May 14: Mark 1:12; Matt 4:1; Lk 4:1

Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1

Following the account of Jesus’ baptism (see yesterday’s note), we find another reference to the (Holy) Spirit, in Mark 1:12:

“And straight away [i.e. immediately] the Spirit casts him out into the desolate (land).”

The use of the verb e)kba/llw (“cast/throw out”) seems rather harsh here, and this perhaps explains the different wording in Matthew/Luke (cf. below). However, in the narrative context it is appropriate in several respects:

    • It emphasizes the (forceful) power and authority of God’s Spirit
    • It stresses the abruptness and immediacy of the action—in Mark this takes place “right away” (eu)qu/$) after the baptism
    • It effectively encapsulates the difficulty and trial Jesus is forced to face at the beginning of his ministry

In verse 13 we read: “And he was in the desolate (land) forty days, being tested under [i.e. by] the Satan, and he was with the wild animals and the (heavenly) Messengers attended him”. Matthew and Luke, of course, give an expanded account of this “testing”, in a brief and dramatic dialogue form (Matt 4:2-10 / Luke 4:2b-13, part of the so-called “Q” tradition). Matthew preserves the (Markan) detail of the helping Angels (Matt 4:11b).

Matthew and Luke each record the initial action by the Spirit differently:

“Then Yeshua was led up into the desolate (land) under the Spirit, to be tested under [i.e. by] the Accuser.” (Matt 4:1)
“And Yeshua, full of the holy Spirit, turned back from the Yarden {Jordan} and was led in the Spirit in the desolate (land), being tested under [i.e. by] the Accuser for forty days.” (Luke 4:1-2a)

They both use a form of the verb a&gw (“lead, bring”), which can also have a more forceful connotation (i.e., “carry, drive,” etc), but here it is probably the leading/guiding presence and power of the Spirit that is meant. As Matthew and Luke describe the testing of Jesus in some detail, there is less reason to speak of his being cast/thrust out into the desert; rather, in this context there is greater importance to the idea of the guiding (and protecting) role of the Spirit. The image of the desolate land or “desert” (e&rhmo$) is also significant, full of symbolism from ancient Israelite and Old Testament tradition; there is a two-fold aspect:

    • as a place where prophets and people encounter God—e.g., Hosea 2:14-15, and of course the Exodus/Sinai tradition as a whole; cf. also 1 Kings 19, etc.
    • as a place of dangerous beasts and deities (“demons”/evil spirits)—Lev 16:10; Isa 13:21; 34:14, etc.

For Jesus, it is primarily a place of testing under the power and influence of the Adversary or Evil One, called according to the two traditional titles:

    • Hebrew /f*c* (´¹‰¹n), an opponent or adversary, especially in the context of one who brings a charge or accusation in (the heavenly) court. Though rare in the Old Testament, there is certainly evidence for the tradition of a specific heavenly being who takes this role (Job 1:6-7; 2:1-2, 4, 7; Zech 3:1-2), becoming much more common and prominent in texts of the post-exilic period. This word is typically transliterated in English (“Satan”), and often in Greek as well (Satana=$, as in Mk 1:12).
    • Greek dia/bolo$ (diábolos), literally one who “casts through” or “throws across” (from the verb diaba/llw), usually in terms of creating separation or opposition; specifically, the verb was often used in the negative (hostile) sense of accusation, slander, misrepresentation, deception, etc. In English idiom, we might say “one who casts suspicion”, “one who spreads lies”, etc. As a title, it is customarily transliterated into English as “Devil”.

The Spirit in Luke 3-4

There is a greater emphasis on the Spirit in Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

    • Lk 4:1a—”And Yeshua, full [plh/rh$] of the holy Spirit, turned back from the Yarden {Jordan}…”
      The adjective plh/rh$ (“full, filled [with]”) is especially common in Luke-Acts, with the expression “full of the Spirit” also occurring in Acts 6:3, 5; 7:55; 11:24. For a similar expression with the related verb plh/qw, cf. Luke 1:15, 41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9.
    • Lk 4:1b-2—”…and he was led in the Spirit in the desolate land forty days, being tested…”
      For Jesus and believers being “in [e)n] the Spirit”, cf. Luke 2:27; 10:21; Acts 19:21; note also Lk 1:17, 80. The idea of being led by the Spirit is common in the New Testament, though the specific expression occurs only rarely (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18).
    • Luke 4:14—”And Yeshua turned back in the power of the Spirit into the Galîl {Galilee}…”
      For the important combination of the (Holy) Spirit and power (du/nami$), cf. Luke 1:35; Acts 1:8; 10:38, and also in Rom 1:4, etc; note also the juxtaposition in Lk 1:17.

This leads into the scene at Nazareth where Jesus reads from Isa 61:1f (Lk 4:18): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”. For the Spirit coming upon [e)pi/] Jesus and other believers, note the occurrences in Luke 1:35; 2:25; 3:22; Acts 1:8; 2:17-18; 10:44-45; 11:15; 19:6. There is a clear chiastic structure to the Holy Spirit references in Luke 3-4, demonstrating how integral the theme is to the overall narrative:

  • Lk 3:22—The Holy Spirit came down upon [e)pi/] him (Baptism/Anointing)
    • Lk 4:1a—He turned back [u(pe/streyen] full of the Spirit
      • Lk 4:1b-2in the Spirit in the desert—being led by the Spirit—testing by the Devil
    • Lk 4:14—He turned back [u(pe/streyen] in the power of the Spirit
  • Lk 4:18—The Spirit of the Lord is upon [e)pi/] him (Anointing)

March 1: Matt 4:1-11 par; 6:13; Lk 11:4

A traditional text from the Gospels for the First Sunday in Lent is the narrative of the Temptation of Jesus (parallel accounts in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, along with a brief summary note in Mark 1:12-13). The themes of fasting and renunciation—denial of self, submission to God’s will, and endurance of testing—were deemed especially applicable to the season of Lent. In many parts of the world, strict Lentan rules are still in force, though among Protestants seasonal fasting has largely disappeared. And, although the three temptations Jesus faces in the narrative are, in one sense, unique to his Person (“if you are the Son of God…”), believers may still follow his example and also gain strength by the account.

The narratives in Matthew and Luke are very close, and are generally regarded by critical scholars as deriving from the common collection of sayings and traditions designated as “Q” (Quelle, source). In any case, it is clear that a common tradition is at work. The greatest difference between the two involves the order of the temptations:


1.       In the desert (vv. 2-4)

2.       High mountain (vv. 5-8)

3.       Wing/pinnacle of the Temple (vv. 9-12)


1.       In the desert (vv. 2-3)

2.       Wing/pinnacle of the Temple (vv. 5-7)

3.       High mountain (vv. 8-10)

The order in Matthew is often considered more likely to be original, for two main reasons: (1) the gradual ascension from desert floor to high mountain, (2) the declaration ku/rion to\n qeo/n sou proskunh/sei$ kai\ au)tw=| mo/nw| latreu/sei$ (“you shall worship [lit. kiss toward] the Lord your God and he alone you shall serve”) is a more suitable climax. This may well be case; however, I tend to prefer the Lukan order: (1) the climax on top of the Temple in Jerusalem seems particularly appropriate in the context of the Gospels, (2) there seems to be an intensifying in the nature of the temptation:

    1. Satisfying physical need (hunger)
    2. Gaining Worldly power and ambition
    3. Testing God

Not surprisingly, a few (versional) manuscripts apparently modified Luke to match Matthew’s order, and there may well be a tendency so to harmonize the accounts; but this is entirely unnecessary. For here is truly an example where the differences between the Gospels are complementary, and both should be held up together as containing important points of emphasis.

For a moment I would like to turn to the brief account in Mark 1:12-13, where it states kai\ eu)qu\$ to\ pneu=ma au)to\n e)kba/llei ei)$ th\n e&rhmon, “and immediately the Spirit casts him out in the the desert…” This is quite striking (Matthew and Mark use very different language in their account), and for me it brings to mind the famous petition of the Lord’s Prayer kai\ mh\ ei)sene/gkh|$ h(ma=$ ei)$ peirasmo/n (“and you should not bring us into testing”), Luke 11:4b, and identical in Matthew 6:13a with the accompanying imperatival phrase a)lla\ r(u=sai h(ma=$ a)po\ tou= ponhrou= (“but drag us away [i.e. rescue us] from the evil”).  Here I find three major interpretive questions, which I will discuss briefly:

1. What is the precise meaning of peirasmo/$?

Generally the Greek word would be translated “test, testing, trial” (from peira/w, “attempt, try, try to do [something]”). It can have: (1) a general, or neutral sense; (2) a positive sense (i.e, of “proving” someone or something); or (3) a negative sense (i.e., temptation). In the New Testament, the negative sense is more common, and probably is so intended here; however, I would still caution against translating the word as “temptation”, for the more general English “test, testing” is a better fit—the overall context, not translation of individual words, ultimately determines the meaning. Certainly, the positive sense of testing/proving would seem unlikely: otherwise, why, indeed, would we pray for God not to lead us into it? Some scholars have thought that here peirasmo/$ refers to an eschatological testing or “tribulation” preceding the final Judgment; this is possible, but, I think also unlikely. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where ‘testing’ is mentioned in an eschatological context, the positive aspect of ‘proving’ (do/kimo$, doki/mion) is present (cf. 1 Peter 1:6; 4:12, etc). Here in the Lord’s Prayer, I would say that a sense of ‘testing’ involving sin, evil, and/or present suffering is required.

2. What does it mean then to “bring into” (ei)sfe/rw) testing?

The verb form (ei)sene/gkh|$) is a subjunctive, and not an imperative; however, the (aorist) subjunctive + mh/ takes on the force of a prohibition “you should not….” which is similar to an imperative. The petition is that God should not bring (or lead) us into testing; but, if “testing” is understood in the negative sense of “temptation” (to sin), then this would seem to present a major theological difficulty, already recognized in the early Church—that God should be said to “tempt” believers (see virtually the opposite notion explicitly stated in James 1:13). No simple answer can be given, other than to suggest that in the Lord’s Prayer, in keeping with the form of a basic prayer, peirasmo/$ should be understood (and translated) in a very general way (as “test” or “testing”). Despite the profundity of the Prayer, it remains very concise and simple in form—it is not meant to present a detailed theology (much less a theodicy!), and, I believe, ought to be understood as covering more ground here than simply “temptation”. Testing, particularly of a sort that we would naturally wish to avoid—involving some form of suffering, or the possibility of moral failure, and the like—will surely be part of every believer’s experience. I would also say that it is a most natural, human response, the expression that we would prefer not to go through such testing. Since God guides the paths of all believers, certainly, it is He who brings us into testing. Far from being sinful, or cowardly, I consider it faithful to express our human fears and desires to God. Surely, there is no better example than Jesus himself who prayed first “Abba, Father, all things are powerful [i.e. possible] to you; bring along [i.e. take away] this cup from me”, adding, “but not what I wish, but what you [wish]”.

3. How should we understand to ponhro/$?

Increasingly today, commentators interpret this phrase—literally, “the evil”—as “the evil (One)”, that is, Satan. This is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, at least in terms of the thrust of Jesus’ original words. However, this is far from clear as the Prayer now stands in the Gospels. Again, I suggest it is better to keep the sense (and translation) of the Greek as simple and general as possible—i.e., “the evil”, including the malevolent actions of humans and devils alike. As with the rest of the Prayer, the language is simple and striking: “but drag us (away) from the evil”. Once more an imperative is used—if there is some caution, or uncertainty, in the request not to be brought into testing, there is none here: as it has been traditionally rendered…”deliver us from evil!”

In the Greek Church, the First Sunday of (Great) Lent is the “Feast of Orthodoxy”—celebrating the victory of Orthodoxy against heresy. The immediate historical context was the Iconoclastic controversy in the Byzantine Church. Icons are images—of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and other famous Saints—which decorated church buildings and were used in worship. Some leaders began to denounce the practice, thought, in the wake of the Islamic conquests, to have brought down God’s judgment on the Byzantine Empire. Use of Icons was outlawed, resulting in oppression and persecutions, until the council of Nicaea in 787 (last of the so-called ‘Ecumenical Councils’) restored their use, and again, decisively in 843. While the whole issue of icons and images may seem strange and hard to understand in the West (especially in Protestant circles), it has been, and remains, deeply felt in Eastern Churches as a vital part of faith and practice. Icons related to Holy Week—the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ—hold a special place in the tradition.

January 17: The Temptation

January 17 is the traditional date to commemorate St. Anthony (Antony), c. 250-356 A.D., the most famous of the so-called Desert Fathers and a pioneering figure of early Monasticism. He was born somewhere in Middle Egypt (the town of Coma, according to Sozomen’s Church History I.13). As a young man, inspired by the teachings (Matt 6:34; 19:21) and example of Jesus (see below), Anthony sold off his possessions, gave away the money, and embarked on the solitary, ascetic life. Over time, he moved further and further away from his home region—first under the tutelage of an older hermit, then alone in an empty tomb vault (until he was 35), and then for many years in a deserted fort along the Nile (the “outer mountain” at Pispir). At about this time he began to attract disciples around him whom he instructed in the ascetic way (cf. Athanasius’ Life §14-43). Later on, he moved further out across the eastern desert to a favorable location at the base of a mountain (the “inner mountain”, site known as Deir Mar Antonios), where he would reside the rest of his life, while making occasional visits elsewhere and himself receiving many visitors. In spite of this popular ideal of ascetic simplicity, by all accounts Anthony was well-read and familiar with Greek philosophy, fully able to engage in philosophical and theological discussion; according to Athanasius (Life §68-80), he was also a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy (against Arianism). At least partly due to Anthony’s influence, the monastic way of life began to flourish in Egypt, the settlement at Pispir maintaining a prominent position.

The lasting popularity and fame of Anthony was due in no small measure the biography written by Athanasius (the Life of St. Antony), composed within a few years of the Desert Father’s death (356). It proved to be a “best-seller”, and, after the New Testament, perhaps the most widely read writing from the early Church. Athanasius himself (celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Churches on Jan 18), was a towering figure, holding a position in the East at least comparable to that of Augustine in the West. He was born in Alexandria at the end of the 3rd century (c. 296), and, as a relatively young man, attended the Council of Nicea in 325. Soon after (328), he was consecrated bishop of Alexandria, he became perhaps the most prominent and renowned theologian of his time. He was a staunch defender of the Nicene formula defining the Person of Christ, and fought hard against ‘Arian’ (and so-called ‘semi-Arian’) influence. Indeed, much of what we know of Arius and early “Arianism” comes from Athanasius’ history and famous orations. Battling for Nicene orthodoxy, he became an ambassador and diplomat, seeking to gain support and allies to the cause, working to draft creeds, organizing councils and meetings with high officials; with the changing tides of (Imperial) religious politics, he was forced into exile numerous times, always to return, until his death in 373. With the accession of emperor Theodosius in 379 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Nicene formula (and Athanasius’ theology) eventually won the day. Athanasius’ influence was extensive, as indicated by his many surviving writings, most famous of which are: his treatise on the Incarnation; his Defense of the Nicene Council; the Apology, History and Orations against Arianism; his Easter letters, the 39th of which helped establish the canon of Scripture; and, of course, his Life of Anthony. A well-known creed (the Athanasian) bears his name, testament to his many years of theological and apologetic work.

The Life of Anthony helped to create and define the popular image of Egyptian Monasticism and the character of the Desert Fathers: a life of uncompromising austerity and asceticism, self-denial, enduring hardship and deprivation, bodily discipline, intense spiritual warfare against demonic visions and attacks, miracles, a deep-seated wisdom and personal integrity which attracted many people, and so on. It is a peculiarity of the time that a number of these retiring solitaries ended up becoming celebrities—visitors from miles away would come to receive advice and instruction, inspiration and blessing, from men such as Anthony, Evagrius Ponticus, and Simeon Stylites. A flourishing literature sprang up which recorded the sayings, discourses, and lives of these “Desert Fathers”. It is extremely hard for Christians today, in the modern West especially, to appreciate just how powerful and appealing all of this was to the serious and spiritually minded believer. While having much in common with Greco-Roman ascetic philosophies of the period, the monastic or solitary way of life, typified by the Desert Fathers, was viewed simply as a natural extension (one might say, the purest form) of the New Testament ethic of Jesus and the Apostles.

In this regard, there can be no doubt that the descriptions of the Desert Fathers enduring temptation and demonic attack were shaped, to a large extent, by the Gospel narrative of the Temptation of Jesus. The simplest (and most primitive) form of this is found in the Gospel of Mark:

And straight away [i.e. right after the baptism] the Spirit casts him out into the desolate (region) [i.e. desert/wilderness], and he was in the desolate (region) forty days, being tested under [i.e. by] the Satan, and he was with the (wild) beasts, and the Messengers ministered to [i.e. attended/served] him. (Mk 1:12-13)

Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) preserve the same tradition (by way of Mark, according to the common critical view), but ‘expand’ it by added a separate tradition—a dialogue or disputation between Jesus and o( diabo/lo$ (“the Accuser”), from diaba/llw (“throw through/across”), i.e. the (one) “casting (accusations) across”. In Matt 4:3, the term o( peira/zwn (“the [one] testing”, i.e., “the Tester/Tempter”) occurs instead of o( diabo/lo$. The figure confronting Jesus in these episodes acts more as a Tester/Tempter than Accuser. The Matthean and Lukan accounts are quite close overall, clearly deriving from a common tradition (part of the so-called Q [Quelle/”source”]), the main difference being in the order of the three tests. Luke has created a much stronger dramatic framework, both in the opening—

And Yeshua (being) full of the Holy Spirit turned back from the Yarden, and was led in the Spirit in(to) the desolate (region), forty days being tested under [by] the Accuser… (Lk 4:1-2a)

and closing—

And having finished with every test, the Accuser stood [i.e. went] (away) from him until a(n opportune) season. (Lk 4:13)

as well as enhancing the role of the Accuser (v. 5-7). It is probably the Lukan version which best accords with the ascetic traditions attributed to the Desert Fathers.

Interestingly, even though there are (moderately) ascetic teachings and passages in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels here, there is no mention at all of this Temptation scene. The Epistle to the Hebrews provides the only specific mention of Jesus’ being tested/tempted (Heb 2:17-18; 4:15; 5:2), though it can be inferred fairly from the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4) and 1 Cor 10:13 as well. However, the emphasis in Matt 4:1-11 and Lk 4:1-13 here is not merely the testing/tempting that is common to all human beings, but that which relates specifically to Jesus’ nature as the incarnate Son of God—cf. Matt 4:3/Lk 4:3. Even here, the Christological point was, in a sense, passed on into Eastern Orthodox theology, in the doctrine of theosis (“deification”) of the believer—for the self-denial and purification (asceticism) required by the true believer is preparatory to (and functions in tandem with) the sanctifying gift of God’s grace, with the goal of union with God (in Christ and through the Spirit). This synergistic emphasis is generally foreign to mainstream Western (and Protestant) Christian thought, but is fundamental to an understanding of monasticism and Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

There is a collection of seven letters apparently written by St. Anthony. Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 88) and other Eastern Fathers mention such a collection; however, scholars have debated whether the seven which have come down to us are authentic or pseudonymous. They are sometimes considered too reasoned, moderate, and philosophically oriented to come from ‘simple’ ascetics such as Anthony. However, by all accounts, many of the Desert Fathers were much more well-read than the popular picture might suggest. One need only consult the works of Evagrius Ponticus, for example, or the Conferences of Cassian, to see that many had a strong knowledge of Greco-Roman and early Christian philosophy. The writings of Origen, in particular, were valued highly by the monks of Egypt and Palestine (until they were condemned as heretical in the 6th century). For a translation with commentary on the seven Antonian letters, cf. S. Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press 1990, 1995.