In the past, our publications have reasoned that this event may not have happened literally. For example, in the issue of March 1, 1961, The Watchtower explained: “It does not seem reasonable to place a literal construction on all that appears in the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Certainly there is no mountain from which one could be shown ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.’ So too, we must reasonably conclude that Satan did not literally, bodily, physically, take Jesus ‘along into the holy city’ and station him ‘upon the battlement of the temple.’ Such was not at all necessary for the temptation to have force.” However, in subsequent issues of this journal, we have observed that Christ’s complying with Satan’s request could have resulted in Jesus’ suicide.
Some have stated that, as a non-Levite, Jesus was not authorized to stand on top of the temple sanctuary. So it was assumed that Jesus may have been ‘taken along’ to the temple by means of a vision. That is similar to what happened centuries earlier to the prophet Ezekiel.—Ezek. 8:3, 7-10;11:1, 24; 37:1, 2.
However, if this temptation occurred only in the form of a vision, the following questions arise:
Was the temptation real or imaginary?
If the other temptations were efforts to lure Jesus into carrying out physical actions such as turning literal stones into bread or performing a real act of worship before Satan, would not this temptation have been similar—requiring Jesus physically to jump from the temple?
On the other hand, if Jesus did stand physically on the battlement of the temple, other questions arise:
Further research helps us to see some possibilities that may answer these last two questions.
First, Professor D. A. Carson notes that the Greek wordhi·e·ron’, translated “temple” in both accounts, “probably refers to the entire complex, not the sanctuary itself.” So Jesus would not necessarily have had to stand on top of the sanctuary itself. He could have stood, for example, on the southeastern corner of the temple area. From that location, there was a drop of some 450 feet (137 m) to the floor of the Kidron Valley. The southeast structure had a flat roof with a parapet and was the highest in the temple. The ancient historian Josephus stated that if a person stood there and looked down, he “would become dizzy” because of the height. As a non-Levite, Jesus would have been allowed to stand in that location, and his doing so would not have caused any commotion.
But how could Jesus have been taken along to the temple when he was in the wilderness? The basic answer is that we cannot know for certain. The brief description of the temptations does not state how long a period was involved or where Jesus was in the wilderness. We cannot rule out the possibility that Jesus may have walked back to Jerusalem, even though doing so may have taken some time. The account does not specifically say that Jesus remained in the wilderness throughout the time of the temptations. Rather, it merely says that he was taken into Jerusalem.
What, though, of the temptation wherein Jesus was shown “all the kingdoms of the world”? Obviously, he did not literally see all the kingdoms; there is no literal mountain from which all of them can be seen. So Satan may have used some sort of vision to show these to Jesus, similar to the way a projector and a screen can be used to show someone pictures of various places on earth. However, although a vision may have been used, the “act of worship” would have been real, not imaginary. (Matt. 4:8, 9) It could be argued, then, that the temptation to jump off the battlement of the temple involved a real action with real consequences—adding a greater seriousness to this temptation than would be the case were it a mere vision.
The fact is, as stated at the outset, we cannot be dogmatic about this matter. Hence, we cannot rule out the possibility that Jesus actually went to Jerusalem and stood on the battlement of the temple. But one thing we can be sure about is that these temptations were real and that Jesus gave a conclusive answer to the Devil in each case.