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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: see here for the previous entry; and see here for the first entry of the series. (It explains what I'm doing, and how, and contains the Johannine prologue.)

First Adversaries

Now Jesus, filled and led by the Holy Spirit, returns from the Jordan (River district, evidently back toward Nazareth, west-southwest of the inland sea of Galilee).

But (instead of going straight back to Nazareth), the Spirit ejects Jesus into the wastes (of Samaria and the Galilee district, west of the lake and the Jordan River), a deserted place where wild beasts roam; and there He is led by the Spirit in a time of fasting--and trial.

For forty days and nights He did not eat.

After this is completed... Jesus hungers.

Now the Adversary, who has been testing Him during this time, approaches Him (directly). And the tempter said:

"If you are a son of God, then tell these stones to be cakes of bread!"

But Jesus answered him, saying: "It is written (in the fifth book of Moses, Deuteronomy), 'Not on bread alone should any person be living, but on every declaration proceeding from the mouth of God'!"

Then bringing Him up into a very high mountain, the Adversary shows to Jesus all the kingdoms and glories of the civilized lands in a moment of time. And the Adversary said to Him:

"To you shall I be giving all the authority over all their glory; for this has been given up to me, and so to whomever I may choose, I am giving it. If you, therefore, should ever be bowing before me, it will all be yours."

But Jesus answered and said, "Go!--you get behind Me, Satan! For it is written (again in Deuteronomy), 'The Lord, the God of you, shall you be acknowledging as your Superior; and to Him only shall you be rendering service as to a deity'!"

Again he takes Him along, into the holy city, Jerusalem; and standing Him on the pinnacle of a wing of the Temple (overlooking the Valley of Gehenna far below—where the lookouts watch each morning to see the first touch of sunlight on far off Mount Harmon in order to start the work and sacrifices of the day), he said to Him:

"If you are the Son of God, then cast Yourself down!--for (in the 91st Psalm) it is written:

'His angels shall be directed concerning You,
to protect You...
On their hands shall they be lifting You,
lest at any time You should be dashing Your foot against a stone'!"

Jesus forcefully answered him, however: "Yet it has also been declared (once more in Deuteronomy!), 'You shall not be putting the Lord your God to the test!'"

Then, having concluded every temptation, the Adversary withdrew from Him--until a more opportune time.

And look!--now angels are coming to Jesus, to help and to serve Him...

(Meanwhile, tells the Evangelist,)

Pharisees in Jerusalem are sending out priests and Levites (the latter being hereditary Temple servants, most probably an escort of guards in this case); and this is the witness of John the Baptist.

Questioning him, they ask: "Who are you?"

And he admitted and did not deny (i.e. his identity--remember, armed troops are probably here with the priests, and John has been causing some waves, both religiously and politically); but, also he swore: "I am not the Anointed King."

And they asked him, "What are you then? Are you Elijah (reborn or returned from the grave)?"

He said: "I am not."

"Are you not the Prophet (promised by Moses, who would be like him in Israel)?"

He answered: "No."

So they said to him: "Then who are you?? We must give an answer to those who sent us! What are you saying about yourself??"

He forcefully declared: "I am 'a voice of one crying out, "Make straight the Way of the Lord in the wilderness!"--as the prophet Isaiah has said."

But they keep on questioning him, and said to him: "Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the King Anointed, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet!?"

John then answered them by saying: "I am (only) baptizing in water. Among you, however, stands One of Whom you are not aware--He is the One coming after me, Who has been before me!... whose sandal thong I am not even worthy to be untying."

These things (reports the Evangelist) took place at Betharaba (house of Araba, where the road from Jerusalem passes Jericho and crosses the Jordan on its way into the Arabian region), on the other side of the Jordan (River), where John was baptizing.

The next day, John sees Jesus coming toward him (possibly in a vision), and is saying (to his own disciples, or to the people in general): "Look!--the Lamb of God, taking away the sin of the world! He is the One of Whom I have said, 'After me comes a Man Who has come to be before me'; because He was First, before I came to be. Even I was not aware of Who He is; but so He may be manifested in Israel, therefore I have come: baptizing in water."

And so John testifies (says the Evangelist): "I have gazed upon the Spirit, descending as a dove out of heaven, remaining upon Him. Now, I was not aware of Who He is; yet He Who sends me to be baptizing in water, He has said to me: 'This One is baptizing with the Holy Spirit!'

"Now I have seen, and I testify: this One is the Son of God!"

Matthew 4:1b-11
Mark 1:12b-13
Luke 4:1a
Luke 4:2-13
John 1:19-34

[Next time: First Disciples, First Sign]


Jason Pratt,

What is your opinion on Jesus forty days / Moses forty years in the wilderness connection? Is the author trying to tell us something? I also remember reading somewhere that "forty..." could be a synonym of "long time".

What do you think about the how Satan is portrayed in the story? Satan is offering Divine Jesus some earthly posessions knowing that Jesus technically owns everything anyway. Surely Satan could have come up with a better plan to tempt Jesus as these don't sound like a real temptation for a divine being.


It isn't so much that 40 is symbolic of 'a long time'; 40 is actually symbolic of 'extended time to completion'. That's probably because the average time for a woman to bring a child to birth is 40 weeks.

It's a standard trope. It could have been 40 days, or it could have been less. (Or it could have been more even.) 'To final completion' is the main point. But considering Who the story is talking about, a 40 day fast is not outside bounds for the story.

Given the supercession of Jesus over Moses elsewhere in the story, I expect if any of the authors wanted to make a comparison to Moses they would have commented on it. As it stands, the tale doesn't fit a supercession narrative structure very well anyway--even though some strong deity claims can be read out of it!

Leading to the next question, which is certainly a popular one:

{{What do you think about the how Satan is portrayed in the story?}}

Aha! I was hoping that someone would ask! {g}

There are a good number of essays I could write on each entry, and which I may append as addendum entries eventually (maybe next year--my schedule is pretty full right now). Each entry features its own puzzles and translation/harmonization challenges. In this case, the practical question is: which version of the temptation order should I use? This turns out to be related to the question of: so what’s Satan’s motivation as a character anyway? Which in turn would have to be related to the question of strategy. (Demonic psychology is of more than passing interest to me as a novelist, too. {g})

But first I had to decide which version of the temptation order to go with. GosMatt puts the National Conquest temptation last; GosLuke puts the Temple Toss temptation last. (Both texts put the stone temptation first. GosMark only mentions a temptation, and the general result; it doesn’t give details. GosJohn, as usual, is working around the other accounts, so doesn’t mention the temptations at all.)

This isn’t a case where the data could plausibly represent a simplying omission of detail either; nor is it a case where the data could plausibly represent two separate but thematically similar incidents; nor is it a case where the data could plausibly represent an author topically moving an anecdote around in order to achieve some narrative or thematic organizational purpose (it’s a single self-contained anecdote, not the same anecdote placed somewhere else like the healing of the centurion’s son.)

So, whether Luke is using Matt, or Matt is using Luke (I’ve seen theories both ways), or both are following prior data independently, one of them is making a change from the data exemplar. But the change is most obviously about the order. So the immediate question that I’m curious about is: which of them made the change, and why?

(There can really only be two options, since the stone temptation clearly belongs at the beginning. The other two are rampups from it somehow. Consequently, both authors cannot be changing, or representing a change in a data exemplar; one of them has to be accurately representing an original order, one way or another, even on a supersceptical hypothesis where that author is the originator of the story in the first place.)

Now, I had always been partial to the GosMatt version, myself. To me this looked like the most obvious thematic rampup: Satan goes for broke, offers the whole enchilada, and gets the strongest rebuke. Trying to do a Temple Toss temptation after this, had always looked to me like an anticlimactic move. But then this left me with wondering why Luke (or whoever his source was) thought the Temple Toss temptation should have been moved to come last. I mean, didn’t he see the obvious anti-climax there?!--duh!!

It didn’t occur to me until I buckled down to seriously study the anecdote, that my incredulity at Luke for doing this actually fit, paradoxically, into a principle of textual criticism between sources: except in cases of plausible mere transition error (and other things being equal), the more difficult reading should be given more weight in a liklihood estimate--because subsequent interpolators tend to try to smooth out and fix apparent problems.

That left me with the surprising inference that maybe Luke’s version represented the original order. But again, why would this be the order? I could now see why someone, not understanding the point to having this order, might think a previous alteration had already occured and so be trying to fix the alteration back to its ‘original’ form; thus Matthew (and I!) could understand the narrative progression of his version--but either Luke had some much better idea, or else he was following the actual original in which case someone somewhere had seriously thought Luke’s version made excellent thematic sense. In theory (and I have no problem supposing it could be in fact), this would go back to Satan himself. At the least, it points to some kind of strategy on his part as a character (even if you consider him a fictional character of a fictional story) that I hadn’t noticed before.

(I should probably mention here as an aside that the story format fits a parabolic structure just as well as anything else. I wouldn’t have any problem with this being a non-historical parable representing a conceptual shorthand in fable form; even one given by a fully orthodox Jesus Himself. I’ve noticed that Dorothy Sayers and other harmonizers tend to go this route as well. But neither do I have much problem with it being historical in many stronger senses; though obviously there are limits to how far the literality can be carried, mainly having to do with the form of the National Conquest temptation.)

Having gotten this far, I figured I ought to give Luke’s version a much stronger scrutinizing, trying to get a handle on understanding the importance of its story order. And to be honest, I pretty much failed at first. {g}

Then, however, I ran across an interesting textual variant in Luke’s version of the story--the version I was trying to understand better. Now, I have to be honest and point out that this variant is represented in modern versions of the Textus Receptus, which (despite its title) is generally not to be regarded as on a par with USB/Nestle-Aland, where the reconstructions differ (due to the TR having been compiled from fewer and later sources). Furthermore, I don’t have the Nestle-Aland handy, so I don’t have access to enough information to make a stab at grading the variant for plausible originality to the GosLuke text. The UBS (which doesn’t list all known variants, only ones the editors thought might have a faintly distant possibility of being significant) neither contains this variant, nor lists it as one for discussion. Consequently, until I see a specific study (and its reasonings) or can suss one out myself, I suppose I should nod provisionally in the direction of this being a late variant. But, even if it is, it did give me a clue as to what could be going on in the GosLuke version of the temptation story.

That variant was simply the inclusion of a direct article (the word {ho}). But that one inclusion of that simplest of words, made all the difference in meaning. (And it’s reflected above in my harmonization text.)

Here’s how it works. Any cursory glance at the structure of the story, Lucan and Matthean versions both, should turn up a key phrase: {Ei huios ei tou theou}. It occurs twice in the temptation scheme, and always in the same places: the stone temptation and the Temple Toss temptation. It can be transated various ways: if you are a son of God; if you are God’s son (or God’s Son); if you are the Son of God. It cannot mean ‘son of a god’, even contextually, because of the presence of the direct article {tou} in relation to {theou} either fixes a “the” in place (preventing an English “a”) or else emphasizes the word {theou} as a title/name. (Often in koine Greek names are set off by direct articles, which can render funny overliteral translations like “the Jesus”. {g}) But direct articles aren’t always included when something specific is really meant anyway; so one very common translation task is to try to figure out whether the lack of a direct article should be translated as “a” or “the” in English (where indirect or direct article would seem to be necessary one way or another.)

Okay then, so how should the reference to Jesus be translated--keeping in mind, for example, the character of Satan among other things. Different translators go different ways with this; because of the situation, almost anything would work. (Similarly, if a Roman centurion is represented as talking about {huios theou} without any articles, it’s at least as plausible as anything else that he’s trying to say that Jesus was truly a son of a god. In fact, that might be more plausible than any other translation option!)

So far, pretty standard. Notably the challenge of identity (whatever Satan is supposed to be meaning by it) is omitted in the National Conquest temptation, Lucan and Matthean orders both. That omission makes sense in light of the temptation: he can hardly be saying “If you are a/the son of God, then suck up to me and I’ll give you all this!” Uh, no thanks. Retard. {g} But then again, that does raise the question (as you noted) of why Satan even bothers to try the offer. It doesn’t seem to make much sense narratively as a character (fictional or otherwise). Though it did occur to me (in relation to the Matthean version, which I had started out preferring) that having run the question by Jesus twice, and getting a refusal to do a miracle to prove it plus an apparent deference back to God, Satan might have been testing to see whether Jesus was even aware of Who He was. That kind of made some sense, but it didn’t yet answer why Luke’s version of the temptation order was different.

So, what about the {ho}? Well, in the UBS/Nestle-Aland (the compiled texts are the same either way, the only difference being in the apparatus footnotes with the NA being more complete as to variants) the four occasions (two per temptation story) are always the same phrase.

But!--in the most modern update to the TR (whatever the criteria is supposed to be on that), the second use of the phrase in Luke’s version reads this: {Ei ho huios ei tou theou}.

That jumped right out at me when I saw it--having failed the first time to get an understanding of Luke’s version, I was already in the process of working out a harmonization translation, and so (having decided to follow Matthew’s version for its obvious thematic rampup reasons) I was puttering along with the second part of the temptation and FOOM! the difference in the TR stood out like a sore thumb. (I keep a copy of Green’s version of the TR nearby as one of my aides to translation, because it has two very interesting versions of a literal translation scheme and after all the TR is basically identical to the UBS anyway more than 98% of the time. I always double-check against the UBS.)

At first I was inclined to poof it off as being, y’know, the TR. {g} But then the back of my head associated it with the theory I was playing with, regarding Satan testing out whether he could make any hay out of Jesus perhaps not knowing Who He really is. Because when the TR text of the Lucan version is read, it results in the following narrative effect:

Satan challenges Jesus generally about being God’s son, hoping to use hunger to provoke a schism between the Father and the Son (where the Son uses power to save Himself and to unsay what the Father has said originally through Him--God had made that a stone, not bread). But Satan receives not only a refusal to prove His identity by working a miracle but also an answer that (taken by itself) might indicate Jesus doesn’t really know Who He is.

Temptation 2 then makes more sense--if that’s the case, maybe Satan can up the ante on creating a schism between the Father and the Son. After all, isn’t it a normal sceptical complaint to ask why Jesus doesn’t just overtly kick the asses of rebels against Him?! {g} It would certainly be a lot less bothersome than suffering death by torture and the bearing of penalty for all sin. Doesn’t Satan’s plan sound more sensible to Jesus than the Father’s plan?--go directly up against the Roman Empire and triumphantly replace them?

Nope. Jesus not only refuses and names Satan for who he is, but basically tells Satan to start following Himself!!--and stop being a rebel. (Compare to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter later in the Synoptic texts, which uses the same phraseology--and on tacitly much the same topic: “You’re going to Jerusalem to die?! Wha!!? You need to stop telling people that! May that _never_ happen to _you!_” “You get behind _Me,_ Satan!”)

But Jesus was given over into Satan’s power to some degree, which is being reflected here in the temptation (as well as later, in that “more opportune time”); moreover, now Satan has a more direct answer to that general question he had asked before. So, fine, let’s test that out. (Notice that physically Satan has to be standing behind Jesus for the final Lucan temptation element, too! That way he arguably isn’t disobeying, see. {g}) If Jesus is THE Son of God--and there’s the crucial difference, compared to the first temptation challenge, in the TR text of the Lucan account--then throw Himself off the highest point of the Temple... the wing that, in a double-narrative relevance, both stands above the Valley of Hinnom (where the garbage is burned, and which serves as a regular reference to hell in the scriptures) and is also where a priest watches every morning for the first light of the sun to touch far-off Mount Hermon waaaaaaaaaay off over there--which in terms of local knowledge is probably where the National Conquest temptation is supposed to have taken place. (It’s the highest mountain range in Israel’s traditional territory.) When the sun arrives, Temple business can begin for the day--including the sacrifices.

If Jesus jumps off, and angels catch Him (before He reaches the local reference analog to hell, notice), this is certainly not going to go unnoticed by a bunch of people waiting for the Messiah to show up, including a bunch of religious specialists who would dearly love to see some Psalmic prophecies of the Messiah fulfilled in a nice showy fashion. They’d certainly sign up, no questions asked, then! So (by implication) would Satan.

But Jesus refuses to do so--that wasn’t the Father’s plan any more than the (typically expected) National Conquest was; and His answer, in context to the “get behind Me” previously, can be read as meaning Satan shouldn’t be putting his God (i.e. Jesus Himself) to the test. So, Satan goes away and stops putting Jesus to the test--which of course He doesn’t do in the Matthean version.

Once I fit the TR textual variant into the Lucan story, it not only made sense but actually made more sense as a complex narrative rampup than the Matthean version.

So, since I could go either way, I went with that in my harmonization scheme. Even if the {ho} turns out to be late, it works well as an explanatory gloss, and the meaning could be implied in the grammar without the direct article anyway, contextually. At the same time, its omission in texts largely (even early) could be easily explained by the urge to ‘normalize’ colorful phraseology--those other three uses of the phrase don’t feature {ho}, so why should this one?? It must be an error, opps--strike it out.

In any case, the temptations (Matthean or Lucan order either one) focus on tensions of whether Jesus will follow the Father, combined with an attempt to take advantage of possible ambiguity that could be read into Jesus’ replies concerning His own self-identification. These themes are far from absent in the remainder of the story (Synoptics and GosJohn both). The Matthean order has the advantage of being more immediately accessible to the expectations of general audiences; but the Lucan order ends up making more and richer narrative/character sense.

Thanks for the question! As I said, I was hoping someone would ask! {s!}


Jason Pratt,

Thanks for the insightful answer. You should really consider making the temptation analysis as a blog entry to get it distributed to a wider audience.

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