Gospels Week 3: Temptation


Matthew 4

Luke 4


  • Is this Garden of Eden part 2: Revenge of Satan? Is it Jesus having hallucinations from dehydration?
  • Is this a flood parallel, a fasting ritual, a cleansing? 

In Mark, the testing of Jesus in the desert is limited to a single verse:

And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Mark 1:12 (NSRV)

Matthew and Luke—the two gospels that derive from Mark plus the speculated Q-source—both elaborate on this desert-testing in interesting ways. They seem to respond to the same questions we might have when we consider the sparse Markan verse above: What was Jesus up to for forty days? What did Satan say to him? and how did he respond?

Apparently, this episode takes place pretty much right after Jesus has been baptised. But before this, Jesus wasn’t doing anything particularly Good or Religious; in fact, it’s only in Luke that we get much about his childhood at all.

Matthew takes the testing a step further, by giving Jesus three temptations:

  1. To command stones to become loaves of bread → Jesus responds that “One does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
  2. To throw himself off a high building to force the angels to catch him → Jesus responds that one must not “put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16)
  3. To worship the Devil and receive all the kingdoms of the earth → Jesus responds that one must worship only God (Matthew 4:10, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, and also the Ten Commandments)

The first temptation is perhaps the most curious, because in other instances, Jesus does procure food (the wedding at Cana, the loaves and the fishes, anyone?). So it’s not that food-miracles are forbidden by some eternal law, à la Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. Rather, the Devil is tempting Jesus to use his miracle-powers (powers that, keep in mind, he hasn’t ever manifested before in Matthew) to feed himself, since he’s so “famished” from fasting in the desert for forty days. Perhaps it’s also about who’s doing the ordering-around here. By refusing Satan’s demand, Jesus is both emphasising that physical nourishment is not as important as spiritual nourishment (something later Christian ascetics really get behind) and that he’s not gonna obey what Satan says. Good work, Jesus.

In Luke, the temptations play out pretty much the same, aside from the fact that #3 and #2 are reversed in order. Does this mean that Jesus’s sayings were somehow recorded in the Q-source? Possibly.

Finally, a logistical question: What’s the significance of the 40 days?

Technically, a human being can survive without food for 40 days (though not water…hopefully Jesus brought a bunch of flasks with him). But forty days, in ancient texts, can also stand in for “a long time,” much as the number 1,001 is used to mean “pretty much infinite” in other ancient stories (e.g., The Thousand and One Nights).

Other points of discussion:

  • What would have happened if Jesus succumbed? Is it actually possible for him to have succumbed to the temptation? Or is it not really “temptation” if there’s no possibility of giving in?
    • The English word temptation comes from the Latin temptare, to test or to try. So perhaps it’s better to understand these ‘temptations’ as the ‘trials’ of Jesus. But maybe that doesn’t quite answer the question. Is it really a test if you know you’re going to pass?
    • The Latin is apparently an inexplicably erroneous form of tentare, to touch or handle. Lucifer loves this. Is there a weird way in which temptation is the love-child of touching and time?
  • Certain parallels with the judgment of Paris: Athena offers Paris victory in battle (sort of like #2) and Hera offers all the kingdoms of the earth (like #3). Hypothetically this makes #1 (the stone-bread decision) the parallel of Aphrodite’s offer, which is the love of the most beautiful woman on earth, Helen.
    • Which is interesting because hunger for bread and food more generally have many parallels with sexual appetite, and of course celibacy is an important part of many religions, including certain sects of Christianity.
    • “Man cannot live on bread alone”… “Man cannot live on sex alone”…?! The Flesh vs. the Mind.
  • We get disturbingly close to the question of whether Satan is secretly on God’s side. Is Satan an employee, or is he his own thing? If the Spirit knew that the Devil was going to be in the desert, just biding his time till he could do some quality tempting, does that mean that the Spirit knows more than the Devil? Was Jesus being tempted part of the Plan? Clearly yes. But then we’re back to the question above: Was there ever actually a chance that Jesus would be like, “Huh, yeah I am pretty hungry, I’ll use my God-powers to make this pebble into a cinnamon roll!” UNCLEAR.


Sometimes we need to be tempted by what’s not right in order to appreciate what is right (?).

Image: “Jesus Defeats Satan,” mosaic from a dome in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC. Courtesy of Flickr, Lawrence OP.

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