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The Three Temptations of Christ as Metaphor

Updated on November 4, 2014

In The New Testament, some stories are clearly labeled as parables; others are often read in a more literal way. However, I'd argue that much that is read as literal is parable too. Further, the final twist in the argument is to suggest that our understanding of reality is somewhat tenuous at the best; we learn many truths from stories and parables that are designed to explain and teach us important insights in an entertaining way. These often profound understandings are not dependent on whether they came about as a result of a parable or a true story.

Jesus has a great deal of insight into the power of metaphor and uses it frequently in his teaching and interaction with others. Often he uses a parable and shows how a fictional story can illustrate profound truth. Also it illustrates Christ's abilities as a teacher since successful teachers have long recognized the power of storytelling to convey important lessons. It's a practice used by Plato and other philosophers as well as holy men from many religions.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, makes it clear that we should judge people by their actions rather than what they profess to believe. Further, the parable clearly speaks to the importance of practicing tolerance of other religions – something that was quite contrary to Jewish beliefs as it still is to many monotheistic religions. A parable is an extended metaphor that suggests how people should behave; it frequently facilitates the discussion of complex ideas as the notion of religious tolerance would have appeared to the Jews of that time.

As a sometime student of literature I have an obvious bias since my belief has always been that there are often more truths to be found in a good work of fiction than in most autobiographies. The notion that the world itself should be viewed as a metaphor might be strange to many today but to the Medieval mind the world itself was seen as metaphor that always pointed to the ideal or God – almost identical to Plato's notion of the ideal.

Most of us were educated to believe in the idea that things are either true or aren't. (It's the right/wrong trap pointed to by many interested in teaching creative and critical thinking.) It's one of the many flaws in our education system, since there's a great deal we've learned about reality over the last few decades that has contradicted our previous notions of what is real.

Our direct senses and intuitive understanding of the world breaks down when viewed from the perspective of quantum, for instance. However, there's a great deal in the Bible that suggests the reader should view both the Bible as metaphor rather than an historic account. As metaphor, stories are forever young.

The foibles and failings of Aesop's creatures have allowed countless generations to learn important lessons about character and our place in the world. Stories are used to awaken understandings and truths, sometimes of the most profound kinds, in the minds of those who hear them. The notion that power itself rests in the words and stories of oral peoples is acknowledged by the many warnings given to the Jews to beware of false prophets.

It's difficult for today's reader to understand that acquiring knowledge and entertainment from a non oral tradition is relatively new. Books in English only ceased being handwritten in beautiful but painfully slow lettering when Caxton's printing press made its appearance less than six hundred years ago.

Some cultures still rely heavily on passing vast amounts of knowledge from generation to another through learning long stories and poems that are the culture's lifeblood. Some people who are called not literate have the equivalent to several large volumes of text memorized. So-called primitive and nomadic cultures often carry their people's knowledge around in their heads rather than in books. Of course, poetry and stories are ideal forms to store this type of knowledge. And, like all good educational material, these words have to be as entertaining as they are instructional.

Jesus was embedded in an oral tradition. Although the historical Jesus may have been literate; his parables are designed to awaken intuitive wisdom that is to be found in many places, including inside ourselves. The lessons, insights and truths of a culture, religion or the two combined still were preserved in minds that carried the stories. Indeed, all evidence suggest that it wasn't until at least a hundred years after the historical Jesus's death before there was any written account of his life. The stories of Jesus were kept alive as part of this oral tradition before being written down many years after his Crucifixion.

 Italy: "Christ surrounded by angels and saints". Mosaic of a Ravennate italian-byzantine workshop, completed within 526 AD by the so-called "Master of Sant'Apollinare".
Italy: "Christ surrounded by angels and saints". Mosaic of a Ravennate italian-byzantine workshop, completed within 526 AD by the so-called "Master of Sant'Apollinare". | Source
Ethiopia African potrayal of Jesus
Ethiopia African potrayal of Jesus | Source

However, is there any evidence that can be drawn from the Bible itself that suggests some of the stories of Jesus himself are parables? It doesn't alter the truths that are to be drawn from the parable but has the advantage of providing theologians with a plethora of arguments to answer many of the most difficult criticisms that challenge the complete accuracy of The New Testament. In fact, I'd argue, many religious texts have remained contemporary because truths drawn from these stories don't have the same kind of build in obsolescence that accompanies most historical explanations of how things work.

Elsewhere I've argued that Christ's three temptations should be regarded as metaphorical. I now suggest that the story itself is akin to a parable. The parable is necessary to show that Christ was open to the full experience of being human – of being open to temptation. Christ and the Devil are the only witnesses to the temptations so how would the story be known to others?

Jesus would not have shared the story to emphasize his own virtue – that would be quite contrary to the character that's portrayed. It's unlikely that the Devil would have shared stories of his own defeat. There seems no explanation of how such a literal story of the temptations could have been known to any others than the two central characters. The central message or lesson is to show that Christ was fully human because he was open to the temptations but demonstrated the ideal or God by being able to withstand them. He is Adam reborn, Adam Redux as it were, because he is able to withstand even the greatest of temptations.

Joseph Campbell and others have argued persuasively that many myths carry profound truths and insights into the human condition. Campbell himself became a modern day prophet as he used the world's myths to share his spiritual insights.

Although it might seem unsettling or even insulting to suggest that much of the Bible should be regarded as metaphor, it's survived because the stories contain many truths that are universal rather than many stories that are true. To argue that the truths are dependent on the historical accuracy of many of these stories seems disingenuous since the Bible's most important insights and truths are not dependent on a literal reading.

The series of three articles began with asking: Is It Reasonable to Expect Christians to Practice What They Believe?; continues with the current article on metaphor; and ends arguing that Jesus's greatest contribution is to help us see that we are all connected rather than alone; and it is entitled: Love thy Neighbor: We are all Khaled Said.

Christ in the House of his Parents by John Everett Millais, 1850, reflected the interest in the 19th century in the historical reality of the life of Jesus
Christ in the House of his Parents by John Everett Millais, 1850, reflected the interest in the 19th century in the historical reality of the life of Jesus | Source


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    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      aslanlight, I loved Anthony Hopkins playing Lewis in Shadowlands; I guess it is somewhat based on his autobiography "Surprised by Joy" - a wonderful love story although quite sad.

      My screen name is very much part of who I truly am by commemorating something that was and is precious. It remembers a love a family held for a child who went bravely to war and never returned from a flying mission. It has come to symbolize how well a family can love as much as the individual; I now see that families are a lot more imperfect than I believed and hence have come to honor and respect part of the secret world of symbols and metaphors that I have created similar to many others, I suspect.

      Also I see Sembj as a branch of a tree - there are other interests and experiences that I write about elsewhere with name(s) that have meaning in my own imagination.

    • aslanlight profile image


      7 years ago from England

      Yes love Lewis, especially the Space Trilogy, amazing stuff, Merlin's even in the last one!

      I don't think men and women who are telepathic, who astral travel and heal from a distance are that rare. It's just a matter of believing you can do these things. ;)

      Does your screenname have a meaning?

    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      I like to think that we are capable of being much better, and full of greater abilities than we usually achieve. Certainly there are a few rare men and women are examples of that potential and it seems that the historic Christ is one such example.

      You must be a big C. S. Lewis fan?

      Best, Sem

    • aslanlight profile image


      7 years ago from England

      I think that Christians miss the 'you can do everything I can and more' text rather a lot because they see Jesus as Christ, Son of God, or God-like rather than as his human persona, therefore they think he did the amazing things he did because he's God, not because he's like us and we all have the inate abilities he had.

      What do you think?

    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Hi aslanlight; thank you for your thoughts. And I have had some of my best writing that I have left as comments disappear into the ether, too! It makes me mad since, as I say, it usually seems to be comments I have spent a fair amount of time writing. So thank you for spending all the time on the comment I didn't get as well as the time you've spent on this one!

      And I think that your interpretation of The New Testament makes a great deal more sense than most. Also, as you so correctly say, the idea that Jesus seemed to be particularly disapproving of both greed and hypocrisy seems to have been missed by many of his followers who make the most noise.

      Thanks for taking the time to go through the comment thing twice!

    • aslanlight profile image


      7 years ago from England

      I just left you a long comment and the page decided to disappear! Suffice to say I agree with all you say. I think Jesus was trying to tell people that we're exactly like him.

      He said we can do everything he did and more. He was telepathic, healed from a distance, astral travelled, dissapeared a few times and smashed up a temple run by hypocrites and the greedy.

      I suppose we should all be getting busy!

    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks White Horse, your comments are always appreciated.

    • profile image

      White Horse 

      7 years ago

      "Christ and the Devil are the only witnesses to the temptations so how would the story be known to others?"

      There might be some truth to that in the book of revelations. Who else could find mystery babylon?

      "Jesus would not have shared the story to emphasize his own virtue – that would be quite contrary to the character that's portrayed."

      In revelations if he shared it all he might be "MADE ALL NATIONS DRINK THE WINE OF THE WRATH". They might not like that.

      Good one.

    • Sembj profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Dear Tony:

      Thanks for the comments - always appreciated. Regarding the choice of the Millais painting, I just liked it because of its beauty. But I'd like to quote my wife who loves the Pre-Raphelites and is the artist in residence;

      I really love the Pre-Raphelits - I appreciated the concept that art was a talent and trade and not like the self-absorbed, touchy, feely, navel gazing, and sad thought of the day, talentless artists of today.

      She says that it's lucky that historians won't have to rely on the art to tell them about this period in history. The thought strikes me that digital images and all of the software that's available forced artists in that direction. My wife just yelled that the camera pretty well put an end to the Pre-Raphelites. She's a brilliant artist and hope something of her humor is appreciated although I failed to catch her in full-flight after I'd read your comment about the Millais. In case I didn't make the point - my wife really, really likes the Pre-Raphelites.

      In terms of metaphor, if God is portrayed as being fully human then perhaps it could be considered a very powerful metaphor since a case could be made for an interpretation that not only was man made in the image of God but man is God. It must have been a shocking idea to the audience of the time because it challenged so many prevailing ideas including Christianity.

      My wife thinks that they consisted of painters with enormous talents who are not properly appreciated. I wish she'd put some of her thoughts into writing - they'd certainly be more entertaining than most of mine. I know she'd add, "shorter too," if she'd been aware of what I'd just written.

      As ever,


    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Brilliant, my friend! Literalism is the enemy of understanding. The imagination thrives on metaphor and literalism deadens the imagination, and hence empathy.

      Interessting that you usd the Millais painting which has always struck me as an interesting piece of art and a rotten piece of historical metaphor!

      Thanks for sharing this great Hub.

      Love and peace



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