The temptation of Jesus, related in its most condensed form by Mark (1:12-13), is traditionally explained as a period of fasting and purification in the Judean desert prior to Jesus’ ministry in Galilea. It is possible, however, that these verses tell a different story.
Nestle-Aland offers the following translation: (12) The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (13) And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.
My translation, which I will discuss below, reads as follows: (12) Immediately the spirit sent him out to the devastated place. (13) And he stayed in the devastated place for forty days, tested by Satan; and he was among the wild beasts; and the envoys took care of him.
I don’t believe we should turn to supernatural explanations if an earthly explanation is possible. Let me start with the ἄγγελοι (aggeloi) of verse 13 which can refer to human messengers as well as to heavenly creatures, delegation members, representatives or envoys, for example. If Jesus is treated well by this kind of people maybe he is on a mission and it is his fellow envoys who take good care of him. Then maybe the ἔρημον (erēmon) is the destination of this mission. In the New Testament ἔρημον is traditionally translated as ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’, but the word can describe any desolate, abandoned or devastated place, also through human intervention and/or in an urban context. Josephus uses both this word and the related ἔρημία (erēmia) several times to describe an area as ‘abandoned or devastated by human intervention’ (for example War 2:504, 4:452, 5:573). In War V:25 ἔρημία is used to describe the part of Jerusalem that had been laid to waste by fire during the civil war. Similarly, the qualification ἔρημον can also apply to Rome, certainly after the devastating fire of 64 CE. (Maybe there is also a play on words between ἔρημον and Ρώμη – the gospel of Luke offers ἐν τῇ ἐρημῳ.) Then ἔρημον can be seen as a cryptic, derogatory term for Rome. This devastated place is the home of Satan, code for the Roman emperor. In this context the θηρία (thēria), ‘wild beasts’, also, in a human context, for ‘monstrous, bestial men’) can be interpreted as an encrypted name for the Roman military, and they probably are, as they are mentioned in one breath alongside the emperor, a code for the Praetorian Guard.
This explanation may be less far-fetched than at first it seems when we turn to the longer version in Luke (4:1-13). Is there anything in these additional verses that could point to the Roman emperor, the Roman empire or Roman imperial ideology? I believe the answer is yes, and most convincingly so in verses 5 to 8. In verse 5 the devil (not Satan here, but ὁ διάβολος) shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the οἰκουμένη, the Roman empire, and makes a very cynical proposal. He will hand over his empire to his opponent if the latter worships him. This of course is the very last thing any Essene or Zealot would do, because the core of their ideology was ‘we have only God as our master’. Jesus answers with this Zealot creed in verse 8. The Roman imperial cult versus the Essene struggle for world dominion is the undercurrent in these verses.
Verses 3 and 4 on the stone and the bread can also be seen in the light of Roman/Essene opposition. Maybe the stone symbolises the eye-catching Roman construction activity, while the bread represents the basic needs of the people. The ‘stone and bread’ remark of the emperor can also be interpreted as cynical: if your God is so powerful, let him turn our expensive building projects (‘stone’) into food for your starving people (‘bread’). From the Jewish perspective, verse 3 has the undertone of criticism of Roman policy.
The extension in the gospel of Luke may not be historical, but it shows that its author interpreted Mark’s temptation fragment for what is was: the account of a mission to the centre of Roman power in which Jesus participated.