As the poem opens, neither Christ nor his followers understand his messianic role. Having fasted in the desert for 40 days, he is approached by his adversary Satan in disguise. Satan has heard the voice of God proclaiming Jesus His son and seeks to discover the meaning of the declaration.
Satan tempts Christ to assuage hunger, first by seeking to have him turn stones into bread and then by presenting an elaborate banquet. Recognizing his adversary, Christ refuses the blandishments.
In a second sequence, Satan tempts Christ by offering him wealth, power, and imperial sway. These would, presumably, enable him to exercise his role as Messiah, which he has not yet done. Rejecting all offers, including the wisdom and art of Athens, Christ prefers to wait for guidance from God.
After attempting to terrify Christ with a storm, Satan spirits him through the air to the pinnacle of the Temple, where the temptation is to cast himself down and be rescued by God’s power. Christ’s reply causes Satan to fall instead and signals that both characters have recognized his divine power. As angels minister to him, Jesus returns quietly to his mother’s house.
Having triumphed over Satan, Milton’s Christ is prepared to begin his public ministry. He has learned from the episode which roles the Messiah must reject. At the same time, he has been genuinely tempted, as a suffering human being who might have succumbed, and has remained steadfast in his faith. The poem suggests that this survival of temptation represents Christ’s real triumph over Satan, even though man’s salvation requires his death and resurrection.
Fixler, Michael. Milton and the Kingdoms of God. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964. Examines Paradise Regained in the historical, religious, political, and literary contexts of Milton’s life and works. It is particularly valuable in exploring the Puritan dilemma after the failure of their revolution.
Lewalski, Barbara K. Milton’s Brief Epic. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1966. The single most comprehensive exploration of Milton’s use of the literary and biblical traditions invoked in the poem, particularly the story of Job and its varying interpretations.
Pope, Elizabeth M. “Paradise Regained”: The Tradition and the Poem. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962. A good beginner’s introduction to the text and its theological implications, less perceptive on the textual subtlety of Milton’s innovations.
Stein, Arnold. Heroic Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957. A classic study of the dramatic aspects of Paradise Regained, especially in relation to the other major works of the mature Milton.
Wittreich, Joseph. Calm of Mind. Cleveland, Ohio: Case Western University Press, 1971. An important collection of essays centered on Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes (1671), considering the dominant literary and interpretative problems raised by the poems.