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Jesus' Temptation in the Wilderness

The story of the temptation is not historical:

The Story of the Temptation in Mark

According to the synoptics Jesus went into the wilderness immediately after his baptism to be tempted by Satan. This is how Mark describes it:

Mark 1:12-13
At once the spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals and the angels attended him.

The mention of Satan and angels would immediately cause most skeptics to denounce this passage as mythical, or at best, allegorical. Leaving that objection aside for the moment, we still notice that many features of the above passage sounds constructed.

  • Firstly, forty is a symbolic number, we find that the great flood lasted forty days (Genesis 7:4), that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:33) and that it took forty days to embalm the body of Jacob (Genesis 50:3).
  • Secondly, the wilderness is, according to Jewish tradition, the abode of evil spirits.
  • It was the contemporaneous Jewish belief that the messiah will appear in the last days of the world to take on Satan and win. Thus the passage in Mark could have simply been made up by early Christian tradition since it was expected of the messiah to overcome temptation by the evil one. [1]

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The Additions by Matthew-Luke

By the time Matthew and Luke came to be written, the temptation in the wilderness has added on some mythical ornaments. The accounts in these two gospels are essentially the same, we give below the passage as it was written by Matthew:

Matthew 4:1-11 (Luke 4:1-13)
Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”. The devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said, “It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

We will first note that the passage above contains some factual errors: first, the temple in Jerusalem has no “highest point” or pinnacle and second, there was (and is) no mountain high enough for Jesus to see “all the kingdoms of the world” even if we take “the world” to mean only Palestine or one of its tetrachies! [2]

It has also been pointed out by some scholars that the Old Testament quotations [a] mentioned by both Jesus and Satan agree with the Septuagint or Greek version of the Bible. [3] It is highly unlikely that this would be the version Jesus, a Galilean Jew with probably no knowledge of Greek, would quote from.

The information about Jesus fasting for forty days in Matthew is not only not found in Mark but actually contradicts the latter. For the tense of the Greek verb in Mark shows that the ministry of the angels is continuous and must have consisted of the angels supplying him with food as the angels did with Elijah (I Kings 19). [4]

The idea that Jesus fasted for forty days probably came from the Old Testament. [5] There we find that Moses fasted for forty days on Mount Sinai:

Deuteronomy 9:9
“When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of the covenant which the Lord made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread not drank water.”

Similarly, we find that Elijah fasted for forty days after being fed by the angels:

I Kings 19:8
And he arose and ate and drank and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

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Comparative Mythology

Comparative mythology tells us that the idea of the holy man being tempted by the Evil One is a prevalent theme in the near and far east. Buddhist scriptures tells of how the Buddha after meditating for four weeks was confronted by the personification of evil, Mara who tried to lure him away from his task of attaining enlightenment. Zoroasterianist legend tells of how Zoroaster, who was meditating in a cave, met with Angra-Mainyu, the god of evil. Angra-Mainyu offered Zoroaster the world if he would renounce the god of good, Ahura-Mazda. [6]

It is not asserted here that the Matthean passage was directly influenced by the above myths (although that is not impossible). The point is that the idea of a holy man being tested by personifications of evil is not a foreign one and was, in fact, rather a common one in the socio-religious environment of the evangelists and could have resulted in such myths gaining currency among the early followers of the religion.

Thus we find a simple account in Mark, which itself could be derived from contemporaneous Palestinian beliefs, being added to and expanded in the passage found in Matthew-Luke. We also find that the addition could be derived purely from the socio-religious context of the times. These in themselves made the historicity of the passage suspect. The presence of mythical creatures like Satan and angels confirms the doubt. In short, the story of the temptation in the wilderness is not historical.

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An Endnote on Liberal Interpretations of Myths

Some modernist Christians may object that the above analysis is pedantic as it is “obvious” that the passage is purely mythical. The point of the passage, they say, is its conveyence of spiritual truths.

I find such explanations lame and uncritical. Nowhere in Mark, Luke or Matthew are we given even a hint that the story is not to be taken in the literal sense. Furthermore, if myth is the method to convey “spiritual truths”-what is the message anyway? Theologians find different meanings in the same passages: for instance, G.B. Caird take the third temptation (in Matthew-the second in Luke’s) to mean that Jesus rejected the worldly kingdom as it does not lead to God [7]; C.J Cadoux on the other hand argues that it was not the worldy kingdom that was rejected by Jesus but Satan’s method of attaining it-by waging war! [8] From this example it looks like “spiritual truth” if it exists, is not an easy message to decipher!

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Notes

a. All of Jesus’ quotes came from Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:16 and 6:13-14 respectively) while Satan’s singular quote was taken from Psalms (91:11-22).

References

1.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p90
Guignebert, Jesus: p159
Nineham, Saint Mark: p63-64
Wells, Did Jesus Exists?: p104
2.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p91
3.Fenton, Saint Matthew: p63
4.Nineham, Saint Mark: p64
Wells, Did Jesus Exists?: p104
5.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p90
6.ibid: p92
Guignebert, Jesus: p159
7.Caird, Saint Luke: p80-81
8.Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p51-52

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