Are the Arbel Cliffs the Mount of Transfiguration?

Most Bible readers, pilgrims and tourists point to the symmetrical Mount Tabor in the Jezreel (Armageddon) Valley as the site where the Transfiguration of the Lord Yeshua (Jesus) took place.

By Gershon Nerel |
MYSTERIOUS MOUNTAIN: Scripture is vague about the precise location of a key New Testament miracle Photo: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

In the Gospel of Matthew (17:1-3), we read:

Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.

While the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) only mention that the episode happened on a high mountain, without providing the specific name of the place, Christians have identified the Transfiguration location with a variety of topographic points.

Many Church Fathers have categorically stated that the bell-shaped Mount Tabor was the authentic holy place where the glorified change in the Messiah’s appearance occurred; and today, this remains the main place of pilgrimage. Other theologians, however, suggested the summit of Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights. A later proposition has even pointed to Mount Nebo in Jordan. Recently, Arie Bar David, a Messianic Jewish tour guide in Israel, proposed that the possible site is on the Golan, around the ruins of the medieval Nimrod Fortress near the biblical Caesarea Philippi.

To me, however, it doesn’t seem improbable that the unnamed mountain was Arbel, perched above the Sea of Galilee. Today, like in ancient times, when sailing on the water and facing the western shores, it is impossible to ignore the high cliffs of Mount Arbel.

This mountain was also well known to Flavius Josephus, the Roman Jewish historian of the first century. Back then, it could have been regarded by the locals as the high mountain. Standing most prominently over the village of Migdal (Magdala), the birthplace of Mary Magdalene 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) north of Tiberias, Mount Arbel was a landmark in antiquity.

Interestingly, not all Synoptics refer obscurely to ‘an’ ambiguous mountain. Actually within five (!) different translations of the same story, we read in the Gospel of Luke: “the hills” (Living Bible; New English Bible); “the hillside” (Phillips Modern English); “the mountain” (RSV; Jerusalem Bible). In other words, Luke mentions a particular place, specifying a mountain which was so well known that no definite name needed to be pointed out.

Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Evangelist Apostles felt that they didn’t need to mention the explicit name of the elevated Arbel with its obvious peak. All peoples in that time could easily observe the cliffs also from areas further north, including Ginosar (Gennesaret), Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) and Korazin. Saliently situated almost 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the Sea of Galilee and revealing a spectacular vista, most probably it was immediately understood what the high mountain meant in this region. Indeed, from the observation post on the summit of Mount Arbel almost all of the Galilee is in panoramic view.

Dr. Gershon Nerel is a historian of the modern Messianic Jewish movement and a certified tour guide in Israel.


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