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Jesus’ Temptation and Testing in the Wilderness (Mark 1:9-13)

Commentary on Jesus’ Temptation and Testing in the Wilderness

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Jesus in the Wilderness

Jesus in the Wilderness

Immediately after baptism, Jesus is driven into the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted by Satan. It’s not clear what it means to say that Jesus was “driven.” Did he not want to go? Did God force him? Was he simply overcome with an irresistible urge after hearing voices?

The word here for “wilderness” is the same one used to describe the activity of John the Baptist. People often have a misconception as to what “wilderness” meant. The Middle East is often thought of as consisting of vast deserts, and therefore the wilderness that John came out of and Jesus went into is also thought of as desert. This is not necessarily true. It could have been any uninhabited area, even one used to graze sheep. It may, then, have had abundant vegetation and water.

This trope of forty days would have been familiar to audiences at the time — Noah, for example, rode the ark for forty days and forty nights and the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years. The idea of a holy man wandering in the wilderness to tangle with demons, purifying himself for a holy cause, would have also been familiar — not just to people in the region but for many cultural groups around the world.

Mark offers no details about what happened during those forty days or how Satan tempted him. This stands in sharp contrast with other gospel accounts were we are filled in on at least some of the events that transpired during that time. This leads us to a couple of questions: why weren’t the details relevant for this, the earliest gospel? If people knew about them, why skip them? Then again, it’s strange that people knew about them — Jesus was alone, after all.

Or was he? According to this account he was, but the gospel of John relates that between his baptism and his trip through the desert he called his disciples and attended the wedding in Cana — a direct contradiction to Mark’s claim that Jesus immediately went into the desert. If any disciples were around, they might have known something about what happened.

Finally, it is worth wondering just how Jesus could be tempted in the first place. Sure, we have descriptions in the other gospels about what Satan did, but that doesn’t explain how and why Jesus was tempted. To be tempted by something is to actively covet it, but didn’t Jesus teach that the desire for something that you shouldn’t have just as bad as actually taking/acquiring it?

Thus, the experience of temptation is a type of sin and a sign of our human sinfulness. Granted, Jesus was fully human, but he was also supposed to be a sinless human. It was only because of his sinlessness that his sacrifice was supposed to be sufficient for all the sins of the world. Thus, either being tempted by things like power and riches is no sin at all, or Jesus sinned. Neither view seems entirely compatible with orthodox Christianity.

The common translation of “temptation” may be better rendered as “testing,” but it’s not clear if that overcomes the questions above. The depiction of this scene in the other gospels, where we are given more details, definitely appears to qualify as “temptation” as people usually think of the concept.

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