Literary genre of the wilderness temptation

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series The Yetzer in the Wilderness: Jesus and the Evil Inclination

Despite its superficial appearance as a simple historical record, the Synoptic account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness1 has often been interpreted as symbolic or parabolic of Jesus’ experiences, since the early Christian era.2 The popularity of this interpretation waxed and waned throughout history; Origen understood the account as a dramatized parable,3 and although Aquinas opposed those who interpreted the temptations as visionary,4 the view was common among early Reformers, finding its way into the marginal commentary of early printed Bibles.5 Current scholarly commentary typically treats the wilderness temptation account as a visionary experience,6 symbolic description,7 or dramatization of events throughout Jesus’ ministry,8 and commentaries advise against reading the account as literally historical.9

Rather than being read as historical narrative, the temptation account is generally understood to take the form of haggadic midrash10 (non-historical commentary used to illustrate interpretations of the sacred text ).11 Thus the aim of the temptation account is to explicate the relevance of Biblical passages to Jesus’ messianic mission rather than simply recount historical events (though it may do so in the process).

Since the account has been constructed for exegetical purposes rather than historical purposes, it ought not to be treated as strict historical narrative. Evidence for this is found in the fact that the details of the temptation narrative found in Matthew and Luke have no independent existence outside this exegetical context. They are not in Mark’s brief description of the temptation, and no other book in the New Testament makes any reference to the wilderness temptation, still less the details contained in Matthew and Luke. These details are only found in Matthew and Luke, and only in the form of haggadic midrash; they never appear elsewhere in the context of simple historical narrative, either cited or recounted.

Additional evidence for this is the fact that the Synoptic temptation accounts are irreconcilable if treated as strictly historical narratives: Matthew 4:3 has Jesus tempted to turn ‘these stones’ into bread, but Luke 4:3 has ‘this stone’; Matthew describes the kingdom temptation as the third temptation (Matthew 4:8-10), whereas Luke describes it as the second (Luke 4:5-8); Matthew and Mark both speak of a mountain high enough to see the entire world from (Matthew 4:8, Luke 4:5), which is physically impossible; Mark describes Jesus’ temptations taking place entirely in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), whereas Matthew and Luke describe two of Jesus’ temptations taking place outside the wilderness (Matthew 4:5, 8-10, Luke 4:5-9). These issues are cited by scholars as reasons for not treating the text as a literally historical.12

Attempts are sometimes made to reconcile these discrepancies in order to justify a preconception that the temptation account is a straightforward historical narrative, instead of taking into account the literary evidence indicating otherwise. As noted previously, mainstream scholarship typically sees the accounts as visionary or symbolic descriptions rather than literally historical, and thus sees no need for such harmonizations. However, this does not necessarily mean the temptation account is unhistorical in the sense that Jesus did not undergo temptations in a wilderness immediately after his baptism. This article assumes genuine historical events underlying the temptation accounts, whilst acknowledging that these events are described in the form of haggadic midrash.

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  1. Scholars disagree on whether it should be described as a temptation or a trial; the Greek word peirazw can mean either, but this article’s case does not depend on a specific reading. []
  2. ‘Some of the church fathers were persuaded that the story in Matthew and Luke records visionary events.’, Allison C Dale, “Behind the Temptations of Jesus Q 4:1-13 and Mark 1:12-1,” in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (ed. Bruce D. Chilton and Craig A. Evans; Brill, 2002), 204. []
  3. ‘A factual basis for this event is harder to determine, since there were no eyewitnesses. Origen early noted its physical implausibilities, and some have thought that it might have originally been a parable that was subsequently dramatized.’, Howard W. Clarke, The Gospel of Matthew and Its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel (Indiana University Press, 2003), 41. []
  4. ‘Reply Obj. 3. Some say that all the temptations took place in the desert. Of these some say that Christ was led into the Holy City, not really, but in an imaginary vision; while others say that the Holy City itself—i.e., Jerusalem—is called a desert, because it was deserted by God. But there is no need for this explanation. For Mark says that He was tempted in the desert by the devil, but not that He was tempted in the desert only.’, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Theologica (Complete English ed.; Logos Bible Software, 2009). []
  5. ‘But it may be that Matthew intended this final “temptation” to be wholly visionary. In the Geneva Bible (1560), the Bible of Shakespeare and the Puritans, the marginal note was emphatic: “In a vision.” This was also Calvin’s view, and he added, “In a doubtful matter like this, where ignorance does no harm, I prefer to pass no judgment, rather than to provide contentious people with something to quarrel about.”’, Howard W. Clarke, The Gospel of Matthew and Its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel (Indiana University Press, 2003), 42. []
  6. ‘The temptation story is told as a visionary experience’, Graham H. Twelftree, “Temptation of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard. Marshall; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 822; ‘At least two features suggest that the temptations were some kind of visionary or inward, spiritual experience’, Craig L. Blomberg, “The Temptation of Jesus,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. Geoffrey William. Bromiley; revised.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979-1988), 785;  ‘goes from having a close encounter with God to having a close encounter with Satan, both in the form of visions’, Ben Witherington III, On the Road with Jesus: Birth and Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2010); ‘visionary experience or sequence of experiences’, Marcus J Borg, “The Course of Jesus’ Ministry: A Person of Spirit,” in The Historical Jesus in Recent Research (ed. James D. G. Dunn and Scot. McKnight; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 206; ‘this transportation was not physical but visionary’, R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 131; ‘Finally, we may inquire into the nature of Jesus’ actual experience. Does the temptation story reflect a historical, observable event? Or, was it, as some scholars have maintained (Leaney, p. 115), a vision or a parabolic illustration of the devil-inspired opposition to Jesus’ ministry? It is not easy to decide, for problems attend all of these interpretations. But the one that seems the most plausible is the view that Jesus’ temptations were visionary. The context for the temptation would suggest this interpretation.’, Craig A. Evans, Luke (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), 68. []
  7. ‘some scholars take the account as a symbol of the struggle with Satan and the forces of evil which is characteristic of Jesus’ entire ministry’, Collins, “Temptation of Christ,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (ed. David Freedman; The Anchor Bible Reference Library; Yale University Press, 1992), 382; ‘[Fitzmyer] wonders whether ‘Jesus recounted some form of these stories as figurative, parabolic resumes of the seduction latent in the diabolic opposition to him and his ministry’’, James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 380; ‘The ‘wilderness’ is generally taken to be symbolic rather than ‘real’’, Ernest Best, The Temptation and the Passion: The Markan Soteriology (Cambridge University Press, 2005), xvii; ‘So Meier (1994: 272) notes that a withdrawal into the wilderness is not impossible, but that the story could be ‘symbolic representation of the apocalyptic struggle between God and the devil which was prophesied for the last days’: this note is his only reference in 3 volumes’, Judith M. Lieu, “Reading Jesus In the Wilderness,” in Wilderness: Essays in Honour of Frances Young (ed. Frances Margaret Young and R. S. Sugirtharajah; A&C Black, 2005), 93. []
  8. ‘An impression made by Jesus, perhaps through his whole mission, is dramatically represented in this story form’, James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 381; ‘Crossan does not refer to them in his narrative, while in his analysis of the strata of the tradition and its attestation he does identify the temptation narratives as ‘a dramatic historicization of something that took place over a much longer period’ (1991:440).’, Judith M. Lieu, “Reading Jesus In the Wilderness,” in Wilderness: Essays in Honour of Frances Young (ed. Frances Margaret Young and R. S. Sugirtharajah; A&C Black, 2005), 93; ‘Jesus certainly took for granted the reality of Satan and spoke about him, sometimes in a poetic manner (10:18). It is, therefore, possible that he described his inward experience of temptation in dramatic form, as here.’, I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978), 168. []
  9. ‘According to E.P. Sanders, “It is reasonable to think that Jesus really did fast and pray before beginning his active ministry and that he was subject to temptation. The safest conclusion is that the synoptic gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, are ‘mythological’ elaborations based on fact.”, Allison C Dale, “Behind the Temptations of Jesus Q 4:1-13 and Mark 1:12-1,” in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (ed. Bruce D. Chilton and Craig A. Evans; Brill, 2002), 204; ‘Given the highly symbolic features of the story, we should be careful both to attend to its symbolic significance and to be cautious about taking it as a strictly historical account.’, Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament (Brazos Press, 2007), 203; ‘the temptations are to be regarded as subjective experiences of Jesus rather than involving the literal transportation of Jesus to other places’, Donald Alfred. Hagner, Matthew. 1-13 1-13 (vol. 33A; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1998), 63; ‘This passage is not to be reckoned a historical narrative in the strict sense. Its intent is not to convey objective, biographical data’, Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching; Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22; ‘We have found it useful to treat the Temptation Story as a mythological narrative.’, C. Michael Robbins, The Testing of Jesus in Q (Peter Lang, 2007), 158. []
  10. ‘Stemberger comments: Midrash-like texts have also been identified in the New Testament; the term ‘midrash’ has been used especially for the infancy gospels and for the story of Jesus’ temptation’, Joshua L. Moss, Midrash and Legend: Historical Anecdotes in the Tannaitic Midrashim (Gorgias Press LLC, 2004). 8; ‘Its intent is not to convey objective, biographical data. This we understand by comparing it with similar rabbinic stories. It constitutes a piece of haggadic midrash, that is, it is a fanciful story whose purpose is to interpret Scripture.’, Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching; Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22; ‘That the scenes comprising the temptation Narrative in Q resemble a scribal haggadic midrash* does not in itself tell against their historicity, but that a Palestinian origin for them is likely, even though the OT quotations from the LXX show the tradition has passed through the hands of a Greek-speaking community (see Tradition Criticism).’, Graham H. Twelftree, “Temptation of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green, Scot. McKnight, and I. Howard. Marshall; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992). 822. []
  11. ‘And in the Jewish tradition, the elliptical, ambiguous, and controversial narratives of the Torah were interpreted by further narratives, especially by the Haggadic Midrash, which sought to explain their meaning by recounting them yet again.’, Glenn W. Most and Glenn W. Most, Doubting Thomas (Harvard University Press, 2009), 83. []
  12. ‘Although I may be wrong about [t]his, the temptation narratives in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 do not strike me as sober history. For one thing, and as Origen already observed, there is no high place from which one can see the whole world.’, Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 25; ‘Christ’s temptations may well have been to a certain degree subjective or visionary, though no less real or diabolical. The text gives no locale for the “Mount of Temptation,” though tourists are regularly shown one overlooking Jericho! In fact, there is no mountain on earth from which one can literally see all the kingdoms of this world. Nor would it have been possible for Jesus to do arduous mountain climbing or even temple climbing after a forty-day period without food, unless he drew on the very supernatural power for helping himself that the devil was enticing him to employ.’, Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 261. []

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