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Mark 1:10-13

10 On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. 11 And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, 13 and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.

As many have noticed, the Gospel of John omits Jesus' 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. Indeed, John's version (ch. 1-2) seems to speak of only three days between Jesus' arrival on the scene and the marriage at Cana (an event not mentioned in the other accounts).

Question: How can this be explained? What are some of the ways that scholars have dealt with the issue, and what is the best way to reconcile John's account with the Synoptics on the question of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness?

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There is no chronological problem here. The two time periods are as follows:

  1. The three days of John 2:1 is the period between the wedding at Cana and the previous incident which is the calling of Philip and Nathanael. This was just before the first Passover and the cleansing of the temple as recorded in John 2:13-25.
  2. The 40 days of temptation in the desert recorded in Matt 4:1-11, Mark 1:12, 13, Luke 4:1-13 all appear to have occurred before Jesus called any disciples.

That is, it was only after Jesus' baptism, that he went to the desert for 40 days, following which He began calling the disciples. Then came the first Passover and the wedding at Cana.

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  • So, a 40 day fast after baptism, then calling the disciples and then the marriage at Cana. This deals with the issue of timing but not with the main question as to why John omits the 40 days. Sep 7, 2023 at 1:59
  • The four evangelists each selected different incidents to serve their particular purpose in writing. The 40 day fast is just one of dozens of incidents that John omits compared to the synoptics. The reverse is also true - none of the synoptics include the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, etc.
    – Dottard
    Sep 7, 2023 at 2:13
  • I upvoted the answer because I had not considered previously the possibility of the 40days coming before Jesus' met the disciples at the Jordan. I am still wondering why a major event such as the 40-day temptation is missing. Sep 7, 2023 at 15:33
  • @DanFefferman - John also omits Jesus' baptism, the birth of Jesus, Mary's visit to Elizabeth, travel to Egypt, etc, etc.
    – Dottard
    Sep 7, 2023 at 21:18
  • Yes. The visit to Elizabeth is plausibly explained by John's not knowing about it... not so with Jesus' birth, baptism or the temptation. This goes to the question of purpose. I'm wondering if John left those out because he felt that to include them might encourage those who overemphasized Jesus' human side... He taught a christology "from above" while synoptics do so "from below." The flight to Egypt is a big question for me as well... too big to address in a comment. Sep 8, 2023 at 19:50
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John's Purpose in Writing
John was aware of many things Jesus did which he purposely did not report:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25 ESV)

From among all Jesus did, there was a purpose for those selected:

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20)

The events John wrote about were included so the reader would believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in His name.

The Devil's Purpose in Temptation
The 40-days of temptation end with the devil challenging Jesus. For example:

9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ 11 and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” 12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4)

The 40-days culminate with the devil challenging Jesus to do something which the devil claims will be evidence proving Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus responded to each challenge by citing a passage from the Old Testament:

“You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Jesus always responded to each challenge by using something which happened during the Exodus. This is exactly how Paul taught the Old Testament should be used:

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10)

With the Exodus in mind, the responses Jesus gave the devil could be summarized as "I am not going to prove I am the Son of God by making the same mistakes the Israelites did when they were tempted [by you] in the wilderness."

How Jesus responded to the temptations at the end of the 40-days are good examples for all believers. And, even though none of the Apostles were present and Paul does not make reference to the temptations, the accounts of Jesus life in Matthew and Luke contain examples Paul's instructions about using the Old Testament are how Jesus dealt with the devil.

Conclusion
The devil wanted Jesus to prove He was the Son of God by doing something which would have been a sin had He done them. Jesus correctly used events from the Exodus to avoid each temptation and so did not sin. Nevertheless, Jesus did not affirm His identity as the Son of God. These events are not in agreement with the purpose of John's Gospel.

John selected events which leave no doubt or question about who Jesus is, the Christ, the Son of God. Had Jesus proclaimed I am the Son of God, the temptations would have met the criteria.

Since Jesus did not proclaim who He was to the devil, not only do they not qualify, they are seemingly at odds with another way in which John's Gospel differs from the synoptic accounts. John provides 18 I am statements from and about Jesus. Including the 40-days of temptations would lessen the effect of I AM in John's account. After all, if Jesus is the Son of God, why didn't He say so when challenged by the devil?

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Why is John's Gospel Unique?

The expectation of reconciling and harmonising it with the synoptic Gospels betrays a traditional misconception which thought that they should be reconciled or should be self-consistent. We should not start with such preconceived agendas to explain the literary styles and the various independent authors.

The uniqueness of John's Gospel is explained by understanding its literary style which is similar to commentary style of Targum, and a more narrative centred and less historical or accuracy centred. The author presents the Gospel in the form of his own narrative and understanding where the details could be purely creative as in the later Gospels such as the Gnostic gospels, that is not to say that the synoptic Gospels present a purely historically accurate narrative. The subjective truth based framework helps to understand all the historical biographies and narrative works.

As for the scholarly community, Michael Licona in his book Why are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography writes (2017) p.144,

Jesus agree that he taught using parables and astonished crowds by performing deeds that he and his disciples claimed were divine exorcisms. Yet Jesus’s parables and exorcisms are surprisingly absent in John. When it comes to Jesus’s miracles, his feeding a crowd of five thousand is the only miracle in John that can be said with confidence to appear also in the Synoptics. Although Jesus’s words in John often contain the same gist of what we read him saying in the Synoptics, they are often stated quite differently and appear in a style and vocabulary similar to what we find in the letter of 1 John. Many scholars think what we are reading in John reflects years of either the author’s or editor’s reflections and provide fuller theological implications of Jesus’s teachings.10 John often chose to sacrifice accuracy on the ground level of precise reporting, preferring to provide his readers with an accurate, higher-level view of the person of Jesus and his mission.
fn 10: Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, ed. Francis J. Moloney, AYBRL (New York: Doubleday, 2003), Logos 6, 195–96; Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 1:52, 114–15. Even such a conservative Christian scholar as F. F. Bruce can speak of Shakespeare’s rendition of Antony’s eulogy at Caesar’s funeral reported in Plutarch’s Brutus, “a translation of the freest kind, a transposition into another key,” and write, “What Shakespeare does by dramatic insight (and, it may be added, what many a preacher does by homiletical skill), all this and much more the Spirit of God accomplished in our Evangelist [i.e., John]. It does not take divine inspiration to provide a verbatim transcript; but to reproduce the words which were spirit and life to their first believing hearers in such a way that they continue to communicate their saving message and prove themselves to be spirit and life to men and women today, nineteen centuries after John wrote—that is the work of the Spirit of God” (F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983], 16–17).

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  • + 1 I think it's true that John's literary style needs to be appreciated and attempting to reconcile John with the synoptics can miss the mark. But the answer does not address the specific issue of 40-days in the wilderness. Sep 7, 2023 at 15:27
  • There cannot be any answer (other than speculations) to specific questions about authors' choice of including or ignoring any story in his book. There is nothing to suggest it is a central or essential account of the gospel of Jesus.
    – Michael16
    Sep 7, 2023 at 16:01
  • Why does it need to be central or essential in order to be interesting? Also, maybe it was important for the synoptics, because they wanted to show that Jesus, who was fully human, could be tempted; but for John it was not important because his Christology emphasized Jesus divinity more than his humanity. I realize this is speculation, but I find it interesting. Sep 7, 2023 at 18:53
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    I didnt say about the question of being interesting, but there is no way of knowing about authors choice of writing anything, it will be opinion based. Perhaps the reason of ignoring those stories could simply be to present a fresh insight, away from the already written books, differently which of course didn't include the details of his temptation. High christology could be a reason.
    – Michael16
    Sep 8, 2023 at 10:48
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In overview the entire Gospel of John, the majority content is the record of Jesus' speeches and conversations. Contrary to the synoptics which focus on recording events, this book emphasizes interpretation, particularly the enlightenment of John through the years to his old age. Therefore, we can read the Gospel of John as a commentary and it is very useful to understand the events in synoptics that only provide the details.

It is worth noting that none of the disciples witnessed Jesus' forty days of temptation. John should be one of the first disciple approached Jesus after Jesus returned after the 40 days. As it reveals, after the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18) is the witness of John the Baptist (John 1:19-34). John 1:33-34 read

33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’

34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

It describes the moment of Jesus' baptism. Then it continues

35 The next day John (John the Baptist) was there again with two of his disciples.

36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

The two disciples, one is generally taken as John the evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John. Why was John using "The next day" instead of "after 40 days" in verse 35 is debatable. But John did not present on the day of Jesus' baptism, confirmed by he neither provide this details in his gospel, nor the details of Jesus' 40 days temptation. Therefore it is likely that John met Jesus the first time is the description in John 1:35-37.

As afore said, the Gospel of John is focus on interpretation on Jesus' speeches and conversations, where John was the first-hand witness to those, it can be understood why John did not keep the record of Jesus' temptation, firstly he was not a witness, secondly the synoptics already had a record.

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John wrote his gospel later than the others. In knowing what had already been written, why would he say, "I know, I'll write the same thing they did!"? He seems to have preferred to write some events they didn't (Cana, Nicodemus...), as well as provide a more theological perspective on things now that there had been some time to reflect on the meaning of what Jesus came to accomplish.

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