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Sec. 2.—Explanations which recognise a Historical Basis of the Narrative.

The explanations according to which our narrative records an actual occurrence may be divided into two classes. First, there are those which regard the event related as something which took place inwardly in the soul of Jesus; and those which regard it as something external, as an actual transaction between the Lord Jesus and the tempter. Now, certain as it is, that if a real temptation took place, we shall be constrained to suppose also an actual agitation in the soul of Jesus; yet the idea of a purely internal occurrence by no means comes up to the meaning of the evangelists. We shall thus be necessitated to acknowledge that there was something really objective in the transaction. But before proceeding to make this more evident, we will briefly test the opinion that the temptation was only of a spiritual and internal character.

This view appears in three different forms. The event internally experienced may be regarded either as a vision or as a dream, or it may be viewed as the sum-total of certain seductive thoughts which came before the mind of Jesus when in a state of perfect consciousness. Each of these different possibilities has been adopted; but with so little success, that we need not devote much space to their discussion.

The idea of a vision or ecstasy introduces an element of 285fancifulness and extravagance entirely opposed to all that we read elsewhere of the clearness and self-possession which characterized the enthusiasm of Jesus, subjects Him to an alien and evil power, and is entirely without analogy in the rest of the Gospel history. Besides, this view makes the evil and seducing images arise from the soul of Jesus, and thus represents that soul itself as defiled. This applies also to the dream hypothesis.365365   See Meyer, die Versuchung Christi als bedeutungsvoller Traum; Theol. Stud. u. Krit. 1831-32, pp. 319-329. It is true that analogies for this may easily be found in Bible history, though such significant dreams as may be adduced will be found to present an entirely different character, and always to be decidedly defined and limited as dreams, while in the present narrative there is nothing to indicate where the supposed dream begins and where it breaks off. Besides, a temptation in a dream is virtually no temptation for consciousness and self-control enter into the very notion of the testing and proving of any man. If the conflict was dreamt, so was the victory and thus the narrative loses all its meaning.

Among the interpretations which belong to this category, the one which appears most plausible; is that which represents the whole occurrence as a mental one, experienced, however, neither in a state of dream or ecstasy, but undergone in a condition of full consciousness. According to this view, the whole stress must be laid upon the testing of the Messianic character of Jesus, and it must be supposed that He, before entering upon His public ministry, vividly realized the false and carnal idea of the Messiah which was prevalent in the world around Him and yet, notwithstanding the attractions it presented, both sensible and spiritual, entirely, rejected it, and decided upon a life of activity in the way appointed by God. This inward experience Jesus is supposed to have afterwards communicated to the disciples 286in the more intelligible form of an outward objective and personal temptation, in which He holds up to their view the process of thought through which He passed. In this form His communication forms a component part of the evangelistic record of Jesus as the Messiah.366366   Compare Hocheisen, Tübinger Zeitschrift, 1833, 2, p. 124.

In support of this view, there may be quoted from Scripture objective representations, whose character is, in like manner if not in equal degree, symbolical; and reference may be made to the fact, that inward experiences have always and everywhere been presented in a figurative form as outward facts. It must also be admitted that this explanation allows of a higher degree of actual temptation than do those above referred to. And yet it has great defects, and cannot be regarded as in any way exhaustive of the meaning of the text. It is not enough to confine the trial to the Messianic character of Jesus. We must, if the temptation is to be a real one, keep in view also His general human nature. Besides, without destroying the Gospel image of Jesus, we cannot concede that the temptation arose only from His own soul. It must have come to Him from without,—from a real, objective source. Thus only can the meaning of the Gospel narrative be preserved, for this would never have intended to symbolize, by the person of Satan, thoughts which arose from the soul of Jesus; and in our explanation of the whole, we must not do violence to this intention of the evangelists.

If, then, we accept the narrative of the evangelists simply as it lies before us, it will appear indisputably evident that what we have to do with here is an external event, which, however, from its very nature, powerfully affected the soul of Jesus. Further, the idea of the evangelists is evidently that of a personal tempter acting upon Jesus from without, in order to seduce Him from the path which was pleasing to God, and especially from that way which, as Messiah, God 287had ordained for Him to walk in. Some who have acknowledged this, but who at the same time have disliked the idea of the tempter having been the devil, have endeavoured to substitute for him some human tempter,367367   This opinion is supported at length in the above-cited article of the Tübingen Quartalschrift. whether an individual or a body of men, and have imagined that it was by a priest or a Pharisee, or by a deputation from the Sanhedrim, that the seductive propositions were made to Jesus.368368   Lange has attempted a very peculiar combination in his Leben Jesu (Pt. i. vol. ii. § 7, p. 205), a book in which so many ingenious theories are advocated. On the one hand, he agrees with those who view the transaction as an internal temptation of Jesus, resulting from the national and secular spirit, especially the prevalent and false Messianic notions of the age. At the same time, he insists that this influence was brought to bear upon Him by means of certain external temptations. It is in the deputation of the Sanhedrim to John the Baptist (John i. 24) to demand an explanation of His nature and office, that he finds the connecting link between the external and the internal. This deputation, having their attention directed to Jesus by the Baptist, he supposes to have sought Him in the wilderness, and to have made the attempt of gaining Him over to their own hierarchical aims. Thus this hierarchy, with their seductive proposals, form only the prominent historical feature of the occurrence, and are the outward instruments of a temptation which, in its deeper source and its whole contrivance, we cannot but regard as satanic (see note on p. 219). This combination gives just prominence to the fact that the transaction must not be regarded as a merely external one, because if there was to be a real temptation, there must be an entrance of the seductive ideas into the soul of Jesus. But if we maintain an objective seducing power, this entrance of ideas must be called the subjective aspect of the temptation, and not be distinguished as an internal from an external temptation. Besides, there is no actual ground for supposing with Lange, that the external element was furnished by the Pharisaic deputation to John, for we are left without the slightest allusion to any intercourse between Jesus and the Pharisees in this respect; while if the interview in question had really taken place, it would have been of so far greater importance than that with the Baptist, that it could scarcely have been passed by unnoticed in the Gospel history. And, lastly, such a view of the narrative of the temptation is anything but in keeping with the whole tenor. of the narrative; the notion especially of a plurality of tempters is entirely at variance with the representation of the single agency of Satan. But the simple words and meaning of Scripture preclude such an idea. Occurring without the article, the word διάβολος might mean a tempter generally, whether human or otherwise, but with the article it can only be understood of the chief of evil spirits and the same is true of πειράζων with the article. Besides, in the mouth of a man these temptations would be strange, preposterous, inadmissible, especially the demand to be worshipped, and the promise of dominion conjoined therewith. In a word, this explanation is so little 288in accordance with the view of antiquity and the spirit of Scripture, that it ought to be entirely dismissed as the heterogeneous production of modern opinion.

Accordingly, nothing remains to us but to understand the tempter to be Satan, as the evangelists represent. And then we have the following alternative presented to us: either we must deny the historical credibility of the Gospel account, and regard the whole as a myth; or, admitting its trustworthiness, we must take the record as it is given us, and endeavour to render it intelligible. When we reflect upon the entire character of the Gospels and their contents, as well as upon those expressions which on other occasions fell from the lips of our Lord Himself, we have no hesitation in deciding upon the latter alternative, and shall accordingly, without any pretension to exhaustive argument, make a few remarks on this view of the subject.369369   The view of the whole as a temptation by Satan in person is defended by Olshausen, Biblical Commentary, vol. i. p. 169 (Clark’s For. Theol. Lib.). His explanation, however, can scarcely be considered a strictly literal one, since he admits only an internal influence of the devil, and that only upon the soul of Christ, while His spirit remains unaffected thereby. The supposition that Jesus was during this occurrence deserted by the Divine Spirit, must be rejected as being contrary to Matt. iv. 1. Another advocate of the literal interpretation, though in a somewhat extraordinary position, is D. Paul Ewald (die Versuchung Christi, Bayreuth 1838), answered in the Theol. Lit. Blatt. Feb. 1841, No. XX. Finally, we may also mention Ebrard, in the Wissenschaftl. Kritik. p. 298, who maintains without further explanation the visible appearance of Satan; and Briggenbach (Leben Jesu, pp. 275, etc.), who treats this very question at greater length.


Against the personal appearance of Satan the following objections have been urged—not to mention the general scruples entertained against admitting his existence at all, which have unmistakeably influenced those who have advanced them. The bodily appearance, or speaking of Satan, it is said, is never elsewhere mentioned in the New Testament. His personal appearance, even if disguised in a human form (to which the text makes no allusion), must at once have taken from the temptation all its attractions; for the Son of God must have recognised him at a glance.370370   De Wette, Exeget. llandbuch, i. 87. Besides, if we are to take the narrative in its strictly literal sense, many other difficulties arise which it is by no means easy to set aside. If Jesus followed the devil willingly to the mountain and to the pinnacle of the temple, then the will of the devil determined His will; if against His will, then was He in the power of the devil, in a manner which we cannot possibly admit. Again, are not the temptations of too gross a nature to have been suggested by the subtlest of spirits? And how is the showing Him all the kingdoms of the world to be understood? Here at least we must depart from the literal interpretation; and if here, where are we to stop?

These and similar questions might be raised in goodly number; and in truth they cannot all be so answered as to remove every difficulty. We must not forget that we have here to do with a subject about which, from its very nature, there must ever hang a certain amount of obscurity. Our general answer is as follows:—Without entering at present upon infer and weighty reasons whose discussion would lead us too far from our, more immediate object, we cannot but admit that a belief in a kingdom of evil spirits, and a ruler thereof, as well as of the influence of both upon mankind, is an important part of the teaching of our Lord and His apostles. This is too expressly laid down to allow us to 290suppose that the expressions of the New Testament on this subject are used merely in deference to contemporary notions and expressions, or that they are to be regarded as, in any sense of the word, a mere accommodation. Whoever, then, receives the doctrine not merely of the apostles, but especially of Jesus Himself, must receive this portion of it along with the rest. Now, if the existence of the devil and the possibility of his influence over men be admitted, the fact that he actually tempted our Lord also, far from presenting insuperable difficulties, will rather possess a peculiar significance. And its significance consists not merely in what has been already referred to,—viz. that Jesus, in conquering Satan, proved Himself victorious over the principle and the power of evil in general,—but further, in the consideration, whose full meaning is first fully brought out by this narrative, that ‘it was a personal will which Jesus repelled and conquered.’371371   Martensen’s Christliche Dogmatik, § 105. Undoubtedly there are temptations which come from things or from persons, without their conscious will. But where, as in the case before us, there is temptation in a preeminent degree, we shall find ourselves obliged to admit that the seductive influence does not proceed from an unconscious agent, but from a determined purpose to lead astray,—from the will of the tempter. And to this the evangelical narrative makes express allusion.

Now, if we admit this, we shall have to understand the case as the narrative presents it to us. In other words, even though we maintain the historical character of the narrative, we yet distinguish very decidedly between a recognition of its essential reality and a literal interpretation of every detail. It is evident that the narrative cannot be taken in its strictly literal sense, as is indeed proved by the one fact that there is no mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. There is undoubtedly somewhat of a symbolical 291character in the manner in which the facts are represented.372372   Comp. Neander’s Leben Jesu, fifth ed. pp. 113 and 122 (Eng. Trans. in Bohn’s Lib. 1852, pp. 74, 77). Pictures are here held up to the imagination,—powerfully drawn and significant pictures,—in order to impress upon it as strongly as possible the fundamental truths of the history. Hence it happens that to modern taste the temptations appear coarse and unskilful. That they have, nevertheless, a very important meaning, and are in perfect keeping with the circumstances in which our Lord was then placed, has, we hope, been sufficiently shown by our previous exposition. The visible appearance of Satan, and the different situations in which Jesus is presented to us with regard to him in the different temptations, may, however, partly belong to the symbolical part of the history. At least, without doing any violence to its substantial truth, we may easily conceive that the agency employed was of a more spiritual nature than the letter of the narrative describes, and that those mental experiences, for which it was impossible to find any adequate expression in words, were delineated in that manner in which alone they could be generally understood, viz. in a series of powerful and striking pictures, which suggest even deeper truths than they exhibit.

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