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The Golden Bough and Magical Analogs toward the Creation of Humane Symbolism in the Jesus Story

The story of Jesus fasting in the desert presents an allegory of transformation. By adding the temptations to the basic story, we even get allegories within an allegory. In fact, the symbolic components of the story of the 40 day fast and temptations present a description of how the flawed activity of the human will can be superseded by a humble receptivity toward humane inner change (a theme recurrent in Christianity from Augustine to Bonhoeffer and beyond). It is, basically, Jesus confronting and conquering the original Catch 22 in the most paradoxical of ways. But where and when did this type of symbolism originate? Have folks always aspired to this type of transformation? I would like to show that a slightly overlooked aspect of Frazer’s Golden Bough helps put allegories of transformation in a clearer historical context. We can see how fasting and the desert were symbols appropriated from magical ritual before we dive more deeply into the process of hope and change inherent in this aspect of the Jesus story.
As an educated layman, a lover of art, literature and ideas, reading the Golden Bough was a powerful experience, and it saddens me that the academic community has relegated this book to footnote status in cultural anthropology textbooks. Folks should still be strongly encouraged to read this book, and I would even argue that parts of it should be required reading for all high school and/or college students. Even though, in retrospect, Frazer exhibited immense cultural insensitivity and is now criticized for treating pre-urban belief systems as being erroneous and inferior, reading this book makes one keenly aware of what a dominant impact magical beliefs have had throughout human history and that a belief in magic continues to influence our decisions. It connects one intuitively to belief systems of the past through multiple examples and it drives home the fact that religion, as we now experience it, simply did not exist until very recently; forms and blends of shamanism and magic had held sway (and still do in many parts of the world). If we follow Yuval Noah Harari’s rule of thumb that we have been what we are for about 70,000 years, for well over 90% of that history we were “non-religious”.
The chief sin, of many sins, of the Golden Bough seems to be Frazer’s belief that the study of magic, religion and science reveals an evolution of human cognitive development, revealing peoples of the past and non-urban folks of the present to be ignorant, backward and “savage”, instead of tying the belief in magic to specific environmental factors and psychological needs. Frazer failed to realize, at the very beginnings of cultural anthropology, that, in a nutshell, hunter gatherers tend to prefer animism/shamanism, farmers tend to prefer magic and city folks like religion, because those belief systems work best for those environments and living situations. There is no evolution from one to the other.
The argument is often made that religion is dying out, but magic is certainly not and I would invite you to spend some time in ultra-secular China to realize this, where people still use a lunar calendar and give red envelopes with money to each other during the Lunar New Year to provide each other with luck. In a hotel where I stayed there was no fourth floor because the sound of the word “four” approximates the sound of the word “death” in Chinese. If you go to a nice restaurant you will be expected to go through a brief ritual where your green tea is used to clean your chopsticks. When I told my host that my chopsticks looked pretty clean, she informed me that the purpose was not to clean the chopsticks, it was a necessary ritual. The Golden Bough helps you see how magic still permeates our urban lives. It is a “remainder” in E. B. Tylor’s parlance.
Indeed, Frazer borrowed this evolutionary misconception from the virtual founder of cultural anthropology, E.B. Tylor, who felt that history showed an ascent as folks surely must have learned lessons from previous generations. So, basically, Frazer committed a similar faux paux as Marx, who believed that slavery evolved into feudalism which then evolved into capitalism which will evolve into the promised land. To this day there are Marxists who call this “science” and who are waiting for the inevitable development of history. The current consumer culture in developing countries is allegedly a step toward Marx’s promised land, not a failure to implement social justice within a dictatorship after a bloody revolution (and wouldn’t it be so nice to simply buy our way to a socialist utopia after a bloody revolution?).
So Marx is good, Frazer is bad. Steeped in the ideology of English imperialism, Frazer falsely assumes he sits at the apex of human development looking down on the mistakes of humanity as Marx looks down upon previous social arrangements, as well as his current social order, passing moral judgments veiled as science. Stalin’s collectivization efforts and Mao’s Great Leap Forward were justified by this science. Poor farmers had to be reorganized and every penny squeezed out of them to industrialize under the premise that only industrialization could lead to communism.
Yet, despite Frazer’s “ethnocentrism”, the Golden Bough reveals abundant examples of the amazing creativity and ritual of magic, allowing us an insight into how non-urban folks lived and an awareness that we can so readily connect to this belief system intellectually and psychologically. It was this type of belief system that Gauguin went to Polynesia to try to rediscover, chucking a type of orthodox, literalist Christianity that had lost any sense of potency or purpose – Frazer’s book actually delivers to the reader what Gauguin was seeking, but Gauguin probably could have found even deeper humanity and meaning if he had just chucked orthodoxy and literalism and sought the real meaning of the Gospels. Perhaps most importantly, the Golden Bough compels us to wonder about which factors led to the creation and development of modern religion, which needs were abandoned and met through this new type of belief system and whether there is a future for religion either as a popular orthodoxy or as a system of meaningful symbols pointing toward a pro-social and humane development for each of us.
It is actually ironic to think that if the hollow form of Christianity based on a literal interpretation of allegories dies, religion might be replaced by a deeply compelling sense of magic in lieu of the type of secular consumerism (should I have written humanism?) many cultural theorists are pointing to. Even if the academic community is willing to abandon Frazer (they love starting our college years off with a Western Civ course – don’t worry about what came before that), because he has become offensive to modern sensibilities, the scientific method and modern scientific anthropology, we who love art, literature and ideas must not abandon this book. Indeed, it becomes essential to our understanding of how the symbolism of the Jesus story – possessing immense humanity and hope – was able to be created.
The big irony that has always surrounded the Golden Bough is that despite what Frazer’s orientation was toward pre-urban society and its beliefs, readers have continually come away with a sense of wonder and admiration for that which Frazer supposedly holds in contempt. The parallel that suddenly came to mind might be Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which publicly revealed a plethora of sexual kinks in order to condemn them as disgusting aberrations, but instead planted ideas for experimentation in many peoples’ heads. Yet, Frazer was not out to condemn as much as he was to reveal, and even though he presents pre-urban belief systems as mistakes, we can still get what’s really going on and how magic provides the grist for symbolism.
Although Frazer’s theories as to how religion may have sprung from magic have been challenged and confuted, the Golden Bough compels us realize the fact that “religion” did not develop until a certain amount of urbanization occurred. Indeed, throughout history there has often been a battle between the religion of the city and the beliefs of the countryside (magic or paganism), and this was especially prominent in the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet, by reading the Golden Bough, we can see that magical beliefs and practices seem to be a deeply seated human psychological need and part of human life that will probably never be fully suppressed. Professor Courtenay Raia-Grean, in one of her UCLA lectures broadcast on YouTube, quips that magic is like a default setting in the human mind. Reading the Golden Bough compels one to realize that magic is still a part of the human mindset; it was a strong component of the human psyche before the city and the city has not eliminated this deeply felt belief system. Magic still exists throughout the most cosmopolitan and ostensibly secular cities.
The Golden Bough brings this fully to our attention better than any other work, despite Frazer’s agenda, and if the Golden Bough is flawed, I would argue that academic anthropologists have been remiss in replacing this work with anything that packs as lusty a punch. The Golden Bough exposes the potency and influence of magic and allows one to fully absorb the significance and impact of magical practices. The book helps awaken in the reader latent magical beliefs or predispositions he/she may not have been fully aware of. One needs the Golden Bough to better understand human history and you cannot understand the makeup of humanity if you do not understand humanity’s belief in and reliance on magic. This is a part of our real makeup. The extent to which “religion” takes us beyond this makeup and how far religion has been able to take us, as a collective group, becomes more apparent due to this book.
An irony, of course, is the trend in modern contemporary science which tends to replicate Frazer’s arrogance and ethnocentrisms as it wishes to assert that one MUST live without magic and religion. I call this the trend toward Secular Consumerism, in lieu of Secular Humanism, since I have yet to find a religion-basher who could stand up to the accomplishments of folks like Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King Jr., or who could offer a greater life of meaning than those “inferior” thinkers who believe in the humane and transformative aspects of the world’s religions. True daughter of the Church that science is (it was Galileo’s fellow academics who wanted him burned at the stake, my friend, the Church was just their unwitting and convenient tool), it continues the fight against magic by ignoring and dismissing it as ignorance, while directing its most vigorous attacks against the religion of the city (which allowed science to develop out of magic and magical beliefs in the first place). In their attacks on religion, some Secular Consumerists seem to be entering the realm of oppressive, ultra-normative ethics, a condemnation they direct at Frazer. They attack Frazer while exhibiting a worse type of arrogance toward the beliefs of others.
Another irony is that so much which we value and derive gratification from in the secular world owes its origins to these pre-urban belief systems and this was a strong and positive message that Frazer promoted. Indeed, one of the most significant but under-pursued aspects of Frazer’s work is his argument that mythological and religious symbolism sprang from magical rituals. Of all of Frazer’s ideas this may be the most significant and undeniable, but still under-developed, and it may be under-developed due to the politically incorrect issues throughout the Golden Bough. Here again we see the idea of an “evolution,” which is going to make folks cringe, yet, in this case, it seems an evolution really occurred. Previously Jessie Weston tried to show how this was possible (with mixed results) in her book From Ritual to Romance. Her arguments were so compelling, however, that T.S. Eliot used Weston’s book as an inspiration for one of the landmarks of modern poetry, The Waste Land. The Golden Bough has always been strongly embraced by the open-minded and artistic.
Magic is still here, because people still believe in it and use it to their satisfaction, and, frankly, our arts have been derived from it. It is, in fact, important to understand how symbolism evolved from ritual since this will shed immense light on the real nature of what certain religious symbolism has been shooting for, why religion followed magic and a possible new life for religion. Perhaps religion did not “evolve” from magic, as Frazer seemed to assert, but we can begin to strongly intuit the differences between magic and religion from Frazer and begin to see how religion may have slowly developed after the change in lifestyle from the countryside to the city for so many people. The mythological stories and symbols folks from the city began to use, however, definitely did come from the magical beliefs of the countryside.
One of the reasons why this aspect of Frazer’s work has not been pursued extensively is, perhaps, that anthropologists are not literary or art critics and artistic people are not anthropologists. Frazer was originally trained in the classics before turning to anthropology, and this cross–specialization simply does not happen in academia any more. The only folks who might pursue what Weston pursued would be folks interested in art, literature, symbolism etc. Anthropologists just are not expected to be able take a jump from science to the humanities.
This is probably why many of the folks most influenced by the Golden Bough have been artists and writers. They can pick up the little bit of anthropology needed to “get it” whereas anthropologists have, perhaps, studied their discipline too diligently to be able to really grasp the literary qualities needed to fully understand the significance of Frazer. Frazer himself turned to anthropology only when he realized that there were bizarre, irrational aspects to the ancient Greek stories he loved reading and derived meaning from. These bizarre aspects came from the magical sources of the stories.
To show the value of this aspect of Frazer’s work, following Weston, and as an example of how Frazer’s concept can be fully flushed out, an example can be provided of how aspects of magical ritual probably provided the symbolic grist for one of the central stories of Christianity: Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the desert and subsequent temptations. One can easily detect symbolic components to this story: the number 40, the desert, fasting, Satan. The argument is that first you had magical rituals which possessed components that could easily evolve into a type of symbolism: symbolism was not created whole-cloth, the birth of symbolism comes from suggestions inherent in magical rituals. We can look at the story of Jesus in the desert, discern and interpret symbols, and see how this allegory possibly came from magical rituals.
To me this is just amazing, that we owe the use of symbolism to the practices of magic and that symbolism was not created, but was developed after large numbers of folks abandoned farms and inhabited cities. It is also amazing to consider the cross-cultural meaning of these symbols and to contrast this religion of “meaning” with the religion of the countryside and see how different needs are met by these different belief systems. It is also interesting to notice that a religion of meaning, chalk full of arcane symbolism, has dropped to a level more in line with the psychology of shamanism and magic than with the transformative content of its most meaningful symbols. It would seem to be a goal of progressive Christians to reclaim the meaning of these symbols, since they proclaim a deeper and more profound truth than the literal interpretations. The death of a literalist-based Christianity should be followed by greater meaning and not by magic or rank consumerism.
Here is what the French writer Jacques Duquesne in Jesus: An Unconventional Biography had to say about the number 40 in regard to Jesus fasting for forty days and nights in a desert:
“Forty: again, this is not a number plucked out of the air at random. It features in many ancient legends…the Buddha and Mohammed both began preaching at the age of forty; in Judaism, the waters of the flood had covered the earth for forty days…Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights. The use of the number forty should therefore alert us to the symbolism of this passage. We are entering a domain that is more literary than historical.” (Duquesne, p. 92,93)
Jesus fasted 40 days, Noah sailed 40 days, Moses fasted 40 days, Israelites wandered 40 years, Buddha began teaching at 40, Mohammed began teaching at 40. It looks as if, in sacred or religious literature, before a person can do something spectacular, sometimes he/she has to spend forty days or years in preparation. The number 40 is used, therefore, in the Bible, to describe a transitional situation. Something else cannot occur until the period of 40 days or years has ended – sort of a gestation period. The number 40 would seem to denote a substantial period of time during which an individual or people changes (for the better): a period of transition or struggle where one leaves one situation and is moving toward another.
We know this is a symbolic story because it could not have happened. Luke says Jesus did not eat or drink anything for 40 days (Luke 4:2). There is a process of change/transition effected through a symbolic hunger and a symbolic desert over 40 days; ‘fasting’ and ‘the desert’ are a symbolic means and a symbolic setting in which a change is to happen. Weston points out that, in the grail story, the wasteland is in symbolic conjunction to the debilitating condition of a king. She asks why a weak and ill king would be tied in a literary work to a wasteland and realizes that this symbolism follows from the magical belief that catastrophic conditions in a community’s environment (drought, famine) are due to a lack of potency in the community’s ruler. The concept of a “wasteland” is created through a magical belief system but can then be appropriated as a symbol possessing non-magical meaning in regard to one’s inner reality.
For whatever reasons magic was not the perfect fit for a city and each Western European city became fertile ground, ultimately, for the acceptance of a religion like Christianity which encouraged toleration, charity and civility as well as offering providential aid and a way to deny the psychological impact of death through the promise of an afterworld. Magic did not disappear completely, but there was now space for a new spiritual possibility in the city.
Symbolism is an example of how aspects of “outside” reality can be played with so that the stories that result can have greater meaning for the examined life. The number 40 denotes that Jesus underwent an ordeal that constituted a period of transition. In the first three gospels, after all, Jesus meets and is tempted by Satan ONLY while engaged in this process. It is as if he has to do this in the devil’s ballpark (the desert) to play ball with the devil. If the number 40 is a symbol of transition, we should see Jesus come out of the desert a different person and this seems to be the case. Jesus only begins working in the world AFTER the 40-day fast and he never fasts again. Indeed, he becomes somewhat notorious for eating while others are fasting. The Buddha spends 40 days under a Bodhi tree to gain enlightenment. It sounds as if he fasted for 40 days too before becoming enlightened.
Fasting becomes the symbolic way to bring about an inner change. The desert is the symbolic setting for the change. Satan provides the test or assessment to establish that change has occurred. Victory is a new state of being that allows one to re-enter one’s society with a new perspective and values. But why fast in a desert? Indeed, this symbolic story hinges on these two main features and both can be traced back to magic. As we have seen, the concept of the wasteland was easily appropriated as a symbol. Furthermore, this story approximates various vision quests and walk-abouts that are commonly used in societies that value shamanism and magic. We can even point to the cannibalism dance of the Hamatsa in Kwakiutl society, where a person enters a wilderness to return as a more pro-social human being.
Fasting also has a magical analog. As Frazer points out early in the Golden Bough, imitation of what you want changed or of what you want to occur becomes an essential part of magic. In some non-urban societies sexual intercourse was encouraged, sometimes in the fields themselves, to approximate and encourage soil fertility. Conversely, some societies believed that in order to help the soil become fertile they needed to refrain from sex for some time before planting. Some societies would hold fasts before the planting season, to imitate the nature of the ‘dead’ or ‘empty’ soil, basically to approximate deprivation, and this would magically help in the growth process once the seeds were planted.
So, fasting became part of a magical ritual to ensure that one’s society would not starve during the upcoming agricultural season. Fasting becomes a part of a people’s tradition, when cities develop from agricultural societies the tradition loses magical value but gains symbolic value. The symbols are just sitting there waiting to be discovered and used because they have been established through magic. In the city a new set of values involving social interaction are needed, and introspection and self-development in response to the problematic behavior of strangers become a value; a whole set of symbolism becomes appropriated around the concept of one’s inner reality and the discernment of emotions, motives, desires and cognitive functions. The goal of religion becomes rising above anti-social and painful predispositions toward a state of inner peace which allows one to beneficially interact with and influence others. In the countryside humane behavior is ensured through the propinquity of interpersonal relationships and social taboos rooted in magic. These do not translate to the city. People retain magical “remainders” but also pick up a new belief system for an urban environment.
City dwellers are divorced from life on the land and the stories constructed around rituals take on new meanings for them. Birth, death and resurrection means one thing to farmers and starts to mean another thing to city-dwellers, but the city dwellers do not create symbols out of nothing, the symbols are already there, created by the farmers, and they are appropriated and gain new meaning.
So fasting was a necessary preparation for crops to grow among farmers, but then took on added or a different meaning to city dwellers within an allegorical story. Jesus is not in the desert to make crops grow, he is in the desert undergoing an inner change. That Jesus accomplishes this change of being, in the story, is shown by the fact that he passes a test given to him by Satan (another symbol in the story). The three temptations become symbolic aspects of this story tacked on to the two core symbols of fasting and the desert. These are tests. How does a person discover that he or she has mastered some type of learning? Usually he/she takes and passes a test. How does a person know when he/she has attained to a different level of being or has become different in some manner? In symbolic literature this person resists a temptation – often meaning that the person does not do what he/she might have done in the past. Even the Buddha resists temptation after the Bodhi Tree incident.
The three temptations of Jesus become symbols within a symbolic story. This does not necessarily have a magical analog because the key analogs allow for the creation of further aspects of symbolic stories. In regard to the three temptations we get: “Stone into bread” “Tower jumping” and “The World is your oyster.” If 40 is the number of transition, 3 seems to be the number of completion. To do something three times seems to mean, “That’s that, it’s finished. There’s your proof.” Three is used all over the Bible in this manner: three days in a whale’s belly, three days dead etc. I am getting a lot of this, by the way, from a psychologist named Maurice Nicoll, who studied under Carl Jung and attempted to follow in the footsteps of the psychoanalysts in examining mythology and especially by examining Christian stories as if they were also a part of the mythological tradition.
So first Jesus is tempted to change stone into bread. On a symbolic level both stone and bread mean something in religion and literature throughout the world. Stone, on a literal level, is something hard, cold, ‘dead,’ and unchanging while bread is something nourishing and life giving. One might say that stone is a type of truth or moral code that exists outside of oneself, like a tool, and is cold and harsh because once established it exists outside of our being, while bread is a type of truth or understanding that leads to spiritual nourishment, that can be incorporated into one’s very being. Jesus refrains from trying to turn stone into bread. He basically says, “I can’t use my own will to effect inner change. I have to use patience and self-denial to reach that fourth level of competency or to move from the ex post facto to the ex ante (to move from regretting action to preventing action). Sure, I need that bread, but I’m not using my own flawed and limited will to get it. I’m not even going to try.”
Then, Satan literally quotes from the Bible (there are many comic aspects of the Bible which are not recognized as being funny) and says, essentially, “Hey Jesus, the Bible says that if you throw yourself off a building God will stop you from falling to your death; so if you believe in the Bible, jump!” Jesus, a good non-literalist, asks Satan, essentially, “Do I look that stupid? I don’t interpret this stuff literally.” So the first temptation seems to test whether Jesus has learned about Catch 22 and the second is to test whether he wants to be the Duchess (a dogmatic literalist) or Alice (an adventurer). Finally Satan takes Jesus up to a mountain top, points to a city and says, ”Look at that! All of that will be yours if you worship me.” Satan is basically saying, “I know the way. Follow my way. You get stuff, good stuff, my way.” Jesus, however, senses another way. Wealth and power and the products of wealth and power become symbols of a false way.
As T.S. Eliot wrote: “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” These three temptations are all about Jesus refusing to attempt to do the wrong thing in regard to his personal transformation. Maybe the implication is that if you resist doing something ineffective long enough you get pointed toward the right thing to do, somehow. Jesus refrains from trying to change stone into bread, implying it is not an act of human will that can do this. Jesus refuses to jump from a building because he has not taken the Bible literally and does not, again, want to impose his will on God by forcing God to save him. Then, Jesus does not accept the devil’s offer of world domination because the devil is a sort of comic trickster figure in Biblical symbolism, a character who is always offering the wrong way to get to the right place and world power is not only not the way to what Jesus wants, but the devil probably can’t deliver it anyway. Basically, in this part of the Gospel story, Jesus refrains from taking bad advice in a desert after not eating for 40 days.
Is the devil really trying to help Jesus attain to something better than God can help him attain to? He is a trickster who thinks he knows the right way but he does not. It is like a retelling of the Garden of Eden story where the snake promises something God does not and the first humans fall for the bad advice. Jesus, resisting the three temptations, is like the Garden of Eden temptation all over but this time a guy makes the right choices. The story of the temptations is a direct response, therefore, to the story of the Fall. Satan is more of a goofy and incompetent trickster figure than anything else in the Bible. He is an altruistic but incompetent trickster figure.
What is really interesting is that the Bible stories do not say that Jesus “chose” to enter the desert. Indeed, this is a quite absurd thing for Jesus to do, to wander into a desert and go without food. The symbolic answer is that Jesus was compelled to go into the desert. Paradoxically, the desert may have looked good to him at the time, the point being that this story points to the fact that in our personal, humane development we can be in an absurd situation that we do not even recognize as absurd. An absurd situation often does not look absurd until we leave it. In our evolution as spiritual beings, in this religious tradition, we are led into the desert to either stagnate or ultimately recognize the absurdity of our actions. This absurd situation, again, seems to have its origins in vision quests and walk-abouts.
Jesus goes through his ordeal of fasting in a desert and this trickster capacity of himself (Satan) presents itself, so Jesus can address it, examine it and abandon it. Satan seems to represent an inner capacity we have to lie to ourselves or to employ the wrong means for the wrong reasons to get to something that is perceived to be good or higher. Satan, in fact, seems to represent the same thing as a thief and thieves abound in symbolic literature. Satan wants to help Jesus steal salvation. Satan thinks he sees shortcuts, which is tantamount to a type of thievery or cheating. There are also attempts to steal immortality in ancient Greek religious symbolism. Bellerophon is punished severely, for example, for trying to “steal” immortality. So the desert is the infertile ground one foolishly enters on a false quest where one is forced to fast until a vision appears which will temp the initiate.
Remember, Jesus was crucified among thieves in the story presented in the Gospels, Jean Valjean is falsely accused of being a thief, Magwich, who attempts to help Pip in Great Expectations, is a thief. Paris stole Helen of Sparta. Ravenna stole Sita. Monostatos steals Princess Pamina. This story would seem to be implying that there’s a different process that has to be used than the one we are tempted to use. Satan, the snake, bulls with their moon-shaped horns, all seem to represent this ‘urge’ to steal the new life.
The lesson is that life changed completely once folks entered the city as personal relationships broke down and taboos were abandoned. A new life was called for and a person had to work on him/herself to get to the apogee of this new life. Once you begin to realize that there is the possibility of a new type of being, you are tempted to work toward it aggressively, to steal it. The story of Jesus teaches through symbols that what you really need is patience and self-denial. You have to learn to say “no” to ways of living or acting that you never said “no” to before. There is a different process that has to be used than the one we are tempted to use to fully adapt to the new life of the city.
The implication seems to be that to move from one state of being to another one must really deeply experience the first barren state of being and that during this experience (symbolic fasting in the symbolic desert) one will change and then be tested and if passing will move to a new state of being and action. The nature of the test will be whether a person can refrain from doing something he/she feels compelled to do but that simply will not work. Like waiting for a fish to bite, this is meaningful waiting. The first state of being itself will provide an exit to the next state of being if one experiences it deeply enough. This story seems to point to an inner process, not some abstract truth, and we owe the story to the magical processes which allowed for the discovery of symbolism.
In the novel Catch 22, Yosarian wants to desperately leave the military, but any act of his own will results in Catch 22 being invoked and he cannot leave. So Yosarian is stuck in a kind of desert situation, a bleak situation he hates and he wants to escape. He is in a situation where he is continually forced to fight when all he really wants is peace. So we can think of this as a type of desert situation. Another take on fasting could simply be that if you walk into a desert situation, you will, naturally, be without food. The way Yosarian was without everything he valued in the military, one becomes deprived in a desert. So it is not that Jesus is necessarily choosing not to eat in the desert, one could argue not getting food is inherent to the desert experience.  You fully surrender, as it were, to a type of deprivation and the deprivation (what the deprivation represents) finally gives up secrets to you which help you transition to another level.
In Elaine Pagels’ book Beyond Belief, she points out that the first three Gospels simply do NOT say that Jesus WAS God. Only the much later Gospel of John makes this claim and Pagels seems to believe that this Gospel was written solely to make that claim after some folks decided it would be a good idea to have Jesus as a God. Funny thing, though, that she does not mention, is that The Gospel of John also seems to go out of it way to make Jesus seem like an ancient Greek wine god: wine, of course, being a symbol of transcending the mundane and rising to a level of being where one becomes more social, tolerant, fraternal, forgiving (the values desperately needed in a city filled with strangers). In any case, Pagels seems to imply that the first three Gospels clearly present Jesus as a VERY HUMAN human being. The implication would then be that whatever the 40 day fast represents symbolically, whatever inner process occurred and was represented symbolically by the story, is a process that might be available to ALL human beings just as nirvana was theoretically available to others in Buddhism and not just one guy under the Bodhi Tree. You can articulate a theme to this story but the person who wrote this is interested in a process of development.
The most pertinent question that remains unanswered and unresearched in anthropology is how religious documents filled with esoteric symbolism became the texts for a religion eschewing these esoteric interpretations and focusing primarily on the means to achieve success in this world and a blessed afterlife – to the point that the message can be embraced by simultaneous social classes at the same time toward the same agenda. What social pressures and human needs exist such that a clear and obvious esoteric message can be utterly ignored in favor of bizarre literal beliefs reflecting shamanistic and magical “remainders”? Is there hope that vast numbers of people can be inspired and changed through the real meanings of these symbols?
So the purpose of this paper was three-fold: to plead a case for the Golden Bough, to plead that case by focusing on one important argument in the book and to show via example how the argument turns out to be sound by referencing the story of Jesus in the desert, explaining the symbols and showing how the symbols derived from magic. Both the wasteland and fasting figure into magical beliefs and practices and both the wasteland and fasting figure into the symbolism of the Jesus story. From this one can readily draw the conclusion that elements of magical practices endured a change moving from agricultural to urban settings, where these elements lost their magical functions and gained a symbolic meaning pointing inward, as the urban environment became much more complex and required greater levels of behavioral change. The Jesus story clearly reflects this process much more than Frazer or Weston imagined. The magical elements became symbols and the symbols functioned within allegories to point to possible inner change that might radically alter and enrich one’s life within an urban context.

Quote taken from: Duquesne, Jacques, Jesus an Unconventional Biography, Triumph Books, 1997

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