Each of the synoptic Gospels gives an account of the temptation of Christ (Matt.4.1–11; Mark 1.13; Luke 4.1–13), and all three place the temptation within the same sequence, following Jesus' baptism by John, and preceding the first statement of Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4.17; Mark 1.14–15; Luke 4.14–15, 43). Luke has interrupted the sequence with the insertion of Jesus' genealogy (3.23–38), but the common themes of Spirit and Sonship together with the geographical reference establish the close connection between Luke's baptism story (3.2, 21–22) and his account of the temptation.

This agreement in sequence should not hide the fact that we have two very different types of narrative in Mark, on the one hand, and in Matthew and Luke, on the other. Mark includes the temptation in a single sentence that is more a cryptogram than a narrative, while Matthew and Luke write of three scenes in which a minimum of action provides the setting for three verbal exchanges between Jesus and Satan, all of which center in quotations from Deuteronomy 6 and 8 (from the Septuagint). The quotations are the climax of each scene so that the narrative as a whole resembles a midrash. The stories cannot be derived one from the other; they represent the literary result of two different traditions about Jesus' temptation, and efforts to interpret them should refrain from harmonizing one version with the other. Both narratives combine topics that had grown through centuries of Israelite and early Jewish tradition. They had, therefore, become so rich in associations with traditional themes that the expositor is faced with a wide array of interpretive possibilities, and no single governing theme can do justice to them.

Mark includes the temptation in a single, terse statement (1.13): “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” There is no narrative or dialogue; no fasting is mentioned; but Jesus is placed in the presence of wild beasts, which goes beyond the record of Matthew and Luke. The forms of the four verbs are sufficiently ambiguous to leave unclear whether they comprise a sequence of episodes or are simultaneous aspects of one event. There are two major interpretations of Mark's cryptic sentence: Jesus as the second Adam who restores paradise, and Jesus as the protagonist in God's struggle against Satan. Both rely on Jewish adaptations of biblical themes.

According to the first, the temptation is only one motif alongside others, which renders it doubtful whether Mark 1.13 is exclusively a temptation story. The picture of a peaceful coexistence of humans with wild animals is a well‐attested eschatological theme (e.g., Isa. 11.6–9; 65.25), and the idea of service of angels to Adam and Eve in paradise is found in Jewish tradition (e.g., b. Sanh. 59b). According to the principle that the world to come would restore the conditions of the original creation, ideas about creation and about the end time became interchangeable. The introduction of the wilderness and the temptation by Satan does not necessarily provide a discordant note to the image of paradise restored, because satanic temptation is an element of the story of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3; the identification of the serpent with Satan had already been made), and the wilderness is a place not only of horror and judgment but also of ultimate restoration. The coordination of three (or four?) equal motifs therefore provides a reading of Mark 1.13 that sees Jesus, in consequence of his declaration as God's Son in his baptism and prior to the beginning of his public activity, as the new Adam who triumphs over Satan (in contrast to the first Adam) and thereby inaugurates a promised new condition in which wild animals are no longer a threat and the angels render service.

The alternate understanding of Mark 1.13 relies more on a similarity to the accounts of the temptation in Matthew and Luke: the forty days are part of a typology alluding to Israel's forty years in the desert (Deut. 8.2), the wilderness is the haunt of demons and terrifying animals, and the service of the angels is regarded (as in Matt. 4.11) as the resolution of the conflict after the devil's departure. This assumes that the motifs of the wild animals and the angels are subordinate to that of the wilderness, which represents the time and the place controlled by powers hostile to God. Mark 1.13 thus presents Christ as the protagonist of God's fight against satanic forces, who invades the stronghold of the enemy and thus overcomes him (see Mark 3.27).

Matthew and Luke differ in the order of the second and third temptations and in some details, but generally the content of their three temptation scenes is the same, so that a common tradition behind them (Q?) must be assumed. Since the vocabulary in Luke, where he differs from Matthew, shows clear traces of Lucan style, and since Luke's sequence of the scenes can be explained by his tendency to emphasize the crucial role of Jerusalem, it is probable that Matthew preserves the more original order and wording. The following comments are therefore based on the Matthean order. Matthew's scenes shift from the wilderness to the Temple and finally to a very high mountain, each culminating in Jesus quoting Deuteronomy (8.3, 6.16, and 6.13, respectively, all close in content and position to the Shema, whose first part contains Deut. 6.4–9).

Attempts have been made to understand the whole temptation story in Matthew as a logically constructed unit with one organizing idea. This has been variously described as: the demand of Deuteronomy 6.5 to love God with one's whole heart, soul, and might, so that the tripartite division of human faculties is explicated in the three episodes of Jesus' temptation, describing him as one who lives in total dedication to the one God of Israel; or the fullness of the messianic office, which combines a prophetic messiah (Moses in the wilderness, the prophet par excellence according to Deut. 18.18), a priestly messiah (the Temple as center of the priestly office), and a political messiah (world dominion offered on the mountain), each episode containing a strong antithesis to popular conceptions of these messianic offices; or a thoroughgoing Israel‐typology that coordinates the climactic quotation in each scene of the temptation with an analogous situation in Israel's wilderness sojourn, patterned after the textual sequence in the Exodus story (Deut. 8.3 – Manna – Exod. 16; Deut. 6.16 – provocation of God at Massah – Exod. 17; Deut. 6.13 – promise of land, warning against idolatry – Exod. 23.20–33; 34.11–14), portraying Jesus as the true Israelite who did not yield to temptation precisely at the point of Israel's failure.

Each of these unifying interpretations draws on a wealth of pertinent evidence in Jewish tradition, but none is conclusive. A variety of complex motifs coalesce, forming a confessional narrative in which four intentions merge. First, the title Son of God binds together baptism and temptation (3.17; 4.3, 6); the baptism of Jesus culminates in his being declared Son of God, the temptation describes the cost of this Sonship. Second, in the temptation narrative Jesus is presented as the authentic interpreter and doer of God's will in scripture. Third, the dominance of the title Son of God marks the temptation as a christologically and soteriologically oriented narrative. Finally, factually, and perhaps intentionally, the story implies a radical criticism of popular conceptions about the eschatological agent of God. The true Son of God does not abuse his status for self‐preservation, he refrains from using his power for protection against death (cf. Matt. 26.53; 27.42–43), and he refuses to exercise world dominion in any form other than that bestowed on him by God in consequence of his death and resurrection (Matt. 28.18).

Ulrich W. Mauser