at least temporarily from the scene, that Joshua (Jesus) "the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle" (Exodus 33:11). Immediately after the return of Moses with the new tablets, however, we learn that the Lord was inside the tabernacle of worship Moses had built at the foot of Mount Sinai, and Moses went in and out a number of times, serving as a go-between for his Israelite followers. During these proceedings, when "all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone . . . and till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. But when Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he took the veil off until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded . . ."(34:30,34-35). Support for the view that this is where and when Joshua (Jesus) met his death is to be found in rabbinical tradition, which says of the occasion: "According to Bava Batra (121a) it is the day on which Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second tablets of the law." *

Up to the 16th century AD, when the Old Testament books were translated from the Masoretic Hebrew text into modern European languages, Joshua was the name of the prophet who succeeded Moses as leader of the Israelites in Egypt. Since the 16th century we have had two names, Jesus and Joshua, which confused people into the belief that they were two different characters. All those who spoke of Jesus in the early history of the church recognized in this name only one person, who (according to John 1:45) was the name "of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write."As this Jesus of history was put to death at the foot of Mount Sinai, at the same position as the present monastery of St. Catherine, his followers kept his memory alive over the centuries, awaiting his return. And he did return when he appeared in his glory to his disciples in Egypt and Palestine in the early years of the 1st century AD.

Unlike the confrontation with Satan, when Jesus was alone with a fallen angelic being, the Transfiguration cannot be interpreted as symbolic or a description of a vision. Here we have three disciples who are said to be witnesses to a meeting between Joshua/Jesus and Akhenaten/Moses, an event that is the only clue in the gospels to the era in which Jesus lived.

With the discovery of his tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, Tutankhamun returned to us 2,000 years after the appearance of Christ. Like Jesus he was killed for religious reasons. When he attempted to reconcile those who believed in one God without an image, and those who needed an image to mediate between them and the unseen deity, he was accused of being a deceiver who tried to turn the Israelites to worshipping other gods, and was hanged on a tree (according to ancient Israelite law) at the foot of Mount Sinai by Panehesy, high priest of Aknenaten/Moses.

That an Israelite leader was killed in Sinai about this time is not a new idea. It was voiced by Sigmund Freud, who identified Moses as the victim. The same is true of Ernest Sellin, the German biblical scholar. In his book, Moses and His Significance for Israelite-Jewish Religious History, he described the killing as "the scarlet thread" running through Israelite history. Sellin based his conclusion on a chapter in the Book of Numbers that features Phinehas/Panehesy.

The Commentary on Habakkuk, one of the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, tells us that after The Wicked Priest had killed The Teacher of Righteousness, he (the Teacher) appeared before them. As for the appearance of the Teacher after death, the Hebrew verb used here may also be translated as "he revealed himself to them"—indicating a spiritual rather than an historical/physical appearance.

* The New Jewish Encyclopedia

Ahmed Osman

Historian, lecturer, researcher and author, Ahmed Osman is a British Egyptologist born in Cairo

His four in-depth books clarifying the history of the Bible and Egypt are: Stranger in the Valley of the Kings (1987) - Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt (1990) - The House of the Messiah (1992) - Out of Egypt (1998)


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