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When exactly did Jesus go into the wilderness?

All of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record the story of Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil, and each writer has this event following Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Mark even says it occurred “immediately” thereafter). But in John’s gospel it would seem we are given a different order of events.    

The synoptics show that Jesus was baptized on a certain day, and either on that same day or the next he went out to the wilderness where he spent the next forty in fasting and prayer. Then they have him returning to Galilee in connection with his cousin’s arrest.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but John’s gospel seems to show that Jesus was baptized on a certain day, then “the next day” (John 1:35) two of John’s disciples began to follow him, and then “the next day” (which would be day three-see John 1:43) Jesus decided to return to Galilee where he found Philip and Nathanael. Here he sticks around just long enough for a wedding in Cana and then goes to spend a few days with his family in Capernaum (John 2:1-12), after which he returns to Jerusalem for the Passover. Here there seems to have been a period in which Jesus was active in ministry around Judea even as the Baptizer was still doing his thing, after which time Jesus again went back to Galilee.

So the question is, at what point did Jesus spend forty days in the wilderness? On the whole, John seems to be more concerned with chronology than the other gospel writers; therefore if we trust his account of the events following Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan we are forced to investigate exactly when in the story this period of testing actually took place. If in fact it was “immediately” after the baptism, as Mark so emphatically declares, then how do we reconcile this with John saying he was actually busy interacting with disciples on the second day and that he decided to return to Galilee on the third? 

Your thoughts?


About Joshua

Writer, husband, father, friend.


5 thoughts on “When exactly did Jesus go into the wilderness?

  1. The Fourth Gospel never mentions whether Jesus was baptized. It has the Baptizer mention the spirit descending like a dove, but it never says anything else about the circumstances under which John observed this. While you and I can justifiably equate that reference with the event of Jesus’ baptism, reported elsewhere, a reader of this Gospel alone would not know that Jesus was or wasn’t baptized, let alone have any idea of the wilderness visit.

    Point: if we trust the synoptics, as I know you and I both do, then we must conclude two things: One, this “next day” and “again the next day” are happening after the confrontation with some Jerusalem leaders (v.19-28); and Two, this collection of 2-3 days, itself, must have taken place at least 40-41 days after Jesus’ baptism.

    In other words, I see no problem at all because the baptism of Jesus simply doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel. And no, it isn’t implied to have happened at any particular point in the narrative, especially not simply because we know something about the Synoptics.

    Does that help?

    Posted by Bill | January 15, 2012, 7:39 am
  2. It does. My initial assumption was that it had to be something like that, but I thought I would put it out there in the form of a question to see what others had to say. Thanks for responding!

    Posted by Josh | January 15, 2012, 3:00 pm
  3. Is it possible that our own modern-Western expectation of tight narrative can intrude back into ancient texts written with different conventions of writing? There are several things that we know about the gospels that might be relevant to the question being explored here:
    1)chronology is not always a priority. Even among the synoptics, there is a different order and time-event context when we compare the text-setting of various events or teachings.
    2)not all that happened in the years of the life of Jesus was recorded in any of the gospels. There are significant time-spaces among many of the recorded events. To say, “The next day …”, may well mean something different than what we, today, commonly mean with those words — possibly even the “next day in this account …”?
    3)the content of the gospels developed over a period of time. They are assmbled collections, from various oral sources, that eventually appeared in the latter part of the first century. Luke helps us to readily recognize that reality, when he “pens” (ball-point pen, since he didn’t have a keyboard!) his introduction. We’d need to wonder what “next day” means to whoever put the larger text together. It may not be what we, today, think it means.
    Just some thoughts.

    Posted by Jim | January 15, 2012, 8:16 pm
  4. All good points, Jim. And I think you’re right. There is only so much we know for sure, therefore any reconstruction is going to limited to what we have been given. Alas, if only the gospel writers knew what trouble they would be giving us in the twenty-first century!

    Thanks for commenting. 🙂

    Posted by Josh | January 16, 2012, 2:50 am

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