Christ in the Wilderness

Christ in the Wilderness

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi. This great artist lived in Russia, born in 1837 and died at 50 years old in 1887 but left behind this amazing painting called “Jesus in the Desert” (or wilderness). This image is a scan by the Google Cultural Institute, as the original hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Russia.

Ivan Kramskoi was able to capture an intense feeling in this depiction of man confronting his fear and desperate for a communication with God, compelled to seek drastic measures to force and outcome to a deep conviction. The artists is able to sit us on that rock in anguish.

Many other artists have created works to depict the Temptation of Christ, including a powerful masterpiece by James Tissot, which hangs in Brooklyn.

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert), James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

Temptation of Christ

Discussion of status as parable

Discussion of the literary genre includes whether what is represented is a history, a parable, a myth, or compound of various genres. This relates to the reality of the encounter. Sometimes the temptation narrative is taken as a parable, reading that Jesus in his ministry told this narrative to audiences relating his inner experience in the form of a parable. Or it is autobiographical, regarding what sort of Messiah Jesus intended to be.

Writers including William Barclay have pointed to the fact that there is “no mountain high enough in all the world to see the whole world” as indication of the non-literal nature of the event, and that the narrative portrays what was going on inside Jesus’ mind.

“In regard to the words, ‘He showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,’ we are not to understand that He saw the very kingdoms, with the cities and inhabitants, their gold and silver: but that the devil pointed out the quarters in which each kingdom or city lay, and set forth to Him in words their glory and estate.”

Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas

The debate on the literality of the temptations goes back at least to the 18th century discussion of George Benson and Hugh Farmer.

The Catholic understanding is that the temptation of Christ was a literal and physical event. “Despite the difficulties urged, …against the historical character of the three temptations of Jesus, as recorded by St. Matthew and St. Luke, it is plain that these sacred writers intended to describe an actual and visible approach of Satan, to chronicle an actual shifting of places, etc., and that the traditional view, which maintains the objective nature of Christ’s temptations, is the only one meeting all the requirements of the Gospel narrative.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Gospels speak of a time of solitude for Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism by John. Driven by the Spirit into the desert, Jesus remains there for forty days without eating; he lives among wild beasts, and angels minister to him. At the end of this time Satan tempts him three times, seeking to compromise his filial attitude toward God. Jesus rebuffs these attacks, which recapitulate the temptations of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert, and the devil leaves him “until an opportune time…” The temptation in the desert shows Jesus, the humble Messiah, who triumphs over Satan by his total adherence to the plan of salvation willed by the Father.

Use of Old Testament references

The account of Matthew uses language from the Old Testament. The imagery would be familiar to Matthew’s contemporary readers. In the Septuagint Greek version of Zechariah 3 the name Iesous and term diabolos are identical to the Greek terms of Matthew 4. Matthew presents the three scriptural passages cited by Jesus (Deut 8:3, Deut 6:13, and Deut 6:16) not in their order in the Book of Deuteronomy, but in the sequence of the trials of Israel as they wandered in the desert, as recorded in the Book of Exodus.

Luke’s account is similar, though his inversion of the second and third temptations “represents a more natural geographic movement, from the wilderness to the temple”. Luke’s closing statement that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” may provide a narrative link to the immediately following attempt at Nazareth to throw Jesus down from a high place, or may anticipate a role for Satan in the Passion (cf. Luke 22:3).


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