According to Matthew's gospel (17:1-9, Transfiguration A), at the moment of transfiguration Jesus' clothes became "dazzling white" (NRSV). Luke uses the same language. Mark's version gives us a additional phrase. Mark 9:3 says: "...and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them." The King James Version gives us further information by using the word fuller (And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.)
Using the word fuller may tell us more about the Britain of King James than turn-of-the-millennium Israel, but it is an interesting avenue into the Transfiguration text. It takes us to...laundry. Fuller comes from the Anglo-Saxon word fullian, "to whiten". And though the occupation of fuller is Anglo-Saxon, there is evidence of bleaching fabric at least as early as ancient Egypt. Specifically, white linen was bleached for the clothing of the upper classes. Wet cloth was rubbed with natron, a naturally occurring salt. The cloth was spread out, beaten with a wooden mallet and left to dry. The hot sun combined with the salt to bleach the fabric. The practice of spreading clothes and fabric out in the sun as part of the laundry process continued into contemporary times when a washer and dryer became common time-saving devices. The manuscript illustration below is part of a German manuscript from 1582. In the image women are working by a river. One of the women is washing clothes directly in the river while others wash in wooden basins. A fire burns under a pot, providing hot water. In the background, women hang the clothes (or maybe just cloth) on wooden racks and spread cloth in the fields to dry.
Splendor Solis. Harley 3469. British Library. 1582. Origin: Germany. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=7881&CollID=8&NStart=3469Though this text (and the Transfiguration itself) does not seem to be so much about washing as cleansing, other texts draw a parallel - and in the KJV a word parallel - with the idea of washing and its role as a remedy for human sin. Malachi 3:2 (NRSV) says "But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap." The fire and soap are purifying elements and are the plan for how the Lord will deal with this world on the Day of the Lord.
The Greek word (which only appears in Mark's gospel is gnapheus (γναφεύς); its Hebrew counterpart is mekabbasim (מְכַבְּסִֽים). Both words are nouns (though the Greek is singular and the Hebrew is plural) describing people who wash or launder clothes. But no thing, no one, on earth could have made something as bright as Jesus' clothes on that mountain. Indeed.
A more literal translation of Matthew 17:2 is that Jesus' clothes became "white as the light". It's a different thing to be the white of light and the white of pigment. White light contains all colors of the spectrum. They come together to make the brightest light possible. In the world of pigments, white is the absence of all color. For fabric to be totally absent of all color, some kind of bleaching process is needed, because the fibers will have natural color of their own. For example, the "white" of sheep's wool isn't totally white. No matter how often the sheep's wool is bleached, the gospel writer tells us, the wool could never be as bright as Jesus' garment.
Perhaps what happened at the Transfiguration simply reminds us that all the earthly means of washing and bleaching can't make things as bright as Jesus. In that moment the real Jesus shone through: not a human whose sins are bleached away in a process, but the Son of God whose embrace of a spectrum of disparate colors causes a brightness brighter than anything we have ever seen before.
White as the light? Which pigment should you buy for that? Good question. Look at this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link below.