1) Satan in Mark, the earliest Gospel: Testing and obstructing Jesus
Now let us turn to the Gospels. It is generally agreed that the shortest of them, Mark, is also the earliest.
Mark starts simply, with no infancy narrative. First he tells of John the Baptist, who announces that another man will come who will baptize not with water but with (or in) the Holy Spirit. When Jesus appears, he takes his turn and is baptized by John like everyone else. However, the Spirit enters the picture immediately afterwards. For when Jesus emerges from the water, he sees the Spirit like a dove descending upon him. Then a voice from above says, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Thereupon the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Then Mark says the following: “He was in the wilderness for forty days, being tested by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the Angels ministered to him” (Mark 1.12-13). Mark gives no indication of what Satan’s testing of Jesus consisted. But it is clear that it was an experience that he was required by God and the Spirit to undergo as part of his preparation.
Mark did not think it necessary to go into details, or even to state the self-evident conclusion that Jesus passed the testing with flying colors. We may, however, be able to get some idea of what Mark had in mind for Satan’s trial of Jesus from a Jewish pseudepigraph known as the Apocalypse of Abraham (OTP 1). It was written a generation or so after Mark, and it elaborates on the tradition of testing Abraham that we have studied above (in Genesis 22 and the Book of Jubilees). It tells of a test of Abraham that has some similarities to Mark’s spare account
of Jesus in the wilderness, and it may be that Mark was drawing on a similar tradition.
The Apocalypse of Abraham is basically a “midrash” or meditation on the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, which tells of God’s first call to Abraham. The Biblical text has Yahweh ordering Abraham to make sacrifice of animals, which he does, driving unclean birds away from the carcasses. Then Abraham falls into a deep sleep and a terrifying darkness envelops him, whereupon Yahweh tells him that his offspring will be enslaved for 400 years (Gen. 15.9-13). In contrast, in the apocalyptic midrash, God orders the sacrifices to take place on a high mountain, after a forty-day fast. The Angel Jaoel, who has protective as well as destructive duties, accompanies him. Arriving on Mount Horeb, Abraham finds the prescribed beasts of sacrifice and gives them to Jaoel and to the other Angels who have joined them. Then Azazel appears in the form of an unclean bird and persistently tries to dissuade Abraham from proceeding, but Abraham refuses to respond to him (Apoc. Abr. cc. 9-14). Azazel, we recall, was the leader of the Watcher Angels of the Book of Enoch, in charge of teaching the wrong lessons to humankind. It is odd to see him out and about, still active, since he was supposedly imprisoned and awaiting the Last Judgment.
Mark is more traditional in having Satan perform the role of tester. By having Angels present, he may be recalling the confrontation in Zechariah between “Jesus the High Priest” and “Devil,” as the Septuagint has it, where the Angel of Yahweh is at hand to speak in Jesus’s defense. Of course, there is no role for animals in this schema.