Temptation Of Christ

The temptation of Christ is a biblical narrative detailed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to these texts, after being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the Judaean Desert. During this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him. Jesus having refused each temptation, Satan then departed and Jesus returned to Galilee to begin his ministry.

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 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.

Literary genre

Discussion of status as a parable

Discussion of the literary genre includes whether what is represented is a history, a parable, a myth, or compound of various genres. This relates to the reality of the encounter. Sometimes the temptation narrative is taken as a parable, reading that Jesus in his ministry told this narrative to audiences relating his inner experience in the form of a parable. Or it is autobiographical, regarding what sort of Messiah Jesus intended to be. Writers including William Barclay have pointed to the fact that there is “no mountain high enough in all the world to see the whole world” as indication of the non-literal nature of the event, and that the narrative portrays what was going on inside Jesus’ mind. Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas explained, “In regard to the words, ‘He showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,’ we are not to understand that He saw the very kingdoms, with the cities and inhabitants, their gold and silver: but that the devil pointed out the quarters in which each kingdom or city lay, and set forth to Him in words their glory and estate.”

The Temptations of Christ, 12th-century mosaic at St Mark's Basilica, Venice

The Temptations of Christ, 12th-century mosaic at St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

The debate on the literality of the temptations goes back at least to the discussion of George Benson (d.1762) and Hugh Farmer.

A traditional Catholic understanding is that the temptation of Christ was a literal and physical event. “Despite the difficulties urged, …against the historical character of the three temptations of Jesus, as recorded by St. Matthew and St. Luke, it is plain that these sacred writers intended to describe an actual and visible approach of Satan, to chronicle an actual shifting of places, etc., and that the traditional view, which maintains the objective nature of Christ’s temptations, is the only one meeting all the requirements of the Gospel narrative.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Gospels speak of a time of solitude for Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism by John. Driven by the Spirit into the desert, Jesus remains there for forty days without eating; he lives among wild beasts, and angels minister to him. At the end of this time Satan tempts him three times, seeking to compromise his filial attitude toward God. Jesus rebuffs these attacks, which recapitulate the temptations of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert, and the devil leaves him “until an opportune time…” The temptation in the desert shows Jesus, the humble Messiah, who triumphs over Satan by his total adherence to the plan of salvation willed by the Father.

Use of Old Testament references

The account of Matthew uses language from the Old Testament. The imagery would be familiar to Matthew’s contemporary readers. In the Septuagint Greek version of Zechariah 3, the name Iesous and the term diabolos are identical to the Greek terms of Matthew 4. Matthew presents the three scriptural passages cited by Jesus (Deut 8:3, Deut 6:13, and Deut 6:16) not in their order in the Book of Deuteronomy, but in the sequence of the trials of Israel as they wandered in the desert, as recorded in the Book of Exodus. Luke’s account is similar, though his inversion of the second and third temptations “represents a more natural geographic movement, from the wilderness to the temple”. Luke’s closing statement that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” may provide a narrative link to the immediately following attempt at Nazareth to throw Jesus down from a high place, or may anticipate a role for Satan in the Passion (cf. Luke 22:3).

Matthew and Luke narratives

In Luke’s (Luke 4:1–13) and Matthew’s (Matthew 4:1–11) accounts, the order of the three temptations, and the timing (within or at the end of the 40 days) differ; 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. Although Mark, Matthew, and Luke combine Jesus’ fast of 40 days with his temptation, other Biblical passages suggest that Jesus’ fast was a test to be completed before his encounter with Satan.

Mark does not provide details, but in Matthew and Luke “the tempter” (Greek: ὁ πειραζωνho peirazōn) or “the devil” (Greek: ὁ διαβολοςho 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 narrative of both Luke and Matthew have Satan quote Psalm 91:11–12 to indicate that God had promised this assistance.
  • Worship Satan in return for all the kingdoms of the world.

These are the same three temptations one renounces at baptism: the World, the Flesh and the Devil.

The Temptations

Stones into bread

esus Tempted in the Wilderness

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert), James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

The temptation of making 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, however, 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: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” (a reference to Deuteronomy 8:3) Only in Matthew is this entire sentence written.

Pinnacle of the temple

Most Christians consider that holy city refers unquestionably 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.
  • Atop 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 final temptation, 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 as “…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

Jesus Ministered to by Angels (Jésus assisté par les anges), James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

Jesus Ministered to by Angels (Jésus assisté par les anges), James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

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.

Gospel of Mark

The Mark (Mark 1:12–13) account is very brief. Most of the Mark account is found also in the Matthew and Luke versions, with the exception of the statement that Jesus was “with the wild animals.” Despite the lack of actual text shared among the three texts, the language and interpretations Mark uses draw comparison among the three Gospels. The Greek verb Mark uses in the text is synonymous with driving out demons, and the wilderness at times represents a place of struggle. The two verses in Mark used to describe Jesus’ Temptation quickly progress him into his career as a preacher.

Thomas Aquinas argued that Jesus allowed himself to be tempted as both an example and a warning. He cites Sirach 2: “Son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in justice and in fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation.” Following this, he cites Hebrews 4:15: “We have not a high-priest, who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin.”

Gospel of John

The temptation of Christ is not found in the Gospel of John. However some readers have identified parallels inside John which indicate that the author of John may have been familiar with the Temptation narratives in some form.

  • Stones into Bread → John 6:26,31 to make bread in the wilderness.
  • Jump from the temple → John 2:18 to perform a Messianic sign in the temple.
  • Kingdoms of the World → John 6:15 to take the kingdom by force.

Catholic interpretations

The Temptation of Christ - Simon Bening

The Temptation of Christ – Simon Bening

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 us to overcome temptation when His Fatherly Providence allows us to experience the allurements of evil. 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.”

Jesus was tempted three times. The temptations were hedonism (hunger / satisfaction), egoism (spectacular throw / might) and materialism (kingdoms / wealth). John the Evangelist in his epistle calls these temptations “in world” as “lust of eyes” (materialism), “lust of body” (hedonism) and “pride of life” (egoism). Temptations aim to mislead and pervert three main human characteristics; to think, wish and feel which are inside mind, soul and heart as Jesus alludes in Greatest Commandment. These are related with transcendentalsor ultimate ideals in three areas of human interests; science (truth), arts (beauty) and religion (goodness). Christians are called to search for divine virtues; faith, hope and love that relate them directly to God who Himself is Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

  • fortitude (courage) when his life was in danger because he was very hungry after fasting for 40 days and rejected devil’s proposition to make “bread” (“hedonism”),
  • prudence (caution) when rejected proposition to make sign of conceit and might, a “spectacular throw” (“egoism”),
  • temperance (self-control) when rejected alluring offer to receive “kingdoms of world” (“materialism”).
(Mt 22,37) mind soul heart
divine virtues faith hope love
human thoughts wishes feelings
philosophy logic aesthetics ethics
ideal truth beauty goodness
field science art religion
(1 Jn 2:16)[53] 
(Mt 4:1–11)[54] 
“pride of life” 
“spectacular throw” 
“lust of eyes” 
“lust of body” 
monastic vows obedience 
human virtues prudence 

Islamic view

The Temptation of Jesus is evidence opposing the divinity of Jesus according to Muslims. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet and messenger of God, but not divine. God is As-Samad (الصمد), meaning perfect in all of His attributes and the One upon whom all depend, but who is free of need from anyone or anything. God Himself cannot be tempted by sin, commit sin, nor desire sin, since God defines morality and created the Law, and sin is defined as “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.” God, Himself cannot fall into immorality nor transgress against His own laws, which would violate His perfect attributes.

James 13:1 states: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” Therefore, Muslims conclude, that Jesus cannot have been God since God cannot be tempted nor sin.

Matthew 4 states: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”” Satan is God’s creation and God banished him from the Garden of Eden. Now Satan is telling Jesus to worship him and then Satan will grant him all the kingdoms of the world. If Jesus is God, how could Satan offer God authority and power when God already owns everything and is the supreme authority over everything?

Thus the possibilities according to Muslims: 1. This event never happened but was contrived by later authors. 2. This event happened, but the actual details are lost to time. 3. This event happened, but in the context that Jesus is not divine.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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