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Bible Q

Does an internal or external tempter in the wilderness affect how we understand Jesus?

The issue of an internal or external tempter is not limited to belief or non-belief in the fallen-angel devil developed in post-New Testament church traditions, but even among those who do not accept a fallen angel devil, the idea of an external tempter – a human following Jesus into the wilderness has been suggested. The question above is about whether it matters? The question could also be phrased as follows: Does an internal or external tempter for Jesus affect how well we know Jesus?

Jesus said:

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)

So evidently to know Jesus is important. And since our main source are the New Testament records, to attempt to know Jesus also requires us to attempt to understand what the Bible, and in particular the 4 Gospels, tell us about Jesus.

40 days – all in the mind?

The question of an external tempter relates primarily to the accounts of the 40 days wilderness temptations related by Matthew, and also in a slightly different version by Luke. The dramatic dialogues of these temptations are a dialogue with someone external. But then that is a function of the dialogue. And as these accounts originate (as Luke tells us) from eyewitness accounts, that can only mean that these dialogues between Jesus and the devil are something that Jesus himself taught to the disciples, including Matthew. So the dramatic encounter with an external tempter comes not from Matthew, nor from the disciples interviewed by Luke, but is a dialogue reported by Jesus himself. So Jesus is depicting the temptations in this dialogue as external.

The problem is that that only tells us what we already know. That Jesus presented his temptations as a trial with a being called Satan. Which is stating the obvious. It is also obvious to see the Satan character is the dialogue told by Jesus to the disciples about himself is drawn on the Satan character found twice in the Old Testament (in two post-exilic books: Job 1 and Zechariah 3). Jesus’ Satan bears more resemblance to the Satan in Zechariah’s parable-vision. To Matthew and Luke’s Greek-speaking readers the contest between Diabolos vs Iesous would be identical to the names Diabolos vs Iesous used in Zechariah 3 in their Greek Old Testaments. But that still doesn’t help us understand what Jesus really experienced.

We know that Jesus wants us to know him. John 17:3 is not the only verse that states this. Knowing Jesus, expressed as “the name of Jesus”, is the most basic theme of the Good News. So what did Jesus want his disciples to know from telling this dialogue in this way?

Long before the 40 days Jesus already fully understood what the people wanted from him

One of the most evident things about the temptation of 40 days is how predictable they were. The three things the devil offered: bread, the temple, the kingdom, are evidently all things that Jesus knew that the people wanted before the 40 days. In fact it would be natural to see in Luke’s description of the 12 year old Jesus amazing the old men at the Temple, that at the age of 12 Jesus was already beginning to understand his people as much as John concludes the chapter before the night visit of Nicodemus:

23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23)

We have to note here that despite the temptations of manna, miracle at the Temple and taking the kingdom by force reoccur in John from the mouth of “the Jews”, what John 2:25 says here is about the temptations that are “in man”, in Adam, in all humans.

What does that mean then in terms of an internal or external tempter affecting how truly we really know Jesus?

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