139 Commentary

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This page forms part of the resources for 139 Jesus Tempted Thrice in the Jesus Database project of FaithFutures Foundation

Crossan Inventory | 139 Literature | 139 Parallels | 139 Commentary | 139 Poetry | 139 Images


John Dominic Crossan

Crossan [The Historical Jesus] offers the following comments on the social location of those responsible for shaping this tradition:

The basis of that triple temptation is an opposition between magic and exegesis, between miraculous activity and exegetical citation. Miracles are dismissed, obliquely, as self-serving acts such as turning stones into bread when one is hungry, as temptations such as descending from the pinnacle of the Temple, or as demonic collusion such as gaining the world by obeying Satan. Jesus overcomes Satan, and even his quotation of Psalm 91:11-12, by three separate quotations from Deuteronomy 8:3, 6:16, and 6:13. But that opposition between magic and exegesis also represents a distinction in class. Even though, in Lenksi's typology, the peasant class is not the only one that could appreciate magic, it would take the retainer class to appreciate the scribal exactitude of such exegetical quotations. Peasants would, know, in their Little Tradition, the general themes and dominant emphases of the Great Tradition. But their illiteracy would preclude the fuel of citation practiced here by Satan and jesus. All such precise search and verbatim application presume not only developed literacy but also exegetical dexterity. A retainer-class believer is now interpreting the peasant-class Jesus.

Jesus Seminar

The views of the Seminar on this item can be represented as follows:

In spite of the fact that these stories are legends, the Fellows were about evenly divided on whether Jesus went on a vision quest in the desert, or whether he fasted for an extended period and got hungry as a result. It seems plausible that he did so as he worked out his relation to John the Baptist and contemplated the future of his own work. Simple plausibility, however, can be a cruel friend to historical reconstruction, tempting the historian to assert facts when there is only speculation ...

In each temptation Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy ... where Moses is described receiving the Law from Yahweh on Mount Sinai. The temptation story is thus a retelling of that ancient story but substituting Jesus for Moses. Just as Moses and Israel were tempted during their forty years in the wilderness, so Jesus was tempted during his forty days in the wilderness. Israel was tempted by hunger; that hunger was sated by the "manna that fell from heaven" each day. Jesus is tempted by hunger but refuses to turn stones into bread. Israel was tempted by idolatry; Jesus is tempted to worship Satan. In Jewish lore, this kind of retelling, or reimagining, is called haggadah.

In Matthew, the temptations of Jesus are arranged in a spatial progress from low to high: first he is taken to the desert, then placed on the pinnacle of the temple, then carried to a high mountain. This corresponds to the progression in Matthew's gospel: Jesus' ministry begins in the desert and ends on a mountain in Galilee from which he ascends. Luke has altered the order of the temptations in order to have Jesus wind up in Jerusalem: for Luke Jerusalem is the navel of the earth, where the story begins and ends.

[The Acts of Jesus]

John Kloppenborg

Kloppenborg [The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. (Studies in Antiquity & Christianity) Trinity Press International, 1999] discusses this item at some length. He begins by noting the distinctive character of this tradition:

Q is composed predominantly of sayings forms ... some are compiled into coherent speeches and clusters of thematically related pronouncements, while others are strung together rather loosely. One pericope, however, stands out as anomalous in this compilation of speeches and sayings: the temptation story (Q 4:1-13). While most of the Q materials are simple sayings, chriae or short "speeches," Q 4:1-13 is a three-part dialogue with a relatively detailed narrative framework. More importantly, it is a true narrative, albeit one in which speech plays a central function. (p. 246)

The temptations belong rather to a narrative genre which uses speech as the servant of narrative. Narrative movement is effected through dialogue. ... It is not simply the narrative nature of 4:1 13 which distinguishes it from the rest of Q. The form of the story, with its three-part debate as well as its mythic motif, is quite unparalleled in Q. Explicit biblical quotations (here from the LXX) are rare; only in this account and in 7:27 are biblical quotations introduced by gegraptai. In addition, the title ho huios tou theou is not found elsewhere in Q although the absolute huios occurs in 10:22 (which is a secondary expansion of 10:21). The notion of miracle articulated here differs too. The implication of the devil's invitations is that the Son of God is or should be a miracle worker. But in the rest of Q, miracles are treated not so much as deeds of Jesus as they are events of the kingdom whose presence or impending coming they portend (7:22; 10:9; 11:20). Their expected function is to produce repentance in those who witness them (10:13 15). Nothing in the temptation story either in the devil's invitations or in Jesus' responses suggests this understanding of the miraculous. Finally, the direct confrontation between Jesus and the devil (who is here called diabolos, not beelzebul or satanas as elsewhere in Q) is unique; elsewhere Jesus' opposition comes from "this generation." (p. 247f)

He then addresses the question of what the reason may have been for such a tradition to be have ben added to the Sayings Gospel Q. In the process of doing this (pp. 248-56), Kloppenborg outlines four major interpretations:

(1) Polemic Against Israel

The story may have appealed to an editor of Q because of the implied contrast between the obedience and fidelity of Jesus and the infidelity of Israel. ... While this interpretation is possible, it is not entirely congruent with Q's polemic. Q's complaint with "this generation" is not that it does not rely upon God for sustenance and guidance, but that it has failed to respond to the preaching of the kingdom, i.e., by repenting.

(2) Paradigmatic Interpretations

On this view, the temptations do not represent unique (or messianic) temptations of Jesus; instead they are paradigmatic and symbolic for the Q community's self understanding. ... From a redaction critical point of view, this interpretation seems over-subtle. Schottroff's contention that the account is designed to overcome the victimizing effects of anxiety, fear of death and political ideology reflects a modernizing, existential or psychoanalytic concern which can scarcely be ascribed to a first century author. ... Another paradigmatic interpretation is possible. With his rejection of the invitation to produce food for himself and by answering with Deut 8:3, Jesus provides a model of the voluntary powerlessness and absolute dependence upon God which Q elsewhere enjoins. ... The usual objection to this kind of interpretation is that the temptations are vastly disproportionate to what an ordinary believer would ever experience. This, however, overlooks the fact that equally fantastic (and contrived) stories are told of various Jewish and Christian heroes.

(3) Christological Apologetics

A third possibility for explaining the redactional association of the temptations with Q relies upon an anti-enthusiastic and anti thaumaturgic interpretation of the account. ... It is not easy to sustain this position at least in the context of Q. ...

(4) Rejection of Zealot Messianism

Paul Hoffmann has recently made the suggestion that the Q temptation story functioned to explain and justify why the Q group did not participate in the Zealot movement. ... An anti Zealot interpretation of the other Q passages adduced by Hoffmann also seems forced. Indeed, it cannot be denied that as a matter of fact the Q group did not align itself with revolutionaries. But a specifically anti Zealot interpretation of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the Mission speech does not suggest itself.
Finally, the septuagintal character of the biblical quotations and the presence of non-Semitizing Greek make it unlikely that the account belonged to a Palestinian sphere. On the contrary, it was formulated in a Greek speaking milieu where Palestinian politics are not likely to have occupied centre stage. For these reasons, Hoffmann's anti Zealot proposals must be set aside in favor of more plausible solutions.

At this point, Kloppenborg offers his own proposal:

Why was the temptation account added to Q? Given the nature and content of the collection, the most likely answer is that the redactor regarded the story as having paradigmatic and aetiological significance for the rest of Q. It served to illustrate and legitimate the mode of behavior and the ethos of the Q group. As hero and leader of the Q community, Jesus provided an example of the absolutely dependent, non defensive and apolitical stance of his followers. It is possible, but much less obvious, that the polemical implications of the story played some role. Far less likely are the suggestions that the story was regarded by the editor as a christological apologetic or as a refutation of Zealot messianism. (p. 256)

Other observations by Kloppenborg include the following:

The motif of the temptation or ordeal of the wise and faithful man is common enough and in the next chapter, we shall show that this motif commonly occurs at the beginning of wisdom collections. The testing stories mentioned here are similar enough in structure and function to invite comparisons with the Q temptation account. (p. 260)

Like these other testing stories, the Q temptation is a true narrative in spite of its large sayings component. It is susceptible to both actantial and syntagmatic analyses, as Jean Calloud's work shows. Yet this narrative, like the other temptation accounts, is of a special type, for its essence is that nothing happens. The hero does not respond to the devil's (or 'sender's') invitation to cease his act of sacrifice (Apoc. Abraham), or to curse God and re invest Satan in the position of God (Test. Job), or to accept an inferior set of values and an anti-god as God. To use Calloud's phrase, these are 'immobile narratives.'
The 'immobility' of the narrative serves an important function: it demonstrates the virtue of the hero and thereby advances a larger narrative movement. Temptation stories are pregnant with meaning for the material which surrounds them. The testing story so to speak projects a 'heroic careers for which it will serve as an explanation or anticipatory confirmation. It is not related simply for the parenetic and paradigmatic value which it might possess (however important that may be), but because it serves to explain or make intelligible other parts of the hero's 'story' or to legitimate and guarantee the reliability of his teachings or the revelations which have been entrusted to him.
Testing stories have a function comparable to that of qualifying and ordeal stories which are found in Graeco Roman biography, though the latter are usually cast in a realist rather than in a fantastic or mythic mode. (p. 260f)

The special character and especially the placement of the testing story after the predictions of John and just before the beginning of Jesus' main activity (preaching) conforms the opening sequences of Q to the narrative pattern shared by the legends about Abraham and Job, and the Graeco Roman hero biographies. This conformity with a typical biographical pattern confirms, in my view, Robinson's suggestion that Q was moving toward a narrative or biographical cast. The fusion of Q with the Marcan narrative in Matthew and Luke only continued what had already begun in the last stages of Q redaction.

Of course, Q is not a 'Gospel." It is still primarily a speech or sayings collection. Yet there is also movement in the direction of biography. As we shall see in the next chapter, this is not so surprising nor is it unique: forces active in other sentence collections of late antiquity in particular the need for legitimation sometimes led to the addition of introductory narratives or other legitimating sequences. (p. 262)

Samuel T. Lachs

Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the NT] notes that the theme of a hero or holy man being tested before his career begins was a common element in ancient writings:

Rabbinic commentaries on this theme are often based on Ps. 11.5, The Lord tests the righteous, not the wicked. The most notable example of this testing in Jewish tradition is Abraham, of whom it is stated, "With ten trials our father Abraham was tried and he withstood them all to make known how great was the love of Abraham our father." [M. Avot. 5.4]

Lachs offers three ways to interpret the Gospels' account of Jesus' temptations:

One is that it is to indicate that Jesus is the Messiah, who will overpower the forces of evil as represented by the Satan, a motif amply attested to in rabbinic sources. Second, the confrontation with Satan could be seen as Jesus' struggle with himself and overcoming the yezer hara, the evil inclination, part of all men, and which is externalized in the literature by the figure of Satan. Finally, the struggle sets up a model for the Church or individuals who, too, must struggle with temptation and overcome it.