dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Jesus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jesus. Show all posts

Friday 14 November 2014

Who tempted Jesus in the wilderness? Ten points to ponder

Accounts of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness are found in Mark 1:13, Matthew 4:1-11, and Luke 4:1-13. In all three accounts an agent of temptation is identified. But who was 'he'? Traditional Christian teaching has identified this 'devil' as a supernatural personal being. Today, however, many Christians regard such a doctrine as an embarrassing relic of pre-modern thought. Some claim that while Jesus and the early church no doubt believed in such a devil, we cannot, and so we have a warrant to reinterpret, 'demythologize' or 'psychologize' this tempter. Others go further and claim that these texts were never intended to convey the idea of a personal devil in the first place. On the vanguard of this school of thought have been the Christadelphians, a millenarian group which formed in the mid-19th century. 

The founder of the movement, a British medical doctor named John Thomas, understood the biblical devil to be a figurative depiction of sin. However, in the case of the wilderness temptations he taught that the tempter was an unspecified human being; thus, still an external tempter. He was followed in this interpretation by his successor as the de facto head of the movement, Robert Roberts. However, it was eventually supplanted by a different view (familiar to but rejected by Roberts) which regarded the devil as a personification of Jesus' own internal desires and hence interpreted the whole account figuratively. In other words, it is held that the Gospel writers (and ultimately Jesus himself) internalized and psychologized the devil. Thus the 'modern' view of the devil is not a modern innovation; it was there in the text all along, just waiting to be discovered! This latter view dominates Christadelphian teaching today.

The Christadelphian interpretations allow Christians to circumvent having to come to terms with a Jesus who believed in a personal devil. However, as attractive as this feature might be to the modern mind, the main question that must be asked is how the original readers of the Gospels are likely to have understood the temptation narratives. What follows is a ten-point summary of more detailed analyses of the temptation narratives (here and here), intended as talking points to assist Christadelphians and others in arriving at a sound biblical answer to the question posed in the title.

1. The genre of the Gospels is narrative.

There can be no doubt that, broadly speaking, the genre of the Gospels is narrative; that is, they report a series of related events. The writers expected their readers to understand these documents as narrating factual, literal events in the life of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, when we encounter the temptation accounts, which certainly sound like narrative, our first impression is surely to read them as factual, literal events in the life of Jesus.

To say that these accounts are not straightforward, literal narrative but rather figurative prose is to claim that the writers are using a very subtle and sophisticated literary technique here. Besides being subtle and sophisticated, this technique is completely without parallel in the Gospels, which otherwise stick rigidly to the narrative genre.

True, there is material within the Gospel narratives that falls under other genres, such as parables and discourses. Such material is more likely to contain literary devices such as personification. However, this material is easily distinguished from the narrative itself inasmuch as it is invariably spoken by one of the characters in the story - usually Jesus himself. By contrast, the temptation accounts are not spoken by Jesus but are presented as a story involving Jesus. And there are simply no other stories involving Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels which could be construed as anything other than straightforward narrative.

This is why appeals to personification in other parts of Scripture, such as Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8, fail to establish a precedent for a figurative reading of the temptation accounts: they fail to take into account the vast difference in genre between poetic wisdom literature and Gospel narrative.

Before even looking at the text in detail, on the grounds of genre alone, a straightforward, literal reading of the temptation narratives is necessarily the default interpretation and a figurative reading must be judged an unlikely possibility which carries a very heavy burden of proof.

2. The importance of Mark's account

Mark's very brief temptation account is sometimes passed over as though it has nothing to tell us about the tempter that is not found in Matthew or Luke. However, Mark's version is actually very significant for two reasons.

Mark is generally agreed to have been written before Matthew and Luke, the latter two having used Mark as a source. However, Matthew and Luke evidently had a different (and probably common) source for the temptation narrative. This hypothetical source is referred to by scholars as Q. It is clear that the agent of temptation in the Q source was ho diabolos (the devil). Matthew and Luke reflect a separate, more detailed temptation tradition which does not seem to be dependent on Mark. Neither Matthew nor Luke include's Mark's detail that "he was with the wild animals", and both Matthew and Luke use ho diabolos as the main designation for the tempter as opposed to Mark's ho satanas. Of course, ho diabolos and ho satanas are equivalent and interchangeable terms, as is clear from Matthew 4:10 and other passages such as Job 1:6 (Hebrew and LXX), Mark 4:15/Luke 8:12, and Revelation 12:9.

Thus, Mark shows that there are two independent and early strands of tradition which attribute Jesus' temptations to Satan/the devil. It is thus very likely that this attribution goes back to the teachings of Jesus himself rather than being the literary stroke of a later writer. (Of course, Jesus must have recounted the wilderness temptation to his disciples, or otherwise we cannot explain how the tradition came about, since no eyewitnesses appear to have been present.)

The other significant feature of Mark's version of the temptations is its very brevity. It is evident that Mark regarded the sentence, "And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan" as self-explanatory. Mark was able to assume that his readers would understand what he meant without providing any further clues as to the identity of this 'Satan'. This is remarkable since satanas is not a Greek word but a transliterated Semitic term. Mark often uses Semitic terms in his Gospel but usually provides a translation for his predominantly Gentile readers. In this case, he provides no translation or explanation. This suggests that Mark regarded ho satanas as a proper name or, at the least, as a specific theological term well known to his readers.

Thus, we need to ask ourselves, at the time Mark wrote his Gospel (c. 50s or 60s AD), what concept of ho satanas could have been well established in the church? The most likely answer is a concept of 'satan' found in the Old Testament and/or intertestamental Judaism. The problem is, while 'satan' is used for personal beings (and in some cases, arguably a specific personal being) in the Old Testament and intertestamental Judaism, there seems to be no evidence for a well-developed figurative concept of 'satan' at this time. Mark thus presents the Christadelphian view with a real historical difficulty.

3. Not a devil but 'the' devil; not a satan but 'the' satan

All three Gospels use the definite article when introducing the devil for the first time. Mark has ho satanas, literally 'the satan' (or 'Satan' if it is taken to be a proper name). Matthew and Luke have ho diabolos, 'the devil', whom Matthew also identifies as ho peirasmos ('the tempter'). The significance of the definite article here cannot be discounted. It is further evidence that the writers expected their readers to know who or what they meant by these terms. It was not merely a satan, or a slanderer, or a tempter, but THE satan, THE slanderer, THE tempter par excellence!

The question is, in a mid first century context what did ho satanas or ho diabolos (without qualification) refer to? Ultimately we should make recourse to Job 1-2; the writings of Second Temple Judaism also provide useful background. However, right in the Gospels we have an account of a dispute between Jesus and his contemporaries about a personal ruler of demons whom Jesus refers to as ho satanas. Now, it has been claimed that Jesus merely assumed this view of Satan for the sake of argument (though I've argued elsewhere why this interpretation doesn't stand up to scrutiny). However, what is more immediately relevant is that the dispute establishes that 'the satan' was in contemporary Jewish usage the title or name of a specific personal being. This also forms an important part of the larger Gospel context against which 'THE satan' and 'THE devil' must be understood.

Thus the use of the definite article in the temptation narratives shows that a particular being or figure is in view. This rules out any possibility of interpreting the tempter as an unspecified human opponent. Moreover, in light of the Beelzebul controversy we have grounds for claiming that Jesus' contemporaries would have understood ho satanas to be the designation of a specific supernatural being. The Christadelphian view faces a serious obstacle in the lack of evidence for a figurative concept of 'satan' that had become so entrenched in the church by the time the Gospels were written that the writers perceived no risk of misunderstanding in describing Jesus' tempter as the devil and the satan without qualification.

4. The devil came and said...

It was already mentioned that the reader's first impression upon reading the temptation accounts is that of a straightforward, literal narrative. This reading is borne out by a closer inspection of the text. Matthew tells us, "And the tempter came and said to him..." The verb translated 'came' here is proserchomai. This verb occurs 87 other times in the New Testament (50 of them in Matthew!) and in every one of them it takes a literal meaning. Among these 87 occurrences is Matthew 4:13, "angels came and were ministering to him." Thus in the same immediate context we have the verb being used literally of personal beings coming to Jesus.

Proserchomai can take a figurative meaning, similar to how we might say in English, 'I don't know what came over me.' However, this meaning is very rare - rare enough, as we have seen, not to be attested in the other 87 uses of this word in the New Testament. 

Furthermore, the fact that proserchomai is used together with another verb, epo, militates against taking it figuratively. The combination of proserchomai with another verb is a common feature of Matthew's style, and in most cases he uses it to introduce interpersonal encounters - particularly dialogues (Matthew 8:2; 8:5; 8:19; 8:25; 9:14; 9:28; 13:10; 13:27; 13:36; 14:15; 15:1; 15:12; 15:23; 16:1; 17:7; 17:14; 17:19; 17:24; 18:1; 18:21; 19:3; 19:16; 20:20; 21:23; 21:28; 21:30; 22:23; 25:20; 25:22; 25:24; 26:17; 26:49; 26:69; 26:73; 28:18). It would be distinctly odd for Matthew to use his stylistic idiosyncrasy here with a completely different meaning.

5. The devil left and angels came

As already mentioned, the verb proserchomai is used literally of angels coming to Jesus in Matthew 4:13. What is even more striking about v. 13 is that the coming of the angels is contrasted with the devil's leaving. The devil left and the angels came. One is very obviously a literal statement about personal beings; on what basis could we insist on taking the other as a figurative statement about a personification?

Furthermore, it should be noted that the statement that angels came to Jesus (corroborated in Mark 1:13) establishes beyond any doubt that Jesus did interact with supernatural personal beings while in the wilderness.

6. Dialogue between a person and a personification?

The main focus of the temptation accounts in Matthew and Luke is the dialogue that takes place between the devil and Jesus. If we are to interpret the accounts figuratively, then obviously no actual dialogue took place; instead this is a dramatic depiction of an internal struggle in Jesus' mind. There are two significant difficulties here. The first is a very simple matter. If the struggle is between aspects of Jesus' thought process, within Jesus, then why is "Jesus" one of the interlocutors, as opposed to, say, 'the servant' or some other figurative representation of the obedient aspect of Jesus' will? The fact that it is "Jesus" who is in dialogue with "the devil" makes it quite clear that "the devil" is entirely distinct from Jesus and not a part of Jesus.

Second, the dialogue stretches the limits of figurative language to the breaking point. In some cases in the Bible, impersonal entities are described as speaking or singing (but with no actual content of their speech or song specified). For instance, in Genesis 4:10 God tells Cain that Abel's blood cries to him from the ground (note that, while this figure of speech occurs within a narrative, it part of a statement by God and not an event described by the narrator). In Psalm 98:8 "the hills sing for joy". Rarely, in obviously figurative contexts, personified figures speak with the content of the monologue actually spelled out (e.g. Lady Wisdom crying in the streets in Proverbs 8, or the foot hypothetically talking to the hand in 1 Corinthians 12:15).

However, what we do not find are dialogues between personified figures in which one speaks and the other answers, back and forth. And we certainly do not find such dialogues between a literary device and a literal person! To claim that this is what is happening in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 is to require the writers to have invented a brand new genre -- and camouflaged it within a genre which is normally read in a straightforward, literal manner!

7. A physical act of worship

Both Matthew's and Luke's accounts of the temptation are explicit that what the devil demanded from Jesus in the third temptation (second in Luke's order) was a physical act of obeisance. In Matthew's case this is expressed by combining the verbs proskuneo (to worship) and pipto (to fall down). Proskuneo on its own almost never takes on an abstract or reflexive meaning; certainly it never does elsewhere in Scripture. Any lingering doubt about whether it is literal in Matthew 4:9 is removed by the addition of pipto. Jesus was to fall down and worship the devil. These two verbs are combined in two other passages in Matthew (2:11; 18:26) and in both cases the sense is a physical act of obeisance.

Luke is less explicit but his language still implies a physical act of worship since he modifies proskuneo with enopion, a word meaning 'in the presence of' or 'before'. So according to Luke, Jesus was to worship before the devil. The language in both Matthew and Luke is perfectly clear: what the devil demanded of Jesus was not merely an internal shift in allegiance but a physical act.

Now if the devil in fact represented an abstract concept, a component of Jesus' mind, a physical act of obeisance before the devil is meaningless: there is no physical object of worship! One is left to try to force 'fall down and worship me' to represent an internal decision, contrary to the plain meaning of the words. One cannot allow an interpretation which implies that what the text says Jesus was tempted to do is not what he was actually tempted to do!

8. A property transaction

There is a Roman legal term called traditio longa manu which sheds additional light on this third temptation. Traditio ('delivery') referred to the process of transferring ownership of property from one person to another. For movable assets this normally consisted of a physical handing over. In the case of immovable assets such as land, however, the law provided for the 'delivery' to take place by the seller bringing the buyer to the spot and pointing it out to him. As long as the seller and buyer both had the intent to exchange the land, the transaction was considered to have been effected. With this background in mind, the devil's move in showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and his offer to give them to Jesus can be understood as an offer to transfer this property to him. This shows that the temptation was transactional in nature; a transaction requires two distinct parties.

As in the case of the worship language, this legal background to the temptation is rendered meaningless if only one person was involved.

9. The devil's pitch

In Luke's version of the temptation account, the devil makes an extended pitch not found in Matthew. He says, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will." This pitch makes perfect sense if the devil is a personal being trying to persuade Jesus that he is capable of delivering on his offer. However, if this 'dialogue' is actually an internal struggle in Jesus' mind, this is a very odd line. If the authority has already been delivered to 'me', and 'me' and 'you' are not actually distinct persons but aspects of one person, what does it mean for 'me' to give it all to 'you'? Furthermore, if the whole dialogue is about Jesus and no one else, what possible meaning does the hypothetical 'whom' have in, "I give it to whom I will"? To whom else might the Son of God contemplate giving all authority and glory?

10. What about the very high mountain?

The only positive exegetical argument that Christadelphians typically raise against taking the temptation narratives literally involves Matthew's reference to a very high mountain from which the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Since there is no mountain on earth from which all the kingdoms of the world can be viewed, it is argued that the whole account must be taken figuratively.

However, this issue can be satisfactorily resolved without resorting to a figurative interpretation fraught with much more serious difficulties. First of all, in a first century context, "all the kingdoms of the world" does not refer to the entire globe but rather to the then known world, namely the Roman Empire and its environs. Secondly, being shown "all the kingdoms of the world" can be understood hyperbolically (Jesus didn't literally see the whole world, but a vast expanse of land which he and the devil understood to represent the whole world). 

Another alternative, more likely in my view, is that Jesus did see all the kingdoms of the world, but that this required a supernatural experience, such as supernaturally enhanced vision or being taken up from the mountain into the heavens. Several points can be raised in support of this interpretation. Firstly, Luke does not mention a mountain but says that "the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time". The 'taking up' and 'moment of time' both emphasize the supernatural character of the experience. 

Secondly, the whole temptation narrative depends heavily on Deuteronomy (the forty days = forty years in the wilderness, the testing of Israel in the wilderness, and the fact that Jesus' responses to the devil all quote from Deuteronomy). In light of this, it is very likely that Matthew intends this mountaintop temptation to be read in light of Deuteronomy 34, in which Moses ascended Mount Nebo and God showed him all the land that the Israelites were about to receive. Geographically inclined commentators advise us that some of the places mentioned in Deuteronomy 34:1-3, such as Zoar, are not actually visible from Mount Nebo. They conclude, therefore, that this account must be understood as involving some kind of supernatural visionary experience on the part of Moses. Of course, this does not negate the literal nature of the narrative in Deuteronomy 34, nor even the literal nature of the mountain. A similar mountaintop visionary experience is described in 2 Baruch 76:3-4 (a Jewish text roughly contemporary with Matthew). Thus it may be reasonably supposed that first century readers of Matthew would have understood Matthew 4:8 in terms of a supernatural - but still objective - visionary experience atop a literal mountain.

Thus the reference to the very high mountain does not provide us with an escape hatch by which to justify interpreting interpreting the entire temptation account figuratively.


It should be apparent to the reader that, whatever difficulties it might present to the modern scientific mind, the only plausible interpretation of the wilderness temptation accounts is that this was a literal encounter between Jesus and a personal being known as Satan or the devil. This being had sufficient notoriety to be referred to as THE tempter par excellence. He was in a position to make a credible claim to be able to hand over the kingdoms of the world to whomever he would. He possessed the supernatural power necessary to set Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple, and take him up to show him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.

There can be only one conclusion. The devil that tempted Jesus - and thus the devil of Scripture - is a supernatural personal being.

Monday 3 November 2014

The temptations of Jesus and Roman Law

Four decades ago, David Daube, a scholar whose expertise in ancient law produced a "near revolution in New Testament studies",1 published a book whose rather dull title, Studies in Biblical Law, conceals its fascinating contents. The work illustrates numerous biblical texts whose meaning is illuminated by the background of ancient law. One of the topics treated in the book is law governing the transfer of land from one owner to another. Daube explains the concept as follows:
In Roman law there was a mode of transfer of ownership called traditio. If you wished to make over a thing to me, you 'tradited' the thing to me, that is to say, you put me in possession, in control, of the thing, and the moment you had done this it became mine. As is to be expected, the Roman jurists had a great deal to say about what amounted to control, about what exactly was needed in various circumstances for control, and with it ownership, to pass from one party to the other. Everything would be clear, for example, if in order to pay you I took a coin and handed it over to you. You would now have command of the coin, traditio would manifestly be completed, the coin would therefore belong to you and my debt would be paid...Special problems arose in the case of land and buildings. Evidently, these cannot be delivered as simply as movables; they cannot be physically handed over by the former owner to the new like a horse or a sack of corn. In this dilemma, the Romans appear to have recognized a way of transferring control without a literal 'handing over'. More precisely, there appears to have been an ancient rule concerning land and buildings, to the effect that, provided you took me to the spot and pointed out the property to me, this counted as traditio: I acquired control and the transfer was good. It was not even necessary for me to step on the land or touch it with my hands: I might seize it, it was held, with my eyes.2
Daube reminds the reader of what might seem obvious: a change of ownership only took place when the owner explicitly or implicitly expressed the intention to transfer the property. The particular type of traditio that Daube is referring to is known technically as traditio longa manu (literally, 'delivery with the long hand'), defined as
A form of traditio in which the thing to be transferred to the acquirer was placed with his knowledge and consent in his sight (in conspectu) so that he might take possession thereof whenever he pleased.3 4
Du Plessis similarly explains that traditio longa manu occurred
when the property was indicated or pointed at, providing that it was within sight of the parties and capable of being taken at once into the transferee's control. This type of delivery was of obvious relevance in cases where the thing to be delivered could not easily be handled, e.g. land or heavy movables5
Although this ancient legal concept (which is still in use today in some jurisdictions such as South Africa6) is known to us primarily through Roman law, Daube argues for the possibility that it was also used by the ancient Hebrews. Daube identifies three biblical narratives which he believes reflect this legal principle. Two of these relate to promises of land by God in the Pentateuch: to Abraham (Genesis 13:14-15) and to Moses (Deuteronomy 3:27-28; 34:1-4). The significance of the legal background is that, if Daube is correct, these statements by God concerning land which Abraham and Moses were asked to survey with their eyes constituted legally binding contracts. For instance,
When God led [Moses] to the top of a mountain and from there showed him Palestine, he was not merely granting him a last personal wish, but was performing an act with a definite legal effect. God, the owner, pointed out the land to him, fines demonstrabat, indicated to him the boundaries of the territory, and thereby made him its sovereign.7
Daube adds that the detail given in Deuteronomy 34:7 that Moses' "eye was not dim" may be intended to stress that "Moses saw the land full well, that in spite of his age he was capable of controlling and validly taking it with his eyes."8 Of course, in spite of these transactions with God taking place, both Abraham and Moses died without having physically enjoyed ownership of the land (Acts 7:5; Hebrews 11:13). This could be compared to the 'already/not yet' eschatology found in the New Testament. Just as believers in Christ have the legal sentence of condemnation lifted immediately but do not experience the benefits physically until the resurrection (Romans 8:1, 11), so Abraham and Moses were granted legal title to the land immediately but will not physically possess it until the resurrection.

Another interesting biblical example of the traditio longa manu principle is found in the wilderness temptation narratives of Matthew 4 and Luke 4. One of the devil's temptations (third in Matthew's order and second in Luke's) reads thus:
8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” (Matthew 4:8-10 NASB)
5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. 7 Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’” (Luke 4:5-8 NASB)
Daube comments as follows on this passage:
The other narrative containing the idea of transfer of land by pointing it out and seeing it, many centuries later than that of Abraham, is the narrative of the temptation of Jesus, with Satan's offer of all the kingdoms of the world...I am not suggesting that there is any emphasis on the legal points; all that I mean to say is that the notion of transfer of ownership by one party offering and pointing out the object and the other accepting and seeing it is here noticeable in the background. Indeed, it is no mere coincidence that the property to be transferred is here offered from a high place, as in the case of Moses and in that from the Digest where 'my vendor from my tower points out neighbouring land to me'. It would be easier thus to overlook the land, fines demonstrare. Satan was a good lawyer, and, incidentally, aware how attractive the glory of the world must look when you are so placed that you can take it all in at one glance: the transaction that he contemplated failed only through non-acceptance by the other party.9
What implications does this legal background have for our interpretation of the devil in this narrative? Firstly, there is good reason to believe that the legal principle of traditio longa manu would have been understood by the authors of the Gospels (who, if tradition is correct, were educated men - a tax collector and a physician, respectively). The same is true of the addressee of the Third Gospel, "most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:3), a form of address which "seems to indicate a specific person of high social standing."10 Thus, while Daube is correct that the narratives do not emphasize the legal aspect of the temptation, both the Evangelists and educated readers such as Theophilus are likely to have taken the legal connotations into account when forming their understanding of this event.

It is significant that in Luke, the devil claims the authority to be able to transfer ownership of the land to Jesus.11 He then offers to do so, with the legal setting indicating that the transfer could be effected immediately if Jesus agreed to his price. When the temptation is read in this light, there is no escaping the transactional nature of the exchange. A transaction, however, requires two parties. It cannot be interpreted as a struggle within the mind of Jesus. Just as one cannot worship oneself, so one cannot transfer property to oneself. Attempts to read the whole episode figuratively break down decisively at this point because they render both the devil's offer and the devil's demand meaningless.

Daube's comment that "Satan was a good lawyer" is also intriguing inasmuch as Satan is depicted as a heavenly lawyer (more specifically, as God's overzealous prosecutor) in the Old Testament (Job 1-2; Zechariah 3), an idea also found in New Testament texts such as Luke 22:31, Jude 9 and Revelation 12:10.

Finally, although this is a point I have addressed elsewhere, it is worth emphasizing another point of contact between the temptation narratives and Deuteronomy 34 cited above. A figurative, 'psychological' interpretation of the temptation narrative has sometimes been defended on the grounds that there is no mountain on earth from which one can see all the kingdoms of the world (even when one considers that 'the world' here is probably restricted to the Roman Empire and its environs). However, the same problem occurs in Deuteronomy 34:
Here the phrase 'as far as Zoar' refers to the southern end of the Dead Sea, which is not visible from the summit of Mount Nebo, because of the mountain range extending from the viewer's left that blocks the view such that only the northern part of the Dead Sea is visible. Moses was given a vision of the promised land in its entirety that no tourist today can see without ascending into the skies. Perhaps this fact helps to explain the subsequent tradition known as The Assumption of Moses, with its account of Moses being taken directly to heaven rather than dying a natural death. Jude 9 appears to refer to such a tradition, which was apparently well known in early Jewish circles. At any rate, it would require such 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
I doubt that anyone would claim that in the narrative of Deuteronomy 34, "Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah" refers to a figurative event in Moses' mind. It is clear that Moses really did ascend a mountain; and yet the details of the land he was shown indicate that the vision had a supernatural element to it. Why can we not interpret the Gospel temptation narratives in the same way? This would not be the only case of a transcendent experience occurring on a mountaintop in Matthew (cf. 17:1-8; 28:16-20). Thus, the fact that no mountain exists from which the whole Roman Empire may be seen with natural vision no more implies that the whole temptation is figurative than the fact that Zoar cannot be seen from Mount Nebo implies that Deuteronomy 34 is figurative.

Professor Daube's insights contribute to the substantial body of evidence that the devil who tempted Jesus was an external personal being.

1 Davies, W. (2000, April). A Gentle Hawk. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from http://www.law.berkeley.edu/library/daube/davies.html
2 Daube, D. (1969). Studies in Biblical Law. New York: KTAV Publishing, pp. 26-27.
3 Berger, A. (1968). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law. American Philosophical Society, p. 740.
4 See also Buckland, W.W. (2007). A Text-Book of Roman Law: From Augustus to Justinian. Cambridge University Press, p. 227.
5 Du Plessis, P. (2010). Borkowski's Textbook on Roman Law. Oxford University Press, p. 181.
6 Van der Merwe, C.G. & Du Plessis, J.E. (Eds.). (2004). Introduction to the Law of South Africa. Kluwer Law International, p. 215.
7 Daube, op. cit., p. 28.
8 Daube, op. cit., p. 39.
9 Daube, op. cit., pp. 35-36.
10 Bock, D.L. (1994). Luke 1:1-9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 63.
11 This need not actually imply that the devil actually had this authority, since the devil is a liar (John 8:44; Revelation 12:9). However, for the offer to be tempting, the devil's claim would need to be at least credible. To this end it is worth noting that Jesus and the New Testament writers regarded the devil as having considerable power, to the point of being referred to as "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; cf. Acts 26:18; 1 John 5:19; Revelation 2:13).
12 Christensen, D.L. (2002). Deuteronomy 21:10-34:12. Mexico City: Thomas Nelson, p. 871. Emphasis added.

Friday 27 December 2013

The devil's demand of worship from Jesus

In the previous two posts we looked at the setting of the third of Jesus' wilderness temptations (second in Luke's ordering) and then more specifically at the devil's offer of world power to Jesus. We now turn our attention to what the devil tempted Jesus to do. Our main objective is again to assess the Christadelphian interpretation that the temptation narratives are figurative representations of an internal struggle, in which ho diabolos (the devil) is a personification of the evil inclination (Hebrew yetzer hara) within Jesus' heart.

Our focus is again on the third temptation (second in Luke's ordering) because it is the most problematic for Christadelphians:
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.’” (Matthew 4:8-10 NRSV)
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Luke 4:5-8 NRSV)
Anthony Buzzard succinctly stated the difficulty that the Christadelphian interpretation faces here: "It is most unnatural to think that Jesus invited himself to fall down before himself and worship himself!".1 To this, Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke responded:
It is not argued that Jesus 'invited himself to fall down before himself and worship himself'. It is argued that the narrative represents the internal struggle in Christ using the language of personification.2
In this response, Burke does not say what Jesus was actually tempted to do. Following on the precedent of the other two temptations, it stands to reason that Jesus was actually tempted to do something concrete, and the text tells us what it was: to fall down and worship the devil (ho diabolos). Burke, however, proposes a figurative interpretation of what Jesus was tempted to do:
"The temptation represents Christ as the one having power to elevate himself, and self-worship, rather than the worship of God, is both the requirement and result."3
Thus, although Burke denies that Jesus was tempted to fall down before himself and worship himself, he affirms that Jesus was tempted to self-worship (i.e. worship himself!) The only difference between what he denies and what he affirms is the 'falling down' part. Thus it appears that Burke believes Jesus was tempted to worship himself in mental attitude and not in a physical act of obeisance. The problem is that the text of Matthew says "fall down and worship me". That this is a demand for a physical act of worship is even clearer in the Greek than in the English.

The Greek verb translated "worship" in both Matt. 4:9 and Luke 4:7 is proskuneo. The most respected lexicon of ancient Greek defines this verb thus: "to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure, (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully".4 While Christadelphians might seize on the words "in attitude", it is plain from the list of synonyms that even this refers to an outwardly expressed attitude and not merely a mental state.5

There is no known evidence that proskuneo was ever used as a reflexive verb (i.e. in relation to oneself) in ancient Greek. The only known use of this verb with an abstract direct object is a reference to worship of wealth by Philo, in which he explicitly stated he was using "figurative language".6

Greeven further emphasizes the "concreteness" of the term, observing that, as used in the New Testament, "Proskynesis demands visible majesty before which the worshipper bows".7Thus, in order to take proskuneo in the sense of figurative self-worship instead of physical other-worship, one must give it an unprecedented meaning.

Furthermore, although the mere use of the word proskuneo virtually settles the matter, both Matthew and Luke qualify it with another word which makes the physicality of the worship even more explicit. In Matthew, the qualifier is the participial form of the verb pipto, which means "to move with relative rapidity in a downward direction, fall".8 It usually has a literal sense, and one of the lexical meanings is "fall down, throw oneself to the groundas a sign of devotion or humility, before high-ranking persons or divine beings".

There are also figurative meanings of pipto which include to fall in a transcendent or moral sense. It might be argued that Jesus' evil impulse tempted him to fall (morally) and elevate himself in self-worship. However, this would again be an utterly unprecedented meaning. The words proskuneo and pipto modify each other in two passages of the LXX and eleven other passages in the New Testament, and in every single instance they clearly denote a physical act of worship (2 Chr. 20:18 LXX; Dan. 3:4-15 LXX; Matt. 2:11; Matt. 18:26; Acts 10:25; 1 Cor. 14:25; Rev. 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4; 19:10; 22:8). Particularly noteworthy are the two other Matthean texts:
"On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down (pipto) and paid him homage (proskuneo). Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." (Matt. 2:11)
"So the slave fell to the ground (pipto) and prostrated himself (proskuneo) before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’" (Matt. 18:26)
Thus, when used together, pipto and proskuneo depict a physical act of homage. It is all but certain that this is what the devil demanded of Jesus in Matt. 4:9; this is undoubtedly how most readers in the first century would have understood the narrative. To take this text as a temptation to figuratively worship oneself requires abandoning the usual lexical and syntactical meaning of these words and giving them a sense which is foreign to Matthew, to the New Testament, and to the ancient Greek language!

The verb pipto does not appear in Luke's parallel account. Nevertheless, while most Bible translations render the key phrase in Luke 4:7 simply as "if you worship me", there is also a qualifying word in the Greek here which makes the physical nature of the temptation explicit. This is the adverb/preposition enopion, which primarily means "before; in the sight of; in the presence of".9 Thus a more literal translation of this phrase in Luke 4:7 is, as the NASB has it, "if you worship before me" (the NASB has 'bow down before me' as a marginal rendering; Young's Literal Translation also translates 'bow before me'). This makes it clear that the worship was to take place in front of or in the presence of some external party. This word is superfluous if the temptation refers to self-worship.

Once again, if we look at other occurrences of proskuneo with enopion in Scripture, we find that it always denotes a physical act of worship (2 Kings 18:22 LXX; Ps. 22:27-29 LXX; Ps. 86:9 LXX; Isa. 66:23 LXX; Rev. 3:9; 15:4). Typical is Rev. 15:4b: "All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed".

Responding to Buzzard's analysis of the verb proserchomai in Matthew 4:3 (also problematic for Christadelphians), Burke writes that Buzzard
"deliberately over translates the Greek...in order to create the sense of a greater distinction between Christ and the satan, giving the false impression that the text wishes us to understand that Christ and the satan are two separate individual beings".10
Regardless of whether or not Burke's statement is accurate with regard to Matt. 4:3, we have seen that the Greek text of Matt. 4:9 and Luke 4:7 unmistakably create a distinction between Christ and the devil/Satan, demonstrating that they are two separate individual beings. Given that Matthew and Luke use the language of physical worship, it simply is not plausible that Jesus was tempted to engage in an act of obeisance either to himself, or to his personified 'evil inclination'.

We can say with certainty, then, that the text indicates Jesus was tempted to physically bow down before the devil. In view of this, the only way to sustain the Christadelphian 'internal struggle' interpretation is to take the temptation narrative figuratively at a more fundamental level. That is, none of the temptations actually happened as such; instead, they use vivid pictures to portray Jesus' battle with his evil inclination.

The problem with this approach is that the other two temptations are clearly concrete: Jesus was literally in the wilderness, was literally hungry and was literally tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. Similarly, Jesus was literally placed atop the temple pinnacle and tempted to throw himself down to test God's providential care. Neither 'turning stones into bread' nor 'throwing himself down' can be understood metaphorically. Consistency thus dictates that we take the temptation narratives at face value as concrete events in the life of Jesus. The idea that ho diabolos refers to a personification of an abstract entity is grammatically impossible and must be rejected. Jesus was tempted to physically worship a concrete personal being external to himself.

In fact, this conclusion brings Christadelphians back to the interpretations of the founders of their movement, John Thomas and Robert Roberts, both of whom identified ho diabolos in the temptation narratives as an unknown human tempter.11 12 This earlier interpretation makes better grammatical sense, but is also fraught with difficulties. It fails to account for the definite article: the tempter as opposed to a tempter. It also fails to account for the reappearance of ho diabolos/ho satanas elsewhere in the Gospels, and indeed, the prominence of this theological term throughout the New Testament.

If we attempt to ascertain the identity of ho diabolos just from what the temptation narratives tell us, we can infer that the tempter (a) knew Jesus' identity at the outset of his ministry (as the demons also did), (b) had the supernatural power needed to place him atop the pinnacle of the temple or induce a visionary experience, and (c) could make a credible claim to absolute temporal power. As there was no human being external to Christ who met these three criteria, we are left with only one possibility: ho diabolos refers to a supernatural personal being.

1 Buzzard, Anthony F. Satan, the Personal Devil. http://focusonthekingdom.org/articles/satan.htm
2 Burke, Jonathan. 2007. Satan and Demons: A Reply to Anthony Buzzard. Can be downloaded from https://sites.google.com/a/dianoigo.com/dianoigo/Jonathan_Burke_Satan_and_Demons.pdf, p. 40.
3 Burke, Jonathan. op. cit., p. 181.
4 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. and Bauer, W. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 882.
5 See, for instance, the first definition of 'attitude' at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/attitude
6 Philo of Alexandria. Delineation of the Mosaic Legislation for non-Jews, Book 27, IV.25.
7 Greeven, H. 1968. proskuneo. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 6. ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, tr. Geoffrey Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 765.
8 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. and Bauer, W. op. cit., p. 815.
9 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. and Bauer, W. op. cit., p. 342.
10 Burke, Jonathan. op. cit., p. 37.
11 Thomas, John. 1867. Elpis Israel: Being an Exposition of the Kingdom of God; with Reference to the Time of the End, and the Age to Come. 4th edition, p. 78.
12 Roberts, Robert. 1880. Seasons of Comfort at the Table of the Lord: Being Fifty-two Addresses, Etc. Birmingham, No. 51.

Saturday 21 December 2013

The devil's offer of the world to Jesus

This is the second part of a trilogy on the wilderness temptation narrative recorded in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. More specifically the series is examining the third temptation (second in Luke's ordering) and evaluating the Christadelphian view that the temptations were an internal struggle in Jesus' mind, with ho diabolos (the devil) being a personification of the evil inclination (in Hebrew, the yetzer hara). The previous installment looked at the setting of this temptation. Now we will examine the devil's offer to Jesus. In this case we will follow Luke's account because it offers more detail:
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Luke 4:5-8 NRSV)
A key feature of the Lucan narrative that must be explained is the devil's claim to exercise power over the kingdoms of the world and give it to whomever he pleases. Under the Christadelphian interpretation this statement comes from the personified yetzer hara, representing the dark side of Jesus' thought process which is opposed to the will of God. It is attempting to persuade Jesus to take a wrong course of action. If this is really what this passage conveys, it does so in very odd language.

We discussed in the previous post how a figurative dialogue between a person and a personification is quite foreign to the genre of the Gospels. Yet even if we allow the possibility of internal temptations being narrated in this way, it makes little sense for the personified yetzer hara to base its offer on a grandiose claim to temporal power. Notice that the other two temptations begin, "If you are the Son of God..." and thus use Jesus' privileged status as their jumping-off point. Why does the narrative deviate from that formula in this case? An appeal to Jesus' Messianic prerogative would be even more persuasive here. If this temptation consists of an urge from within to usurp temporal political power, it might have been phrased something like this:
"If you are the Son of God, march into Jerusalem and declare yourself king, for that is your right, as it is written, ‘Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom.’"
Instead, the tempter makes no reference to Jesus' right to rule but instead asserts his own! Christadelphians need to provide an explanation for why the introductory formula is so different for this temptation. Furthermore, if this dialogue is strictly internal and involves no third party, then what does "I give it to anyone I please" mean? To whom might Jesus' yetzer hara even hypothetically give authority over the kingdoms of the world other than himself?

It is apparent, then, that the way the devil phrases his offer to Jesus in Luke's account presents serious difficulties for the Christadelphian view. However, Christadelphians have suggested that to be a temptation must be plausible in order to truly tempt,NUM1 and a claim to absolute political power from a fallen angel is not plausible. Let us then assume for the sake of argument that ho diabolos in this passage is an angelic being, and assess the plausibility of the claim and offer he made to Jesus.

We may first observe that, within the narrative, it is not necessarily the case that Jesus was aware from the beginning who his interlocutor was. Elsewhere in the New Testament we read that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), so it is not impossible that the devil presented himself to Jesus as an angel. The devil does not introduce himself to Jesus; it is the narrator who makes the reader of the Gospel aware who the tempter was. In Matthew's account, after the final temptation Jesus says, "Away with you, Satan!" which makes it possible that the offer of illicit political power and the demand for worship gave away the tempter's identity. However, this is only a conjecture, and perhaps not a likely one given Jesus' remarkable powers of discernment (Matt. 9:4; Luke 9:47; John 1:48; 2:24; 6:64).

If we judge that Jesus knew who stood before him, would this then render the temptation a "sham" as Christadelphian writer Thomas Williams put it?2 Scholars have identified the devil's statement in Luke 4:6 as an allusion to God’s claims in Jeremiah 34(27E):5 LXX and Daniel 4:31LXX, and as such “Luke pictures Satan as usurping God’s prerogative to confer authority on whomever God wishes.”3 Does this mean the devil's offer was implausible? Yamazaki-Ransom provides useful insights on this point:
“In the Lukan temptation narrative, Satan claims to be the lord of the world. Is he telling the truth? The answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, although Satan is not a reliable character in the narrative, the implied reader is expected to take Satan’s claim at face value. First, Jesus does not deny Satan’s claim. Second, Paul later describes his ministry as opening the eyes of the people ‘so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power (exousia) of Satan to God’ (Acts 26.18). This assumes the reality of Satan’s exousia over people, although it is undermined by God through Paul’s ministry. Thus Satan’s power over the world is a real, not an illusory, one. On the other hand, as was just shown, he is not the true lord who deserves worship. For Luke the true Lord is God and Jesus, but not Satan. Thus Satan’s lordship over the world is a real but illegitimate one, one that is to be dismantled. The reality of diabolic authority over the world, and Jesus’ refusal to receive this authority from Satan, has great significance in Luke’s narrative.”4
Indeed, there are numerous New Testament passages which state or imply that the devil or Satan possesses power. Importantly, some of these texts are in Luke's writings (Luke 10:19; Acts 26:18). In John's Gospel, Jesus himself refers to the devil as "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11),5 and in John's first epistle he writes that "the whole world lies in the power of the evil one" (1 John 5:19).6 Paul too describes Satan as a powerful ruler (Eph. 2:2; 6:11-12). Finally, in Revelation the dragon (symbolic of the devil) gives power and authority to the beast (symbolic of an earthly empire) (Rev. 13:2 cf. 12:9). In this last case the devil's power is explicitly political in nature.7 Hence, as one commentator writes concerning the devil's claim to Jesus, “In a way clearly parallel to the scenario painted in Revelation 13, we discover that the world of humanity is actually ruled by the devil.”8

Where did this notion of the devil possessing political power come from? Behind it lies "the idea of angelic beings ruling over earthly kingdoms" which "has a long tradition, both before and after the New Testament."9 Several Old Testament texts develop this idea, most notably Daniel 10, and while it is not prominent in the New Testament, it is found in Revelation 12-17 and may be presupposed in other New Testament texts such as Luke 10:1, Acts 16:9, 1 Cor. 4:9, 6:3 and 1 Tim. 3:16.10

Therefore, far from being preposterous we find that the devil's claim here is consistent with the overall testimony of the New Testament. The devil did have some basis for claiming to wield great political power, and as such his offer to confer this power on Jesus in exchange for worship was at least plausible. It is to this demand for worship that we shall turn our attention in the next post.

1 See the entry on the temptations of Jesus in the Wrested Scripture resource at http://www.wrestedscriptures.com/b07satan/matthew4v1-11.html
2 Williams, Thomas. The Devil: His Origin and End. See under The Devil that Tempted Christ at http://www.republic-christadelphians.org/files/The_Devil_-_His_Origin_and_End.htm
3 Carroll, John T. 2012. Luke: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, p. 103.
4 Yamazaki-Ransom, Kazuhiko. 2010. The Roman Empire in Luke’s Narrative. Continuum, pp. 95-96.
5 For an important study of this title in John, see Kovacs, Judith L. 1995. "Now shall the Ruler of this world be driven out": Jesus' death as cosmic battle in John 12:20-36. Journal of Biblical Literature 114(2): 227-247.
6 That 'the evil one', 'the devil' and 'Satan' are synonyms can be seen by comparing the three parallel accounts of the parable of the sower in Matt. 13:19, Mark 4:15 and Luke 8:12; cf. Matt. 13:38-39. That John also uses the term in this way is apparent from comparing the similar language in 1 John 3:12 and John 8:44.
7 See comments in Morris, Leon. 1988. Luke: An Introduction and Commentary. Eerdmans, p. 113.
8 Green, Joel B. 1997. The Gospel of Luke. Eerdmans, p. 194.
9 Yamazaki-Ransom. op. cit., p. 93.
10 Wink, Walter. 1984. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. Fortress Press, pp. 34-35.

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

Tuesday 12 November 2013

I have decided to know nothing

In Paul's first epistle to the church at Corinth, the apostle made the following astounding statement:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. (1 Cor. 2:1-3 NRSV)
Why do I say these words are astounding? There are two main reasons. The first concerns the preaching of a crucified Saviour. Earlier in the epistle, Paul had described the message of the cross as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. The Jews did not expect that the Messiah would die, and their Law stated that "anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse" (Deut. 21:23). Likewise, it was foolishness to the Roman world to teach that a crucified man had more honour than Caesar. Crucifixion was reserved mainly for slaves and vile criminals, with slaves were sometimes sarcastically referred to as cross bearers. The famous Roman lawyer Cicero argued that no Roman citizen should be crucified (F.T. Zugibe, The Crucifixion of Jesus, p. 55). L.L. Welborn writes, "The cultured elite of the Roman world wanted nothing to do with crucifixion, and as a rule kept silent about it" (Paul, the Fool of Christ, p. 131).

Yet Paul and the other Christians did anything but keep silent about it; they went around proclaiming Jesus Christ, and him crucified! From the point of view of contemporary human wisdom, this gospel was offensive and nonsensical. Nevertheless, instead of trying to cover up the fact of the cross, the early church made it central to their message of redemption. John used extreme irony by teaching that in the very act of being "lifted up" on the cross, Jesus was "lifted up" in the sense of being exalted (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34 cf. Isa. 52:13).

It was integral to the purpose of God that the message of salvation should not be plausible and tolerable from the standpoint of human wisdom, but should be implausible and offensive. This was so that God might be glorified and no human might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:29). This brings us to the second astounding statement Paul made in this text: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ."

When we as Christians preach, teach, debate and discuss, more often than not we aim to convince others that we are wise, that we understand the Scriptures, that we have all the answers. Paul was a brilliant and well-educated man (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:4-6). He could have taken this approach and excelled at it. Instead, he pruned the gospel down to its bare essentials: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul used his Spirit-filled erudition, not to impress his readers with elaborate doctrines, but to preach the gospel in all its simplicity and all its power. He did the same in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. These letters are theological masterpieces with weighty methods of argumentation, but their aim was very simple: to show that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ.

Now I personally enjoy studying the Bible. I love delving deeply into the richness of the divine mysteries revealed in this book. However, I often need to remind myself that "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1b). In seeking to unlock these mysteries we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, like Paul did. In the first ten verses of 1 Corinthians Paul referred to Jesus Christ by name ten times! For him, it really was all about Jesus. Biblical exposition and theology is vain if it leads its audience away from the cross of Christ rather than towards it.

And so, to Christians of any stripe with whom I have had disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture, I pose this question: can we lay aside our differences and decide to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified?