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The Temptation Narrative Missing from John

In my previous post I started to discuss the hypothetical Signs Source that some scholars have claimed lay behind the accounts of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel of John – one of the now lost documents of early Christianity (assuming it once existed) that I very much wish could be discovered.   Before giving evidence that there was some such written source, I started in the last post by discussing the distinctive view of Jesus’ spectacular deeds in the Fourth Gospel, where they are called “signs” rather than “miracles.”

In that post I argued that John has a completely different view of these deeds from that found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In these Synoptics Jesus refuses to do miracles in order to prove his identity.  When he is asked to do so, he indicates that “no sign will be given to this generation” – apart from the sign of Jonah.  Not so in John.   Jesus does signs.  They are designed to make people believe who he is (4:54).   And the Gospel writer himself indicates that this is the very reason he narrates them (20:30-31).

Once more, before discussing evidence that the writer had a written source for his account of Jesus’ signs (soon, I promise!) I thought it would be interesting to illustrate these points of difference between the Synoptics and John by discussing one of the important stories found in the former but not in the latter.

In all three of the Synoptics, Jesus is “tempted” by the Devil in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry.   This story is not found in John.

Mark has only a very brief mention of the 40-day temptation (Mark 1).  Matthew and Luke have the familiar three-temptations (Matthew 4 and Luke 4).   That means their passages come from Q (another hypothetical source: the one that gave Matthew and Luke the material they have that is not found in Mark).  It is one of the two narratives known to have been in Q; all the other Q materials are sayings.  The Temptation narrative itself is principally sayings – of the Devil and Jesus.  But the sayings are set in a narrative context, unlike virtually all the rest of Q.

The three temptations are given in different orders in Matthew and Luke: what is the second temptation in Matthew is the third in Luke, and vice versa.   Following the somewhat less familiar order of Luke, the first temptation comes after Jesus has been fasting for forty days.   The devil appears to him and tells him that if he is the Son of God, he should make the stones turn into bread and satisfy his hunger.  Jesus rebukes the temptation by quoting a Scripture from the book of Deuteronomy:  “A person does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

The parallel to the Old Testament is striking and important:  Just as Israel was tempted for forty years in the wilderness (wanting more bread), now too so is Jesus, for forty days.   But unlike unfaithful Israel, Jesus remains faithful.   More than that, the temptation shows that Jesus will not use his miracle-working power to satisfy his own needs.  His power is for the sake of others.

The second temptation in Luke is when the devil takes Jesus up to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of earth, and tells him that if he will worship him, Satan, he will give all of it to him to rule over.  Jesus again quotes the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall worship the Lord God alone, and him only shall you serve” (unlike the Israelites in the wilderness who went after the golden calf).

This second temptation is especially interesting and not always fully understood.   The devil is not simply promising Jesus power over the kingdoms of the earth.   He is promising to give Jesus that power without requiring him to suffer first.  For the Gospels, Jesus will indeed be given the power and the glory over the earth.  But first he must die for the sins of the world.  This is a temptation not to go to the cross.

The third temptation is the hardest to understand, or at least is the one that is least understood.   The devil takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple, that is, to its highest point.  That was pretty high – as tall as a modern ten-story building.  The devil urges Jesus to jump off, since Scripture indicates that God will not allow his chosen one to come to harm: the angels will swoop down and catch him before he hits bottom.  Once more Jesus quotes the book of Deuteronomy:  You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.

So it’s not hard to see how Jesus resists this temptation.  But what exactly is the temptation?  The other two are easy to understand.   In the first he is hungry and is tempted to do a miracle to feed himself.  In the second he is being tempted not to suffer.   But what exactly is tempting about jumping off a ten-story building?

I think the key to understanding to the story is to realize where this building was.  It was the temple, in the heart of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship.   And who would be there, observing his actions?   Faithful Jews.   If he were to jump, and the angels came then and swooped him up, everyone below would see.  And they would realize who he is, the Son of God.

This is a temptation to prove his identity by doing a miracle.   And Jesus rejects it as a Satanic temptation.

That is why it makes perfect sense that this story is not in the Gospel of John.   It is impossible to know if John had ever heard the story, but even if he had, I think it highly unlikely indeed that he would have told it.  That’s because the view of Jesus’ miracles implicit in the story is just the opposite of John’s own view.   This story presupposedsthat Jesus would not do a miracle as a sign to prove who he is.  But in the Gospel of John that is precisely why he does miracles – all of his miracles.  They are signs to unbelievers to show that Jesus is the Son of God, so that they can believe in him.

Why Jesus Does Miracles
Signs in the Gospel of John



  1. cheito
    cheito  May 25, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    Your comment:

    That is why it makes perfect sense that this story is not in the Gospel of John. It is impossible to know if John had ever heard the story, but even if he had, I think it highly unlikely indeed that he would have told it.

    My Comment:

    The story of the temptation of Jesus by the Devil is not in John perhaps because it never happened.
    The author of John had an eyewitness as his source. He didn’t just write an account of what he heard but of what an eyewitness testified to…

    John 19:35-And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.

    Your comment:

    This is a temptation to prove his identity by doing a miracle. And Jesus rejects it as a Satanic temptation.

    My Comment:

    I think the temptation of Jesus by satan, to jump of the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, primarily was to force Jesus to test God and force God to save him. Jesus’ answer to the devil that we should not test God is a lesson for us that we should not put God to the test but trust Him.

    Personally this temptation by satan of Jesus to jump of the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t believe it’s true. I don’t rely on it and It’s not essential for me to believe it.

    Again I reiterate that The author of John had an eyewitness as his source, and he didn’t record this temptation of Jesus by satan for us, because his source who testified of what he had seen, most likely didn’t mention it to him.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  May 27, 2015

      we should not put God to the test
      LIFE puts God to the test. The Jewish Revolt put the God of Abraham, Israel, and Moses to the test. How did God do there? How did God do at the Battle on the Sea of Galilee? How did God do with the rebel factions running all through his House of Prayer?

  2. Avatar
    godspell  May 26, 2015

    The author of John seems determined to emphasize the godly aspect of Jesus, rather than the human side. He even has John the Baptist spontaneously and mysteriously point Jesus out (to John’s own disciples) as the Chosen One, and his inherently problematic baptism of Jesus is glossed over. To compare his account of Jesus’ encounter with The Baptist and Mark’s account is to see two entirely different stories–only one of which makes sense–Mark’s. If John had told his own disciples that Jesus was Messiah, had in effect become a follower of Jesus, then how would John’s cult have persisted so long? Matthew and Luke just try to explain this problem away–John willfully ignores it.

    Some beautiful moments in the John gospel, but I’ve often wished it hadn’t been accepted as canon. The fact that it was shows that by the time they were working that out, the divine Jesus had won out over the human Jesus.

  3. Avatar
    jhague  May 27, 2015

    I agree with your comments on why the temptation story is not in John. Since the temptation of Jesus by Satan did not actual occur and John did not use Mark as a source, assuming that John did not hear the story through oral sources, is it reasonable to also think that the story is not in John due to him not having knowledge of the story?

  4. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  May 20, 2016

    respected dr ehrman


    this is from mark 1:13

    i am assuming that mark thinks that the OBJECT of temptation is experiencing temptation to sin, right?

    otherwise if it was not experiencing temptation it makes no sense to say ” being tempted by satan” right?

    some apologists are assuming that their god had no experiencing of temptation, satan simply opened his mouth and was looking like a buffoon when no effect of temptation was being experienced by the object/jesus.

    do you agree that mark really does think that jesus experiences temptation to do wrong?


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