Friday, February 03, 2012

Their Satanic majesties

Judge Primeaux posts a challenging exegesis from Ivan Illich:
“Lifting him up, then, he showed him, in a single glance, every realm in the world. And the devil said: ‘All their power and all their glory I will bestow on you, since they are entrusted to me and to those I bestow them on. Bow to me and it is all yours.” – Luke 4:5-7 [Emphasis added]

It is astonishing what the devil says: I have all power, it has been given to me, and I am the one to hand it on — submit, and it is yours. Jesus of course does not submit, and sends the devilcumpower to Hell.[*] Not for a moment, however, does Jesus contradict the devil. He does not question that the devil holds all power, nor that this power has been given to him, nor that he, the devil, gives it to whom he pleases. This is a point which is easily overlooked. By his silence Jesus recognizes power that is established as “devil” and defines Himself as The Powerless. He who cannot accept this view on power cannot look at establishments through the spectacle of the Gospel.
It is of course possible that the devil, the Father of Lies, is simply lying here. But as Illich notes, that's not what Jesus tells him; Jesus's response is simply to cite that one is to serve only God. Not "you can't really give me that," but "no matter what you offer, worshipping anyone but God is not acceptable."

If the early Church were half as conspiratorial as some make it out to be, those verses would never have stayed in the Bible. Even today, anyone who expressed that idea in his own words would be labeled as a nut. I'm not even sure what it would mean to live each day on the principle that all earthly power is Satan's. (Building a compound in the woods would hardly suffice, indeed would be a false assertion of one's own power.) I suppose I would blog a lot less about politics.

*Not in Luke he doesn't; the devil "departed from him until an opportune time." Which is more insidious than Matthew's version, where the devil simply leaves and then angels minister to Jesus. No angels in Luke's story; the next event is that Jesus "returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee."

... RSV has "authority" in the devil's temptation, not "power." The word at Luke 4:6 is exousia, which includes "the power of judicial decisions" (them who have an ear to hear ...). The "power of the Spirit" is dunamis (cf. "dynamic"), power more in the sense of a force that moves things; the same word is translated "potentiality" or "potency" in Aristotelian metaphysics. Note of course that Jesus is frequently seen to have exousia - he "teaches as one with authority, not as the scribes and Pharisees," etc.


  1. I should have made it clear that the translation is by Garry Wills, who translated it directly from the earliest sources. I took it from his book, "What Jesus Meant," which I commend along with his "What the Gospels meant."

  2. I read his Paul book but not those two. Thanks!