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Saturday, 20 June 2015

Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels: A Response to Jonathan Burke (Part 4)

This concludes a series of posts which discuss the literary background to the TS in response to two online articles by Jonathan Burke.

7.       The TS as a Visionary Experience

Within the rubric of historicity, one must consider the question of what sort of experience is described here.[1] Does the TS describe visionary experiences or bodily experiences? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. Paul, probably referring to his own visionary experience, admits in 2 Cor. 12:2-3 that he is ignorant as to whether the experience was “in the body or out of the body.”  Segal notes,
Paul’s confusion as to whether his ecstatic journey to heaven took place in the body is a rare insight into first-century thinking, since it demonstrates either a disagreement in the community or more likely a first-century mystic’s inability to distinguish between bodily and spiritual journeys to heaven.[2]
In summarizing the characteristics of ancient Jewish and Christian heavenly ascent texts, Gooder notes that some texts “describe a physical ascent in the body.”[3]

It is therefore possible that what is described here is a mystical experience which nonetheless entailed the transportation of Jesus’ body. For the second temptation (in Matthew’s order) requires Jesus’ bodily presence to be meaningful: how else could he be tempted to throw himself down?[4] Similarly, the third temptation seems to require corporeal presence inasmuch as Jesus is tempted to fall down and worship the devil.

In arguing that the TS are visionary in nature, some scholars have drawn a parallel between the TS and another visionary Jesus tradition involving Satan: that of Luke 10:18,[5] which “has usually been regarded as an authentic saying of the historical Jesus.”[6]

We have seen earlier that Schiavo noted parallels between the literary form of the ‘heavenly journey’ and the TS. For him, the characteristics of this form include
the holiness of the one who makes the journey, the ritual of preparation, being led by the spirit or in the spirit, disappearance, the ascent to the highest place, or to the highest heaven, being accompanied by an angel, the vision of angels, of the throne, of what is about to take place… fear, trembling and adoration, the return to earth[7]
He concludes that “There is no doubt that the account of the temptation can be read in the wider context of the heavenly journey,” although there are important differences in content, since Jesus is accompanied by the Devil rather than an angel, and “seems to remain on earth.”[8]

Orlov takes this point further:
Jewish apocalyptic accounts often depict the transportation of human visionaries into the upper realms with the help of angelic guides. In view of these apocalyptic currents, it is striking that in the temptation narrative Satan serves as a psychopomp of Jesus and transports him to high, possibly even the highest, places… In the temptation narrative, Satan seems to be fulfilling similar functions of a transporting angel… It is also important that in both Matthew and Luke, Satan serves not merely as a psychopomp but also as an angelus interpres who literally ‘leads up’ (ἀναγαγὼν αὐτὸν) the visionary and ‘shows him’ (δείκνυσιν αὐτῷ/ἔδεξεν αὐτῷ) the visionary reality, thus fulfilling the traditional functions of interpreting angels in Jewish apocalyptic and mystical accounts.[9]
What is evident from recent scholarly readings of the TS as visionary experiences do not portend well for Burke’s efforts to demythologize the tempter into a psychological impulse or deny that the TS have a narrative function.[10] Burke claims that because I allow the possibility that the temptations are based on a visionary experience of the historical Jesus, I am being inconsistent, having “completely abandoned” my “literalistic hermeneutic.” Specifically, Burke states:
What would Farrar say if confronted with the fact that the Greek word used here for ‘mountain’ means a literal physical mountain, that the verb used for ‘see’ means literally viewing with one’s own physical eyes, that the Greek translated ”all the kingdoms of the world” literally means ”all the kingdoms of the world”, and that to read these terms non-literally in order to justify a specific interpretation of the temptation accounts is therefore invalid?
On the “mountain” issue, one can refer Burke to Donaldson’s study referred to previously (Part 2), which concludes that the Matthean temptation is to be read within the setting of the cosmic mountain motif known from Jewish apocalyptic. Orlov sees the same idea here.[11] As to “all the kingdoms of the world,” one need not insist that this means literally every location on planet earth. This would be equivalent to arguing that, because Gen. 13:14-15 is part of a historical narrative, a consistently literal hermeneutic requires us to limit the scope of the promise exactly to Abram’s field of vision! As Burke should be aware if he has read my previous comments on this text, the land which Yahweh showed Moses according to Deut. 34:1-4 is not visible from Mount Nebo, so that it would require “an airborne experience for Moses to actually see all that the biblical text says he saw in his vision from the summit of Mount Nebo.”[12]

Finally, the “fact” “that the verb used for ‘see’ means literally viewing with one’s own physical eyes” is simply a figment of Burke’s imagination, since no verb meaning ‘see’ occurs in the Gospel TS! The verb that does occur is δείκνυμι, to show, which is used frequently of apocalyptic visions (Zech. 3:1 LXX; Rev. 1:1; 4:1; 17:1; 21:9f; 22:1, 6, 8).[13]

Burke fails to demonstrate why the presence of visionary experiences would be inconsistent with a narrative reading of the TS. In reporting about women who “had seen a vision of angels” (Luke 24:23), did Luke mean to convey that they had not actually seen angels? When we are told in Acts 7:55 that Stephen “saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” does the fact that this was a subjective, visionary experience (apparently no one else present could see Jesus) imply that Jesus did not literally appear to Stephen within the narrative? And, returning to the other ‘mythical’ narratives in the Gospels, if the heavenly voice which declared Jesus to be God’s beloved Son (Mark 1:11; 9:7) is understood as Jesus’ religious experience, does this mean God didn’t actually speak within the narrative? The clear answer in every case is “No,” and the same applies to the TS. Even if the temptations were visionary experiences, this would in no way negate their narrative function, or provide a license for explaining away the devil.

8. Conclusions

Similarities between the TS and haggadic midrash, particularly accounts of righteous biblical figures being tested by supernatural beings, assist us in situating the TS from a history-of-religions perspective. Nevertheless, this is only one component of the literary background. The Gospel TS are widely recognized as mythological narrative, owing in part to the presence of Satan as an active character. Narrative criticism has drawn out the role that Satan plays in the plot of each of the Synoptic Gospels, with the TS functioning as the opening salvo of a cosmic conflict that continues throughout the story. There are different views on the historicity of the TS, with most contemporary scholars regarding the account as rooted in experiences of the historical Jesus but embellished by later Christian tradition. Nevertheless, the Gospels clearly represent the TS as events in the life of Jesus, and for those whose worldview is shaped by Scripture, there is no compelling reason not to take their testimony at face value. The extent to which the TS describe apocalyptic visionary experiences is debatable, but either view on this issue is perfectly consistent with the dominant view that the devil described here is a supernatural personal being.

The consensus of modern scholarship is that Jesus and the early church believed in a supernatural being called Satan and interpreted his experience in the wilderness in terms of conflict with this cosmic enemy. Burke has failed to recognize this only by focusing all of his attention on form criticism and historical criticism of the TS while neglecting narrative criticism as well as scholarship which ascribes a mythological worldview to the historical Jesus. In the end, it is Burke’s exegesis of the TS that is idiosyncratic, as well as vague. Nevertheless, I do want to acknowledge Burke’s work as it has provided me with an impetus to deepen my understanding of the literary background of the TS.


[1] “To affirm the historicity of the temptations does not, however, settle the question of how they were experienced. At least two features suggest that the temptations were some kind of visionary or inward, spiritual experience” (Blomberg, C.L. (1995). Temptation of Jesus. In G.W. Bromiley (Ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Vol. 4) (pp. 784-786). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 785). In contrast to this, Burke appears to regard the idea that the temptation was “visionary” as antithetical to the idea that it is a “historical narrative.”
[2] Segal, A.F. (2008). The Afterlife as Mirror of the Self. In F. Flannery, C. Shantz, & R.A. Werline (Eds.), Experientia: Inquiry into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity (pp. 19-40). Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, p. 23.
[3] Gooder, P. (2006). Only the Third Heaven? 2 Corinthians 12.1-10 and Heavenly Ascent. London: Bloomsbury, p. 154.
[4] Stein, noting the debate over whether or not the experiences were visionary in some way, states, “Whereas the second [Lukan] temptation does seem to be visionary in some sense (Jesus was shown all the world’s kingdoms in an instant), the natural reading of the other two temptations appears to portray a real experience, and most probably Luke understood them this way” (1993: 144n41). Elsewhere, he states, "the general impression from reading the accounts is that they were objective and involved external events: a real place (the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem) and real, if symbolic, time (forty days and forty nights)...This argues against seeing the temptations as entirely subjective visions or experiences" (Stein, R.H. (1996). Jesus the Messiah: A Survey of the Life of Christ. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, p. 104).
[5] Bird states concerning the TS “the tradition probably relates to the enigmatic saying in Luke 10:18… which comprises a visionary account from Jesus where he intimates Satan’s downfall” (2014: 639). So also Noll, “when he said he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Lk 10:18), he most likely was referring to his own visionary experience. If such a vision came prior to or as part of his baptism, it would explain both the readiness of Satan to appear to him and his recognition of the tempter” (Noll, S. (2003). Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness: Thinking Biblically About Angels, Satan, and Principalities. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, p. 103.) Puig asserts, “Jesus only had two visions during the whole of his ministry – the first of the opening of the heavens (Mk 1.10) and the second of Satan falling from the heavens (Lk. 10.18)” (Puig I Tàrrech, A. (2010). Jesus: An Uncommon Journey. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 270).
[6] Gathercole, S.J. (2003). Jesus’ Eschatological Vision of the Fall of Satan: Luke 10,18 Reconsidered. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 94, 143-163.
[7] Schiavo 2002: 146.
[8] Schiavo 2002: 147.
[9] Orlov, A. (2013). Veneration Motif in the Temptation Narrative of the Gospel of Matthew:
Lessons from the Enochic Tradition. Paper presented at Seventh Enoch Seminar: Enochic Influences on the Synoptic Gospels. Camaldoli, 21-26 July 2013. Accessed at https://www.academia.edu/3626511/Veneration_Motif_in_the_Temptation_Narrative_of_the_Gospel_of_Matthew_Lessons_from_the_Enochic_Tradition
[10] As Blomberg, one of the sources quoted by Burke in support of a visionary interpretation, states, “Christ’s temptations may well have been to a certain degree subjective or visionary, though no less real or diabolical.” (Blomberg, C.L. (2009). Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, p. 261.
[11] “Several scholars have previously remarked that the mountain here might allude to the place of divine presence and dominion” (Orlov 2013: 16).
[12] Christensen, D.L. (2002). Deuteronomy 21:10-34:12. Mexico City: Thomas Nelson, p. 871.
[13] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 214.

3 comments:

Fortigurn said...

You can find my reply here.

http://berea-portal.com/jesus-temptation-in-the-wilderness/

Tom said...

In his reply to the fourth and final part of my series on the form, genre and historicity of the TS, Burke has some pointed criticism for my musings about the possibility that the TS combine mystical/visionary experiences with physical/literal experiences.

Admittedly, my ideas here were mainly of an exploratory nature. Nevertheless, it is unclear why mystical/visionary experiences and physical/literal experiences should be regarded as mutually exclusive. The transfiguration narrative provides another example of just that within the Gospel narrative. Here, some disciples and Jesus are physically present on a mountain (with all of the theological significance that a mountain entails), and atop the mountain they have an experience which involves a (visionary? mystical?) appearance of Moses and Elijah combined with some kind of transformation of Jesus' being. The experience climaxes with a theophanic voice. One would be hard-pressed to describe the whole episode as "straightforward historical narrative" and yet at the same time, there is no doubt that the Evangelists intend us to understand this as an actual, objective event in the life of Jesus and his disciples. I had previously (in part 3) introduced the transfiguration as a potential parallel to the genre of the TS (along with the baptismal theophany story). I would reiterate that suggestion here.

Are the TS purely mystical/visionary, purely physical, or do they have elements of both (like the transfiguration story)? I would lean toward the latter because, as I pointed out previously, two of the three temptations require the physical movement of Jesus' body to be meaningful: the temptation to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, and the temptation to prostrate himself before the tempter. Burke has so far not responded to either of these points except to beg the question by first declaring that the TS are non-literal and then declaring this language irrelevant.

If we allow for a supernatural worldview, as Burke does, then the only impediment to taking the entire TS in purely physical, literal terms is the lack of a literal mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be literally seen with natural powers of vision. This difficulty is by no means insurmountable. One could posit some sort of mystical experience atop a physical mountain, exactly as we find in the transfiguration narrative. This could entail a heavenly journey which departs from the mountain (bearing in mind that "the mountains, especially Mount Zion, are regarded as points of entry into the heavens"[1] in Second Temple apocalyptic), or it could entail supernaturally enhanced vision from atop the mountain - which also seems necessary to explain Moses' physically impossible field of vision in Deut. 34, according to scholarship I cited previously. Alternatively, one could posit that the mountain itself is mystical or heavenly, a way of referring to the heavenly realm (with Orlov).

At this point I cannot see a basis for a physical description of the TS that is any more definitive than that which can be given for the transfiguration. At the same time, one has good reason for insisting that the TS describe actual, objective events in the life of Jesus. While healthy debate about the setting can continue, what is clear is that the TS depict Jesus as tempted to (1) turn stones into bread; (2) fling his body off the temple pinnacle; and (3) perform an act of obeisance to ton diabolon.

[1] Yeung, M.W. (2002). Faith in Jesus and Paul: A Comparison with Special Reference to 'faith that Can Remove Mountains' and 'your Faith Has Healed/saved You'. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 40.

Tom said...

We must return to the core issue, which is this: Burke cites "the consensus of scholars who believe the temptation accounts are not historical narrative, and that the temptation itself was indeed figurative, symbolic, or visionary" and takes this as a justification for summarily dismissing all of the details of the TS which read naturally as objective events within an interpersonal exchange.

Of course, there is no consensus that the TS are figurative or symbolic, as the study has shown. They are widely agreed to be part of the narrative and are interpreted fruitfully within the discipline of narrative criticism. If they are partly or entirely visionary, the elements of the vision must still be exegeted.

I call on Burke to put forward an interpretation of the TS which pays real attention to every detail in the text. Burke insists that his exegesis is "very specific" with "nothing vague about it" but the statement that follows is very vague and non-specific, referring to "historical events underlying the temptation accounts" without describing what those events were!

Burke has yet to offer a word-by-word commentary on the TS which states his position on what actually transpired in the wilderness. Until he does so, he has given scholars no reason to reconsider the long-standing and still-standing consensus that the TS describe an interpersonal encounter between Jesus and a supernatural tempter, the devil.