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Stories of Jesus

Chapter 4: The Stories Part One, Jesus before Easter

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A Jesus story: not the super-hero type

After an overture of highly symbolic and almost entirely non-historical infancy stories and then an account of Jesus’ baptism that sounds pretty realistic (except for God’s voice coming out of the sky), Matthew and Luke go into a story that sounds like fantasy. Jesus goes into the desert and is tempted there by Satan. We get all sorts of details about this temptation, including a vision of the whole world and a whisking away to the top of the temple. (Mark, who wrote the first Gospel, just says Jesus was tempted in the desert with no details.)

I suppose a story that sounds like fantasy could still be factual, but I do believe that the prior scene, the baptism, is basically historical and the second is not. Besides the argument from embarrassment—it was embarrassing for the first Christians to admit that Jesus was baptized by John—I think the baptism has another thing going for it: It’s easy to see how the story could have gotten out. There were lots of people around to see Jesus being baptized and tell about it. (Whether they heard a voice from heaven or not is another matter that the Gospels themselves have different takes on.) In the temptation story there is no one around except Jesus and the devil, and I can’t imagine either of them telling anyone about it. That counts pretty strongly against this story’s being historical.

Still I think it’s very possible that a fantastic, made-up story can have something important to say about the real, historical Jesus. Surely Jesus was aware of more than one possible way for his life’s work to go, and he rejected some perhaps very tempting ones and accepted another not so appealing. The story may also say something about Jesus’ followers. The very things that Satan tempts Jesus with in Matthew and Luke—turn stones into bread, throw himself down from the tower and be rescued by angels, rule the world—symbolize temptations for the crowds and even the close friends of Jesus during his lifetime. They wanted a savior who would ease the daily struggle for life’s necessities, who would give dramatic proofs that God was on their side, who would lead Israel in triumph over her Roman occupiers. The early Christians found the means to resist these temptations and obtain a truer vision of Jesus—perhaps only because Jesus’ death made the temptations seem awfully unrealistic. The gospel writers put this new insight into a story about Jesus. By writing that way they were able to say something important about Jesus and about temptations that everyone faces.

What if the temptations actually had occurred just as the gospels say, and what if Jesus had said “Yes” all three times? With Satan’s support he could have made quite a mark, maybe even ruled the known world for as long as he lived and passed the throne on to his descendants. Would he have any followers today? I don’t think so. He might have been the best possible ruler, but he would not have changed anything that matters to the devil, especially not any hearts. Satan would still be the ruler of the world; or, if that sounds too mythological, our ruler would still be the visions of success and grandeur that often strike us as the most important things in the world and thereby become demonic. Jesus had a different vision and it wasn’t being Superman or heroic leader.

Thinking about the main point: If Jesus wasn’t Superman or mighty ruler, then is an all-powerful being a good way to think about God?

On to In Service to the Kingdom

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