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Is the Devil a Beast? (Matthew chap. 4, verse 5)

Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple

Each word of this verse deserves a careful, intelligent and inspired examination. In fact, it is full of words that, if taken literally, paint the devil as a person. The verse depicts a being endowed with such a force to catch Jesus and bring him to Jerusalem. We don’t know how long the devil held in his clutches Jesus, because the starting point of this mysterious journey is only vaguely mentioned by Matthew: the desert (4:1). But both the desert and Jerusalem are symbolic places here, although obviously they can also be understood in a real sense. Therefore the enigma remains until we examine the verb used by Matthew: to take. The greek verb is paralambanein, which means not only to take, but also to transferto carry. The verb means not only to transfer from one place to another, but also to transfer from one condition to another.

A proof could be the third temptation, where it is said that the devil takes – also the greek paralambanein – Jesus on a very high mountain from which he sees all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory (4:8). Here the verb paralambanein doesn’t indicate a physical transport, because it is impossible that there is such a high mountain to allow the vision of all the kingdoms of the earth, or of the whole world! I believe – as I say in my book Il Vangelo del bambino interiore – that here Matthew wants to show us that Jesus had a completely spiritual confrontation with the devil/tempter.

He ideally brings Jesus, makes him think to be in the sacred place par excellence: the Temple of Jerusalem and at the highest point of it, in the pinnacle. The devil, the being with whom Jesus confronts himself, the voice with which he dialogues wanted that Jesus would show that he is the long-awaited messiah.

If we try to imagine the scene, here the devil is like a sort of big bird, almost mythological – like a hippogriff – who, having reached Jerusalem, releases his grip and lays his prey on the pinnacle. It seems that then the bird disappears, remaining only as a voice, a thought, a proposal. And this is the way by which we could conceive the devil. Not a person, not a strange animal, but a project very different from the God’s project for Jesus. 

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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