Identifying the adversary

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series The Yetzer in the Wilderness: Jesus and the Evil Inclination

Matthew and Luke’s temptation accounts both consistently refer to Jesus’ adversary as ‘the devil’, whereas Mark’s account only refers to Jesus’ adversary once, as ‘Satan’ (Mark 1:13).

In addition, Matthew refers once to ‘the tempter’ (Matthew 4:3), and has Jesus address his adversary once as ‘Satan’ (Matthew 4:10). The Synoptic writers introduce these terms early in their gospels, without explanation of their meaning, indicating the original audience of the text was expected to be familiar with them.

Scholars typically assume the terms all have a cosmological referent, citing Second Temple Period beliefs in supernatural evil beings.1 This conclusion is vulnerable to criticism on the basis of several lines of evidence.

1. Satanological terminology in Matthew and Luke: the most common terms used in pre-Christian Second Temple literature for a supernatural evil being, are not used in the Synoptics. In fact most of them are not used in the New Testament at all (Beliar is used once). In contrast, the terms used in the Synoptic temptation accounts have almost no pre-Christian witness in Second Temple literature as a reference to a specific supernatural evil being.

2. Ethical dualism and psychological dualism are dominant in the Synoptics, rather than the cosmological dualism which would be expected if a supernatural evil being was present in the temptation accounts.

3. There are no Old Testament or Second Temple parallels to the temptation accounts; the earliest analogs appear in the Tannaitic literature of the second century.

Series Navigation<< Literary genre of the wilderness temptationSatanological terminology in the Synoptics: Satan >>
  1. ‘The narrative does not explain who the devil is. It is assumed that the audience knows various traditions that identify nonhuman powers and forces (angels and demons by various names) which impact institutions, structures, nations, and individuals and resist God’s purposes.’, Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins (A&C Black, 2005), 107. []

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