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Showing posts with label narrative. Show all posts
Showing posts with label narrative. 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.