cosmopolis rivista di filosofia e politica
Cosmopolis menu cosmopolis rivista di filosofia e teoria politica

Trifunctional Structure in the Desert Temptations: Georges Dumézil, Louis Dumont and the Christ

Articolo pubblicato nella sezione Girard, filosofia e politica

It is to regret that G. Dumézil, in search after the ubiquity of Indo-European myth, never took the Gospels into account.

It is equally to regret that L. Dumont - who provided Dumézil’s theories with a memorable adjustment - never did the same with the text of Saint Luke.

The former would have found, in the Synoptics’ text, evidence for the so-called trifunctional society.

The latter would have found, in the Gospel of Saint Luke, a confirmation of his thesis about the existence of an alternative as to the primacy in the cast system (Dumézil 1986; Dumont 1979, I-XL, pp. 396-403).

* * *

It is true, on the other hand, that managing the Gospels is not an easy enterprise. They upset the scholar’s most obvious beliefs.

It goes about casts as, already, about literature: Auerbach justified his research about mimesis by the admission that the Gospels undermine all literary genre (Auerbach 1994).

Indo-European trifunctionality – better known, in the event, as cast society – is an old acquaintance of Jesus’ people. The Synoptic Gospels deliver its pattern in the episode of the desert temptations.

Given their origin, the Gospels protest against the so-called Indo-European domain; they protest against the method to put research at rest upon a frontier whose pregnancy is the prejudice, and the goal, of the comparatist.

* * *

Since literary criticism, anthropology and religious studies are prevented - in this case - from being of help, research is compelled to strike at the poets’.

It is known that Dostoevsky devoted to the subject ten pages to be reckoned as a masterwork of worldly literature (Dostoevsky 2017, II.v.5).

If there has ever been on earth a real stupendous miracle, it took place on that day, on the day of the three temptations. The statement of those three questions was itself the miracle. If it were possible to imagine simply for the sake of argument that those three questions of the dread spirit had perished utterly from the books, and that we had to restore them and to invent them anew, and to do so had gathered together all the wise men of the earth - rulers, chief priests, learned men, philosophers, poets - and had set them the task to invent three questions, such as would not only fit the occasion, but express in three words, three human phrases, the whole future history of the world and of humanity - dost Thou believe that all the wisdom of the earth united could have invented anything in depth and force equal to the three questions which were actually put to Thee then by the wise and mighty spirit in the wilderness? […] For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together into one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature. At the time it could not be so clear, since the future was unknown; but now that fifteen hundred years have passed, we see that everything in those three questions was so justly divined and foretold, and has been so truly fulfilled, that nothing can be added to them or taken from them (Dostoevsky 2017, II.v.5).

* * *

The systematic reading of the temptations is well known in the 2nd century:

Omnia ergo recapitulans (scil.: Iesus) recapitulatus est, et adversus inimicum nostrum bellum provocans… Irenaevs, Adversus haereses, 5.21.1 (Irénée de Lyon 1974-, 260.61-62: «By recapitulating every thing, Jesus recapitulated also the war against our enemy»).

In fact, it goes back to the very beginning: up to the reading of the passage by Saint Luke (4.13).

Καὶ συντελέσας πάντα πειρασμὸν ὁ διάβολος ἀπέστη.
et consummata omni temptatione diabolus recessit
And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed.

* * *

As to the nature of each temptation, Dostoevsky’s interpretation is less satisfying.

Seen as a whole, the temptations form a system. But what is the logic that gives form to the system?

Ivan Karamazov identifies this logic by negation: as a denial of Christian freedom. It would be a gross blunder to attribute these pages to the person of Dostoevsky: the Legend is put on the lips of a nihilist that will eventually end up in madness. The propositions of Ivan Karamazov are bound, in facts, to those of Stavroghin, the protagonist of The Demons that - starting by his name (in orthodox Greek, stavros equals «cross») - reveals himself as a forger of the Christ. Cf. Demons, II, i: «Rome proclaimed a Christ that gives in to the third diabolic temptation: announcing to the entire world that the Christ could no longer stay on earth without the position of an earthly kingdom, Catholicism has proclaimed, at the meantime, the antichrist, thus conducting the West to perdition» (Girard 1976, p. 75; Girard 1961, p. 65 f.)

«We have corrected Your enterprise», says the Grand Inquisitor to the Christ, «and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority» (Dostoevsky 2017, II.v.5). Highly suggestive, this tripartition proves, however, not satisfying. Each temptation demands, in effect, miracle, mystery, and authority to take place.

The system, in Dostoevsky, is looked in perspective: instead of the Christ are considered the Christians, instead of the devil the Grand Inquisitor.

We are thus faced with a surprising paradox. Shifting criticism, and attention, from the Christ toward Christendom - and that in the name of the very Christ’s perspective - implies the oblivion of what is proper to the Christ. It promotes the neglect of the Christic perspective. It implies the adulteration of the temptations’ nature.

Before attempting at human freedom, the devil attempts at the Christ that establishes it.

The acquaintance of human sciences with the mechanisms of traditional societies allows, in effect, recognizing in the episode the system, and the progression, of a hierarchical society.

As Dumézil and Dumont have shown, a hierarchical society is based on the division of men in three natures. These natures are – in the event – the three states of ancien régime. Three temptations, three functions, three casts: abundance, sacred, power. The recognition of this structure allows the understanding of the temptations as one system.

Following, the contest between auctoritas and potestas as to the first place in the tripartition explains the intervention acted by Saint Luke upon the progression developed in Saint Matthew.

The allusion ought to strike the ear of whomever – within the Empire, as well as without Egypt (Draï 1986) – listened to the message of the Gospel.

* * *

Let us follow, to begin with, the version of Saint Matthew. Jesus comes out of the meeting with the Baptist fully invested of his messianic dignity. After fasting forty days in the desert, he eventually experiences hunger.

It is at his point that the tempter appears. He proposes to the Christ to reply to this hunger by the transformation of stones into breads. Then he transports the Christ on the Temple to make Him evoke His heavenly servants. Finally, he shows the world to the Christ: the tempter will assign its kingdom to the Christ if only the Christ bows before the tempter.

Jesus declines the threefold temptation, which consists in suggesting a social identity according to, and throughout, the mechanism of the sacred.

Material affluence, hieratic glory, then power all over the earth: there is sanctity according to the tempter.

The temptation conjugates Jewish messianism according to the hierarchy of a cast society: by applying the election to the traditional functions of prosperity – cast of the workers –, of sacrality – cast of the priests –, then of power – cast of the warriors. It is remarkable that, in the so-called ‘Indo-European ideology’, the casts are born out of the carving up of the Purusha: out of the body of the First sacrificial victim. Cf. Rig-Veda, 10.90.12: «Its mouth became the Brahman, | the Warrior was the product of his arms, | its thighs were the Craftsman, | out of his feet the Servant was born» (Renou 1985, p. 99).

Passing in the order, from below to above, through the articulations of a cast Saint Luke permutes the temptations’ progression in order to permute the superior functions.

The basis keeps stable: abundance material, but the displacement of priesthood at the end reflects the alternative of a hierarchical society (vulgarly known as theocratic). Such a society, shows L. Dumont, is founded on the distinction between prestige and power. Between absolute primacy and the exercise of might. The entire conflict between royalty and prophetism must be interpreted in the same direction: namely, as a criticism of the priesthood’s abdication.

The variation introduced by Saint Luke is usually explained by the standard relevance that the Holy City has to his eyes. (Feuillet; Fitzmyer, 507 f.; Jerusalem Bible; etc.). But the recognition of a state of affairs is not of the same order as its explanation. Why, to Saint Luke, is Jerusalem central? Exactly because it is a holy city. Jerusalem is the center of Jesus’ revelation: the theater of the reversal of messianism political.

* * *

Abundance, sacred/power: the different order reveals two solutions as to the prestige in a human society.

The temptation acknowledges the primacy of the Christ: it consists in suggesting the three options that deny it.

* * *

That Saint Luke, varying on Saint Matthew - as well as, no doubt, on their common source - has in mind a hierarchic model (currently defined as « centrality of Jerusalem »), is confirmed by the Our Father.

There Saint Luke introduces a prayer whose exact reversal is the desert temptation (11.2-4; Rengstorf 1969, p. 63; but the King James Version unduly reintroduces the version of Saint Matthew).

Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Give us day by day our daily bread.

We are to conclude that Saint Luke introduces a reversal of paradigm visible both in the Our Father and in the system of the desert temptations. These temptations recite the Our Father mimetically: that is to say, the other way round. These temptations are an inversion not only because of the display of the functions (the tempter, of course, begins from the bottom for, at the other end, there is the Name). They constitute the inversion of the Our Father for, in what is missing, the key is revealed, the reason profound of such a disruption.

Hallowed be THY name;
THY kingdom come;
Give us day by day our daily bread.

The system of temptations wipes out the Father, whose Name justifies the prayer of the Christ.

* * *

The insinuation of the tempter to the Christ consists --so to speak --in the reading of the Our Father that I give every day of my life.

Hallowed be MY name,
MY kingdom come,
MY will be done,
as in Heaven, so in earth.

If I wipe out the father, the prayer is transformed according to the tempter.

* * *

As a result, the temptations attack the Christ before attempting at the freedom of man.

More precisely they attempt at the Christic form of freedom, that is relation to Our Father.

The nature of the temptations as an attack to this relation clearly appears in Jesus’ responses. If we read the progression of the episode not according to the temptation system but to the consistence of the Christ’s responses, we obtain the interpretation that – according to the Synoptics – the Christ has given for the first to the temptations.

The structure of His replies differs, at one time, both from the Our Father and from the temptations.

In effect, Jesus replies by three quotations that form, themselves, a coherent unity. Widening the borders of the comparison allows, for the second time, fresh acquisitions as well as a confirmation of the methodology.

Jesus does not recall the Our Father at all (which – of course – would be a hysteron proteron), but three passages of the First Testament: more precisely, three passages of the Deuteronomy (8.3; 6.16 ; 6.13), which are concerned with the memory of Yhwh.

For the second time in the Christ’s responses, the order of the temptations is revealed as a reading of faith the other way round: a reading upside down of its Judaic kernel.

Jesus replies to the provocation by the Jew’s fundamental profession of faith: the deuteronomist memory of Yhwh. The vicinity of these passages to the Shema‘ Israel – Jewish prayer for excellence – leads us to the conclusion that He interprets the temptation as an attack to the heart of the Judaic faith.

Shema‘ Israel united to Our Father: the temptation regards, altogether, the kerns of the First and of the New Testament. Jewish and Christian identities are, in the wilderness (heb. midhbar from a root meaning word), unified twice: by the temptation, by its renunciation.

As a cross nails two stakes, the two stakes of the Cross nail the clock of history: all coming around with the desert alternative, all third position, all “pilatism” (neologism of another Russian novelist in another novel on the devil: M. Bulgakov, The Master and Marguerite).

In facts, the hands of the clock move in, by and for the space of their difference. This very space is the third position; the union of the hands produces the duality.

* * *

If the Christ declines the invitation to assess its primacy according to the world, it is force majeure to conclude that he renounces all acknowledged social identity.

Who is, then, the Christ in relation to other men? What is the role that He reserves to Himself? The refusal of the temptations eliminates all possibility to find a position within the social organization of His brothers.

Therefore, He is left with no apparent identity. This is the weakness that implies the Cross. Saint Luke is explicit: if the devil withdraws, he does so only up to the upcoming of the better opportunity (Lc 4,13; the better opportunity is the Passion of the Christ: Lc 22, 53).

Καὶ [...] ὁ διάβολος ἀπέστη ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἄχρι καιροῦ.
et [...] diabolus recessit ab illo usque ad tempus
And [...] the devil departed from him until the better occasion.

Starting from this point, the Christ’s revelation proceeds upon a ground literally invisible to the logic of a human anthropology, as well as to the project of divinization of man (Berdjaev 2002) distinguishes between the Christ, God-man, and the satanic project of man-God: compensation for Genesis’ «eritis sicut Deus»). If He is no shaman, nor a King’s King or a God, who is the God-Man, Jesus the Messiah?

Within the boundaries of the temptation system, He is some One who is without the social scale: beyond its top as Son of God, short of its bottom as every other outcast.

Only in the ominous coincidence, in the identity of the extremes out of scale: the identification of Messianic royalty with a man put to death to the stake of the slaves, the Christ – Priest, Prophet, and King – achieves the recapitulation of the faith in the wilderness.

* * *

Jesus is not only aware of the devil’s action, whose aim is the neutralization of His mission; He considers, further, that His divine mission is directly opposed to Satan’s empire. It is under this perspective that it is worth giving the expulsions of daemons their authentic meaning […] We can add that the viewpoint of the primitive Church is not exactly the same any more. The events of Easter have somewhat modified the perspective … Jesus makes the defeat of Satan coincide with the mission that God has entrusted Him [...] As a result, this page appears as one of the theological peaks of the Gospel as well as a summing up of the entire Christian messianism (Dupont 1968, p. 122; 126 ; 42. Cf. 1Jn 3, 8: εἰς τοῦτο ἐφανερώθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἵνα λύσῃ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ διαβόλου – in hoc apparuit Filius Dei ut dissolvat opera diaboli – «For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil»).

Genuine glimpse on the Christology of the origins (Stück Urchristologie: W. Grundman, Das Evangelium nach Markus, p. 84, quoted by Dupont 1968, p. 126), the mysterious episode of the desert temptations does not let itself reduce to the above considerations. Bread, world, Temple: the whole message of the Christ, His miracles, His identity, His prayer, the Eucharist: in short, the faith of Jesus is embedded in the desert. One might try to reconsider its relevance in the light of Rengstorf’s intuition and the suggestive conclusions of Dupont.


E. Auerbach (1994), Mimesis, Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, Francke, Bern (trad. it. Mimesis. Il realismo nella letteratura occidentale, Einaudi, trad. it. A. Romagnoli e H. Hinterhauser, Torino, 2000).
P. Benoit et M. E. Boismard (1972), Synopse des Quatre Evangiles en français, avec parallèles des Apocryphes et des Pères, Tome II, Commentaire par M.-E. Boismard, avec la collaboration de A. Lamouille et P. Sandevoir, Pref. de P. Benoit, Cerf, Paris.
N. A. Berdjaev (2002), La concezione di Dostoevskij, trad. it. B. Del Re, Einaudi,Torino (Duch Dostoevskago, Prague, 1922).
La Bible de Jérusalem (1994), nouv. éd., Cerf, Paris (1973).
J. Calloud (1973), L’analyse structurale du récit: éléments de methode. Les tentations de Jésus au désert., Profac, Lyon.
D. Cerbelaud (1997), Le diable, Editions de l’Atelier, Paris.
J. Corbon (1999), voix «Épreuve/Tentation» dans X. Leon-Dufour, (Dir.), Vocabulaire de théologie biblique, 9e éd., Cerf, Paris, p. 370-78.
R. Draï (1986), La sortie d’Egypte. L’invention de la liberté, Fayard, Paris.
F. Dostoevsky (2017), The Brothers Karamazov, transl. of C. Garnett, Digi Reaz Publishing.
G. Dumézil (1995), Mythe et épopée, I-II-III, Gallimard, Paris.
- (1986), Les dieux souverains des Indo-Européens, 3e éd., Flammarion, Paris.
L. Dumont (1979), Homo hierarchicus, Le système des castes et ses implications, Gallimard, Paris. J. Dupont (1968), Les tentations de Jésus au désert, Desclée de Brouwer, Bruges-Paris.
- (1966), «L’origine du récit des tentations de Jésus au désert», Revue biblique, 73, p. 30-76.
- (1956-1957), «L’arrière-fond biblique du récit des tentations de Jésus», New Testament Studies, 3, p. 287-304.
P. Evdokimov (1978), Dostoïevsky et le problème du mal, Edition de Corlevour, Paris.
A. Feuillet (1959), «Le récit lucanien de la tentation (Lc 4,1-13)», Biblica 40, p. 613-31.
J. A. Fitzmyer (1981), The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Doubleday, New York.
R. Girard (1976), Dostoïevski, du double à l’unité, dans Id., Critique dans un souterrain, Grasset, Paris, p. 35-111.
- (1961), Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, Grasset, Paris.
Irénée de Lyon (1974), Contre les hérésies, ed. A. Rousseau L. Doutreleau, Cerf, Paris.
P. Lamarche (1991), voix «Tentation, II. La tentation messianique dans le Nouveau Testament», dans Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, Doctrine et histoire, fondé par M. Viller, F. Cavallera, J. de Guibert et A. Rayez, Continué par A. Derville, P. Lamarche et A. Solignac, etc., 15, édition Beauchesne, Paris (1932-), col. 212-15.
X. Léon-Dufour (1996), Dictionnaire du Nouveau Testament, nouv. éd., édition du Seuil, Paris.
L. Panier (1984), Récit et commentaires de la tentation de Jésus au désert, Approche sémiotique, Cerf, Paris.
P. Pokorny (1973-74), «The Temptation Stories and Their Intention», New Testament Studies 20, p. 115-27.
K. H. Rengstorf (1969), Das Evangelium nach Lukas, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.
J. Schlosser (2002), «Les tentations de Jésus et la cause de Dieu », Revue des sciences religieuses 76, p. 403-25.
L. Renou (1985), Hymnes spéculatifs du Véda, Gallimard, Paris.
R. Schwager (1992), «Der vom Himmel gefallene Satan. Wer oder was ist der Teufel?», Theologie der Gegenwart 35, p. 255-64.
C. Spicq (1991), Lexique théologique du Nouveau Testament, Cerf, Paris.

The text of the Gospels is that of the 27th revised edition by K. Aland (8th revised reprint, Stuttgart, 2001); the Synopsis employed is that of Aland (3e revised reprint of the 15th ed., Stuttgart, 2001). The mainly consulted versions are those of the Jerusalem Bible (1994 ed.) and of the Traduction Œcuménique de la Bible (1996); among the reference works, The Handkonkordanz by Schmoeller (revised by B. Köster, 3th revised reprint of the 8th ed., Stuttgart, 1994). Quotations of the OT according to BHS (5th revised ed., Stuttgart, 1997); English quotations according to the King James Version [The content of this paper was first presented in June 2003 at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion organised by the Katholisch-Theologische Fakultät of the Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck. Warmest thanks to Dr Mirco A. Mannucci and Prof. Rose M. Cherubin for reviewing the English style].


torna su