Musings on Mark: Conflict Among the Synoptics

Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον. καὶ ἦν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ σατανᾶ, καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.
Mark 1:12-13

In the last “Musing on Mark” post, we addressed the “wild animals” comment that Mark seems to throw into the text. We return to that same passage today to talk about the first part of verse 13: “And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” (ESV) Let’s compare this to the same account in Matthew’s Gospel.

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came….” (4:1-3)

Luke seems to be trying to reconcile both what Matthew reports and what Mark reports:

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him….” (Luke 4:1-3)

So Mark says that during the entire forty days he was being tempted by Satan. Matthew says that “the tempter” doesn’t show up until after the forty day fast has ended. Luke says that the devil was there the whole time and the tempting continued after the fasting had ended.

The issue is the Greek participle πειραζόμενος (peirazomenos), a present tense participle in the passive voice. Luke employs the same participle and it is translated in the ESV in both instances as “being tempted.” Matthew, on the other hand, utilizes the infinitive πειρασθῆναι (peirasthenai), “to be tempted.” In a bid to salvage inerrancy, Rodney J. Decker views the participle in Mark as an indicator of purpose (Decker, 2014, 15), citing Daniel Wallace’s textbook: “Almost every instance of an adverbial πειράζων in the present tense in the NT that follows the controlling verb suggests purpose.” (Wallace, 1996, 636) What Decker failed to note was that even Wallace was not sure about Mark 1:13 and Luke 4:2.

Almost every instance of an adverbial πειράζων in the present tense in the NT that follows the controlling verb suggests purpose (cf. Matt 16:1; 19:3; 22:35; Mark 1:13; 8:11; 10:2; Luke 4:2; 11:16; John 6:6 [8:6, though this text is spurious].) Hebrews 11:17 is the lone exception (temporal); Jas 1:13 has the participle before the verb. Mark 1:13 and Luke 4:2 might also be exceptions (he was in “the wilderness for forty days, being tested by the devil”), but the relation of the testing in the wilderness to the leading of the Spirit seems to suggest that these, too, should be taken as telic. (Luke 4:1 makes sense if taken this way: “he was led by the Spirit (2) for forty days for the purpose of being tested. Note also Matt 4:1, where the simple infinitive of πειράζω is used to describe the Spirit’s activity: ἀνήχθη εἰς τὴν ἔρημον ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος πειρασθῆναι ὑπὸ τοῦ διαβόλου). (Wallace, 636)

Let me be very clear. I am not a scholar of New Testament Greek and compared to Wallace I am an ignoramus (I am, after all, the Amateur Exegete). But even Wallace acknowledges that Mark 1:13 and Luke 4:1 may not be telic participles, though it seems that a telic use is his preferred reading. Moreover, Wallace’s comment that the telic understanding helps Luke 4:1 make sense is not at all convincing. Luke 4:1 also makes sense if the participle is rendered as “being tempted” or “tempted.” (Guelich, 1989, 36) That is, unless, you subscribe to inerrancy.

If πειραζόμενος in Mark 1:13 and Luke 4:1 is not telic then we have a clear contradiction among the Synoptics. On one side you have Mark, the earliest Gospel written, and Luke facing off against Matthew. Mark and Luke suggest that during the entire forty day wilderness episode Jesus was tempted by the devil while Matthew says that the temptation began after the forty days was completed. Since Mark and Luke are describing the same episode as Matthew, someone must be wrong. Inerrancy, then, is in trouble.

Let’s return to Mark 1:13 and read πειραζόμενος as a telic verb to see if this actually solves the problem.

And immediately the Spirit cast him out into the desert. And he was in the desert forty days to be tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild animals, and the angels ministered to him. (1:12-13, my translation)

Does a telic πειραζόμενος fix the problem? Not at all. Instead, what you have is that the purpose of him being in the desert for forty days was for Satan to tempt him. In either rendering you have a forty-day testing by Satan. Again, this contradicts Matthew’s version of events. Inerrancy is in error.

There are other issues we could consider. For example, Mark doesn’t bother commenting on Jesus’ victory over Satan’s temptation like Matthew and Luke do. The Markan pericope takes up only thirty words; the other Synoptics spill a lot more ink. Also, Satan does not take up a large role in Mark like he does in the other Synoptics. (Bock, 2015, 118) Maybe we will save that for a future Musings on Mark.

Printed Works Cited

Darrell Bock. New Cambridge Bible Commentary: Mark. Cambridge University Press, 2015

Rodney J. Decker. Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text. Baylor University Press, 2014.

Robert A. Guelich. WBC: Mark 1 – 8:26, vol. 34a. Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Daniel B. Wallace. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

3 thoughts on “Musings on Mark: Conflict Among the Synoptics

  1. Not that it’s my job to rescue inerrancy, but … could an inerrantist reading work in which Jesus is tempted for forty days and also afterwards? Presumably that requires the three named temptations to be after the 40 days, and for it to be OK for the synoptics to show different “camera angles,” so to speak. Dk how that plays.


    1. That is an interesting possibility and one I would need to think on. We would have to answer the question as to why Matthew and Luke differ with Mark, the earliest gospel, on this. Might be impossible to answer!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close