Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part Four)

The Lukan author takes the Markan composer’s love for chiastic structures and puts it on steroids. Some scholars suggest that the entire body of Luke-Acts is structured as a geographic chiasm beginning with Rome (in the Lukan prologue), moving to Galilee, through Samaria and Judea and centering in Jerusalem. The text the moves in Acts, as we well know, from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, into the broader Gentile world, and then ending with Paul in Rome.

Craig Louden examines the Lukan account of the Wilderness Testing as a “chiasm by design” – in other words, a chiastic structure intended by the Lukan author rather than one attributed to that author by an over-eager interpreter (such as yours truly).

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The first step in this analysis is to extend our text to Luke 4:14a – “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.” That half-verse creates a noticeable verbal inclusio with Luke 4:1 by mirroring the words “returned” and “Spirit.” This inclusio technique makes remembering the story easier for a storyteller and is often an encouragement to look for narrative structure inside the included verses.

While I enjoy solving literary puzzles (and most other puzzles, to be honest), that’s not enough reason to take your time for this discussion. The purpose of analyzing a narrative structure is to equip interpreters with more data and insight for accurate and interesting preaching and teaching. A chiasm centers what the writer considers to be the most important element of a piece of text. That’s the payoff for this analysis. What does the Lukan author see as the most important moment in the Wilderness Testing?

Louden’s article relies on the technical work of Craig Arnold Smith to make a strong case that the Lukan account in 4:1-14a is a “chiasm by design.” If you are interested in detailed structural and statistical data, I’d recommend the article for your reading. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I found it to be pretty wonky, even by my standards. So, I’ll try to hit the high spots and then reflect more on the conclusions.

Perhaps you have noticed that only two of the three Diabolical tests have the premise, “If you are the Son of God” – the bread test and the Temple test. The “kingdoms of the world” test doesn’t begin with that provocation. It’s fairly easy to see that the Lukan author has placed this test in the midst of the two others which balance each other.

So, the center of the chiasm is, according to Louden, Luke 4:5-8, which focuses on the “authority and glory of the kingdoms”. The other tests question Jesus’ divine sonship. Verses 2 and 13 refer to Jesus’ being tested by the Diabolical One and are, according to Louden, “statements about proceeding and preceding events”. Verses 1b and 14 both refer to “returning” and offer “geographical narration”. Verses 1a and 14a mention the Spirit.

Earlier I mentioned the apparent geographic chiasm that structures the whole of Luke-Acts. Louden argues that this geographic chiasm continues at a micro level in our text. The Wilderness Testing begins and ends in Galilee. The next set of geographic parallels is the wilderness as a place of trial and Jerusalem as a place of (literal) trial. Centered on the rhetorical map is “all the kingdoms of the world.”

In addition, Louden performs a variety of statistical tests developed by Smith for such analysis. Based on these tests, the chances are about four out of five that the Lukan author intended to use a chiasm to structure the Wilderness Testing account. Therefore, we can with some confidence use this structural analysis to inform our interpretation. So, what does this mean for us?

Louden seeks to demonstrate two things from his analysis – that the Lukan emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit is clear in our text “and that the central element of the pericope emphasizes the universality of Jesus’s ministry, enhancing the interpretive significance of the segment for the book and Luke-Acts as a whole” (page 149). I have addressed the first conclusion to some degree in previous posts. I want to focus more on the second conclusion here.

“The zenith of this chiasm emphasizes the universal scope of Jesus’s mission,” Louden argues. “In a moment of time, Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. This universal scope,” he continues, “is a hallmark theme of Luke’s gospel” (page 151).

Louden’s argument is contrary to the case made by other commentators, such as Levine and Witherington. They argue that the order of the tests is consecutive rather than chiastic and builds to a climax in Jerusalem. “Luke’s order preserves the Gospel’s focus on Jerusalem, where the text began as it introduced Zechariah in the Temple,” they write. “The Third Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem,” they continue, “and it is in Jerusalem where Jesus will face his final temptation. The Gospel ends,” they conclude, “with Jesus’ followers ‘continually in the temple blessing God’ (24:53)” (page 104).

I’m not at all equipped to adjudicate these different conclusions. I think the Levine/Witherington argument (which represents at least a plurality of commentators) is a strong case as well. But I’m interested in the alternative that Louden presents as worthy of consideration and reflection. He notes that his argument does not entail a Lukan focus primarily on a Gentile audience. “Luke is not primarily directed toward the gentiles but sees in their conversion hope that the Jews might still come to claim Jesus as Lord” (page 152).

Therefore, Louden argues that this second test emphasizes the “universal validity of Jesus’s lordship.” The Diabolical One seeks to serve as Jesus’ patron and benefactor. So, in the Roman system, Jesus would then be obligated to the Diabolical One as his superior. Satan seeks to do business just the way Romans would expect to do business, by the mutual exchange of patronage and subservience. “This meeting follows the form of ancient benefaction,” Louden writes, “which was the primary means by which power was distributed in the Greco-Roman world, existing across the empire and even in Palestine” (page 152).

Jesus rejects the Diabolical One’s authority to give Jesus what is already his. He rejects the patron/client system as a way to do business at all. We see that rejection amplified, for example, in the words of the Sermon on the Plain that we read just a few weeks ago. “Rather than giving into the devil in order to accelerate the universal impact of his mission,” Louden writes, “Jesus once again fulfills the OT and seeks the reconstitution of Israel by whom the gentiles would be saved” (page 153).

Louden argues that by making the second test the center of the Wilderness Testing, the Lukan author highlights the prominence of this interpretation of salvation history and prepares us for the end of Luke-Acts where Paul has (at least rhetorically) invaded Rome itself. “By using a chiasm to emphasize this theme of universality,” he suggests, “the temptation in the wilderness looks ahead to a time when the reality of Jesus’s life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension will be verified in the response of the kingdoms to the Gospel” (page 153).

This is as far as Louden goes with his conclusions. But if he is correct in his analysis, I think I would go further. The second test contains a critique of all the kingdoms of this world. The only real kingdom worth mentioning in the first-century Mediterranean, of course, is the Roman Empire. Levine and Witherington note that the Lukan author portrays Augustus Caesar as in control of all the world (Luke 2:1). But, as they note, it seems that Satan is his superior. “This second temptation can therefore be read,” they suggest, “as a critique of any empire.” The Diabolical One points to the glory and authority of earthly kingdoms, “but glory and ultimate authority should, for Luke, belong to God, not the state” (page 109).

If Louden’s analysis is correct, then the Wilderness Testing is a timely text today. The “kingdoms of this world” are engaged in a highly visible and horrifically dangerous conflict over who is really in charge of this world. It would seem that the Russian “kingdom” is willing to transgress any number of “civilized” boundaries and norms in order to maintain and expand that power. It would also seem that many western countries are acting to inhibit that exercise in brute force.

The countries opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine appeal to “higher” standards of behavior and norms for political conflict. Those higher standards are appeals to mutual respect, common humanity, limitations on violence, and care for non-combatants. In truth, Vladimir Putin stands more securely in the tradition of statecraft since the days of Machiavelli – who believed there were no higher standards. Nations should seek to accumulate as much power as power by any means necessary.

The analysis of world politics offered by Luke 4 suggests that Machiavelli deserves the Satanic caricatures that have been applied to him over the centuries. Absolute power corrupts absolutely because such power seeks to claim Divine prerogatives for human gain. Jesus does not rule in that way. We shall follow him in Lent on his journey to the cross to remember the way in which he does rule.

It’s hard to keep politics out of the pulpit with texts like this.

References and Resources

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “The Extended Body: The Social Body of Jesus according to Luke 1.” Dialog 51.3 (2012): 234-244.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Louden, Caleb T. “The Chiastic Arrangement of the Lukan Temptation Narrative.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4.2 (2017): 4.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.


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