The temptation of Jesus Christ is a Biblical narrative detailed in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus was tempted by the devil after 40 days and nights of fasting in the Judaean Desert. At the time, Satan came to Jesus and tried to tempt him. Jesus having refused each temptation, Satan then departed, and Jesus returned to Galilee to begin his ministry. During this entire time of spiritual battle, Jesus was fasting.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews also refers to Jesus having been tempted “in every way that we are, except without sin.”
Mark’s account is very brief, merely noting the event. Matthew and Luke 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, many scholars believe these extra details originate in the theoretical Q Document. The temptation of Christ is not explicitly mentioned in the Gospel of John but in this gospel, Jesus does refer to the Devil, “the prince of this world”, having no power over him.
In Luke’s (Luke 4:1–13) and Matthew’s (Matthew 4:1–11) accounts, the order of the three temptations differs; no explanation as to why the order differs has been generally accepted. Matthew, Luke and Mark make clear that the Spirit has led Jesus into the desert.
Fasting traditionally presaged a great spiritual struggle. Elijah and Moses in the Old Testament fasted 40 days and nights, and thus Jesus doing the same invites comparison to these events. In Judaism, “the practice of fasting connected the body and its physical needs with less tangible values, such as self-denial and repentance.” At the time, 40 was less a specific number and more a general expression for any large figure. Fasting may not mean a complete abstinence from food; consequently, Jesus may have been surviving on the sparse food that could be obtained in the desert.
Mark does not provide details, but in Matthew and Luke “the tempter” (Greek: ὁ πειράζων, ho peirazōn) or “the devil” (Greek: ὁ διάβολος, ho diabolos) tempts Jesus to:
- Make bread out of stones to relieve his own hunger.
- Jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall.
The narratives of both Luke and Matthew have Satan quote Psalm 91:11–12 to indicate that God had promised this assistance.
- Worship the tempter in return for all the kingdoms of the world.
The Turning of Stones into Bread
The temptation of bread out of stones occurs in the same desert setting where Jesus had been fasting. Alexander Jones reports that the wilderness mentioned here has since the fifth century been believed to be the rocky and uninhabited area between Jerusalem and Jericho, with a spot-on Mount Quarantania traditionally being considered the exact location. The desert was seen as outside the bounds of society and as the home of demons such as Azazel (Leviticus 16:10). Robert H. Gundry states that the desert is likely an allusion to the wilderness through which the Israelites wandered during the Exodus, and more specifically to Moses. Jesus’ struggle against hunger in the face of Satan points to his representative role of the Israelites, but he does not fail God in his urge for hunger. This temptation may have been Jesus’ last, aiming towards his hunger.
In response to Satan’s suggestion, Jesus replies, “It is written Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (a reference to Deuteronomy 8:3). Only in Matthew’s gospel is this entire sentence written.
Pinnacle of the Temple
This is the second temptation mentioned in Matthew and the third temptation listed in Luke.
Most Christians consider that holy city refers undoubtedly to Jerusalem and the temple to which the pinnacle belongs is thus identified as the Temple in Jerusalem. Gospel of Matthew refers to “the temple” 17 times without ever adding “in Jerusalem”. That Luke’s version of the story clearly identifies the location as Jerusalem may be due to Theophilus’ unfamiliarity with Judaism.
What is meant by the word traditionally translated as pinnacle is not entirely clear since the Greek diminutive form pterugion (“little wing”) is not extant in other architectural contexts. Though the form pterux (“large wing”) is used for the point of a building by Pollianus, Schweizer feels that little tower or parapet would be more accurate, and the New Jerusalem Bible does use the translation “parapet”. The only surviving Jewish parallel to the temptation uses the standard word šbyt “roof” not “wing”: “Our Rabbis related that in the hour when the Messiah shall be revealed he shall come and stand on the roof (šbyt) of the temple.” (Peshiqta Rabbati 62 c–d) The term is preserved as “wing” in Syriac translations of the Greek.
Gundry lists three sites at the Jerusalem temple that would fit this description:
On the top of the temple’s main tower, above the sanctuary proper, some 180 feet above ground, the location that artists and others using the traditional translation generally set the story.
A top the lintel of the main gateway into the temple, the most prominent position where the pair could easily have been seen.
A tower on the southeast corner of the outer wall that looks down into the Kidron Valley. In later Christian tradition this is the tower from which James the brother of Jesus was said by Hegesippus to have been thrown by way of execution.
“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.
Once more, 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) quoting Deuteronomy 6:16.
For the third and final temptation in Matthew (presented as the second temptation of the three in Luke) the devil takes Jesus to a high place, which Matthew explicitly identifies as a very high mountain, where all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. The spot pointed out by tradition as the summit from which Satan offered to Jesus dominion over all earthly kingdoms is the “Quarantania”, a limestone peak on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Instead of a literal reading, George Slatyer Barrett viewed the third temptation as inclining to a doubt of Christ’s mission, or at least the methodology. Barrett sees this as a temptation to accept the adulation of the crowds, assume leadership of the nation to overthrow Roman rule, take the crown of his own nation, and from there initiate the kingdom of God on earth. The kingdoms Jesus would inherit through Satan are obtained through love of power and political oppression. Barrett characterizes this “the old but ever new temptation to do evil that good may come; to justify the illegitimacy of the means by the greatness of the end.”
The mountain is not literal if the temptations only occur in the mind’s eye of Jesus and the Gospel accounts record this mind’s eye view, as related in parable form, to the disciples at some point during the ministry.
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: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and only Him shall you serve.'” (Referencing Deuteronomy 6:13 and 10:20). Readers would likely recognize this as reminiscent of the temptation to false worship that the Israelites encountered in the desert in the incident of the Golden Calf mentioned in Ex. 32:4.
Ministered to by Angels
At this, Satan departs, and Jesus is tended by angels. While both Mark and Matthew mention the angels, Luke does not, and Matthew seems once again here to be making parallels with Elijah, who was fed by ravens. The word ministered or served is often interpreted as the angels feeding Jesus, and traditionally artists have depicted the scene as Jesus being presented with a feast, a detailed description of it even appearing in Paradise Regained. This ending to the temptation narrative may be a common literary device of using a feast scene to emphasize a happy ending, or it may be proof that Jesus never lost his faith in God during the temptations.
Taken in the sense of denoting enticement to evil, temptation cannot be referred directly to God or to Christ. For instance, in Gen. 12.1, “God tempted Abraham”, and in John 6.6, “This [Jesus] said tempting [Philip]”, the expressions must be taken in the sense of testing or trying. According to St. James, the source of man’s temptations is his proneness to evil which is the result of the fall of Adam, and which remains in human nature after baptismal regeneration, and even though the soul is in the state of sanctifying grace, mankind’s concupiscence (or proneness to evil) becomes sinful only when freely yielded to; when resisted with God’s help it is an occasion of merit. The chief cause of temptation is Satan, “the tempter”, bent on man’s eternal ruin.
In the Lord’s Prayer, the clause “Lead us not into temptation” is a humble and trusting petition for God’s help to enable people to overcome temptation. Prayer and watchfulness are the chief weapons against temptation. God does not allow man to be tempted beyond his strength. Like Adam, Christ (the second Adam) endured temptation only from without, inasmuch as his human nature was free from all concupiscence; but unlike Adam, Christ withstood the assaults of the Tempter on all points, thereby providing a perfect model of resistance to mankind’s spiritual enemy, and a permanent source of victorious help.
In the first three Gospels, the narrative of Christ’s temptation is placed in immediate connection with his baptism and then with the beginning of his public ministry. The reason for this is clear. The Synoptists regarded the baptism of Christ as the external designation of Jesus from [the Father] for Christ’s Messianic work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The first three Gospels agree concerning the time to which they assign the temptation of Christ, so they are at one in ascribing the same general place to its occurrence, viz. “the desert”, whereby they [probably] mean the Wilderness of Judea, where Jesus would be, as St. Mark says: “with beasts”.
“The Biblical meaning of temptation is ‘a trial in which man has a free choice of being faithful or unfaithful to God’. Satan encouraged Jesus to deviate from the plan of his father by misusing his authority and privileges. Jesus used the Holy Scripture to resist all such temptation. When we are tempted, the solution is to be sought in the Bible.”
In the temptations, according to Benedict XVI, Satan seeks to draw Jesus from a messianism of self-sacrifice to a messianism of power: “in this period of “wilderness”… Jesus is exposed to danger and is assaulted by the temptation and seduction of the Evil One, who proposes a different messianic path to him, far from God’s plan because it passes through power, success and domination rather than the total gift of himself on the Cross. This is the alternative: a messianism of power, of success, or a messianism of love, of the gift of self.