The Testing of Jesus
Jerome Murphy O’Connor.
One of the most dramatic stories in the New Testament is the confrontation between Jesus and the devil known as the temptation, or testing, of Jesus. Immediately following Jesus' baptism by John, the devil leads Jesus from the Jordan River into the wilderness. For forty nights, Jesus prays and fasts. Finally, when Jesus is famished, the devil challenges him to a series of tests: "If you are the Son of God," he demands in the Gospel of Matthew, "command these stones to become loaves of bread." Jesus refuses. The devil then leads Jesus to Jerusalem and directs him to throw himself from the Temple, to see whether God will save him. But Jesus declines to test God. Finally, the devil brings Jesus up a high mountain and promises him that if he worships Satan, he will gain dominion over all the world. Steadfast, Jesus spurns the devils enticements, crying out, "Get behind me, Satan."
The scenario is so divorced from reality that it is easy to entertain doubts about its literal truth. It makes a highly dramatic story. But is that all there is? Did anything really happen?
Some scholars would say no. But I believe that there is a historical substratum to the testing of Jesus. Each test, I will argue, represents a real struggle that Jesus faced in his lifetime.
The Historical Dimension
The earliest Christians understood Jesus to be human in the same sense that they were, and they recognised that as a man, Jesus faced very human trials: They saw how he struggled to balance his mission with his duty to his family, how he overcame attractions of wealth and power, and how he steeled himself against the natural instinct for self-preservation. As we shall see, it is this human side of Jesus that lies behind the extraordinary tale of his testing.
To reach this historical dimension of Jesus' three tests, we must begin by looking carefully at the texts themselves. We must consider how the authors worked with earlier sources, deftly quoting Hebrew Scripture. We must determine what these quotations would have meant in Jesus' time and how they were applied to him.
The testing is reported very briefly by Mark: "And immediately the Spirit drove him [Jesus] out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tested by Satan. And he was with the wild beasts. And angels ministered to him" (Mark 1:12-13).
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide much more elaborate accounts, satisfying the reader's curiosity by giving explicit details of each test. The testing is not recounted in the Gospel of John. Although Matthew and Luke include much of the same information, even a superficial reading reveals differences, the most significant being in the order of the second and third tests. Matthew and Luke agree that the first test takes place in the wilderness, but in Matthew the second test occurs at the Temple in Jerusalem and the third on a mountaintop, whereas in Luke the second is on the mountaintop and the third in Jerusalem.
Scholars generally agree that Matthew's ordering is the more original. Of all the evangelists, Luke exhibits the greatest interest in Jerusalem. When Matthew and Luke share material that is lacking in Mark, the common assumption is that Matthew and Luke depend on a now lost source that scholars call Q. When as in this case, the shared material is presented differently, the question that immediately arises is: Which Gospel most accurately represents the hypothetical source Q?
Luke's gospel is centred on the journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), and in Luke's second work, the Acts of the Apostles, the mission of the church radiates out from Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). It would be entirely in keeping for Luke to modify the order of the tests so that the climax is set in Jerusalem.
But in so doing, Luke disrupts the careful design of the passage in Matthew, which exhibits a degree of literary sophistication that is unique in the New Testament.
As we look closely at Matthew's text, we begin to detect a number of patterns that tend to confirm that this gospel's version of the testing story was composed before Luke's. On the simplest level, the three tests in Matthew take place at progressively higher altitudes. For the first test Jesus is "led up" from the Jordan River "into the desert." He then rises to the crest on which Jerusalem, the site of the second test, is built. Finally, the story concludes on "a very high mountain."
Further, in Matthew's version the devil prefaces the first two tests with the words "If you are the Son of God" (Matthew 4:3 and 4:6). In addition to sharing this formula, these tests are also thematically linked. Both invite Jesus to probe the divine intentions regarding himself. Will God provide food for Jesus and save him from bodily harm? With the third test, we move into a different domain, in which the devil demands that Jesus reject God completely. It would be difficult to imagine a more dramatic climax.
The Role of Deuteronomy
Matthew's subtle literary skill is further revealed in Jesus' responses to the devil's tests. Each time the devil challenges him, Jesus answers with a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy. When challenged to turn stone into bread in the first test, Jesus responds, "No one shall live on bread alone" (Matthew 4:4). His cryptic response might seem evasive, until we realise that Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3:
And [the Lord] humbled you and let you hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that no one shall live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
When urged to throw himself from the Temple in the second test, Jesus answers, "You shall not test the Lord your God" (Matthew 4:7), quoting Deuteronomy 6:16: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah."
And finally, Jesus turns aside the devil's third and final challenge - to worship Satan in return for dominion over all kingdoms - by saying, "You shall worship the Lord your God and him alone shall you serve" (Matthew 4:10), which is based on Deuteronomy 6:13: "The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear."
This is something more than coincidence: The author of Matthew is sending a clear signal to his sophisticated readers that the key to the testing narrative lies in Deuteronomy 6 and 8, the two chapters from which the quotations are taken (in reverse order). In addition to these direct quotations, several words from Deuteronomy 6-8 are scattered throughout the account of Jesus' tests. For example, the italicised words in the following passage from Deuteronomy 8 also occur in the story of the first test (Matthew 4:1-4):
You shall remember all the ways which the Lord your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments. And he humbled you and let you hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that no one shall live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Your clothing did not wear out upon you, and your foot did not swell, these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a person disciplines a son, the Lord your God disciplines you.
No one shall live on bread alone
Matthew's first test (4:1-4) must be understood within the context of Deuteronomy 8, which it quotes. Clearly, the gospel's author intends to present Jesus as reliving the experience of Israel in the desert, in 40 days rather than 40 years. The difference in duration is explained by the principle that a day in the life of an individual is equivalent to a year in the life of a people. This principle emerges from a number of texts, e.g.,"According to the number of the days in which you [the spies] spied out the land, 40 days, for every day a year, you [the people] shall bear your iniquity 40 years" (Numbers 14:34), assign to you a number of days, 390 days, equal to the number of years of their punishment, and so you shall bear the punishment of the house of Israel. When you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah: 40 days I assign you, one day for each year" (Ezekiel 4:5-6)
Like Deuteronomy 8, Satan's first test of Jesus (to turn stone into bread) is concerned with the satisfaction of hunger in the wilderness. During the Exodus, Yahweh, as a faithful partner in the covenant, provides for his people. Nevertheless, the people are not content: "They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, 'Can God spread a table in the wilderness?"' (Psalm 78:18). The Israelites' sinful craving is portrayed as a lack of trust, a type of unbelief. In Exodus, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites, who have been complaining of hunger, that "the Lord will give you meat and you shall eat ... until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected Yahweh who is among you" (Numbers 11:18-20). The Israelites were believers insofar as they had followed Yahweh into the desert, but at the same time, they were unbelievers because they refused to trust him completely and to believe that Yahweh would satisfy their hunger. With this attitude, the people showed their hearts to be divided.
Jesus, on the contrary, exhibits a "whole" or "perfect heart" (compare Psalms 24:4; 78:72; 2 Kings 20:3; Isaiah 38:3 et al.). During his first test Jesus makes no move to satisfy his hunger but waits patiently for the food that he knows God will give him when his fast is over.
Do not put the Lord your God to the Test
In the second test in the Gospel of Matthew, the devil leads Jesus to Jerusalem and instructs him to throw himself from the Temple to see whether God will save his life in accordance with the covenant promise. Jesus is invited to demand evidence that God can be trusted, not merely to provide sustenance (as in the first test), but to save Jesus' life. To fully understand the second test we must turn to Deuteronomy 6:16: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah" which Jesus quotes in response to Satan's challenge.
The story of the Israelites at Massah, referred to in Deuteronomy 6, is told more fully in the Book of Exodus: Dying of thirst in the wilderness, the Israelites complain to Moses, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" (Ex.17:3). They force Moses to perform a miracle to satisfy their thirst: Moses strikes a rock, and water miraculously gushes out. He names the site Massah (in Hebrew, "to test") because here "the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying 'Is the Lord among us or not?"' (Ex.17:7).
In Exodus 17:7 Moses also names the site Meribah (from the verb 'to find fault'). Where exactly did the second test take place? The Greek has to pterygion tou hierou (Matthew 4:5), which is variously translated as the "pinnacle of the temple" the '"parapet of the temple" or the "highest point of the temple." This is the only appearance of the term pterygion (literally, 'winglet' or "little wing) in the New Testament.
A fundamental theme of the Exodus is Yahweh's protection of Israel. In the most dramatic and memorable of these texts, Yahweh is compared to an eagle protecting its nest: 'As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord also guided them... he set them atop the heights of the land' (Deut.32:11-13). Apparently the term "winglet" was used in the second test because it evoked Divine protection. For the rabbis, the Temple was the center of God's protection because the divine presence was concentrated there.
Jesus standing on the wing of the Temple refuses to make the same kind of demand; he does not quarrel, he declines to test the Lord: he will not ask for a miracle to save him.
Worship the Lord your God and him alone.
The Gospel of Matthew does not locate "the very high mountain" that is the setting of the third test (Mt.4:8). Long ago the Belgian Benedictine scholar Jaques Dupont pointed out that the mountain should not be sought in the maps of Palestine but in Deuteronomy. Indeed, there are striking parallels between Jesus on the mountain and Moses on Mount Nebo (Deut.34:1-4). God "shows" Moses the Promised Land, whereas the devil "shows" Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The devil says to Jesus, "All these things I will give you" whereas God says to Moses "I will give" this land to Israel.
In Deuteronomy the accumulation of land and wealth constitutes a danger for the Israelites. Deut.6:13, which Jesus quotes during the third test, is part of a longer warning to the Israelites, reminding them not to forget God as they prosper in the Holy Land:
When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors… a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant - and when you have eaten your fill, then take heed lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.
The message is repeated again and again in Deut.6-8, the chapters from which Jesus' three responses are taken: "When you have seen your flocks and herds increase, your silver and gold abound, and all your possessions grow great, do not become proud of heart. Do not then forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt" (Deut.8:13-14). To ignore the true God, Deuteronomy warns, is but one step away from the worship of false gods (Deut.6:14; 8:19). Later in the Book of Deuteronomy, idolatry is equated with the worship of demons (Deut.32:17; cf. Psalm 106:36-37).
Unlike the Exodus Israelites, who grew fat and turned to other gods, who despised the Lord and broke his covenant (Deut.31:20; 32:15), Jesus, in his third test is not distracted by wealth and power; he refuses to worship a false god or a demon as he resolutely affirms his allegiance to the one true God (Matthew 4:10).
Jesus' three tests were composed by an author of extraordinary subtlety. Each test is recounted with the minimum of words, but the words have been selected so skilfully that they evoke webs of associations. Readers who know sacred Scripture are led from one text of Deuteronomy to another and yet another. As they are drawn deeper and deeper into the world of the Exodus from Egypt they are invited to compare the comportment of the Exodus Israelites with that of Jesus.
These readers recognise that Jesus, by declining to change stone into bread during his first test, proves that he is not like the Israelites of the Exodus, with their divided hearts; rather, his whole heart is devoted to God. In the second test, on the wing of the Temple, Jesus again proves himself to be unlike the Israelites, by trusting his physical well-being to God and refusing to ask for a miracle to save him from a life-threatening situation. In the third test, on a mountain over looking all the kingdoms of the world, he affirms his allegiance to God by denying himself the very wealth and power that had tantalised the Israelites.
The sophisticated author who expended such artistry in shaping these tests would not have left the overall arrangement to chance. A very definite principle must have governed the number and types of tests. To discover this ruling principle, we must turn once again to Deuteronomy 6, where we find the most fundamental commandment of all, traditionally known in Hebrew as the Shema:
Hear, 0 Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
As we shall see, this critical passage provides the structure for the three tests of Jesus, who proved that he loved God with all his heart, all his soul and all his might.
But how was the Shema, the most essential statement of monotheism, understood in Jesus' time? The answer may be found in the Mishnah tractate Berakoth, which first quotes the biblical text and then explains what each passage means. In Berakoth we read:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might":
"With all your heart', [which means] with both your impulses, your good impulse and your evil impulse.
"With all your soul", even if he takes away your soul.
"With all your might", with all your wealth.
Let us look briefly at these three points. The normal Hebrew spelling for "heart" is leb, but in Deuteronomy 6:5 it is written lebab, with two b's. To the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah, this spelling suggested a duplication, a heart with two impulses: a good impulse or inclination, which tended toward perfect obedience to God's commandments, and its antithesis, the evil inclination. God had to be loved with a heart undivided, and thus with both impulses. To us, this might seem nonsensical, the two impulses would seem to cancel each other out. But the Semites and the Greeks of Jesus' time expressed totality as the combination of opposites, for them, the point was to have a heart totally dedicated to God. In the first test, as we have seen, Jesus proved that he loved God with his whole heart, in counter-distinction to the Exodus Israelites, with their divided hearts.
The second test involves a threat to life. That is clearly the meaning of "with all your soul." A beautiful illustration is the account of the martyrdom of Rabbi Aqiva by the Romans in 135 A.D. When his disciples could not understand his serenity under torture, he said to them, "All my days I have been troubled by this verse, 'with all your soul,' [which I interpret as] 'even if he takes your soul.' I said, when shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfil it?" Jesus was also prepared to accept death as part of God's plan, but he refused to endanger himself simply to test God.
The Hebrew term translated as "with all your might" also carries the connotation of "abundance" and may be applied to material possessions. (The point was made by Rabbi Eliezer with some humour: 'Should there be a man who values his life more than his money, for him it says 'with all your soul'; and should there be a man who values his money more than his life, for him it says 'with all your might."') That is why the devil, in the third test, offers Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory' (Matthew 4:8).
The traditional understanding of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), therefore, explains both the order of the tests undergone by Jesus and their content. Jesus is the perfect Son, who, in contrast to the Exodus Israelites, scrupulously observes the triple imperative that accompanies the fundamental statement of monotheism, the Shema. The testing narrative in the Gospel of Matthew is a vivid parable of adherence to the most basic obligations of the believer, the demands of the Shema.
It would have been unthinkable for the gospel writer to associate Jesus with the possibility of failure, which is implicit in the notion of a "test" - unless Jesus had confided to his disciples that he had experienced the tension of temptation. He need not have gone into any detail, but at a minimum he had to have said to his disciples the equivalent of "I was tested, as you will be tested."
This explains why Mark's cursory account simply says that Jesus was tested. This alerts us to the possibility that Jesus' disciples created the testing narrative based on their own knowledge of Jesus and the trials that they saw him undergo.
Searching for Light
As we have seen, the purpose of the first test, changing stone to bread, was to determine whether the heart of Jesus was whole or divided. To find the historical event in Jesus' life behind this test, we need to look for episodes where Jesus was pulled in two directions, situations where he was forced to make a choice, not necessarily between good and evil, but perhaps between a lesser and a greater good.
One indisputable example of such tension is Mark 3, in which Jesus finds himself at odds with his family:
He went into a house. And the crowd came together again so that they could not eat. And when his family (hoi par' autou) heard it they went out to seize him, for they said, "He is out of his mind (exeste)!... And his mother and his brethren came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him, and they said to him, "Your mother and your brethren are outside asking for you." And he replied, "'Who are my mother and my brethren?" And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brethren! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister, and mother!" (Mk.3:19-2; 31-35).
Jesus' relatives want to "seize," or "arrest" (Greek, krateo) him because they believe he is "out of his mind", that he is mentally ill.
This episode reveals the hostility of the family of Jesus to his mission. The disbelief of the brothers of Jesus is noted explicitly in John 7:5: "For not even his brothers believed in him." From the family's perspective, Jesus was an embarrassment who had to be removed from public view.
The authority of the family, and particularly the mother, in traditional Middle Eastern households was strong. Jesus must have felt a powerful pull to accede to his mother's demands. Yet he rejected his family's demands and identified those who accepted his mission as his true 'brother, sister, and mother' (Mk.3:35). He thereby showed that in his commitment to following the will of God, his heart was undivided.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus faces a similar internal conflict. In the account of the finding of Jesus in the Temple (Lk.2:41-51a), Jesus is once again on the horns of a dilemma, being pulled in one direction by his parents and in another by what he conceives as his mission from God. According to Luke, when Jesus was twelve years old, he travelled with his family to Jerusalem for Passover. Following the festival, his parents left town without realising they had left Jesus behind. After returning to Jerusalem and searching for three days, they found Jesus in the Temple, "sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions." Amazed, Jesus' parents ask, "Son why have you done this to us?" And Jesus responds, "Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" But Jesus parents "did not understand the statement that he spoke to them."
Today, Jesus' reply, "I must be about my Father's business," is easily understood as foreshadowing his ministry. But what did it mean to Jesus? I can only think that Jesus was searching for light on his vocation. He turned to the experts in the Law, who taught in the porticos of the Temple, for guidance on what God expected him to do with his life. In Jesus' mind, the urgency of this quest must have outweighed the worry that he knew he would cause Mary and Joseph. Here, too, his filial piety was challenged by a higher obedience.
Jesus' awareness of how affective family ties could divide the heart is evident in the message he gave his disciples. When one disciple said to him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father," Jesus responded, "Follow me and let the dead bury their dead..." (Mt.8:21-22; Lk.9:59-60). Jesus impressed upon his disciples that obedience to his word was a higher imperative and that they must love God with all their hearts.
To find the historical event hidden in the second test, in which Jesus refuses to throw himself from the Temple, we must examine Jesus' response in situations in which his life was at risk. The instinct for self-preservation is so strong that it would be unreasonable to assume that death threats did not give Jesus pause for reflection.
The Gospel of Luke records that Jesus, when travelling through Galilee to Jerusalem, was explicitly threatened by Herod Antipas: "Some Pharisees came and said to him, 'Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you"' (Lk.13:31). Jesus' response is that he will continue to do the will of God is magnificent in its defiance: "Go tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside Jerusalem.' O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and who stone those who are sent to her!" (Lk.13:32-33). In other words, Jesus will continue to do his work in answer to a higher authority even if it means he must die in Jerusalem.
Jesus' prediction of his death is eminently plausible (see also Lk. 9:22.20). Jesus and all his Jewish contemporaries would have been aware that many prophets had died violent deaths in Jerusalem. In John 11:8 Jesus narrowly escapes a stoning. Moreover, Jesus would have known of the execution of John the Baptist (Mk.6:17-29; Mt.14:3-12; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.116-1 19). Indeed, Jesus lived a life oriented towards death, which is why Paul describes Jesus' existence as a long, drawnout "dying" (2 Corinthians 4:10). Jesus must have been in great pain as he confronted the very human fear of death. Yet he never deviated from his mission, even when the fear almost overwhelmed him at Gethsemane. Despite this most severe test, which touched the core of his being, Jesus remained true.
Just as Jesus cautioned his disciples not to deviate from their mission, not to have divided hearts, so too he warned his followers that they would be tested just as he had been tested, "You will be hated by all for my name's sake, but those who endure to the end will be saved" (Mk.13:13). He had to prepare them for a test whose severity he knew from experience.
The Third Test in Matthew
Finally, we come to the third test (Mt.4:8-10). To find the historical event behind this test, we must look for an episode in which Jesus rejects wealth and prestige in order to pursue his mission.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with only five loaves of bread and two small fish. "When the people saw the sign which he had done," John tells us, "they said, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!' Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew to the hills by himself" (Jn. 6:14-15).
Given the revolutionary temper of the Galileans, this story carries the clear stamp of plausibility. It would explain why Herod Antipas wanted to kill Jesus, as we saw earlier (Lk.13:31). And Jesus' response, his repudiation of all efforts to promote him to political leadership, would explain why Herod later lost all interest and released Jesus when he was brought before him (Lk.23:8-12). The implication for us, however, is that at least once, Jesus was forced to evaluate the relationship of his ministry to political power, and he refused prestige and wealth for the sake of his mission.
Here, too, Jesus' test was transmuted into a warning for his disciples: "You cannot serve both God and Mammon [wealth]," he told them (Mt.6:24; Lk.16:13); "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mk.10:25; Mt. 19:24; Lk.18:25).
As we have seen, Jesus, like any human being, suffered situations in which he was pulled in two directions. We know how Jesus responded to these trials because he articulated them in warnings to his disciples. In the account of the testing of Jesus, these very events have been turned into parables. Perhaps Jesus himself parabolised his own experience in order to impress his followers with his warnings. No one can deny that Jesus was capable of such subtlety.
But if Jesus had parabolised his experiences and put them in the context of the Exodus by quoting Deuteronomy, then Mark would have known the whole story. Mark would not have simply borrowed the Exodus motifs of the wilderness and the 40 days without including the details of all three tests. Thus, it is more probable that Mark, by making a discrete evocation of the Exodus, parabolised Jesus' remark that he had been tested and that later Christian theologians produced the extraordinary narrative we find in Matthew and Luke.
The early Christians understood Jesus to be human in the same sense as they were. He was not totally other or inexplicably alien. Those who had lived with him, or who knew those who had done so considered it entirely natural to use their own experience as human beings, often pulled in two directions, in order to penetrate and explore the insight that Jesus had given them regarding his own struggle to remain faithful to what he had come to recognise as his destiny and vocation. Jesus, too, had to contend with the demands of family and friends. He had to brace himself against the instinct for self- preservation. He had to remain alert to the insidious attractions of wealth and power. He was given a mission, but he was not granted immunity from the pressures that complicate human life