How John Used the Synoptics: The First Temptation vs. The First Sign

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by Tim Widowfield

Ivan Kramskoi: Christ in the Desert

Anyone wishing to harmonize the gospel of John with the Synoptics will have a great deal of trouble explaining the beginnings of Jesus’ career. In the Fourth Gospel, on his way back to Galilee, Jesus has already poached many of John the Baptist’s followers. In fact, he has started up his own dunking franchise, luring away John’s customers. However, in the Synoptics, after Jesus’ baptism, the spirit drives him into the wilderness, where he sits in solitude. He hasn’t even met any of the Twelve yet.

Different “traditions”?

Such differences might compel us to posit that the two origin stories have so little in common that they must emerge from wholly unrelated traditions. And yet if we look just a bit harder, we see some common threads, at least on a symbolic level.

In my brief series on How John Used Mark, I discussed how John apparently took ideas from the Gospel of Mark and turned them inside out. But in the case of John inverting the temptation stories, the source must be either Matthew or Luke, since Mark has only this to say:

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13, NRSV)

For details concerning those temptations, we must turn to the other two gospels. Oddly, Matthew and Luke list the second and the third in different order, but the first temptation remains the same. (All of the following verses come from the NASB.)

Matthew Luke
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness
4:2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. 4:2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry.
4:3 And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4:3 And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4:4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'” 4:4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE.'”

The tempter (Satan, the devil, etc.) whisks him away in the Satan-copter and entices him twice more, offering the kingdoms of the world, and strangely daring him to throw himself down from a high place to be saved by the angels.

Matthew Luke
4:5 Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 4:9 And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here;


4:7 Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'” 4:12 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It is said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'”
4:8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 4:5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
4:9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 4:6 And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.

4:7 “Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.”

4:10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'” 4:8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'”
4:11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him. 4:13 When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.

Notice that Luke omits the part about the angels tending to Jesus in the wilderness.

Deliberate contrasts? 

At first glance — or even second or third glance — we might see no connection whatsoever between the temptations and the miracle at Cana. After all, the former happens in the wilderness in private, while the latter happens in a town in public. In fact the latter’s stated result is, like the other “signs” in John’s gospel, people saw and believed in him. This time, it is the first sign, and his disciples believed in him.

However, when I see strongly opposed points like this I become more suspicious that John is inverting something in the Synoptics. We find an obvious clue in the temptation to convert a natural substance — rocks, water — into something else — bread, wine. Both of these substance have a yet higher transformed substance in the Christian ritual of communion — flesh, blood.

Let’s examine some points of the stories more closely and see how they contrast.

John Synoptics
In the verse before the Wedding at Cana, Jesus says to Nathanael (aka, Nathanael of Cana) that they will see heaven opened, with angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. The Synoptics end with the angels tending to Jesus.

In M and L, the devil tempts Jesus to throw himself down, so that the angels will swoop in and pick him up.

Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding, which he voluntarily attends. The spirit enters Jesus, and drives him away from the Jordan and into the desert. For 40 days, he seems to have lost bodily control, the spirit of God moves him about, and the tempter takes him from place to place.
The wedding ceremony is used throughout the gospels as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. Jesus blesses the Wedding at Cana with his presence and with a miracle. The devil in M and L shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world and he rejects them.
Jesus’ mother (never named in John) says they’re out of wine and asks her son to act. He does, even though he rebukes her. The devil in M and L tries to make Jesus say and do things. He quotes scripture and steadfastly refuses.
Jesus turns the water into wine. Jesus refuses to turn the stones into bread.
Following the miracle, Jesus, his disciples, and his mother, all go to Capernaum. After that, he goes to Jerusalem. In Luke, after the temptation, Jesus goes to Nazareth.

In Matthew, Jesus goes to Nazareth, then Capernaum.

(Nazareth is in the opposite direction from Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee.)


The key here is John’s taking a miracle denied that proves his righteousness into a miracle performed that results in others’ belief. Of course, without the symbolism, the miracle of Cana is a mere parlor trick. What makes it important, aside from being the first sign, is what the different elements in the story mean. (We have previously discussed the function of the miracle at Cana as a parable.) But all those various elements depend on this foundation: What, John asks us, if Jesus refused the transformation of rocks into bread for his own selfish needs, but on the other hand assented to the transformation of water into wine to help others and so that the disciples would believe in him?

Note: When Jesus rebukes his mother, (John 2:4a) he uses remarkably harsh language, viz. “What have I to do with you?” But several well-known English translations falsely try to make the object of Jesus’ rebuke the fact that the wedding party ran out of wine. She says, “They have no more wine.”

NIV: “Woman, why do you involve me?”

ESV: “Woman, what does this have to do with me?”

NASB: “Woman, what does that have to do with us?”

Always keep plenty of translations around and continually refer to the Greek. Under no circumstances should you trust the NIV to be faithful to the text; their first duty is to harmonize the Bible with their evangelical beliefs.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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20 thoughts on “How John Used the Synoptics: The First Temptation vs. The First Sign”

  1. “Under no circumstances should you trust the NIV to be faithful to the text; their first duty is to harmonize the Bible with their evangelical beliefs.”


  2. For years I’ve thought it would be great if there was a handy guide to the reliability (and un-reliability)
    of the various bible translations – not just to point out the areas where scholars can’t seem to agree on
    what the proper translation should say, or to show the variant texts we have, but to underline where
    certain translations are playing fast and loose with the sources just to score theological points…

    1. It’s easier to point out ones that are worse than mediocre. The NIV sometimes accidentally will be spot-on with a translation. But more often than not, it hides things from the frightened faithful.

  3. I think the whole temptation story is a parable where Jesus stands for the faithful and the devil/tempter for Rome. It cannot be about Jesus’ life.

    The devil challenges Jesus to turn stone into bread, and Jesus answers with “bread alone isn’t everything.”

    Who said that it was? And to answer “bread isn’t everything” is an admission that he can’t do it (but he’s not totally useless because he can do other things). If we take this story literally, Jesus admits that he can’t perform a miracle. More likely it’s about the faithful who still have virtue in a materialistic Roman empire, even though they have no wealth to show.

    Then the challenge is to jump off a height to be saved by God, but that’d somehow put God to the test. It makes no sense. This must be about the believers that started to doubt God’s existence and proposed to abandon faith, and if God is real, he’ll intervene. This trick to prove the existence of God apparently was forbidden by scripture, which is what the answer is saying (The son of God has no reason to doubt the Father)

    And then the devil says I’ve been given all this land, which I’ll share with you if you follow me. When was the devil given anything? This must be Rome. If you also worship Roman gods, you can have these Roman titles and land, but you must not.

    This story cannot be about Jesus’ life.

  4. what’s the chance the information flowed the other way ie. John to the synoptics? the synoptic-like components were added to an earlier or concurrent proto-John?

    1. That’s worth investigating. There’s really no reason to close the door on any of these questions. Was there really a Q? Is Marcan posteriority correct?

      I tend to think that John is continually correcting things that have come before, but I could be wrong.

        1. An astrology cult theology of Jesus is possible, see Howard-Brook, Wes; Gwyther, Anthony. iUnveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. Orbis Books. p. 83 :

          [Per Bruce Malina] His conclusion is that Revelation portrays Jesus as “one wielding control of the cosmos” from his position “in the sky” and hence he is the Messiah of God worthy of honor and loyalty in place of earthly emperors and the Roman gods and goddesses. [Malina, Bruce J. (1995). On the Genre and Message of Revelation: Star Visions and Sky Journeys. Hendrickson Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56563-040-6.]

        2. John may well reflect another understanding of Christ, but he’s is not drawing from any additional, unused ‘oral tradition’ material about Jesus.

          The way John alters, adapts, expands, inverts, and re-orders the synoptics shows he was wholly unconcerned with any historical accuracy. He was working from a Jesus story created by others, and modified it to fit his Christology. While some (i.e., Spong, Fox) find John more historical than the synoptics, I see it as unabashedly exegetical. And one can easily see what’s behind John’s Seven Signs without the need to postulate some lost Signs Gospel.

  5. Dr. Dennis MacDonald in his new book, “The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides (2017)” outlines extensive engagement between the Johannine literature and the Synoptics.

  6. I think the symbolism behind the water to wine sign is meant to show the change in rituals from the waters of Essene baptism to the wine of mystery religion Eucharists. The Synoptics shows the same change by starting their gospel with the baptism of John and ending with the story with the Eucharist of Jesus.

    It seems to me that the three temptations in Matthew and Luke are meant to be references to Honi the Circle Drawer: 1) Staying in a circle and refusing to eat bread until one’s prayer has been answered is the central motif by the “circle drawing”, similar to what Jesus does in the Last Temptation of Christ. 2) For a Galilean peasant to be offered “all the power in the world” makes no sense in the real world, but it would make sense for Honi the Circle Drawer because he was offered a chance to take the side of Hyrcanus II against his brother Aristobulus II while he was putting the temple to siege, but Honi refused to offer a prayer for their side, and instead offered a prayer for both sides, which ended up condemning himself to death. 3) As mentioned in the article, throwing oneself off the temple also makes absolutely no sense in the context of Jesus, but if this is considered in the context of Honi the Circle Drawer being taken to the top of the Temple, or perhaps a siege engine to the Temple, then throwing oneself off the top to escape one’s captors, or prove one’s divinity, is not as strange.

  7. I think that we must read John’s gospel with the heart and not with the reason.
    Then, knowing a lot of ancient history and mythology, you will see that:
    – first , the other gospels were directed towards Israel people
    – second, the gospel of john is directed to the “others”, the pagans
    – third, the gospel of john, first part, is about seven miracles
    And these miracles are to show the greatness of Jesus when comparing to other gods.
    For example,
    * the miracle to turn water into wine, that he is superior to Dionysus
    * the miracle of walking through the waters, that he is superior to Yam
    * the miracle at the pool, that he is superior than Asclepius
    * the rising of lazarus, that Orpheous is not necessary
    * i must continue studying….

      1. In ancient history there a lot of tales about temptation and gods.
        And Jesus, as all others, also rejected it.
        “Anyone wishing to harmonize the gospel of John with the Synoptics will have a great deal of trouble explaining the beginnings of Jesus’ career. ” -> I agree.

  8. Tim,

    I don’t know what to say. Where in Scripture is water and rocks turned into blood and flesh? You are way off-beam if you think you have any such basis for argument development. Really you should know better. Flesh and blood are only used to screw the disciples heads. Christ is here shaking off those who aren’t going to stay the course. Communion?? You really are asking your readers to view Christ as a pussy.

  9. I’m not good at telling anecdotes, but this is my experience in my field of industry. There are many people who see certain engineers as “miracle workers”. (You may have heard this about Scotty from Star Trek, but I’ve heard it many times from many people in real life.) These engineers come by this characterization after years of experience, usually working for only one specific company. They may or may not have Masters or PhD to gussy it up. These people don’t really know much outside of their narrow expertise.

    None of these people came to be known as a miracle worker as a result of working any sort of miracle. It is definitely, even in the case of Scotty, something that they fashioned for themselves. And it is good for sustaining a career, especially for older engineers. I’ve known so many older engineers who essentially did nothing at all, but sit around on their credentials. They seem to me to act very much like Christian pastors, telling anecdotes, simplified stories to glorify their experiences.

    Many companies flailing in desperation will hire these older “miracle worker” engineers to work them a miracle. Usually after a year, the engineer has done nothing or mucked up everything quite a bit. If faith does not waiver these companies run out of money and go out of business. Sometimes the miracle worker will get a better offer and leave, and upon leaving the execs who hired him will come face to face with the reality of how little they’ve gotten early enough to do something about it.

    I can’t see what I do as working miracles. I work hard. I don’t risk failure just so the outcome looks like it was pulled out of my ass at the last minute. I know that the people who foster the miracle worker image are deceptive and create serious risks for dramatic effect or just incompetence.

    If you bring together a gathering of thousands of people and “miraculously” come out with enough bread and fish for everyone, if this is not sheer luck, it was definitely staged. But there is a cult of luck as magic as well to poison every possible well. Rigged demos are never given fair consideration.

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