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Red Letter Edition

Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University





Mark  1:12-13 Matt 4:1-11 Luke 4:1-13
    1 Jesus departed
    from the Jordan
    full of the holy spirit
12 And right away 1 Then and
the spirit drives him out Jesus was guided was guided by the spirit
into the desert. into the desert into the desert,
  by the spirit  
13 And he was in the desert   2 where
for forty days,    
being put to the test to be put to the test he was put to the test
by Satan. by the devil. by the devil
    for forty days.
  2 And after he had fasted He ate nothing
  forty days and forty nights, that whole time;
    and when it was all over,
  he was famished. he was famished.
  3 And the tester 3 The devil
  confronted him  
  and said, said to him,
  "To prove you are "To prove you are
  God's son, God's son,
  order these stones order this stone
  to turn into bread." to turn into bread."
  4 He responded, 4 Jesus responded to him,
  "It is written, "It is written,
  'human beings 'human beings
  shall not live on bread alone, shall not live on bread alone.'"
  but on every word  
  that comes from  
  God's mouth.'"  
    5 Then
    he took Jesus up,
    and in an instant of time
    showed him all the empires
    of the civilized world.
    6 The devil said to him,
    "I'll give you authority
    over all this
    and the glory
    that comes with it;
    it has been turned over to me,
    and I can give it
    to anyone I want.
    7 So, if you will
    pay homage to me,
    it will all be yours."
    8 Jesus responded,
    "'It is written,
    'You shall pay homage
    to the Lord your God,
    and him alone
    shall you revere.'"
  5 Then 9 Then
  the devil conducts him he took him
  to the holy city, to Jerusalem
  sets him on the high point set him on the high point
  of the temple, of the temple,
  6 And says to him, and said to him,
  "To prove you are "To prove you are
  God's son, God's son,
  jump off; jump off from here;
  remember, it is written: 10 remember, it is written:
  ' to his heavenly messengers ' to his heavenly messengers
  he will give orders about you.' he will give orders about you
    to protect you'
  and and
  'With their hands 'With their hands
  they will catch you, they will catch you,
  so you won't even so you won't even
  stub your toe stub your toe
  on a stone.'" on a stone.'"
    12 And in response
  7 Jesus said to him, Jesus said to him,
  it is written, "It is said,
  'You shall not put 'You shall not put
  the Lord your God the Lord your God
  to the test.'" to the test.'"
  8 Again  
  the devil takes him  
  to a very high mountain  
  and shows him  
  all the empires  
  of the world  
  and their splendor,  
  9 and says to him,  
  "I'll give you all these,  
  if you kneel down  
  and pay homage to me."  
  10 Finally  
  Jesus says to him,  
  "Get out of here, Satan!  
  it is written,  
  'You shall pay homage  
  to the Lord your God,  
  and him alone  
  shall you revere.'"  
  Then the devil 13 So when the devil
    had tried every kind of test,
  leaves him, he let him alone
    for the time being.
And he was among    
the wild animals,    
and the heavenly messengers and heavenly messengers  
  arrive out of nowhere  
looked after him. and look after him.  


Each synoptic gospel reports Jesus underwent an extended ordeal in the wilderness after his baptism. Mark, however, does not mention what testing he underwent or even tell how he did. This is surprising since Mark calls the source of Jesus' ordeal "Satan," the Hebrew name for an adversary.  Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, sketch a three scene dialog in which Jesus silences "the devil" by quoting scripture.


Q's collection of Jesus' sayings was prefaced by a dialogue designed to illustrate his loyalty to the God of Israel.  The graphic narrative is not a typical Q passage.  Yet, an editor included this trio of stylized scenes to assure readers that Jesus did not obey the devil.  That issue is the focus of a debate reported later in Q: the so-called Beelzebul controversy.  There opponents accuse Jesus of being an agent of 'the head demon' (Luke 11:15//Matt 12:24).  Q's original rebuttal to that charge was a string of sayings that will be examined in detail below.  The report of Jesus' testing is designed to head off that charge.  It is so obviously artificial, however, that it tells more about the composition of Q than it does about the historical Jesus.


The brief dialogue in this rapid series of tests provided the first direct impressions of Jesus in the copies of Q known to Matthew and Luke.  Twice the devil challenges Jesus to perform prodigious feats (turn stones to bread, jump from the temple top) to prove that he is God's son (Matt 4:3,6//Luke 4:3,9).  Twice he refuses.  Then he is challenged to become ruler of the world.  Again he declines.

The dramatic tension in these scenes was far greater in Q than in their current context in the synoptic Gospels, since Q did not provide readers with privileged foreknowledge that God was Jesus' father.  Except for the opening words of John the Baptist, Q did not describe scenes in which Jesus does not speak.   So, it had no account of either Jesus' birth or baptism. Writers of all the synoptic gospels rendered the report of Jesus' testing anticlimactic by prefacing it with a divine declaration at his baptism: 'You are my favored son' (Mark 1:11).  The birth stories in Matthew and Luke make Jesus' loyalty to God seem even more inevitable.  Q's editor, however, preserved the suspense, letting Jesus identify himself by his response to the devil's challenges.


Q's account of Jesus' ordeal marked him as a hero to audiences of the ancient Mediterranean world.  Classical folklore used super-human tests to establish a hero's credentials.  Often he was sent out on a quest.  Jason had to recover the golden fleece before he could claim his rightful throne.  Theseus had to penetrate the Labyrinth and slay the Minotaur to free Athens from foreign tyranny.  Herakles (Hercules) had to perform twelve terrible tasks to attain personal tranquility.

In form, Jesus' testing is a miniature of such tales: his itinerary separates him from ordinary mortals, proving his mettle in encounters that challenge both his endurance and wits.  But the details of Jesus' journey, in both Q and Mark, were drawn from Judaic lore rather than Greco-Roman myths.


The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar were unanimous in voting not to include any of Q's dialogue among things that Jesus probably said because what happened to Jesus in private cannot be verified.

Not by bread alone % Red Pink Grey Black WA Print
Luke 4:4
Matt 4:4
Not test God              
Luke 4:12
Matt 4:7
Revere God alone              
Luke 4:8
Matt 4:10

Elsewhere there is good evidence that Jesus was drawn to John, who probably baptized in the Jordan valley.  Thus, most Fellows were inclined to grant that Jesus probably spent a period in the surrounding wilderness.  Yet, the report of his testing is modeled on classical legends; and the terms used by both Q and Mark come from the world of traditional Judaic lore.


There is hardly any element of Q's version of Jesus' ordeal that does not parallel some passage from Hebrew scripture.  Both dialogue and setting primarily echo Deuteronomy, particularly in the opening and closing scenes.  Some parallels are straight forward.  Jesus' reported forty-day wilderness trek, for instance, deliberately echoes this classic description of Israel's own period of initiation:

Recall all the trek that Yahweh your God made you walk these forty years in the wilderness to humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart: would you keep his commands or not?
         --Deut 8:2

It also suggests a parallel to the mountain retreat where Moses learned God’s law:

When I climbed the mountain to get the stone slabs, the slabs containing the covenant that Yahweh made with you, I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I did not eat bread or drink wine.
          --Deut 9:9

Other details invite comparison with incidents in which Israel's trust in Yahweh failed. For example, the devil's first challenge to Jesus (produce bread!) is reminiscent of Israel's initial complaint after leaving Egypt--- 'You led us out into this wilderness to kill the whole community with hunger' (Exod 16:3)---a challenge that God countered by producing 'bread from heaven' (Exod 16:4).

Some parallels are more subtle. The mountain setting of the devil's third challenge (pay homage to me!) conjures the specter of Israel worshipping the golden calf at the foot of mount Sinai. Ironically, the devil's words in this scene mimic God's own promise in a messianic psalm:

I will announce Yahweh's decree:
Yahweh told me: 'You are my son; I conceived you as of today.
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance
and the ends of the earth your property'
          -- Ps 2:7-8

Rather than accept the classical hero's role, however, Q has Jesus respond to these challenges simply by repeating sayings that Deuteronomy credits to Moses:

Deut 8:3 ...human beings do not live by bread alone
but by every word that comes out of the LORD's mouth.
Deut 6:16 You shall not put the LORD your God to the test....
Deut 6:13 You shall fear the LORD your God and you shall serve him.
Deut 5:9 You shall not pay homage to them or worship them,
for I am the LORD your God.

Such quotations were obviously designed to show that Jesus was devoted to the God of Israel.  But the quotation formula itself ("it is written") was a stock phrase among Judaic scribes and not typical of Jesus' own style.


Q's dialogue was clearly composed for a Greek-speaking audience.  Its name for Jesus' adversary ('devil') was a common Greek term for an accuser, not the Hebrew 'Satan' preferred by Mark. Moreover, the biblical quotes ascribed to Jesus and his opponent are taken straight from the standard Greek translation of Judaic scripture, called the Septuagint (LXX), that was used in Hellenistic synagogues. So, these are certainly not Jesus' own words; nor are they typical of him.

How much Greek an itinerant Galilean sage like Jesus could speak is a question still debated by scholars. While many first-century urban Judeans were fluent in Greek, Aramaic was generally spoken in rural villages of the Roman province of Palestine, which were home to Jesus and his followers. In the Mediterranean world, which had been dominated by Hellenistic culture for more than three centuries, rural Judeans who traveled or engaged in commerce could use some street Greek (koiné). But even if Jesus was fluent in Greek, he probably lacked enough formal education to be able to read it. If he could recite passages of Judaic scripture by heart---and even this is debatable---, it would have been in a Semitic version: i.e., Hebrew or, more likely, an Aramaic paraphrase.  That would certainly be true in situations of private meditation, like this wilderness retreat. Any Jew or Christian might quote Deuteronomy; but only a person educated in Greek would cite texts verbatim from the LXX.


The origin of Jesus' dialogue with the devil remains a puzzle for scholars to debate. The passage is not typical of Q, but Q is its most likely source.  Many regard it as an addition to Q by a later scribe.  Whether it was that scribe's creation or had an earlier oral circulation is not certain.  Matthew and Luke clearly knew this passage in writing, since both reproduced the Greek text of Q with few editorial changes.  Mark hints at such an exchange between Jesus and Satan but just sketches the setting. Different interpretations of these facts may be plausible.  But no solution to this literary puzzle can turn Q's dialogue with the devil into a reliable piece of historical evidence about Jesus.

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  • This report was composed in 1991 to introduce lay readers to the results of the Jesus' Seminar's voting on the probable authenticity of sayings ascribed to Jesus in Q.  That projected volume was abandoned when the author's notes on Q were incorporated into the Jesus Seminar report on all Five Gospels (1993).  These pages are published here for the first time.

  • All gospel quotations are from the new Scholars Version Translation.

  • Hypertext links to this web page are welcome. But the contents may not be reproduced or posted elsewhere without the express written consent of the author.

- last revised 03 March 2023 -

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