Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness
Much scholarship has been devoted to establishing the Jewish context of Matthew’s Gospel, with its Gentile context (including significantly the Roman imperial system) less discussed. Some scholars of the last decade or so, however, such as Warren Carter (see “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 259-261), have sought to address this. There have been two dominant positions on this issue: 1) that the Matthean author is addressing a mixed audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and as such, supports taking the salvific message of Jesus to both (see Brendan Byrne, “The Messiah in whose Name ‘The Gentiles will Hope,’” p. 55-73); and 2) the Gospel writer’s community have suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans in Antioch, and wish to avoid the Gentile world as far as possible (see David Sim, “The Gospel of Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 19-48). In order to appreciate the complexity of the Matthean author’s narrative, the Roman imperial context cannot be ignored, and is alluded to in various episodes with varying degrees of subtlety.
This passage narrates Jesus’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness, where he has gone to undergo a period (forty days and forty nights) of ascetic reflection before beginning his teaching career. While he is there, the devil attempts to lure him three times, tempting him with food, land, wealth, and power, and daring him to put the power of God to the test. Each time, Jesus rebukes Satan, eventually sending him away, when he is replaced by angels who tend to Jesus. The story betrays much more about the Matthean author’s worldview, however, than simply that Jesus is more powerful than Satan. The central issue, which is emphasised by Jesus’s responses to the devil’s temptations (i.e. Jesus’s citing of Scripture, introduced each time by “it has been written…” in verses 6, 7, and 10), is that he works only for God, and as such cannot allow himself to become an agent for any other power. When Satan offers Jesus “the kingdoms/empires of the world” in verse 8, his words evoke two things of significance: 1) Satan’s failed attempt to make Jesus his agent in exchange for global dominion contrasts vividly with Matt 28:18, in which God grants Jesus “all authority in heaven and earth; and 2) the political nature of the phrase “kingdoms of the world.”
As Warren Carter has argued, elsewhere, the Gospel writer uses the word “world” (κόσμος) to refer to God’s created material realm, of which human beings are a part (e.g. 13:35; 24:21; 25:34), and it is this physical, flawed realm, under the malevolent influences of Satan, that is in need of the salvation offered by Jesus (5:14; 13:38; 26:13). It is not insignificant, then, that the language of “kingdoms/empires” is used here in reference to what Satan currently possesses and can therefore offer to Jesus. This same terminology is of course used also of Rome (see, for example, Sibylline Oracles 3:37; Josephus, Jewish Wars V.9; Appian, Civil Wars II.86) (see Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 267-268). The Matthean author implicitly links Satan, the agent who currently holds humanity in his clutches, with Rome, as though he were one of the deities supporting the Empire (like Jupiter, who was responsible for sanctioning and up-keeping Rome). While according to Roman myth Rome is also ruled by overseeing deities, such as Jupiter, whose will Aeneid I.257-296 describes as being carried out by Rome, for the Gospel writer it is Satan’s puppet, and therefore directly in conflict with God’s will. After his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus will return to civilisation, and begin his teaching in Galilee, which includes a large number of healings and exorcisms – these stories portray the reality of Satan’s malicious influence on mankind, and as such, Jesus’s encounter with him in the wilderness sets the scene for this. Satan’s kingdom/empire, which is currently manifested in Rome’s dominion, presents a challenge for those seeking to spread the message of the kingdom of heaven. This said, while for the Matthean author the Roman empire is currently under Satan’s dominion, the fact that Satan tempts Jesus by offering his kingdoms to him suggests that control of Rome by higher (malevolent or otherwise) powers is something entirely changeable, depending on the will and whim of the current ruler (in this case, Satan). The control of Rome, and perhaps by inference, also Rome’s control, therefore, is not as firmly established as it may seem.
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