Did Satan Really Tempt Jesus in the Desert or is There Another Explanation?

We have been reading the feeding of the 5000. While it was a powerful demonstration, in the end it backfired badly. In John 6, the crowd tried to make Jesus king but Jesus explained that he, himself, was the true bread of life.


[M]any of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”…From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

Jesus’ mass movement in Galilee collapsed. It was tragic—but not as tragic as it would have been had he given in to the temptation to compromise his mission with signs, free bread, or a popular coronation. It is interesting that John does not mention Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but his story of Jesus’ temptations arising from the feeding of the 5000 is remarkably parallel. All three temptations are there, and Jesus even references in both places the experience of the Israelites in the Sinai desert.

Are the Feeding of the 5000 and the Synoptic Temptation Stories Connected?

Temptation of Jesus

In my opinion, the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the desert never actually happened but is a midrash on Deuteronomy 6 & 8 as it relates to the conflict and temptation described by John. Midrash was a common and acceptable literary device used by Jews of this period to apply Old Testament passages to current issues. Mark integrated this midrash into Jesus’ story, and Matthew and Luke followed him.

So I suggest the feeding of the 5000 and the temptation in the desert are the same crisis and involve exactly the same issues for Jesus:

  • Providing miraculous food—specifically bread
  • Building a following through signs
  • Accepting the kingdom from someone other than the Father

If Jesus resisted the temptation to create bread during the desert experience, it seems odd that he would do that very thing later in Galilee.

Notice in addition that in the Matthew 4 temptation story (and Luke 4), Jesus’ responses to the adversary are all from Deuteronomy chapters 6 & 8, reflecting on the Israelites and manna from heaven in the desert—an issue that arises also in the context of the feeding of the 5000.

  • Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
  • Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
  • Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.

The two stories seem to refer to the same thing.

Peculiar Elements of the Desert Temptation Story

The temptation story includes some very unusual elements. Matthew 4 says:

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down.’”

How did Satan do this? Teleportation? Magic? Did it really happen or was it symbolic or mental? After that:

“The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.”

Same questions about travel but, in addition, how could Satan show Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor? Luke even states Satan showed them to him in an instant. How is this explained?

Perhaps it was a mental battle.

Finally, who witnessed the desert temptation and first wrote it as a story? There was no one in the desert but Jesus and Satan. Did Jesus set his disciples down and say, ‘Hey guys, let me tell you what happened to me in the desert’? Or is it more likely that someone first told the story, perhaps in a sermon, as a symbolic representation of Jesus’ crisis from the feeding of the 5000?

Jesus’ experience in the desert is called a ‘testing’ or ‘temptation’. In what way was it a test? It was a test of which path he would take to establish the kingdom. As Jesus was grappling with his mission and how to go about it, it must have been much like battling an adversary. I am sure we all have felt a battle within ourselves to choose one path or another in a critical moment.

Was Satan in the Desert with Jesus?

The word ‘satan’ is not used as a proper name in the Old Testament until the time of the Babylonian captivity. Before that, and even later, it simply meant ‘adversary’.

I think the ‘temptation’ was most likely a conflict within Jesus’ own mind—the urge to consider the easier and more exciting path of receiving kingship from the adoring crowd, rather than establishing the ‘kingdom of God’ non-politically by sharing the message of the Father and eternal life. This would have been adversarial even if it did not involve a personified ‘adversary’.

In other words, it must have been a mental battle; it was psychological. Thankfully, Jesus chose to not meet the expectations of his crowd of followers and receive kingship from them. Instead, he established the kingdom described in Luke 17:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

I consider it very unlikely that a person called Satan tempted Jesus in the desert.

But This is not All

This is not all John tells us about the aftermath of the crisis of the feeding of the 5000. He also describes what I believe to be the saddest point in the gospels. We will talk about that next time.

In this series: Insights into the Feeding of the 5000


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15 Responses to Did Satan Really Tempt Jesus in the Desert or is There Another Explanation?

  1. Jan says:

    See the book “Zonder Tora leest niemand wel” (in Dutch) by Peter van ‘t Riet, p. 145
    “On the roof of the temple” refers to a verse from the Oral Tora which mentions that the Messiah will appear on the roof of the Temple, saying “You, poor people, the time of redemption has come”.
    The “throw yourself down” is a comment on the Zealots that lived in the time of Jezus, which thought that they should conquer the Romans with violence. It was their belief that they would be helped by God and referred to Psalm 91 to support their beliefs. It is exactly that verse that is cited in Matt 4:6. (Psalm 91:11-12).
    Jezus/Mattheus argues that God should not be tempted, referring to Deut 6:16, and even the Messias may not tempt God.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sheila0405 says:

    I like your insight. I also came to appreciate the story you told about the unnamed man who was tempted & nearly died from thirst & exhaustion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. fiddlrts says:

    That’s a fascinating perspective. I think it is also more helpful than a literalist approach, because it is more relevant to ourselves. We all face these temptations in some way – we can’t exactly summon a miracle, but we can take shortcuts we shouldn’t. I am greatly enjoying this series!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fiddlrts, I agree. I can certainly identify with Jesus’ internal struggle for direction than I can with a battle with a literal boogeyman. I am not concerned with a boogeyman, but I am concerned about my own important decisions.


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  6. Questor says:

    “If Jesus resisted the temptation to create bread during the desert experience, it seems odd that he would do that very thing later in Galilee.”

    Whether Yeshua was portrayed fictionally feeding the 5000 or not, or whether the ‘feeding’ was physical or metaphorical, the temptation with the Adversary was in regard to himself, and his needs, not other’s needs. If there were a 5000 to be fed, why would G-d in human form not provide for them if he wished to make a splashy statement of who he was?

    John 6:14 (CJB)
    14 When the people saw the miracle he had performed, they said, “This has to be ‘the prophet’ who is supposed to come into the world.”

    You will recall that Yeshua then had to deal with the sudden burst of popularity by getting as far from the area as possible, lest he have to feed them all again, and then remind them all that they should seek the bread of his message rather than that of his hand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Questor, I believe Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 was an historical event–it really happened. The point of my comment you quoted is that if the temptation in the desert with satan actually occurred, it seems odd that Jesus would perform the ‘miracle’ of the bread after refusing to do so in the desert. This lends support to the idea that the temptation in the desert was NOT historical.


  7. Interesting perspective – I really appreciate you offering these ideas. I hadn’t thought about the temptation of Jesus being equated with the feeding story.


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