dianoigo blog

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels: A Response to Jonathan Burke (Part 2)

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

3.       The TS as a ‘trial of the righteous man’ story

We have already seen Kloppenborg’s claim that the form-critical background to the TS in Q is the ordeal of the righteous man (which for him is exemplified in the stories of Abraham and Job, especially in extra-canonical versions). As Morris states, “What is depicted at a basic level is a righteous figure who is confronted with demonic temptation.”[1]

The identification of the TS as belonging to the genre of the trial of a righteous man owes much to the analogues to the TS in Jewish haggadic materials identified by Kelly. These include the Apocalypse of Abraham, “a typically Jewish midrash on Genesis 15” in which Abraham is tempted by an unclean bird who is identified as Azazel.[2] A second parallel is from the Book of Jubilees, in which “Mastema (who in 10.8-11 may be identified with Satan) requests God to tempt Abraham further.”[3] Again, “The disputatious aspects of the Temptation scene in Mt and Lk, therefore, may have a partial inspiration in stories retailing the adventures of the Angel of Death in dealing with Moses.”[4] Furthermore, “As a parallel to the Mt-Lk Temptation account of the meeting of Christ with the ruler of the world, we may cite the Martyrdom of Isaiah.”[5] Again, “In the Damascus Document, which dates from well before the Christian era, we find still another analogue to the Temptation account of Mt-Lk”,[6] namely Beliar’s three nets. A striking feature shared by all of these parallels to the TS is that the antagonist is a mythological figure.

Hence, the parallels between the TS in Matthew and Luke and ‘haggadic materials’ actually support a mythological reading of the TS. The implications for historicity are not as pronounced: “We should emphasize here that the mere presence of literary elements in the Temptation accounts would solve no question as to the kind of historicity involved in these scenes.”[7]

Schiavo too thinks that the TS “could be placed within the literary genre ‘vocation of the divine man’ or ‘temptation of the wise’, a tradition that was well known in the first century CE”.[8] However, he goes further and asserts that the TS closely parallels a literary form known as the ‘heavenly journey’.[9]

Basser and Cohen comment, “Typically Jewish tradition has seen that once God has chosen someone to be his representative, that someone is then tested by an agent of God.”[10]

4.       The TS as myth

The role of ‘myth’ in NT scholarship owes much to the work of Bultmann, who defined the term primarily in relation to cosmology: “The world picture of the New Testament is a mythical world picture.” A major reason for this assertion was that the NT writers view the world as “a theater for the working of supernatural powers, God and his angels, Satan and his demons.”[11]

Hatina notes that the meaning of this term “has become a source of considerable debate”[12] in general academic discourse, while Caird describes it as “an exceedingly slippery term,”[13] particularly because of the negative connotations which the term bears in popular parlance, where ‘myth’ is synonymous with ‘falsehood’. Bell gives a detailed definition in a work specifically concerned with the Satan myth. He notes several characteristics of myth: myth is concerned with narrative in which “there is some interaction of a ‘god’ or a numinous quality in the world”; separation between the time (or world) of the narrator and the narrated time (or world) need not exist; myth “brings us into contact with reality itself”.[14] Similarly, Riches describes myths as narratives that describe the interaction of “divine being/s with the world of human beings”.[15]

There seems to be much wider scholarly agreement that the TS is mythological than that it is midrashic. Even Gerhardsson, one of the main proponents of the ‘haggadic midrash’ view, acknowledged that the TS is ‘mythological in character’.[16]

Although Robbins notes that ‘myth’ is a notoriously thorny category in biblical scholarship, he nevertheless states matter-of-factly, “The TS is a mythological narrative.”[17] In this, Robbins is following Dibelius, for whom mythology was itself a literary genre. Dibelius found three instances of myths in the Gospels: the baptismal miracle, the temptation of Jesus, and the transfiguration.[18] Commenting on the TS specifically, Dibelius noted,
a conversation between the devil and Jesus was handed down in the source Q, and that Marcan note which mentions the Temptation gave the occasion to Matthew iv, 1-11, and to Luke iv, 1-13, to narrate the dialogue here. Thus the framework of the conversation became mythological; the very homage of the angels (Matthew iv, 11) makes this impression.[19]
We have already seen that Kloppenborg regarded the TS as having a ‘mythic setting.’ Allison too regards the Gospel TS are “‘mythological’ elaborations based on fact.”[20] So also Dormandy: “In Matthew and Luke the three temptations are told in a mythical manner.”[21] Schiavo asserts that the TS should be read against the background of the “combat myth”.[22] Bell regards the Lukan TS as a prelude to demonic opposition to Jesus seen later in the narrative, all of which are “manifestations of ‘cosmic evil’.”[23]

Commenting more broadly on the narrative and the place of the TS within it, Pagels states:
Each of the gospels frames its narrative, first at its beginning and then at its climax, with episodes depicting the clash of supernatural forces that the evangelists see played out through Jesus’ life and in his death… Many liberally minded Christians have preferred to ignore or minimize the presence of such blatant supernaturalism. Yet as the evangelists see it, the story they have to tell would make little sense apart from the context of cosmic war.[24]

Similarly, Sim states that Matthew “describes the supernatural world in terms of a cosmic struggle between God and his agents on the one hand and Satan and his company of evil angels on the other”[25] and “Matthew deliberately relates the dualism of the human sphere to the cosmic battle which is being fought between Jesus and Satan.”[26]

Donaldson observes how the Matthean episode in which the devil takes Jesus up a high mountain heightens the mythological nature of the narrative. The setting probably “owes something to cosmic mountain mythology,” which is known from Jewish apocalyptic literature and in which “mountains are seen as places of significance in the cosmic order of things and especially as points of entrance into the heavenly realm.”[27]

Riches refers to De Boer’s well known assertion that there were two ‘tracks’ in Jewish eschatology of the Second Temple period: cosmological apocalyptic eschatology and forensic apocalyptic eschatology. Referring to Mark’s TS, he asks 
what kind of view of the origins of evil in the world underlies, is promoted by, Mark’s story? Is evil ultimately the work of some angelic/demonic power or does it derive from the rebellion of the human will?[28]
His conclusion is that these two worldviews are “intertwined” in Mark, who seeks to “give expression to both”.[29]

Like Pagels, Lieu specifically criticizes a hermeneutic which seeks to demythologize the TS:
We do not encounter Jesus’ clash with the devil in the wilderness in any other form than that which it takes in the text. To demythologize it into discarded strategic options for ministry, or even into a ‘visionary or inward, spiritual experience’ (Kimball 1994: 84), is to produce a different text, an episode in the history or in the psychology of Jesus. Yet we cannot ignore its textual positionings, in Matthew and in Luke, as well as in the greater narratives to which intertextual readings point us. Here we recognize that the temptation narratives can only have the form that they do, and that their meaning inheres in this and not in some supposed reference that lies outside them. The stones on the desert floor, the parapet of the Temple, and the mountain-top vista cannot be exchanged but neither can the devil; the mythic dimensions are integral.[30]

Remarkably, Burke’s discussion of the genre of the TS almost completely ignores the category of ‘myth’ (in his article, the term appears only in footnoted quotations from his sources). The scholarly consensus that the TS is mythological poses a serious problem for Burke’s exegesis, because he himself states, “A cosmological understanding of the temptation accounts would be that Jesus was tempted by a supernatural being,” and regards ‘cosmological’ and ‘mythological’ as synonymous terms referring to supernatural evil.

[1] Morris, M. (2014). Apotropaic Traditions in the Matthean Temptation. Trinity College, Dublin, Journal of Postgraduate Research, 14, 134-146, here 136. Morris also notes the presence of apotropaic (protection-against-demons) features in the Matthean TS.
[2] Kelly, H.A. (1964). The devil in the desert. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 26, 190-220. Here 192.
[3] Kelly 1964: 198.
[4] Kelly 1964: 202. Cf. Deut. Rabbah 11.5.
[5] Kelly 1964: 210.
[6] Kelly 1964: 211.
[7] Kelly 1964: 215.
[8] Schiavo, L. (2002). The Temptation of Jesus: The Eschatological Battle and the New Ethic of the First Followers of Jesus in Q. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 25(2), 141-164. Here 144. See primary sources cited by him.
[9] This will be discussed further in a subsequent section.
[10] Basser, H. & Cohen, M.B. (2015). The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary. Leiden: Brill, pp. 103-104. They cite a number of rabbinic texts in support of this assertion.
[11] Bultmann, R. (1941/1985). New Testament and mythology and other basic writings (S.M. Ogden, trans.). London: SCM Press, p. 1.
[12] Hatina, T. (2013). New Testament Theology and its Quest for Relevance: Ancient Texts and Modern Readers. London: Bloomsbury, p. 228.
[13] Caird, G.B. (1980). The Language and Imagery of the Bible. London: Duckworth, pp. 218-219.
[14] Bell, R.H. (2007). Deliver us from Evil: Interpreting the Redemption from the Power of Satan in New Testament Theology. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 42-45.
[15] Riches, J.K. (2001). Conflicting Mythologies: Mythical Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 84, 29-50. Here 31.
[16] Gerhardsson, B. (1966). The Testing of God’s Son. Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, p. 12.
[17] Robbins 2007: 21.
[18] Dibelius, M. (1935/1971). From Tradition to Gospel (B.L. Woolf, trans.). Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., p. 271.
[19] Dibelius 1935/1971: 274.
[20] Allison, D.C., Jr (2002). Behind the Temptations of Jesus Q 4:1-13 and Mark 1:12-1. In B.D. Chilton & C.A. Evans (Eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (pp. 195-214). Leiden: Brill, p. 204.
[21] Dormandy, R. (2003). Jesus’ Temptations in Mark’s Gospel: Mark 1:12-13. The Expository Times, 114(6), 183-187. Here 186.
[22] Schiavo 2002: 150.
[23] Bell 2007: 71n22.
[24] Pagels, E. (1994). The Social History of Satan, Part II: Satan in the New Testament Gospels. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 62(1), 17-18.
[25] Sim, D.C. (1996). Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 75.
[26] Sim 1996: 79.
[27] Donaldson, T. (1987). Jesus on the Mountain: A Study in Matthew. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 71, 94.
[28] Riches 2001: 33.
[29] Riches 2001: 43, 50.
[30] Lieu, J. (2005). Reading Jesus in the Wilderness. In R.S. Gugirtharajah (Ed.), Wilderness: Essays in Honour of Frances Young (pp. 88-100). London: T&T Clark, p. 97.