Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lent: The Story Behind the Tradition

Today (Feb 25th) is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian holiday of Lent. Lent occurs forty days before the major Christian holiday of Easter and is used as a time for fasting. Traditionally, a religious fast involves giving up food and water and relying solely on God’s grace to sustain you. However, today most Christians simply give up something of value or enjoyment such as TV or video games, a certain snack food or even sex.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the ancient practice of marking ones face with ashes as a sign of humility and penitence. The tradition of Lent itself is derived from the New Testament tale of how Jesus fasted for “forty days and forty night” in the wilderness while being tempted by the devil, though this feat actually took place at the beginning of his ministry rather than forty days before the end of it.

This story, commonly referred to as Jesus’ Temptation, can be found in the Gospel of Mark (1:12-13), the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11), and the Gospel of Luke (4:1-13). These three gospels, known to scholars as the Synoptic Gospels, are the only places in the Bible where this tale is told. The Gospel of John (circa. 90-100 C.E.) is silent in regards to this story as are Pauline and the other apostolic letters.

Lastly, please note that this essay is written from a scholarly view point. This means that I will not be treating the Bible as the “Word of God” but rather as a collection of myths (sacred cultural stories) and histories written down by mortal men. I will also be championing the current scholarly opinion that the authors of the four New Testament gospels were not the men whose names they bear but were rather anonymous early Christians who neither knew Jesus personally nor witnessed his ministry first hand. Finally, all dates are rendered in the standard scholarly format of B.C.E., Before Common Era, and C.E., Common Era, rather than the traditional Christian inspired B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini.)

Mark’s Simplified Version

The Gospel of Mark (circa. 70 C.E.) is the oldest of the New Testament gospels having been written roughly fifty-years after Jesus’ death. For this reason it is widely considered to be the most reliable of the New Testament writings concerning the factual happenings of Jesus’ life. In addition to being an extremely straightforward work, Mark’s gospel contains no miraculous birth story, very few extravagant miracles (no turning water into wine, killing fig trees by cursing them, or raising the dead) and no account of the resurrection. Over all the author of Mark’ gospel is one who likes to keep things simple.

This is especially evident when it comes to the tale of Jesus’ encounter with and subsequent temptation by the devil, an account which takes up a full eleven verses in Matthew’s gospel and thirteen in Luke’s but only occupies two verses in Mark…

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

- Gospel of Mark (1:12-13)

It is important to note that Mark’s author dose not tell us how many times Satan tempted Jesus or what the temptations were. What this indicates is that either these details were not known to Mark’s author or that they had not yet been invented. If the latter is the case then we can understand that even though the basic framework for the temptation was in place in the year 70 C.E. the mythological details would not be filled in until ten years later in 80 C.E. with the penning of Matthew’s gospel.

Differences and Discrepancies in Matthew and Luke

As is so common when studying the Gospel of Matthew (circa. 80 C.E.) and the Gospel of Luke (circa. 90 C.E.) we find that both authors agree in theme but not in details. Both agree that Jesus was lead into the wilderness by the “Spirit” for “forty days” where he was tempted by the devil three times. They do not agree, however, on the order of these temptations, the exact challenge of the first temptation, or on how the affair finally ended.

In regards to the order in which the temptation were given both authors agree that Satan first challenges a hungry Jesus to miraculously provide food for himself. However, they disagree on exactly what that challenged entailed. Matthew’s gospel says that the devil told Jesus to; “…command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt.4:3). Luke’s gospel, on the other hand, says that the devil told Jesus to; “…command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (Lk.4:3). Jesus, however, refuses to break his fast and quotes the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy; “‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Mt.4:4 & Lk.4:4)

Following this first temptation comes a second. According to Matthew’s author the devil takes Jesus to the very top of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem where he challenges him to “throw yourself down” and see if God sends his angels to catch him. To validate his challenge the devil quotes the 91st Psalm. However, Jesus rebukes him once again with another passage from Deuteronomy; “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Luke’s author, however, dissents. He writes that the second temptation involved the devil showing Jesus “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world” and offering them to him if he will only “worship me.” Naturally, Jesus declines with yet another quote from Deuteronomy; “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”

Luke dose not say how the devil showed Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world”, only that he “led him up” to do so. The author Matthew says that the devil took Jesus “to a very high mountain” for this temptation and it is here that we see yet another very strong indication that either Luke is using Matthew’s gospel as a source or that the two are both sharing a common source. Either way, both authors agree on the over all theme of the second and third temptation, one was to tempt Jesus’ loyalty to God, the other his hubris, even if they do not agree on the order in which these temptations took place.

Another interesting contradiction is the way in which Matthew and Luke's authors depict Jesus' adversary; the devil. Matthew's author depicts Satan as a tempter in a manner similar to that of an annoying friend who keeps trying to use peer pressure to talk you into doing something and who Jesus eventually is forced to tell off; “Away with you, Satan!” (Matt.4:10). Luke’s author, on the other hand, stresses the test aspect of Jesus’ encounter with the devil. Luke’s Satan offers Jesus challenges rather than temptations and leaves on his own occurred once Jesus has successfully; “finished every test” (Lk.4:13).

Forty-Days and Forty-Nights: A Homage to the Hebrew Bible

“He was in the wilderness forty days…”
- Mark 1:13

“He fasted forty days and forty nights…” - Matthew 4:2

“…where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” - Luke 4:2

One thing which all three of synoptic gospels do agree on, however, is that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting for; “forty days.” However, Matthew’s gospel is just a tad more specific in that it specifies that Jesus was in the wilderness for; “forty days and forty nights”, a phrase which may sound familiar to those acquainted with the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament.

The phrase “forty days and forty nights” appears nine times in the Hebrew Bible. The first time is in the Book of Genesis where we are told that God flooded the Earth for “forty days and forty nights” (Gen.7:4 & 7:12) in an attempt to purge sin from the world. The second time we hear this phrase is in the Book of Exodus where we find Moses atop Mt. Sinai for “forty days and forty nights” (Ex.24:18 & 34:28) receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The third and final time is in the Book of 1st Kings where we read that the prophet Elijah traveled for “forty days and forty nights” (1 Ki.19:8) to Mt. Horeb where he spoke with God.

As has been dually noted by other scholars in the past the author of the Gospel of Matthew has quite a penchant for drawing references between the Hebrew Bible stories and the life of Jesus. More quotes from the Hebrew Bible appear in the Gospel of Matthew than any other New Testament gospel. In addition to this, a careful study of the New Testament’s tales of Jesus shows that from the very beginning a conscious connection was made in the minds of Jesus’ followers between their Messiah and the figures of Moses and Elijah. Thus it is not surprising that in addition to other biblical parallels we should also find Jesus also spending “forty days and forty nights” in the wilderness communing with God just as Moses and Elijah did.

Cross Cultural Parallels

On the other side of the world and some five-hundred-years prior to Jesus’ trial in the wilderness another young religious reformer had a nearly identical experience. This young reformer was an Indian prince who had left his family and wealth behind to seek enlightenment near the Gaya River beneath a Bo tree. Named Siddhartha Gautama, but better known the world over as the Lord Buddha, legend has it that temptation came to him in the form of a powerful demon called Mara (lit. “life stealer”).

Like Satan in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mara offers Siddhartha three temptation in the form of his three daughters; Lust, Restlessness and Greed. Because Siddhartha’s goal was to reach enlightenment and thus find a cure for the world’s greed the third temptation is particularly interesting. According to the Buddhist scripture Samyutta Nikaya. 4:2:10, Mara told Siddhartha to use his spiritual powers to turn the Himalayas into gold so as to quench mankind’s greed. Siddhartha, of course, declines just as Jesus declined to turn stones into bread to quench his own physical hunger.

After failing to tempt Siddhartha, Mara attempts to frighten him with thunder clouds and then by hurling a barrage of weapons at him. However, both of these attempts also fail and Siddhartha reaches enlightenment. Two gods then appear before Siddhartha, now the Buddha, and Mara and demand that Mara depart. These gods then request that the Buddha go forth and preach the revelation that the universe has delivered unto him. This two is similar to the story of Jesus in how we are told by both Mark (1:11) and Matthew (4:11) that Jesus was waited on by angels.

Where This Leaves Us

In the end one can see that the tale of the Temptation of Jesus is obviously a much more complex and highly mythologized tale than many of us give it credit for. Its role in the Gospel’s retelling of the life of Jesus is to show us that all men, no matter how great, struggle with temptation but that it can be overcome if only we look towards God. The holiday of Lent is meant to pull us away from the world, if only a small cherished part of it, and closer to God which has been the quest of great spiritual men of all faiths for thousands of years.


Top Right: A girl celebrates Ash Wednesday by having her forehead marked with ashes drawn in the sign of the cross.

Left: Gustave Doré's (1832-1883) The Temptation of Jesus.

Center: The "wilderness" which Jesus was tempted in has traditionally been identified as the desert Jeshimon, a name which literally translates as "the devastation." The ancient Jews and Helens feared the wilderness not only because of its lack of food and water but because it was also believed to be the haunt of various ghosts, demons and ghouls.

Bottom: The Temptation of Buddha


All scripture is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version Holy Bible (1989), Oxford University Press.

The World's Religions (1958) by Huston Smith, Don't Know Much About the Bible (1998) by Kenneth C. Davis, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994) by John Dominic Crossan, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994) and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (2001) by Marcus J. Borg, Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (1997) by Marcus J. Borg and Ray Rieger, The Birth of Satan (2005) by T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley.

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