The movement from a merely conventional into a truly personal faith, although it often begins in late adolescence or early adulthood, often takes many years. Since we have next to no information about the hidden years of the life of Jesus in Nazareth, it is impossible to say, despite our speculations in the last chapter, just when this transition in the faith of Jesus took place. No doubt, Luke’s story of the finding in the temple might be seen as pointing towards the beginning of such a change, but when this transition was complete, is anyone’s guess.
Ideally, the emergence of a fully “individuative‑reflective” faith, as Fowler has termed it—which I shall persist in calling simply a personal faith—takes place in early adulthood. Pierre Babin saw little possibility of it taking place, in any permanently committed sense, until the final stage of adolescence. However, from the life stories of so many persons, even of great saints like Augustine, as well as from an accumulation of modern testimonies, we know that often such an intensely personal commitment to God comes to many only later in life, sometimes not even until the end of life. Therefore, beginning with adulthood, and unlike the predictability of the earlier stages during childhood and adolescence, Fowler’s stages of faith‑development are simply a schema nothing more. Frequently real life makes a shambles of neat categories. Yet such systemization does give us hints of where to look for the signs of growth.
Generally speaking, the transition to a truly personal faith often involves a preliminary negative phase, one that includes a certain amount of testing, questioning, or outright doubt. In addition, the more positive aspect characterized by a more positive, decisive choice comes to the fore only with a sense of personal mission or vocation. Rarely does one come into a personal faith in the abstract. Faith, to the extent that it involves a basic commitment, requires that this commitment take a concrete shape in the living of one’s life. Whatever we might surmise about the personal faith of Jesus of Nazareth, we really cannot begin to see the shape of its reality until a certain sense of personal mission manifests itself.
The Baptism in the Jordan
The prophet Elijah, who, according to the Bible (2 K 2:11), had ascended to heaven in a whirlwind, had returned in the person of John the Baptist, or so it seemed in the view of many who witnessed the burst of activity along the Jordan where the strange figure of John, clothed in a leather loincloth and a camel’s hair cloak, was calling people to conversion and proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.
Although both the gospels of Matthew and Luke contain infancy accounts, strictly speaking, the historical content of all four of the gospels, as well as the criteria set for that witnessing function essential to apostleship as stipulated in the Acts of the Apostles (Ac 1:22), begins here. As we have already seen, the person chosen to bear apostolic testimony must have been a witness of the words and deeds of Jesus “…beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us”. Mark’s gospel, which in the opinion of almost all scholars today is the earliest of the synoptic gospels, also begins abruptly at this point. There is no attempt to trace Jesus’ earthly beginnings. The Jesus who presents himself to history is a grown man who suddenly appears along the banks of the Jordan.
So too the Gospel of John, whose famous prologue is primarily a theological meditation. The actual narrative or story line, beginning with verse 19 of Chapter 1, flows directly from the testimony of John the Baptist in verse 15. The events that took place at that time stand almost alone—along with the story of Jesus’ passion and death, as well as the different accounts attesting to his resurrection—as being singled out for mention in all four of the gospels. So clearly, we have here an event of the greatest importance for our understanding of Jesus.
Despite the importance of this first public appearance of Jesus, there is a curious discrepancy regarding the memory of Jesus’ own baptism itself. John alone among the evangelists doesn’t recount the actual event but, also alone among them, indicates that Jesus and his own disciples performed the baptismal rite on others (Jn 3:22) mimicking John the Baptist and his disciples—among whom had once been this “beloved disciple” himself. The situation here is not unlike that regarding the Last Supper narratives and the Eucharist. John alone, again, does not recount the action or the words of institution over the bread and wine. Instead, there is the long discourse on Jesus’ body and blood as our food and drink in chapter six, but with a concluding emphasis on not the flesh but the spirit giving eternal life. In much the same way, the theologies of rebirth and illumination replace the account of baptism as such in John’s gospel.
What we see here, according to scholars such as Meier, who devotes three whole chapters to the subject of John the Baptist and his relationship to Jesus and his ministry, is a manifestation of a later rivalry between the disciples of John and those of Jesus. This was a rivalry that the followers of Jesus, despite the historical record, wished to avoid, especially by playing down the implication that Jesus in any way needed to be baptized. There are hints of this attitude in Matthew’s gospel as well. Although all four gospels claim that Jesus indeed is the one whom John predicted as the one who was to come after him, is it only in the synoptics that we find John actually baptizing Jesus, after predicting that “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:7-8; both Mt 3:12 and Lk 3:16 adding “and with fire”), it is only Matthew’s gospel that attempts to meet the problem head‑on by having the baptizer protest to Jesus before he baptizes him; “I need to be baptized by you . . .” with Jesus replying, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14‑15).
Like John’s silence regarding Jesus himself undergoing baptism, this Matthean explanation was already struggling with the conflict between the followers of the Baptist and those of Jesus. While there can be no doubt that this same struggle is reflected in Mark and Luke, there is no hedging or apology for Jesus having undergone John’s penitential rite. He submits to it like any of the rest of John’s disciples or followers.
In doing this, Jesus sets himself apart from the crowd of the curious, both the mere sightseers as well as the suspicious, some of which have been sent as spies from the political‑religious establishment in Jerusalem. We must not overlook, at this point, the extremely precarious political implications of the baptizer’s message. The Jewish nation was a captive people and what little political authority was still held by Jews under the Roman occupation was mostly, with the exception of the brief reign (AD 40‑44) of Herod Agrippa, under the canon of what we’d call “religious affairs”. Any reform, such as John the Baptist preached, threatened his remaining political influence, and seemed perilously close to the open revolt advocated by the Zealots. These political implications were to contribute greatly to, and in fact were probably the real reason for, the death of John (according to Meier, who finds the account given by the Jewish historian Josephus as more reliable than that reported in the Gospels). They could not have been less than a warning to Jesus himself.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt, from the evidence given by the synoptic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles (see especially the kerygmatic addresses of Peter and Paul in Ac 10:37ff. and 13:24ff.), that the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan was seen by the evangelists as the occasion when the mission of Jesus began, for it was then that according to Mark (1:10‑11):
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit like a dove descending on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Although there are slight variations in the wording of this account in the parallel synoptic passages (Mt 3:16‑17; Lk 3:22) as well as in John 1:33b‑34, the sense in all the accounts is the same: Jesus is revealed to be God’s “Beloved Son”.
Two questions should immediately come to mind. What is to be made of this revelation? And to whom is it made?
Commentators have long noted that the phrase “the beloved, in whom I am well pleased”, evokes the passage in Isaiah 42:1, the first of the four “Suffering Servant” songs (Is 42:1‑4; 49:1‑6; 50:4‑11; 52:13‑53:12). We should also note that, in John’s account (Jn 1:29), the next day the Baptizer proclaims Jesus to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. The connection here to Isaiah also is subtly underlined when it is realized that in the Aramaic dialect that John the Baptist undoubtedly used, the word talya that meant “lamb”, also meant “servant” (see footnote “c” to Isaiah 53:7 in The New Jerusalem Bible). Then add to this the realization that, although the Greek texts of the synoptic gospels use the more explicit word huios for “son”, it is more than merely a coincidence that the word pais, which the ancient Greek Septuagint version uses to serve as a translation of the Hebrew ebed or “servant” in its version of Isaiah, also can mean “son” in Greek. This same understanding of the Greek word pais is also found in one of the earliest Christian catechetical books, the Didache or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” where Jesus is described as God’s pais. If nothing can be proved directly by this close association of the two meanings for pais in Greek, nevertheless, we can see from this, along with the supposed Aramaic connection between “lamb” and “servant”, that early Christianity had early on made a direct connection between these famous Isaian passages and Christianity’s own claim that Jesus is indeed the “Son of God”. The importance of these connections will become more evident in time, but for now let it stand to underline the mysterious prophetic content of the baptismal accounts.
In addition to the question of the meaning of these words, the other question still remains as to whom are they pictured as first having been revealed? Obviously, taken as a second level statement (that of early Christian kerygma), the idea is to reveal Jesus as God’s “beloved Son” to the reader of these accounts. Still, as far as to whom the revelation is supposed to have been made at the time it occurred, the testimony is mixed. According to Matthew and Mark, it is apparently only Jesus himself who saw or heard anything. Luke, on the other hand, does not specify who the hearer or hearers might be. John’s gospel departs from the others not only in totally ignoring the fact of Jesus having been baptized, but even more in singling out the Baptist as later testifying that he himself was granted the vision of “the Spirit descending [like a dove] from heaven, and it remained on him” (Jn 1:32). But here the phrase “like a dove” seems to have been borrowed from the synoptic accounts and is missing in some early manuscripts of John.
Nevertheless, it appears that in Matthew and Mark, in particular, the emphasis remains on the experience that Jesus himself had. No doubt it is Luke’s account, which fails to specify the recipient of the words and vision, that has inspired later efforts to reinterpret this whole event as a Trinitarian theophany where the Father (the voice from heaven) reveals the Son (Jesus) through the visible sign of the Spirit (the Dove)—this for the edification of all who were standing around.
As to be expected, with his crusade against any psychologizing type of “lives of Jesus”, Meier denies (II, p. 107) that this theophany mirrors any inner experience that Jesus may have had, but simply reflects the desire of the early Church to define, from the outset of the gospels, the real identity of Jesus and to set him apart from any counter‑claims from followers of John. Yet even Meier has to admit that this whole episode may very well signify a turning‑point in the relationship of Jesus to John, one at which Jesus began to realize that he had a distinct mission that set him apart from his mentor.
So it would appear that in a manner somewhat similar to early adoptionist christology, as well as many modern commentators, we might see in this event—that is, his baptism, as apart from any visionary experiences—a clear sign that it was only at this point that Jesus became aware of his mission and his special relationship to God. Leaving aside the question of what his sonship means, this certainly seems to be an interpretation that is much more in line with an understanding of a Jesus who is fully human. Even in the Johannine version, this approach is not precluded; it is only, at the most, downplayed.
Nevertheless, this also may be an oversimplification of the matter. Such an interpretation almost entirely overlooks what immediately follows in the synoptic gospels. Instead of the force of this event launching Jesus immediately into missionary activity, as we might expect, according to the synoptic gospels something quite the contrary took place. We are told by Mark (1:12), “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”, to which Matthew (4:1) adds, “to be tempted by the devil”.
The Temptations in the Desert
If none of the events depicted by the gospels seems as clearly historical, as his baptism or his death, the aftermath of his baptism, as presented by the synoptic gospels, presents the most puzzling of all the other major episodes recorded of him. Again, John’s gospel chooses to remain silent about the whole thing. Even the relative sparseness of biblical commentary on this subject (Meier devotes only two pages to the matter; half of page 103 in the second volume of his immense work, with a page-and-a-half footnote on pages 271‑2) seems to reduplicate in a new way the serious uneasiness in traditional thought over how to incorporate this aspect of the gospel into the body of Christian orthodoxy.
The reason for this modern reticence is, of course, the patently dramatic and visionary nature of the accounts. Even if they actually happened, who else would have been there to witness them? As in the theophany reported in conjunction with his baptism, who can say, in terms of historical argument, that anything else happened at all? Yet even Meier has to admit that “the criterion of multiple attestation”— with the exception of John’s non-synoptic gospel—argues strongly that Jesus did retreat to the desert for a period of time immediately following his baptism and that there he underwent some kind of “inner spiritual struggle in preparation for his public ministry” (Meier II, p. 272). This admission, for the purposes of this book, is more than sufficient.
Nevertheless, reflecting the silence of the Gospel of John, the concept of Jesus being tempted in the first place seems shocking to many Christian minds. Recall the outrage over Martin Scorcese’s film of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. (Even Kazantzakis seems to have had problems in trying to portray these particular temptations, if not all the others he imagined.) On the other hand, the most ancient commentaries play up the theme of Jesus having gone into the desert to show his future adversary who is in charge—not unlike St. Anthony of Egypt and the other ancient Christian desert fathers who went into solitude to defeat Satan in one‑to‑one combat. Of course, in such a scenario, there is no question as to who is going to win!
Instead of a picture of Jesus rushing into the desert to do battle with the adversary, the synoptic gospels approach the story with a quite different note. According to Mark, who gives the shortest, and presumably earliest account, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness while Matthew and Luke soften the expression to his being “led”¾even though they tell us that this was in order to be “tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1, Lk 4:2). There, Matthew tells us, Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights” and that “afterwards” (Luke is not as specific as to the time) he was “tempted” (Mt 4:2).
Although Mark does not tell us what these temptations were, Matthew and Luke are explicit and picture to us three separate temptations, differing only in the order of the last two. For reasons that will be explained shortly, and contrary to Meier’s reasoning on this matter—his based, it would seem, more on a hierarchy of sin—the order of Luke’s account be used here (Lk 4:1‑13).
The first temptation, certainly the logical one after a forty‑day fast, is to “command that this stone become a loaf of bread”. Note that in Luke 4:3 there is only one stone. Although perhaps we shouldn’t attach any particular significance to this, it could possibly point to a more individualistic self‑serving temptation, which is to say, is to satisfy Jesus’ own hunger. In contrast, the Matthean version, with its plurality of stones/loaves, seems to underscore the populist appeal of any messianic miracle‑working, not so much to quell Jesus’ own hunger, but to present himself as a new Moses, providing an imagined future audience with a new manna in the desert. However, in either case Jesus quotes scripture (Dt 8:3) to dispel this temptation, with Matthew adding a final emphasis on the “word of God”.
The second temptation, according to Luke’s presentation, is that Jesus might gain dominion over the entire world, by one act alone—simply by worshiping the Tempter. Jesus’ response is curt. It is another quote from Deuteronomy (6:13): “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” However, this time it is Luke who stresses the messianic dimensions of the temptation. Where Matthew’s account holds out simply the promise of “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Mt 4:8), in Luke (4:6-7) this is elaborated into “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world” and not only that, but “all their glory and this authority, for it has been delivered over to me…”—suggesting an allusion to the authority of imperial Rome. Accordingly, this is may not be so much a simple appeal to worship Satan, but rather an appeal to worship the ungodly power of evil embodied in the state. If so, then here the overtones closely parallel the picture of idolatry presented in the book of Revelations.
Lastly, the third temptation—at least in the Luke’s order that we are following—pictures Jesus as then being transported to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem where he is tempted to test God directly, this time by putting his fate directly in God’s hands, with the Tempter quoting from Psalm 91. Thus, Jesus is bidden to “throw himself down” to be rescued by God’s angels. Instead, Jesus again answers from Deuteronomy (6:16): “You must not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The reason for following the order given by Luke is not to ease the problem of credibility involved by transporting Jesus to Jerusalem and back. Even traditional Christians have taken these temptations to be patently symbolic or visionary—how else do you see all the world’s kingdoms in a moment? As for the purpose of throwing himself down, any nearby cliff (of which there are many in the Judean desert) would have sufficed. Instead, if we follow the order given by Luke, the idea that this temptation was really encountered in a visit to Jerusalem, where the parapet of the temple, or even the southeastern corner of the temple platform, presents a precipitous drop to the Kedron valley below, presents much less of a problem. This is more likely if a visit to Jerusalem, as depicted by John shortly after the meeting with John the Baptist, did take place at that time. However, at this point the question of the physical circumstances is not that important. What is important is the actual meaning.
It is noteworthy that the first and last temptation, in the order given by Luke, both begin with the phrase “If you are the Son of God . . .” In the case of the other temptation (the second as described by Luke), however, the implication is that he is really not divine, but that he can gain its equivalence by worshipping the proffered source of earthly power. The usual explanation given for all this is that while Jesus surely knew himself to be the Son of God, it was the devil that really wasn’t so sure. However, this is an interpretation that appears to contradict all the other statements in the gospels about the evil spirits proclaiming Jesus’ identity—but of course, only after Jesus had been tested in this way.
Again, the whole episode could be read quite differently. Instead, to revert to modern psychological jargon, what we have here are all the indications we might need to describe an actual identity crisis. However outrageous this suggestion may seem, the reader is invited to try to imagine the following scenario.
Jesus, responding to his best instincts and to the prompting of the Spirit, after years of seclusion in Nazareth, went to the Jordan to be initiated into the revival movement of John, only to be given the revelation (or should we say “hit with the realization”?) that God had singled out himself, Jesus, not John, with the special mission of inaugurating the kingdom. John, if we are to believe his own testimony as recorded by all four gospels, saw himself only as a herald, a “precursor”, or “a voice crying in the wilderness”. Yet, instead of joining John as an ally, Jesus had suddenly experienced the overwhelming power of the conviction that he must go beyond John. He must begin the implementation or embodiment of that kingdom or reign of God in its actuality, not just in its promise.
What did or does this “kingdom” mean? That, first of all, was the obvious problem—as we can see from the later confusion of his disciples. Was it to be constituted by an open revolt against Rome, as the Zealots would urge? On the other hand, was it to be a sudden Day of Judgment, as John the Baptist’s preaching seemed to foretell? Or could it be simply a reform of his people’s religion as such, perhaps through a purging of the corruption surrounding the temple worship combined with a more spiritual reinterpretation of the Law as many of the Pharisees were urging? These were all possibilities to be considered and with which he must wrestle.
Yet this was only the operative or strategic side of the question. The deeper and more essential side was who he himself might be. To be designated God’s Servant‑Son could mean very different things in these different contexts. To be a messiah as the Zealots imagined him would be one thing, while to be a Teacher of Righteousness whom the Essenes and, presumably, the Pharisee’s might have also followed, would be quite another. In addition, there was also the mysterious, enigmatic “Son of Man”, the shadowy apocalyptic figure who appears in the prophecies of Daniel, the vision of whom may have inspired John the Baptist’s warnings of a judgment to come. In other words, the message itself determined the mission and identity of its proclaimer. If, as Albert Schweitzer and his disciples said, “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, and his followers proclaimed Jesus”, this need not be taken as an unwarranted presumption. It is the ultimate guarantee of the authenticity of God’s word. Or in this case, especially, as a pundit of a later age would proclaim, “The medium is the message.”
That may have very well been the problem that drove Jesus, under the impulse of the Spirit, into the desert. Like another Elijah, John the Baptist had emerged from the desert to proclaim God’s word. Now, almost like a second reincarnation of Elijah, Jesus is driven back into the desert, and like the first Elijah as he moved toward Mt. Horeb in the footsteps of Moses to seek God’s will, Jesus secludes himself in the desert to confront for the first time that disturbing question: “Who do people say that I am?”
Up to this point, despite what has been said about the process of individuation and the effect it may have had upon his self‑consciousness, it may be safe to say that Jesus, as far as we can know from the gospels, apart from what may have only been idle speculation on our part, may have had little sense of himself as an individual in any way different from any pious Jew of his age. Even if we were to keep turning back to Luke’s depiction of the incident known as The Finding in the Temple as indicative of a certain precocity, and we were to take that episode as somehow recalling the actual words of Jesus, the sheer ingenuousness of the answer of the boy to his parents seems to indicate that he really saw nothing extraordinary about his relationship to God. After all, why should his parents, of all people, pious Jews that they were, worry about him or see anything unusual about his eagerness to learn? Instead, it is the Evangelist who plays up a deeper meaning of the word “father” and his parent’s bewildered surprise.
No doubt, Jesus had listened carefully to the rabbis and other scholars and pious men who had come his way. To some extent, despite all the negative things said about them in the gospels, it might be said that Jesus loosely identified himself with the beginnings of that reform movement generally known as phariseeism. Although the great variety of opinions over biblical interpretation and the various approaches to piety current in the society of that time make it difficult to categorize Jesus as being an adherent of any one particular school or tradition, Professor David Flusser, of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, considered to be the Jewish expert on the New Testament, believes that Jesus can be tentatively associated with one particular pharisaic group, which Flusser identifies as being “the Pharisees of Love”.
However, there can also be no question that Jesus definitely did not in any way identify with the would‑be Jewish ruling elite in Jerusalem, known as the Sadducees, even though he retained a critical respect for the temple ceremonies which these establishment types still controlled and often demeaned in their concern to capitalize on the piety of the average Jew. Did perhaps Jesus think that there was something that he, even as one small, unimportant, relatively uneducated, but well‑meaning person from the provinces might do? It may be that, to his mind, the Pharisees were too divided among themselves to effect any major reform.
No doubt, news of the strong stand being taken by John along the Jordan must have filtered its way up to Nazareth. Jesus went down to witness what was taking place and in turn, offered his own life completely to the service of God—indeed, this was the whole point of John’s baptism in its demand for conversion. What is different about Jesus, as compared to the rest of John’s followers, is that Jesus is not only taken at his word, but that he is also declared to be God’s “Servant‑Son”. What this declaration might mean, and the mission this implied, is the question, but not the final answer, which the temptations in the desert underline.
Before this, it must have been different. Certainly Jesus knew himself to be a “child” or a “servant” of God, and even a “son of God” in the sense that he knew that Jews, as members of a chosen people, were called to be special in God’s eyes. Even more, his extraordinary devotion to God as Abba or Father speaks eloquently of his sense of closeness to God, a closeness that cannot but reflect favorably on his home and childhood. Now, perhaps for the first time, in all its stark reality, Jesus knew that he was truly different. It could be that he felt something like the volunteer who, thinking he might help in some way in a mission, suddenly finds himself designated as chief or commander of the whole operation. Who knows? Nevertheless, whatever his feelings, it is obvious that he fled to the desert to find the answer to what he was really being called to be.
The choices were limited. He could attempt the route of the Zealots—to foment a popular revolution, to turn “stone(s) to bread”, as we are told he turned a few loaves into a camp meal on more than one occasion and was almost drafted into leadership. Not only stones to bread, the stony resignation of his people under centuries of repression he knew could also be transformed into a mob of impassioned liberators who could throw out not only the Roman oppressors, but their rich and powerful allies among the Jews as well. To be the Son of God—would this not be to become the Liberator, the Messiah of Israel?
Or, on the other hand, if he were not the Son of God—even in the sense of God’s chosen agent—yet still desired to further the reform and freedom of Israel, would it not be a wiser move to somehow ally oneself with the forces of oppression to reform them from within; or as another age would say: “If you can’t beat them, join them”? Maybe, in this way, some providential opportunity would present itself that could be used to turn the situation around entirely. Yet, would not such a course of action be an idolatry of power, a going over to Satan in the self‑deluding hope that he could turn Satan’s power against evil?—a temptation worth pondering, no doubt, but in the end deceptive. At best it would be an immoral course, no matter how noble the intentions. Worldly power, in the end, cannot serve God’s real purposes, and those who think it can have already prostrated themselves before a false god.
Is there any other way out? Perhaps there is: this is why the order of the temptations as presented by Luke rings more true, at least psychologically speaking. One can put things entirely in God’s hands. This, the final possibility or resolution, however, can also be the final temptation. Could it be that Jesus, driven to despair to find an answer, was tempted to find it, to force God’s hand as it were, by throwing himself over a cliff? Or like the prophet Elijah before him, who in the desert prayed that God would take his life (1 K 19:4) or the prophet Jeremiah who came to rue the day he’d been born (Jr 20:14‑18) that already the burden of the message and ministry that confronted Jesus was in danger of proving too much for him? Who is to say, if Jesus truly was a man, that such a temptation was impossible? Indeed, later in his ministry, when he enigmatically said, “Where I am going, you cannot come”, his listeners even wondered if he was intending to kill himself (Jn 8:22). So at least the possibility of suicide was not beyond his hearers’ imagination. The intensity of the prophetic ministry is not without its recognized dangers!
Be that as it may, the temptation, as presented in the gospels, is not that far‑fetched. Even the topography suggests it. If this temptation did not actually take place at the temple, then the location of the monastery of the Quarantine (“the Forty Days”) that is perched on a cliff face overlooking the site of ancient Jericho and the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea beyond, is a fitting enough place to recall this and those other solitaries who have gone mad in the desert.
Might not this final temptation have taken place at the temple in Jerusalem after all? A long day’s hike (from the desert above Jericho), uphill all the way, but half‑starved and feverish from the dryness and heat of the desert, could not have Jesus’ quandary between the way of popular revolt and the way of political influence have possibly driven him to seek a solution, no longer in the wilderness, where he found no answer, but in the midst of the capitol and it’s holiest place? The temple was, of all things, that which most of all symbolized the reformation that was needed, and also the place where the powers that be, no matter how subservient to the foreigners, still had the influence to bring about change, if they wanted it—which they did not. What better place for a final contest, not with those powers so much, or even with the mob, but with himself, and with God? Jesus would wrest, if he could, an answer from God or else die in the attempt. What more decisive a resolution could there be? How could he not be tempted by it?
However, the answer was not to come yet, at least not that day and not that way. Perhaps it was the sight of the temple itself in all its near‑completed magnificence—this was the third one on this spot and would be the grandest of them all. Or maybe it was the sight of all these people, especially all these little, sincere and devout people who streamed to the temple all day long to hand over their pathetic, over‑priced offerings. Or maybe it was even the sight of the foreign tourists and soldiers who for all their affected disdain were underneath impressed and even awed by the majesty of this great monument to Israel’s God. Or could there have been a premonition that the showdown would come another day in another way, close by these same city and temple walls and that the moment of truth must be according to the Father’s own choosing?
If Jesus did cause a stir in the temple shortly after his baptism, as the second chapter of John’s gospel indicates, it apparently didn’t amount to much—or else the authorities chose to ignore it. In any case, Jesus must have come away with the conviction that he must wait for God, not tempt him, and that the time would come soon enough when he would have to challenge the authorities at this august spot, not by a spectacular, or even suicidal leap, but by some calculated action that God would reveal to him before long. So Jesus found his way back to his home province and to his hometown. The meaning of his sonship, it was clear by now, was to be in the pattern of the Isaian “Servant of Jahweh” and the suffering that would entail.
Jesus and Personal Faith
What we have here, in these combined stories of the baptism and the temptations of Jesus is what might be seen as (despite the question, in the previous chapter, as to whether the faith of Jesus was ever conventional in the usual sense of that word) a definitive movement from what generally corresponds to conventional faith to a more intensely personal faith. By contemporary standards, and by much of what has already been implied, we may have the impression that a conventional faith, because it is conventional and highly influenced by family, society, and culture in general, is an inferior type of faith. In some ways it is—especially if we look at it from the aspect of personal resolution or conviction on a purely intellectual level. Nevertheless, we must make no mistake about confusing that with lack of genuine commitment or holiness. If the faith of Jesus had been somewhat conventional in terms of what was then contemporary Judaism until around his thirtieth year, we must realize that for him or anyone like him in his society, although there was plenty of variety in the expression of Judaism, still, when reduced to its basics, there was no doctrinal alternative. What little popular paganism he was exposed to must have seemed ludicrous or bizarre. At the same time, Jesus must have been resolved to find an even better way of being a Jew. In this context, that he sought out the baptizer along the Jordan speaks for itself.
Still, what he found and he himself became was something very different from what he had left behind in Nazareth. That month and a half or so Jesus spent along the Jordan and in the near‑by desert was to profoundly change him. Whatever it was that happened to him at the time of his baptism, it propelled him into a prolonged period of solitude to wrestle with its meaning. Moreover, the outcome of this test does not seem to have been completely resolved even then. Nor should this surprise us. The movement from conventional to a fully personal faith is generally not a smooth one, indeed, it is apt to be even more traumatic within closed and more or less homogeneous religious cultures—although Jewish culture at that time was rapidly ceasing to be as rigid as we may imagine it to have been or even as it was to become in later times from place to place. The broad division between Sadducees and Pharisees and the many divisions within the latter, or of revolutionary resistance groups like the Zealots or esoteric conclaves like the Essenes, all point to an amazing pluralism even within the Judaism of that time.
However, to the north, in Galilee, away from Judaism’s religious and cultural capitol in Jerusalem or its most cosmopolitan intellectual center in Alexandria, Jesus’ own impression of his faith was likely to be to some extent more traditional than that of many other Jews of his time. Personalization or individuation within this religious context was primarily a matter of finding ones own special vocation within the context of a faith long received. The type of synthesis that goes on within the earlier conventional stage is much less likely to have been in evidence in the Galilean Judaism of the first century of our era. If anything, instead of the broadening synthesis that often, but not always, takes place when faith becomes personalized in our own situation, the reflection and insight that Jesus gained during this brief but decisive period in his life could be seen primarily as counter‑synthetic, breaking down whatever easy accommodations may have been made between religion and society and instead demanding a radical renewal of faith.
Or to look at it from another perspective, that given by Pierre Babin, we might say that Jesus underwent a religious conversion experience in the true biblical sense of the word, a metanoia (literally, a “change of mind”) which is not so much that of “repentance”—the usual translation given to John’s message and baptism—as it is an upheaval in one’s whole way of thinking or attitude towards life. Such conversions do not necessarily involve a change in religion or religious affiliation, although that also occasionally happens. What it does involve, if it is genuine, is a new deepening of one’s religious commitment, one that is often expressed in a sense of mission, call or vocation, which demands a whole new manner of life. It would have been the kind of turning‑point that even such a no‑nonsense critic as Meier admits must have happened about this time. In Jesus’ case, this sense of a call and its demand for a life lived with a sense of a divinely given mission is clearly evident.
In terms of risk and the threat it poses to security, this period must have been singularly traumatic for Jesus. To leave home, as humble as it was, and to venture out to follow a charismatic prophet in the wilderness, could hardly have been approached in the spirit of mere diversion on the one hand, or simply as a religious pilgrimage on the other. To lay aside his familiar tools, the simple comforts of hearthside and his mother’s cooking, or even the reassuring security of well‑used scrolls in the local synagogue and to be prepared to take up a wanderer’s life in the footsteps of a wild‑looking man who reputedly lived on grasshoppers and by raiding wild bees’ hives could not have sounded very attractive.
On the other hand, to throw all aside to follow this man and to have to risk disappointment or disillusionment and to find oneself with no alternative but to return home wiser but sadder to a small town, where everyone knew everyone else’s business, would not be an attractive prospect either. That Jesus appeared to do just that after his sojourn along the Jordan did not go unnoticed. True, he was soon to reassert his newfound call as a traveling rabbi, with even a small coterie of followers. Yet even by this time, there were people, particularly among his relatives, who thought him to be somewhat unhinged (Mk 3:20-21). To be different, or even to dare to be so, is to earn scorn from those who think they already know everything about you. Had they had any idea of what went on in his mind when he had been in the desert a short time back they would have been even more suspicious. Either way, there was now no turning back.