The devil is an allegory, the personification of temptation.
The following details support the suggestion that the ‘temptation’ in the wilderness in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 is an allegory probably told to the disciples by Jesus himself, not a literal event with a literal tempter figure (angelic or human) following Jesus.
Some of the events are literally impossible
- There is no mountain where it is possible to “see all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour” (Mt.4:8). Even if it is interpreted locally, you can only see some of Israel and some of one neighbouring nation from the top of the highest mountains in the region (e.g., Mt Hermon or Mt Nebo).
- No other person (or angel) had the power to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world (Mt.4:9), and it wasn’t a temptation unless Jesus believed it was true. On the other hand, Jesus had the power to take it for himself if he gave in to his human desire and followed human ambition.
If the passage is read as an personification of the internal struggle within Jesus’ mind, the difficulties vanish. He had just received the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt.3) but had yet to do a miracle. He is imagining how he should use the new power, and is fighting the temptation to use it for his own benefit. That is, Jesus is his own tempter.
The devil in the Old Testament
The devil is mainly a New Testament subject, possibly because the concept of the devil — a personification of evil, makes little sense in the Old Testament world where even the best of men were ‘grey’, a mixture of good and bad. Only with the arrival of a sinless man — Jesus Christ — does the personification of evil start to hold meaning. Consequently we find only 4 or 5 references to a devil or Satan figure in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament 35x devil, 35x Satan, and another 10-15 verses using other names and titles.
The English word ‘devil’ is from Greek (the Greek word diabolos, accuser, came directly into English from the New Testament). In the Greek Old Testament used by the Greek-speaking Jews of Jesus’ day, and then used by the early church, there are two particularly important passages where ‘devil’ (diabolos) was used as a translation for the similar Hebrew word Satan (ha-Satan, the Accuser).
Job 1:6-7 (Greek Version) Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and the diabolos (the Devil, in the original Hebrew ha-Satan) also came among them. 7 The Lord said to the Devil, “From where have you come?” the diabolos answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
Zechariah 3:1-3 (Greek Version) Then he showed me Jesus (Iesus in Greek, Jeshua in Hebrew) the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and the diabolos (the Devil, in the original Hebrew ha-Satan) standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 And the Lord said to the diabolos, “The Lord rebuke you, O diabolos! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” 3 Now Jesus was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.
Apart from these two Greek Old Testament verses where the Hebrew word ha-Satan is rendered “the Devil” (diabolos), there are some additional verses about human adversaries — Hadad and Rezon. These verses are transliterated into the Greek alphabet as satanas, a word that is also found in the New Testament.
1 Kings 11:14 And the Lord raised up an adversary (Hebrew ha-Satan, Greek Old Testament satanas) against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite. He was of the royal house in Edom.
The above distinction of symbolic ‘Satans’ as “the Devil” (diabolos in Greek Job 1 and Zechariah 3), human ‘satans’ as satanas (satanas in Greek 1Kings) may not have any significance — it may only be because the different translators of the Greek books had different ideas how best to catch the nuance of the original Hebrew. In any case, the New Testament does not seem to operate much of a distinction between “the Devil” (diabolos) and Satan (satanas). The important thing is that the audience of the New Testament were familiar with the idea of a “Devil” (diabolos) appearing in visions and were probably prepared to take such language figuratively.
When a Jewish audience heard “the diabolos came”, their minds immediately went – “ahah, parable” – because they did not take Job 1 and Zechariah 3 literally.
Comparison of Zechariah 3 and Matthew 4
The original Jewish recipients of the Gospel of Matthew would have been well versed in reading allegories and parables in the Old Testament. Those with a knowledge of Ezra and Nehemiah would also have been familiar with the political background underlying Zechariah 3, which is found in Nehemiah 2:10; 4:1-7; 6:2,12; 13:28.
- Devil = Sanballat, Tobiah and Gershem, but figuratively representing all Samaritan and Arab opposition to the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
- Jesus = the (recently deceased) father of the serving high priest Eliashib, but figuratively representing the honour of the whole priesthood,
- Angel of the Lord = Nehemiah – but figuratively representing patriotic and faithful Jews, including Zechariah himself.
- Dirty clothes = possibly intermarriage, or possibly the renting of the Levitical storehouses to Tobiah the Ammonite, or both.
The details of Nehemiah 3 are not that important. Following the death of Jesus (Jeshua) the High Priest his corrupt son Eliashib and grandson Jehoiada had arranged the marriage of the grandson to the pagan Sanballat’s daughter, and had rented the Levitical storehouses to Sanballat’s ally Tobiah the Ammonite, probably involving embezzlement (Neh 13:5-7). This culminated in an explosive cleansing of the temple by Nehemiah (Neh 13:8). All that is detail. The important thing is that Jewish readers, even without a full understanding of the connection between Zechariah 3 and Nehemiah 13 could at least know that the vision in Zechariah 3 was a political parable, not a real event where the dead high priest Jesus had literally been caught in dirty clothes in a literal heavenly throne room between a literal Devil and a literal angel.
- Devil = the temptations (largely from his own people) which Jesus would have to face over the next three and a half years.
- Jesus = Jesus
Therefore when Matthew’s audience received copies of his Gospel they had the tools (awareness of OT allegory, precedent in Zechariah 3, related material in Job 1) to read Matthew 4 as a parable.
The three temptations in John
The three temptations in Matthew and Luke also occur in John. The first two are easy to identify in John 6. The third, the temptation to appear at the temple, requires a little detective work, but is probably present (naturally enough) in Jesus’ first appearance at the temple in John 2.
- stones into bread = tempted to make bread (John 6:26). Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (John 6:30-31)
- high mountain = the kingdoms of the world (John 6:15). Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
- wing of the temple = temptation at the cleansing of the temple (John 2:18). So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”
It may be coincidence that John places this first temptation to perform a miracle in the temple directly after Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, when the Zechariah 3 “devil and Jesus” vision relates to Nehemiah’s own angry overturning of the tables of moneychangers at the temple 500 years earlier. If this is a knowing wink on the part of John it is a very subtle one. But the following comment is not coincidence and evident:
John 2:25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
This verse is in effect the key to John’s position about the devil and the temptations of Christ in his Gospel. Jesus later describes the Pharisees later as children of the devil (John 8:44, 1John 3:10), but the devil is here named as “what was in man” (John 2:25). This is why there is no wilderness temptation in the Gospel of John. John prefers to recount the temptations as they came during the three and half years of Jesus’ ministry.
It is also worth noting here that Jesus would have had opportunity to ask about what was expected of the Messiah at the temple 18 years earlier, when he was 12. So when the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil”, the information Jesus needed about what temptations he would face was already complete. He “himself knew what was in man”, but he also knew specifically the expectations of his people.
The roof of the temple.
There is only one trace of a Jewish legend about the appearance of the Messiah on the roof of the Temple.
“Our Rabbis related that in the hour when the Messiah shall be revealed he shall come and stand on the roof (Hebrew šbyt) of the temple and it shall be announced to Israel and said unto the poor that the time of their redemption has drawn nigh and if they do not believe, they shall see in his light that shall rise upon them, as it is said: “Rise Shine for thy light is come and the Glory of the Lord shall shine upon you””(quoting Is.60:1) Pesiqta Rabbati 62c-d.
This is a comparatively late source, 6th-7thC AD. However the tradition appears independent of the Matthew temptation, and based on Isaiah 60, wheras the original temptation in Matthew 4 was based on Psalm 91.
Psalm 91:9-13 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
Four things can be noted about the temptation:
- Quoting a psalm in itself identifies the tempter as Jewish, not Roman or Greek.
- Psalm 91 can be read as related to the temple (Ps.91:1,9) and itself provides enough information to account for a Jewish belief that the Messiah would throw himself down (Ps.91:11-12).
- The ‘devil’ stops short of quoting Ps.91:13 which is one of only two verses in the Old Testament fulfilling Gen 3:15 – the promise of a seed to tread on the serpent.
- It is possible that the Jews misread Ps.91:4 “He will cover you with his pinions,and under his wings you will find refuge” as a reference to the “little wing” of the temple.
A further point is that this temptation in Luke is immediately followed by the synagogue (not temple) in Nazareth attempting to put the temptation into practice:
Luke 4:12-13,29-30 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time… 28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.
Putting the devil’s quotation of Psalm 91, the Nazareth attempt to throw Jesus down, together with the late Jewish Messianic tradition found in Pesiqta Rabbati, there seems a fairly clear case that the expectation that this idea was something Jesus had already heard before he entered the wilderness.