Someone who asks the question “Who or what is the devil in the wilderness temptations of Christ?” (Matthew 4, also Mark 1, Luke 4) probably already knows enough to be thinking beyond the traditional (in fact medieval) popular fallen angel with red cloak, cloven hooves, tail and pitchfork, and is asking “What did the author of Matthew intend by this passage?”
That question is then going to broaden to include all three of the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – because, as Luke acknowledges (Luke 1:1-2), the accounts in his Gospel are aware of earlier accounts, then supplemented by Luke’s own interviews. The accounts in Matthew and Mark are also interrelated in some way, including by the Jewish requirement (Deuteronomy 19:15) that testimony requires at least two witnesses.
So we have three sources, drawn on earlier material, the most basic of which is found in Mark:
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. (Mark 1:12-13 ESV)
Mark doesn’t tell us much about Satan at all. So from this account Mark’s readers would have only two sources : firstly Jewish sources, which in the Jewish Bible (our Old Testament) is primarily limited to the appearances of “the Accuser” in Job 1 and Zechariah 3. Outside the Jewish Bible there is surprisingly little in other Jewish writings – intertestamental literature, such as recovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls – beyond material based on Job 1 and Zechariah 3. Which is what you’d expect. Mark’s readers other source aside from Job 1 and Zechariah 3 would be the teachings of Jesus himself. Jesus does not explain the devil and Satan directly, but it is reasonable to assume that his teaching included an account of his own temptation; that he at the very least mentioned or introduced the subject. If Jesus had never mentioned such a temptation then the mention in Mark 1:12-13, and appearance of a detailed wilderness temptation narrative in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, would be difficult to explain if it was a complete ‘out-of-the-blue’ revelation and surprise to the hearers.
So at the most basic level the answer to “Who or what is the devil in the wilderness temptations of Christ?” is that the tempter / devil / Satan is a character in a narrative probably beginning with the teaching of Jesus himself, the basic concepts of which were already known to the readers of Matthew and Mark.
But who or what is it?
It’s at this point that we go from what is known – the Old Testament precedent, the known fact of Jesus having given some teaching mentioning “the devil” or “Satan” to the disciples – into the unknown, what exactly do Matthew, Mark and Luke mean to teach by use of this story.
Some people will insist that it’s a literal story. And it must literally be a literal devil, with literal words, literal conversation, literal mountain able to see all the kingdoms or the world, literal flight to literally stand on the literal tip of the literal temple, etc.
The problems with that should be obvious. The mountain clearly can’t be literally that high. The order of the temptations can’t literally be 1-2-3 in Matthew and then literally 1-3-2 in Luke. Jesus literally appearing on the literal tip of the literal temple would likely be spotted by the people in the temple court below. Most importantly a literal figure – particularly a fallen angel – literally appearing in this manner and offering these literal temptations is no temptation at all. Not just Jesus, but most Christians also, would easily be able to say “no, thank you” to something so crude. This isn’t the way temptation works.
The other problem is why in John the same temptations come not from a fallen angel, but from the mouth of the Jewish people requesting Jesus to: – 1. make bread (John 6:30) – 2. take the kingdom by force (John 6:15) – 3. do a miracle to prove that he is the Messiah (John 2:18, 6:30)
The echo in Jesus’ ear
Many people have tried to argue for some kind of external tempter in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. These ideas usually require a Jewish external tempter of some sort, since “the devil” (ho diabolos, the Accuser) is able to quote the Jewish scripture, Psalm 91:11 – a verse which appears to have had Messianic application in later Jewish writing.
The problem with that idea is that John – the writer who places the three temptations in the mouths of the Jewish people in John 2 and John 6, says this:
“and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:25)
This is the point. Jesus had been endowed with power at his baptism, and the 40 days would be a period of reflection and preparation for the use of that power in the next three years of his ministry, but Jesus’ knowledge of what the people wanted from their Messiah is something he had been immersed in for 30 years. He did not need anyone to follow him into the desert, nor a fallen angel, to tell him what he already knew. He needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.