What Type of Story is the Temptation of Jesus?

The temptation of Jesus is a story that is found in three of the four Gospels. Mark’s version is a short summary. But Matthew and Luke add incredible details,

Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days, being tempted by Satan.

And that’s that’s that.

Matthew and Luke greatly expand on this story.

Following a similar storyline but with much more detail and a personified Devil.

But what type of story is this?

That is the question we are seeking to answer.

Hoping to better understand what the authors of Matthew and Luke were trying to communicate.

I have come across 5 understandings of what type of literature Jesus’ temptation, as told in Matthew and Luke, is.

  • Literal and physical event
  • Dream or Altered State of Consciousness
  • Myth
  • Haggadic fiction
  • Parable

These 5 understandings can be further divided into 2 categories.

  • Historical
  • Fictional

Historically, we understand that Jesus was really tempted by the devil. This was a real event that happened in time and space. The question is, did it happen in this world or Jesus’ mind?

In fiction, we understand that this was not a real event in time and space but that it was designed to communicate. The question is of design.

We can also view it within a spectrum.

From concrete historical event, to fabricated story.

image of spectrum

Each understanding has its own advantages and disadvantages for understanding Jesus.

Let’s access these advantages and disadvantages to answer what is the best way to understand Jesus temptation in Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13

Literal and Physical event

This is most of our default setting when hearing a story. It actually happens as the words say.

I was out walking my dog, and a cat ran across our path.

You don’t ask yourself, what does the cat represent in this story?

No, you envision me out with a 4 legged creature walking ahead of me (My dog). Then, a small 4-legged furring creature running in front of us across the path (Cat). There may be questions about was it asphalt, concrete or dirt path. And even how wide it is.

Or maybe a question about my dog or the cat.

But all questions would be in the realm of the physical reality. And can be answered as such.

There may be another layer of complexity if I told you George Washington was walking his dog. With the separation of time between your experience and Washington.

Even more, if I told you that Julius Ceasar walked his dog.

Now we have time and space. Over 2,000 years and potentially 3 different continents, Europe, Asia and Africa. These all need to be answered to fully understand what happens in the story.

The same is true about Jesus being tempted. The passage of 2000 years along with culture change with an added twist of the supernatural. The devil appears in physical form.

Advantages

Simplicity: As a literal story we don’t need to learn about literature styles to begin to understand this event in Jesus’ life.

Easy of Understing: It is also easy to relate to one’s life. We may not be physically confronted by the Devil but we can think of times that people tried to tempt us to do the wrong thing.

Historical Credibility: The New Testament writers portray the temptation as an actual event in the life of Jesus. If we regard their writings as reliable historical documents, a literal interpretation aligns with their intended meaning. Enhancing the credibility of the narrative.

Divinity and Humanity: A literal interpretation underscores the dual nature of Christ as both divine and human. It affirms his divinity by showing his power to resist Satan’s temptations, along with his direct reaction to the spiritual world. Directly dialoging with satan.

His humanity is demonstrated in his vulnerability to temptation and the effect of hunger on his physical body.

Clear Display of Spiritual Warfare: A literal interpretation emphasizes the reality of spiritual warfare.

There is a similar story told of Martin Luther while he translated the New Testament of the Devil trying to stop him and Luther throwing his inkpot at him. A possibility is this is a physical, literal event.

Jesus as the New Adam: A literal interpretation of the temptation narrative positions Jesus as the new Adam, similar to the first Adam being physically tempted in the Garden of Eden. But here Jesus physically overcomes Satan.

Preparation for Ministry: The temptation takes place immediately after Jesus’ baptism and prior to the commencement of his public ministry. Taking a literal interpretation emphasizes that Jesus was tested and demonstrated his faithfulness before embarking on his mission.

Disadvantages

Geographical Challenges: A literal interpretation of the temptation of Jesus increases complexity.

An example is William Barclay pointing out that there is “no mountain high enough in all the world to see the whole world” if this is a literal event.

Complexity to Understanding the Supernatural: How does one explain the devil, a spiritual being taking on human form?

The Devil, showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world.

How did Jesus get on top of the temple wall without anyone noticing?

A literal interpretation raises these and many other questions.

While a literal interpretation of the temptation of Jesus might seem straightforward, it also creates problems historical and theological.

But if not literal, the next closest understanding is.

Dream or Altered State of Consciousness

Common among many cultures, such as Siksika (Blackfoot), Cree, Anishinaabe and Inuit. Often, young men will induce dreams, vision or hallucinations by depriving themselves of food or sleep. These visions serve as guides for their life.

It is possible that Jesus had a similar experience while out in the wilderness. After days of not eating, he became hungry and lapsed into a dream-like state, envisioning the devil coming to test him. Overcoming the temptations of the devil, spiritual beings recorded as angels came and comforted him. Regaining consciousness, he ate and returned to his community.

But this experience guided him for the rest of his life, ministry and mission. Guiding him in his struggle against the “demonic” forces that he did battle with.

Within the tradition of Judaism, we have the story of Abraham making a covenant with God (Gen.15) after he fell into a deep sleep.

Even within the gospels, Joseph is guided by angels in his dreams, first to marry Mary (Matt.1:20) and then to flee Bethlehem (Matt.2:13).

Advantages

Overcomes Physical Limitations: A mountain where one can see all the kingdoms of the world is easy to envision in a dream, along with the embodiment of Satan.

Relatable: The experience of having a spiritual dream is not unique to Jesus alone. It is a phenomenon that has been observed in various individuals throughout history. By exploring and comparing these similar experiences, we can gain a deeper understanding of the spiritual realm and the significance of Jesus’ own experiences within it.

Disadvantages

Skepticism about Dreams: Many modern individuals dismiss dreams as of little value. Therefore dismissing the significance of Jesus’ experience.

Loss of the New Adam: Without a physical confrontation between Jesus and the Devil, we lose Jesus being the new Adam, being tempted just like Adam physically but covering Satan in the flesh.

Myth

Moving further along the spectrum of historical to fiction is myth.

Borrowing from E.P. Sanders, we are defining myth here as history with mythical embellishment.

With Jesus, going out to the wilderness for a time of testing.

But instead of Jesus experiencing it in his head, it is added by the storyteller.

Hearing of Jesus’ experience of testing, they weave elements of the supernatural into the experience.

Explaining the unexplainable, like the embodiment of the devil, his ability to show Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Plus, taking him to the top of the temple.

Keeping the story but explaining the supernatural as myth.

Advantage

Supernatural Explanation: In our modern worldview, we appreciate scientific explanations. The supernatural cannot be explained away. But by ascribing it to myth, we don’t need to. The story is secured with a simple understanding that the teller has embellished it to create a clearer story.

We can discount the supernatural while enjoying the story.

Disadvantage

Loss of Supernatural: Myths explanation cuts both ways. By explaining the supernatural away as a literature divide, we lose the real power of the story. Jesus did not do battle with the devil, outsmarting him with scripture. No, he merely spent some time in thought about his future. As he thought about it, he reflected on scripture. Powerful but less so than a physical, real devil.

This can also drift into other supernatural stories in the gospels, like his walking on water, healing, etc. Once we determine one event is more myth than historical. Why do we say another is not the same?

Haggadic fiction

Differing from a myth in design. Along with cultural background and use. A Haggadic story was developed by Jewish teachers.

A myth adds elements to enhance the story.

A Haggadic creates the entire story, emphasizing an individual’s character. Think of it as an elaborate metaphor. It is not a precise event that the evangelists are recalling, but are communication about Jesus’ character. In particular, how he viewed and dealt with temptation.

Advantages

Overcomes Geographical Challenges: Created to explain Jesus’ character, we need not concern ourselves with its historicity. It doesn’t matter if you are in China or France. If there is a mountain tall enough to see all the kingdoms of the world. Because we understand it’s fiction designed to communicate about Jesus, not a mountain.

Emphasizes Jesus’ Character: Emphasizes Jesus’ Character: A Haggadic fiction focus is Jesus’ characters. Spending our energy learning about him, not his surroundings.

Rabbidic Comparisions: Being a Jewish form of teaching, we have things to compare to. We can study the form and teaching of other haggadics to see how to best understand their elements.

Disadvantages

Demotes it to Fiction: Possible rejection because it is not a “real” event. Lossing its value because it’s not a real, historical event.

Requires Interpretation: As a different cultural form of communication, it requires the study of another culture to fully understand the temptation of Jesus.

Parable

Jesus told many parables during his ministry. Teaching people and making a point through simple pointed stories.

What if his temptation was a parable also?

Being told by Jesus to instruct his disciples, conveying how to defeat evil or temptation in a tangible manner.

It differs from myth and haggadic stories in that there is no historical story embellished upon. A parable is simple a story created to teach or explain.

Look for no history behind the story, only what the moral is.

Advantages

Clear Application: The use of parables was a common teaching method used by Jesus, and it would have been easily understood by those who heard it. By framing the temptation as a parable, Jesus could have conveyed a clear lesson on how to resist the devil’s temptations through the power of Scripture.

Disadvantages

Lost of Symbolism: By turning the temptation into a simple parable, we may lose some of the deeper symbolism and significance of Jesus’ experience. The physical confrontation with Satan represents the spiritual battle between good and evil, and by reducing it to a parable, we lose this important aspect.

Lack of Historical Accuracy: Some may argue that turning the temptation into a parable takes away from its historical accuracy. Demoting the event to a mere story.

Lose Jesus Example: By framing the temptation as a parable, we can lose the powerful example of Jesus personally facing and overcoming temptation. Losing the inspiration and guidance for believers in their own struggles with temptation.

Loss of Power: The physical confrontation between Jesus and the Devil displays Jesus’ power over evil and his ultimate triumph. As a parable, we lose this intensity along with the impact on the hearer.

Yes, it’s great that Jesus tells this wonderful story about defeating Satan, but my struggle is real. I need an example to live by, not a cute story.

Conclusion

In trying to understand Jesus temptation we must ask ourselves a series of questions.

Is Jesus being led into the wilderness to be tempted best to be understood as literal or metaphorical?

If Jesus went into the physical wilderness, then we need to ask which is easier to reconcile.

Can the physical challenges of the size of the mountain and the embodiment of Satan be explained?

Or is it better understood as a vision involving Jesus’ mind and spirit but not experienced in the physical realm?

If Jesus did not physically go into the wilderness but is symbolic along with the experience recorded.

Then we have three possibilities, with 3 different intents.

Was Jesus teaching his followers how to deal with temptations using a parable?

Did the early church create this myth to exalt people’s view of Jesus? One who does battle with the devil and wins?

Or are there historical facts behind the story but told in the form of haggadic fiction to teach us about the character of Jesus?

Of course, there is a blending of understanding and use.

His temptation can both be real and teach one how to handle temptation while revealing Jesus’ character.

But the application is for another article.

We can only conclude that Jesus’ temptation was an essential event in his life, whether real or not.

This event shows us that he is more than just a man and how we can overcome temptations.

With this understanding, we can appreciate the significance of Jesus’ temptation and learn from it for our own lives.

It may be fictional, but its message holds

Resources

BOOKS

  • Jesus of Nazareth, Millenarian Prophet Dale A. Allison p.60
  • The Historical Figure of Jesus, E.P. Sanders pp.112-117
  • The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer p.65

WEBSITES

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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