The Temptation of Jesus in Mathew 4 and Luke 4

I suppose we are on the theme of literary dyads – stories that occur twice in the gospels. Yesterday’s blog examined the story of the Galilean fisherman and Jesus in the Gospels of John and Luke. Today I’d like to look at Jesus’ forty days in the desert, recounted in Matthew 4:1-11 and and Luke 4:1-13.  There is a lot to talk about.  first, both accounts are inspired by passages from the Old Testament.  Second, the accounts in Matthew and Luke are very similar, so much so that it has confounded scholars as to what the original source of the story was.    Third, there is some good theology in the story.

Rather than cut and paste the account, I’ll bullet point (sorry!) the facets of the story common to Matthew and Luke.  While the following seven points are common to Matthew and Luke, in Luke points four and five are in reverse order. I am going to stick with Matthew’s order since I think Matthew has a point to make,

  1. Jesus is inspired by the Holy Spirit to spend time in the desert.
  2. He fasts for forty days and forty nights.
  3. The devil challenges him a first time, “If you are the Son of God, turns these stones to bread…”
  4. The devil challenges him a second time, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the parapet of the temple…”
  5. The devil challenges him a third time, “All this I will give you, if you prostrate yourself and worship me…”
  6. In all three cases, Jesus rebuffs the temptation with a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy.
  7. The devil abandons the effort.

Jesus quotes extensively from the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus explicitly quotes from Deuteronomy in the story in Matthew. In response to the first temptation, he cites Deuteronomy 8:3, for not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. As Jesus is the Word, he is saying in effect that man lives by God and not bread alone. After the second temptation, he quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 at Matthew 4:& – “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test… .

My first impression is that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy because he wished to cite the Law to the devil.  However, there is more to it than that. Deuteronomy tells the account of the Israelities preparing to enter the promised land – Canaan – after forty years in the desert.   Deuteronomy 8:2 explains why the Israelites spent forty years in the desert, and it is certainly prophetic in terms of Jesus’ forty days:

Be careful to observe all the commandments I enjoin on you today… Remember how for forty years now the LORD your God has directed all your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep the commandments.

Some Critical Biblical Scholars Confused
The similarity of the story of Jesus’ temptation is so great that it has led some scholars to theorize that Matthew and Luke borrowed from the same, unknown source.  In the early 1800’s, German biblical scholars like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Christian Hermann Weisse suggested that there was a “Quelle” or source document for Matthew and Luke. This became known, in the biblical scholar’s community, as the “Q” source.  “Q” became part of a two-source hypothesis that Mathew and Luke borrowed from the Gospel of Mark on the one hand, and the mysterious and never-discovered “Q” source on the other.  As biblical archaeology continues to enhance our understanding of early Christian communities, the “Q” source hypothesis, which was very influential for most of the twentieth century, is declining in broad acceptance.

Yes, the story of the temptation of Jesus is very similar in Matthew and Luke, but scholars cannot rule out the possibility that Luke knew of Matthew’s gospel before he wrote his own.  It is also very possible that the story came from an earlier letter, recorded by a scribe (as their were dozens of them active during the time of Jesus) which had been lost.  To put it another way, it is possible that disparate letters existed describing the miracles and works of Jesus, and that those letters influenced Matthew and Luke.  But “Q” is posited as a book unto itself by defenders of the two-source hypothesis, and it is proposed on the assumption that Matthew and Luke were created independent of each other.  These two views are problematic and falling into disfavor.  I can testify from my own experience that students of scripture today (unlike twenty years ago) are not enormous fans of the two-source hypothesis.

The story of Jesus 40 days in the desert is surprising in that it so explicitly recalls the story, told in Deuteronomy, of the Israelites preparing to enter the promised land of Canaan. As Matthew wrote for an audience that was predominantly Jewish, it is not surprising he would have recognized the importance of this event in Jesus’ life. Notice that when the devil tempts Jesus, he prefaces the temptatation with the challenge –if you are the Son of God – twice.   After failing to force the hand of Jesus, he offers to give dominion of the earth to Jesus if Jesus will prostrate himself before the Adversary. We are reminded when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy that the Israelites were also tested for forty years in the desert, as Jesus was tested for forty days.

Finally, as students of the bible, we should not be so quick to write off the veracity of the story simply because the account is so similar in Luke and Matthew. There is one caveat, though. Clearly, none of the disciples were with Jesus during the forty days, so the tradition must have been orally handed on from Jesus to the disciples – likely an Apostle. For that reason, I prefer the theory that Luke relied on Matthew’s account, since Matthew was an apostle and may have heard of the story from the lips of Christ himself.

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