Historical Cultural Context
The Test of Honor
Since scholars recognize Mark’s as the earliest of the Gospels, his simple version of the Temptation of Jesus is also considered the primitive report which Matthew and Luke embellished by creating three specific temptations.
From the Mediterranean cultural perspective, the temptation of Jesus by Satan is inevitable after the honorable tribute by the voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). Every claim to honor is sure to be tested. Someone will try to prove that the compliment was false.
Though Mark does not report Jesus’ response to the testing, the reader can assume that Jesus successfully defends his honor as the pleasing and beloved Son. Remember that the opening verse of this Gospel established Jesus’ claim to honor: “The beginning of the proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1).
Then we note that Jesus left his kinship network in Nazareth of Galilee to meet with John in the wilderness (Mk 1:9) where Jesus subsequently finds himself apparently alone with Satan (Mk 1:13). The Mediterranean reader realizes that without his kinship network, Jesus is particularly vulnerable to attack by anyone and everyone.
The Mediterranean reader is quite frightened for Jesus until reminded that “the angels waited on him” (Mk 1:13). Of course! The Son of God has a different kinship network which does not abandon him. With such help, Jesus certainly defended his honor successfully against Satan’s tests.
Jesus and John
Perhaps because of the brevity of Mark’s account of the temptation, the Gospel selection for this cycle includes the subsequent verses which describe how Jesus initiates his ministry.
Jesus’ growing experience of success in healing and exorcism persuaded him to undertake a separate ministry, and John’s arrest was the appropriate time to begin.
Mark summarizes and simplifies this development: Jesus was baptized by John and successfully defended his honor against Satan. When John was arrested, Jesus initiated his ministry, and only then went about recruiting followers for his faction. Such behavior is perfectly honorable, as one would expect from none other than the Son of God.
Loyalty, commitment, solidarity—this is the cluster of values that Jesus invites his followers to embrace. Primarily, of course, these values should be directed to the God of Israel, whether in the midst of a storm (Mk 4:40), when seeking a healing from Jesus, God’s prophet (Mk 5:34; 10:52), or at any other time.
Jesus himself is praised for his loyalty (Heb 3:1-3) and obedience to God (Heb 5:8). Mark would very likely second Matthew’s challenge: “stay loyal to God and do not hesitate in your loyalty” (Mt 21:22).
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University