Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (Matthew 4, KJV)
What is going on here?
It seems obvious to me that this is a dramatization of an inner process. The devil is whatever it is that causes certain kinds of thoughts – in this case, sub-optimal thoughts about personal comfort (hedonism) or glory. It is a posit to explain a process that is observed to occur.
It is important to note that the devil is tempting Jesus with much less than Jesus actually gets after rejecting the offers (according to the standard Christian narrative). This is common to many kinds of thoughts people have, where what is tempting us will turn out to be significantly less than what will happen if we do otherwise.
Intuitively, anyone can understand this. Sometimes it is the ‘pleasing lies’ that we sometimes think might be true, such as ‘I can eat this cupcake, it won’t make a difference’ and so on.
More generally, the devil can be thought here to be the principle by which these kinds of thoughts enter our conscious mind. In Christian thought, it is often broadened to include all sub-optimal thoughts – in particular, things that may help us in the short term but harm us longer term, or disconnect us from the good.
So, what initially seems to the contemporary mind like an obviously untrue story – silly – becomes something more readily understandable. Jesus goes away for a process of purification (getting rid of distractions, clearing his thoughts, focusing on what he is to do next), during which he successfully dismisses certain thoughts that would have led to a sub-optimal outcome.
The devil as depicted here is a personification (of a mental principle or kind of process, with which everyone is familiar). ‘He’ did not whisk Jesus up to the top of a temple, or go up to the top of a non-existent mountain where one supposedly could see all the nations of the world. It is reasonable, rather, to conclude that this personification is a literary device intended to make something that one cannot see in a story form (an inner process, in this case) more visible and memorable.
A side note on the use of ’40 days’. This is a common number in various ancient Judaic texts, in particular with Noah enduring 40 days of rain and Moses being on the mountain for 40 days. This is an obvious reference to those texts, and more generally to the idea of a time of preparation. Again, it is easy to make mistakes about what the writers are intending to be conveyed – what is important to them – (was it exactly 40 days? how can we know that?) by being unfamiliar with the context in which they were writing, or making various anachronistic judgments about what the writers are trying to do.