The desert: context

christ+in+the+wilderness12 At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, 13 and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. 14 After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: 15 “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Context. The gospel text that is chosen for this first week in Lent, Year B, is odd in that it “straddles” a divided between the prologue (1:1-13) and the beginning of the Galilean ministry (1:16 and following). The motif of the wilderness dominates the prologue with the voice of one crying out in the desert (v.3) introducing John the Baptist whose arrest is simply noted in v.14 – yet the connection to the Hebrew prophets has been set. In accordance with that prophetic word, Jesus appears in the wilderness of Judea, summoned by the call of the Baptist. His baptism and sojourn there constitute his first public acts and provide the foundation for his subsequent ministry in Galilee.

Our gospel text lies between the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Its opening scene finds Jesus in the wilderness. The Marcan version of the temptation in the desert is much shorter than Matthew’s or Luke’s. Its short length serves to make its significance more direct. The Spirit leads Jesus into the desert. Tempted and tested there by Satan for forty days, as the people of Israel were tested before him, Jesus is protected by God via angels. The text simply states that Jesus withstood the test and is ready for his service to God and humanity. With John’s arrest (v. 14), Jesus’ work begins. Mark’s “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” began at v.1. Now the “gospel of God” begins, as Jesus’ first words are heard: “This is the time of fulfillment” (v. 15).

There are also a number of Old Testament scriptures which provide the context to this very short Markan passage: “in the desert for forty days.” There are a group of scholars that prefer the more narrow reference to the expression “forty days” rather than the broader numerological reference to “forty.” They argue that Jesus stays in the wilderness for forty days, a fixed time of symbolic significance. The reference to the forty days recalls Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai and Elijah’s wandering through the wilderness to Mount Horeb – both times of personal testing. In their case the time of the forty days concentrates into one crucial period the innermost quality of their mission. Moses and Elijah are men of the wilderness, both prior to this period as well as after it. So too with Jesus – the 40 days is the wilderness experience and serves to mark the milieu of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And of course, others would argue that the more foundational texts are those that describe the testing of Israel via the 40 years of the Exodus. There are merits to both arguments.

One of the pitfalls of reading this account in Mark, it that we are familiar with all the details of the time of temptation from Matthew and Luke. Those are accounts that are filled with details of fasting, the appearance of Satan, more robust descriptions of the details of the encounter. With more details we are draw more to emphasizing an extended period of time in the desert. Perhaps of interest is that Matthew and Luke leave no trace of the presence of the “wild beasts.”

It is the presence of the “wild beasts” that gives advent to another understanding of the Markan passage that minimizes the importance of the 40-day period, but, rather, sees a reversing of the original Fall. In this understanding, Jesus becomes a type of anti-Adam, undoing what Adam’s sin had corrupted. This is not recent understanding, from early Christian times onward, interpreters have also seen the picture of Christ in the wilderness with the animals as a type of anti-Adam.

He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” is often taken as: “out there in the wilderness it wasn’t just Satan who posed dangers, but also the wild beasts.” But the text simply says that he was among them. After the fall, Adam was indeed threatened by the wild beasts, but this Jesus is the anti-Adam – Jesus can move among them. The enmity between humans and wild animals, which was a consequence of Adam’s fall, does not apply to Jesus. Jesus’ presence points to a reversal of the Adamic order of things, giving way to the new order of the Kingdom. The angels, it is argued, point to the Jewish legends of angels coming to take the dead body of Adam into the heavens.

The allusions to the Adam story demonstrates what would have been the case for humanity if Adam had not sinned. Add in the reference to Israel’s wilderness experience, the net effect is a passing reference to a wilderness transformed in the new exodus of Jesus. A wilderness transformed into paradise was part of the hope for salvation depicted in Isaiah (Isa 11:6–9; 32:14–20; 65:25).

Unlike the Matthean and Lukan versions of the wilderness time, which emphasizes the conflict between Jesus and Satan, Mark’s tradition uses the reference to the animals and ministering angels to highlight the specific characteristics of the new exodus with new Adam and new Moses.

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