The Fear Motivation in Peter’s Offer to Build Τρεῖς Σκηνάς -- By: Randall E. Otto

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 59:1 (Spring 1997)
Article: The Fear Motivation in Peter’s Offer to Build Τρεῖς Σκηνάς
Author: Randall E. Otto

The Fear Motivation in Peter’s Offer to Build Τρεῖς Σκηνάς

Randall E. Otto

Peter’s offer to build τρεῖς σκηνάς (three tabernacles [tents] or booths) in the synoptic accounts of the transfiguration is generally regarded as cryptic. Despite all that has been said about the transfiguration throughout the Christian era,1 “no one has yet put forward a convincing theological or literary explanation for Peter’s remarks about booths.”2 Any adequate explanation must interpret the plural of σκηνή with reference to its OT background and contextual associations. When this is done, it will be evident that the τρεῖς σκηναί refer neither to the feast of booths, as is commonly suggested, nor to the eschatological dwelling of God. Instead, the τρεῖς σκηναί refer to the tabernacle in the wilderness, the special place where the God of glory deigned to provide instruction and guidance to his people through his chosen mediator Moses. Since the predominant use of σκηνή in the LXX has reference to the tabernacle in the wilderness,3 and the theological and literary background of the transfiguration is rooted in the events that occurred on Sinai, it will be argued here that the fear which the transfiguration scene generated in Peter could only have brought to mind the tabernacle in the wilderness, thus eliciting his offer to build τρεῖς σκηνάς as a means of protection from the display of divine glory.

I. The Sinaitic Background to the Transfiguration

It is generally accepted that each of the transfiguration accounts is developed on the basis of the Sinaitic background of the event. While this is most clearly the case in Matthew’s gospel, where the Markan material is

modified in order to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses, this Sinaitic background is hardly confined to the Matthean theological approach.4 “In this he was only drawing out what was already to hand in the tradition. Although Mark…does not appear to have stressed the Mosaic background of the transfiguration, the tradition he received was largely formulated with Sinai in mind.”5 Finally, Luke has also appropriated elements of the Sinaitic background in his portrayal of the transfiguration.6 While e...

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