The temptation of Jesus, which Mark related in its most condensed form (1:12-13), is traditionally explained as a period of fasting and purification in the Judean desert prior to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. It is possible, however, that these verses are telling a different story.
Nestle-Aland translates these verses as follows: (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, goes 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 believe we should not turn to supernatural explanations if an earthly explanation is possible. Let me start with the ἄγγελοι (aggeloi) of verse 13, a noun that can refer to both human messengers and heavenly creatures, for example delegation members, representatives or envoys. 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 this word and the related ἔρημία (erēmia) several times with this ‘abandoned or devastated by human intervention’ meaning (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 ἔρημον qualification 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 (Rōmē) – the gospel of Luke has ἐν τῇ ἐρημῳ.) Then ἔρημον can be seen as a cryptic derogatory term for Rome. This devastated place is the home of Satan, an encoded name 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 a cryptic reference to the Roman military, and they probably are, since they are mentioned along with the emperor, members of the Praetorian Guard.
This explanation may be less far-fetched then it looks at first sight 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 there is, and most convincingly in verses 5 to 8. In verse 5 the devil (not Satan, but ὁ διάβολος – ho diabolod) shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the οἰκουμένη (oikoumenē), 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. Roman imperial ideology versus Jewish/Essene messianism struggling for world domination is at the core of these verses.
Verses 3 and 4 about the stone and the bread can also be seen in the light of the Roman/Essene antagonism. Maybe the (building) stone is a symbol for the eye-catching Roman architecture, while the bread represents the basic needs of the Jewish people. The ‘stone and bread’ remark of the Roman emperor can also be interpreted as cynical: if the Jewish God is so powerful, let him shift the funds for the expensive Roman building projects to the alleviation of the needs of his starving people. From a Jewish perspective, verse 3 has the undertone of criticism of Roman policy.
This extension in the gospel of Luke does not have to be historical, but it shows that its author interpreted Mark’s temptation fragment for what it was: the account of a mission to the centre of Roman power in which Jesus participated.