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Saturday 14 December 2013

Was Jesus tempted atop a mental mountain?

Christadelphians have a unique understanding of the accounts of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness found in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. While these passages read like a dialogue between Jesus and a personal being called the devil (ho diabolos in Greek), Christadelphians believe that the Gospel writers were figuratively describing an internal struggle within Jesus' mind. According to this interpretation no external being was present; 'the devil' is a personification of the evil impulse, the carnal mind (known in Judaism as the yetzer hara).

One of the main exegetical arguments put forward by Christadelphians in support of their interpretation concerns the "very high mountain" referred to by Matthew in his account of the third temptation:
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Matt. 4:8-10 NRSV)
Christadelphians have observed that there exists no very high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. Thus Jesus didn't really ascend a mountain; he imagined himself atop a mountain looking at the kingdoms of the world. This indicates that the whole account is not literal but figurative. Christadelphian resource Wrested Scripture makes this argument, as does Christadelphian apologist Duncan Heaster. The same argument was made by Phipps, the only modern, non-Christadelphian biblical scholar (as far as I know) who has defended the 'internal struggle' interpretation in print.1 But is the argument convincing?

Read in its historical context, it is likely that 'all the kingdoms of the world' refers only to the then-known world, i.e. the Roman Empire. However, even if we reduce the scope of this phrase to the limits of the Roman Empire, the premise still holds that there is no mountain from which the entire Roman Empire can be seen with the natural sense of sight. Yet this does not necessarily mean that the mountain is figurative. Let us consider two alternatives:
  • The statement "showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor" could be hyperbolic. That is, Jesus was literally looking out from the top of a high mountain in all directions but didn't literally see the entire Roman Empire.
  • Jesus may been taken up a literal mountain and then experienced a supernatural vision which enabled him to see all the kingdoms of the world.
Which of these possibilities is most plausible?

It may be observed that in at least two other texts (Ezek. 40:2 and Rev. 21:10), a prophet of God is taken up to a very high mountain to be shown places. In both cases the text states that this was a visionary experience and not a physical trip. Ezekiel says, "In visions of God he brought me to the land of Israel, and set me down on a very high mountain", and John says, "And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain." Furthermore, in both texts the place seen by the prophet did not literally exist in space-time (the future temple in Ezekiel's case, and new Jerusalem in John's case).

These texts provide a possible template for understanding the third temptation account (in Matthew's ordering) as a visionary experience. However, important differences should be noted: the temptation account does not explicitly describe the mountain trip as visionary, and the places shown to Jesus did literally exist in space-time. Besides this, it should be noted that both Ezekiel and John's mountain visions were initiated by external beings (God in Ezekiel, and an angel in Revelation). Thus we do not have a precedent for understanding the third temptation as something Jesus conjured up in his own mind (as the Christadelphians' internal interpretation of the devil requires).

Besides this, even if we take the 'mountain' as part of a visionary experience, there is no justification for taking the whole temptation account figuratively. These passages are found in the Gospels, whose genre is narrative. There is no other event in the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels which the writers intended to be taken figuratively (and the temptations cannot be parables, since they involve Jesus rather than being spoken by Jesus). By way of comparison, other events involving mountains in Matthew are obviously literal: the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:1ff), the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1ff) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). The transfiguration is especially noteworthy since, like the temptations, it involved a visionary experience atop an unspecified "high mountain" but in which the mountain is obviously literal (cf. Mark 9:1; 2 Peter 1:18).

Furthermore, the reference to the devil taking Jesus up follows (or, in Luke, is followed by) a reference to the devil 'taking' Jesus to Jerusalem and 'placing' him on the pinnacle of the temple. This location must be taken literally, since it is very specific and the temptation itself involved throwing himself down from a great height, which is possible only if Jesus was physically located at a great height! Thus we have a precedent in the immediate context for Jesus being literally relocated by the devil for the purpose of temptation.

Additional light is shed on the temptation accounts when they are read against their literary-historical background. Scholars widely agree that Deuteronomy 34 lies behind Matthew's and Luke's accounts.2 This text reads as follows:
"1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” (Deut. 34:1-4 NRSV)
The similarities are obvious between this narrative (which itself likely draws on Genesis 13:14-15) and the temptation narratives. Indeed, the temptation accounts as a whole draw extensive typology from Deuteronomy, showing Jesus to be the true Israel. Jesus' forty days in the wilderness are typified by Israel's forty years in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-2 cp. Deut. 8:2). Jesus' three responses to the temptations all quote from Deuteronomy (Deut. 8:3; 6:16; 6:13-14).

In Deuteronomy 34 it is clear that Moses was shown the whole land by God from atop a literal mountain. However, commentators have pointed out that several of the places mentioned (such as the Mediterranean Sea, Dan and Zoar) cannot be seen from the mountain believed to be Mt. Nebo.4 5 6 While liberal scholars might take this as a geographical inaccuracy, some commentators have interpreted it as hyperbole.7 8 Others have understood it in terms of a "supernatural vision" which nonetheless involved Moses literally climbing the mountain.9

That the account was read in ancient times as a supernatural vision is apparent from the tendency of later Jewish writers to expand the scope of Moses' view to include the land of Egypt, or "all the regions from Egypt to the Euphrates".10 Moreover, the Jewish apocalyptic work 2 Baruch (probably written in the late first or early second century) likely draws on Deut. 34 when it depicts Baruch as instructed by God to go to the top of a mountain, "and there shall pass before you all the regions of that land, and the figure of the inhabited world" (2 Baruch 76:3).

Thus Deuteronomy 34 and its treatment in later Judaism supports the plausibility of understanding the third temptation to be a supernatural visionary experience atop a literal mountain. The notion of a supernatural vision receives further support from Luke's temptation account, which omits any reference to a mountain and adds the phrase "in an instant." As Yamazaki-Ransom points out, this serves to emphasise the "supernatural character of the event".11

In summary, the third temptation begins with a supernatural visionary experience in which Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. Stein writes that this temptation is "visionary in nature" but that "It is unclear whether a specific mountain is meant or whether this is to be understood as part of the vision".12 Whether Jesus was literally taken up a mountain is of no great importance to the account, since Matthew neglects to name the mountain and Luke omits it altogether. However, the key insight is that the impossibility of seeing all the kingdoms of the world with natural vision from atop a literal mountain in no way undermines the natural reading of Matthew 4 and Luke 4 as a dialogue and series of events which actually, objectively took place. As Stein writes:
"Were the temptations primarily psychological or visionary in nature? Were they entirely subjective? To understand the temptations in this manner would not make them any less real. Yet 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."13
The crucial question in evaluating the Christadelphian view of the temptation accounts is whether the whole account (and particularly the devil, ho diabolos) is literal. What is apparent from this brief study is that the reference to the "very high mountain", whether literal or figurative, does not justify a figurative approach to the entire narrative. In the next post we will consider whether the devil's offer of absolute political power had any credibility.

1 Phipps, William E. 1993. The Wisdom and Wit of Rabbi Jesus, p. 38
2 Pao & Schnabel. 2007. Luke. In Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, p. 287
3 Yamazaki-Ransom, Kazuhiko. 2010. The Roman Empire in Luke's Narrative, p. 88
4 Lundbom, Jack R. 2013. Deuteronomy: A Commentary, pp. 943-945
5 Walton, John H. et al. 2000. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, p. 208
6 Work, Telford. 2009. Deuteronomy. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, digital version (not paginated)
7 Driver, Samuel R. 1902. Deuteronomy: a critical and exegetical commentary, p. 419
8 Smith, George A. 1918. The Book of Deuteronomy, p. 379
9 Work, Telford. op. cit.
10 Yamazaki-Ransom, op. cit., p. 89
11 Yamazaki-Ransom, op. cit., p. 90
12 Stein, Robert H. 1996. Jesus the Messiah: a Survey of the Life of Christ, pp. 106-108
13 Stein, Robert H. op. cit., p. 104

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