The Temptation Narrative & Mark's Gospel: Studies in Mark, Pt. 82

One question that has intrigued Gospels scholars for centuries, especially those with Markan affinities, is: Why is the wilderness temptation narrative so short (and pretty much absent) from Mark's Gospel? This is something that I have pondered for a while too and until now, I have not said much about it. Before I offer my thoughts on the matter, though, it might be best to say a little more about the subject.

Usually, this topic comes up when bible scholars are discussing the "synoptic problem" (a discussion that focuses on the order in which the Gospel accounts were written; for example, was Mk. written first or was Mk. based on Mt. & Lk.?). As I have said a number of times in this series and on this site, in my opinion, the so-called "synoptic problem" is not really much of a "problem" at all. Anyway, I won't get into that again in this post.

But in regards to the temptation narrative and the synoptic problem, text and literary critics often want to say that because Mark's narrative is pretty much absent of the wilderness events, it must have been written first. Why? Because if Mark had been using Mt. or Lk., for instance, he wouldn't have shortened such an important event. The converse argument says that the reason that Matthew and Luke wrote so much about the temptation narrative is because when they saw Mark's, they felt the need to elaborate on it. On a number of levels, these arguments go deeper but I do not wish to say more about that here. In the end, deeper or not, I stand convinced of neither opinion.

So, moving on, I can say that one of the most creative and unique approaches to this issue can be found in Richard Dormandy's article titled "Jesus' Temptations In Mark's Gospel". In sum, what Dormandy argues is that while Mk. 1 does not include the three wilderness temptations (as Mt. & Lk.), the rest of the text does. He argues that the Greek word for "test" or "tempt" (that is, πειραζω) shows up three times in Mk. Thus, the three tests are spread out over the course of the entire Markan narrative. Each of the three cases where this word occurs in Mk. are said to mirror the "tests" presented in the Matthean and Lukan temptation narratives. While I admire the creative presentation and exegesis here, in the end, I do not subscribe to this view either. Still, I highly recommend that you read the article!!!

Without delving into some of the other views that exist, I want to, at this point, go ahead and give my own view. I will say from the beginning that what is good about Dormandy's take is that it attempts to take Mk. as a whole document and read it that way. However, what makes that argument weak is that it stops short of seeing both the inner-textuality at play in the text as well as the socio-political / religio-political aspects of the first 3 chapters. From my perspective, these are things that must be considered. So, I will consider them here.

First, I think we need to make up our minds that we are going to take Mark on its own terms. This means, in terms of both inner-textuality and socio/religio-politics, we must read Mk. apart from other documents to begin with. When we do this, a few things become apparent. For instance, if we start at Mk. 3.6 and work backwards towards chapter one, we notice all of the conflict between Jesus and the officials (political/religious, etc.). In 3.6, they are so angry that they begin plotting to kill Jesus. Before that, they criticize Him for both healing and picking grain on the Sabbath. They also criticize Him for eating with sinners and saying that He can forgive sins. By the same token, Jesus arouses suspicion when He offers teachings that challenge the status quo. When people start paying more attention to Him than the religio-political officials, they become infuriated and frustrated. When Jesus is viewed in 1.1 and following as supplanting or challenging the emperor, well, that's not good for Him either. The same is true when He attracts attention for calling tax collectors and fishermen away from the Galillean pay-lake, a sure attention getter. Again, in 3.6, the Jewish and Roman officials are now teaming up to kill Jesus.

Now, the point that I'm trying to make here is that there are all kinds of social, reilgious and political things going on in the first three chapters and Jesus is in the midst of all of them. We have to see these social aspects. But we also have to see how all of these aspects connect with one another. They are all leading up to the eventual plot that begins in 3.6. The stacking of social issue upon social issue in 1-3 is no literary accident. There is a lot of literary structure or "play" going on here. One thing becomes increasingly apparent by 3.6: Jesus has clashed with the leaders of His day and they want Him dead because of it! To miss this, is, I think, to miss a great deal of what Mark is trying to accomplish in his story.

So, what does all of this have to do with the brief mention of Jesus' temptation narrative? Well, a lot actually! In my view, there is no temptation narrative because Mark is not concerned with showing a Jesus Vs. Satan fighting match. Instead, Mark wants to show a Religio-political Leaders Vs. Jesus match. To present a showdown with satan in the beginning would have stole the thunder of the point he was trying to make. However, in a roundabout way, I do think Mark suggests that the Religio-political leaders are in lieu with satan. And this is why Mark's first exorcism happens in a religio-socio-political setting: the synagogue. There, Jesus exorcises a demon! And what are demons doing in a synagogue anyway? Well, this is Mark's way of suggesting that the officials there stand in opposition to God's work and God-in-the-flesh. It is no accident that the first encounter with religious officials is in a synagogue and they are exorcised and then, a few chapters later in 3.6, in a synagogue, the officials are plotting to kill Jesus!!!

So, Mark doesn't include a temptation narrative because it would have foiled the point he was trying to make. It's not "missing" because of some text-critical matter or "synoptic problem". It's not absent because it is spread throughout the text or because it was already preserved in two other accounts and there was therefore no need for it here. No, the reason it is only mentioned briefly in Mk. is because at the beginning of his narrative, Mark goes his own direction. Mark starts off with an assault on the religious and political systems and persons of his day. This is why John the Baptizer is arrested in 1.14 (right at the start) and Jesus' death was being plotted so soon. Folks, Mark was making his own point and we need to acknowledge that for what it is! It's "tempting" to read Mk. out of context but we must do our best to resist such things.

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