The Temptations of Jesus

                  The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic in St Mark's Basilica, Venice

Matthew and Mark describe the temptations by recounting the details of the conversations between Jesus and Satan. Since the elements that are in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark are mostly pairs of quotations rather than detailed narration, some scholars believe these extra details originate in the Q Document. I tend to follow the Q explanation for two reasons: 1) in one gospel Jesus is at a party turning water into wine and in the next scene in the Temptation story the first temptation involves refuting Satan for telling Jesus to turn stone into bread. 2) The story is archetypal  and follows the usual  spiritual path of fasting alone in a cave or wilderness. See Arnold van Gennep work Les rites de passage.

Note:  The lessons laid out in the Temptations parable contrast sharply with the church's emphasis on miracles, such as walking on water, the resurrection of the body, and the ascension. To appeal to ordinary and sophisticated individuals the church had to offer a hierarchy of beliefs; something for everybody. The danger in such an approach is the advent of misunderstanding and even a schism, which, of course, was the case with the Reformation.

The Reformers wanted to wipe away all of the Mythos and artifice in the church and go back to the historical beginnings, only to discover there is nothing there. The Gospels were written decades, even centuries after Jesus. The Reformers were left to parse second or third  hand accounts.

However, science now has the same problem, scientist looked for smaller and smaller building blocks of the material world and found the neutrino, a sub-atomic particle so tiny that it seems to have movement but no mass. In other words, it is not  there. They looked into the sky and found a universe so vast as to be incomprehensible. Science has caused organized religions in the west to downplay or reinterpret many aspects of old religious beliefs, but its domain is entirely in the realm of Logos, which will be addressed further on.

Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramsko, 1872

But now, on to the Temptations.

First Temptation

The temptation of making bread out of stones occurs in the same desert setting where Jesus had been fasting. The desert  is likely an allusion to the wilderness through which the Israelites wandered during the Exodus, the wilderness into which Adam and Eve were driven, the wilderness any person living without a moral compass finds himself.  In response to Satan's command, Jesus replies, "It is written: 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" Only in Matthew is this entire sentence written.

In a modern sense the temptation is well discussed in The Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable Christ comes back to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church.

The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the questions that Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Jesus in the desert. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favor of freedom, but the Inquisitor thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. The Inquisitor thus implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer. Jesus was wrong to reject the temptations by Satan. He should have turned stones into bread, as men will always follow those who will feed them, i.e., the modern welfare state. On the flip side of the coin, the parable is also a warning against materialism and status seeking.

 Mount Quarantania
Mount Quarantania, near Jerico, is the traditional location of first temptation.

Second Temptation

The scene moves, without benefit of flying carpet, from the wilderness to the pinnacle (roof)  of a temple in the holy city, referring  to the Temple of  Jerusalem.

temple  of herod
Model of Herod's Temple which stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, between 516 BC and 70 AD.

"If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone." ( Luke 4:9-13) citing Psalms 91: 12.

 Jesus maintained his integrity and responded by quoting scripture, saying, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'" (Matthew 4:7) from Deuteronomy 6:16. Jesus implies that he will inspire a religion based on faith, not in certainty or magic. Although the church does incorporate elements of hocus pocus it has remained grounded in faith, hope, and charity.

Third Temptation

Satan takes Jesus to a high place where all the kingdoms of the world can be seen in the mind's eye of Jesus and is a temptation to accept the adulation of the people, assume leadership of the nation and overthrow Roman rule and establish the kingdom of God on earth. The kingdoms Jesus would rule through state power and political oppression. The old but ever new temptation to do evil so that good may come about. That is, the means are justified by the greatness of the end sought. Stalin and Mao Zedong who murdered millions of their own citizens in hope of bringing about a perfect state are 20th century examples.

Satan says, “All these things I will give you if you fall down and do an act of worship to me.” Jesus replies "Get away, Satan! It is written: 'The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.'"(referencing Deuteronomy 10:20).  This warning is repeated in Matthew 16, "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?"

Last Temptation

Nikos Kazantzakis in his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, adds a final temptation. While on the cross, Jesus encounters a lady who claims to be his guardian angel. She tells him he is not the Messiah and brings him down off the cross and takes him to Mary Magdalene, whom he marries. They are soon expecting a child and live an idyllic life for a while.

Many years later, Jesus encounters the apostle Paul preaching about the Messiah, telling stories of Jesus's resurrection and ascension to heaven. Jesus  argues that salvation cannot be founded on lies. But Paul is unmoved, saying that even if his message is not the truth, it is what the world needs to hear.

The books concludes with these words:

     Jesus in on the cross and at about three o'clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?"*
Then he immediately inclined his head, exhausted.   He felt terrible pains in his hands, feet, and heart. His sight cleared, he saw the crown of thorns, the blood, the cross.
Two golden earrings and two rows of sharp, brilliant white teeth flashed in the darkened sun. He heard a cool, mocking laugh, and rings and teeth vanished. Jesus remained hanging in the air, alone.
     His head quivered. Suddenly he remembered where he was, who he was and why he felt pain. A wild, indomitable joy took possession of him. No, no, he was not a  coward, a deserter, a traitor. No, he was nailed to the cross. He had stood his ground honorably to the very end; he had kept his word. The moment he cried ELI ELI and fainted, Temptation had captured him for a split second and led him astray.  The joys, marriages and children were lies; the decrepit, degraded old men who shouted coward, deserter, traitor at him were lies. All - all were illusions sent by the Devil. His disciples were alive and thriving. They had gone over sea and land and were proclaiming the Good News. Everything had turned out as it should, glory to God!
   He uttered a triumphant  cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED!
   And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun.

By avoiding the temptations and playing out his role Jesus has offered us something more precious than personal security, material success, or worldly power. We must only hear his word to comprehend the gift.

That said, what then is the role of organized religion?   Can organized religion enhance and enrich our lives or, we must ask, is the church only as described by the Grand Inquisitor, an apparatus for dispensing false hopes to the gullible?

Organized Religion

Religion mixes two distinct kinds of truth: Mythos and Logos. Mythos can not be demonstrated by rational proof as its insights are intuitive, much like art, music, poetry, or sculpture. Mythos only becomes a reality when it is embodied in rituals, and ceremonies which act aesthetically upon us, evoking a sense of sacred significance enabling us to apprehend a deeper level of existence.  Mythos is also associated with mysticism, the descent into the unconsciousness as a means of acquiring intuitive insight. Without mystical practices, the myths of religion would make no sense. They would remain abstract and seem incredible, in rather the same way as a musical score remains vague to most of us and must to be brought to life instrumentally  by artists before we can appreciate the work.

Logos is equally important. Logos is the rational and pragmatic thought process that enabled humans to function  in the world.  Logos and its handmaiden science are the basis of  the modern mind. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities to be effective in the material world.   Logos is practical and we use this logical, discursive reasoning to get things done and to understand the physical world.  Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations of culture, logos tries to find something new to achieve a greater control over our environment and to invent something new.

If it is asserted as a historical fact that Jesus died on the cross then walked out of the tomb three days later and his physical body eventually ascended into the sky, a modern educated person will be skeptical or even find such an assertion absurd. On the other hand, if that same modern educated person were to attend a performance of  Bach's Easter Oratorio performed in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig by world class musicians on an Easter morning his doubts might well melt away. Or if that modern person wandered into the Convento di San Marco in  Florence and beheld on the wall Fra Angelico's fresco Noli Me Tangere  his doubts might not only melt away, but he might become a believer.

Myth and Logos can co-exist in religion.  Art and ritual encourage the suspension of disbelief and cultivates our spiritual growth by enabling us to apprehend the deeper mysteries of life. But religion undermines its message when it confuses mythos and logos. "My kingdom is not of this world."

thomas noli

* quoting  Psalm 22, which concludes with "It is accomplished."  

**The Q document  (from German: Quelle, meaning "source") is a hypothetical written collection of Jesus's sayings (logia). Q is (part of) the "common" material found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but not in the Gospel of Mark or John. According to this hypothesis, this material was drawn from the early Church's Oral Tradition