Study Guide

The Last Temptation of Christ

by Nikos Kazantzakis

The Last Temptation of Christ Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Nikos Kazantzakis has been called the most outrageous, most important, and most controversial writer in twentieth century Greek literature. The Last Temptation of Christ—his personal and literary quest for self, reality, and understanding of the myths of religion—made him famous for starting a major theological controversy: Could Jesus Christ have actually slept with Mary Magdalene? Could he have had children by her and other women? Did all these things really happen in Kazantzakis’ story, or were they merely a dream? The novel challenged the legitimacy of sacred Scripture for readers throughout the world. Many readers could not accept the idea of Christ’s facing the same temptations of the flesh as mortal men. To them, the book was blasphemous.

In 1988 film director Martin Scorsese revived interest in Kazantzakis and his novel with his adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. Some American critics called Scorsese’s film the best of 1988, and Scorsese was nominated for an Academy Award. From the pulpit, through the press, and by pressures imposed upon local film distributors, Scorsese received the wrath of many Christians of different traditions with his interpretation of Kazantzakis’ novel. In addition, many American communities opposed public screenings of the film, which was often seen in private showings arranged and attended by local ministers, parents, rabbis, and school administrators, to determine whether it conformed to community standards. In many communities, the film was available only on videocassette. Some Christians expressed disappointment in the artistic merits of the film, while others were drawn to the original novel by the author who had also written Zorba the Greek, whose sales also increased.

The Last Temptation of Christ Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Unlike the Jesus of traditional Christianity, the Jesus of Nikos Kazantzakis realizes his identity as the Son of God and the savior of humankind slowly and fitfully. Ever uncertain of the duties of his messianic role and of his ability to resist fleshly temptations, he achieves the victory by which he fulfills his divine destiny only in his last moments on the cross.

Amid messianic expectations enflamed by the prophecies of the priest Simeon, Jesus, a carpenter like his father, is employed by the Roman government in the making of crosses for the crucifixion of insurrectionary Jewish zealots. He is simultaneously persecuted as a traitor and suspected of being the Messiah, as well as beset by guilt resulting from his fear that he may have forced his cousin Mary Magdalene into a life of prostitution by refusing to marry her years earlier. To escape these pressures, he sets out for a monastery to seek the will of God.

Once there Jesus encounters the dying abbot Joachim (who had just received a revelation that the Messiah would soon arrive), Simeon (who had been summoned to tend to the dying abbot), and Judas Iscariot (who had been sent by zealots to assassinate Jesus for collaborating with the Romans). Each of these men helps convince Jesus that he is the Messiah. Unsure of what his role will ultimately entail, he nevertheless experiences peace.

Several well-known events recorded in the Synoptic Gospels then follow in quick succession: the account of the “woman taken in adultery” (John 8), in which Kazantzakis identifies the woman as Mary; the promulgation of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5); and the repudiation by Jesus of earthly family ties (Matthew 12). At odds with the synoptic Christ, Kazantzakis’s Jesus speaks and acts haphazardly, trusting his speech and actions to spontaneous divine inspiration. Consequently he vacillates between trusting his spiritual instincts (love) and the “carnal” instincts (force) of his followers, many of whom expect him to lead them in a triumphant rebellion against Rome.

Although much of what follows consists of the Synoptic record as filtered through the author’s existential prism, Kazantzakis also takes significant...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

The Last Temptation of Christ Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Last Temptation of Christ starts near the end of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and recounts the main events of the familiar Gospel story: Jesus assumes his mission, preaches, gathers disciples, is baptized by John the Baptist, goes to Jerusalem at Passover, is betrayed by Judas, is tried, condemned, and crucified, and finally dies on the Cross. Other details are presented either unconventionally or ambiguously. Pontius Pilate’s interview with Jesus is in two parts, one before Passover and not in connection with Jesus’ trial; Jesus apparently raises Lazarus from the dead, but Jesus’ involvement in this event is reported by the characters rather than described authorially by Kazantzakis. Peter dreams that he walked on the waves at Jesus’ command and tells Matthew, who includes the story as a real event in his account of Christ’s life. Jesus is enraged at this and other inaccuracies in Matthew’s manuscript, which the publican is writing so that the details of Jesus’ life will correspond with the predictions of the Old Testament prophets, but Matthew says that he is directed by an angel. Although the tone of the novel is serious, this method of reporting the story of Jesus may be a reminder that, in his other works, Kazantzakis describes God as sometimes inconsistent and possessing a sense of humor. Kazantzakis may have de-emphasized Jesus’ connection with Judaic tradition in order to underscore the point that, as a human being as well as...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

The Last Temptation of Christ Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Last Temptation of Christ is a fictionalized account of the life and death of Jesus. In it, Nikos Kazantzakis concentrates on the human aspects of Christ, tracing his adult career from his departure from home in Nazareth, through his famous temptation in the desert and his public ministry in the company of his disciples, to his final passion and death. Jesus’ life is seen as a perpetual conflict between temptations of the flesh or the intellect and the desires of the hero to fulfill his destiny as Savior.

The novel opens in Nazareth, where young Jesus the carpenter is being pursued by a demon whose identity is unclear: Is this tempter the Devil, or is it God? Wracked by uncertainty, Jesus continues his work—building crosses for the Romans to use to crucify Zealots who are trying to overthrow the invaders from the west.

Finally, uncertain how to reconcile the conflicting passions he feels within himself, Jesus leaves home. His wanderings take him to Magdala, where he confronts his cousin Mary, the village prostitute and daughter of the rabbi to whom Jesus often turns for advice. Their meeting is a crisis for Jesus, as Mary accuses him of spurning her and of avoiding his responsibilities to his mother and family. Dejected and confused, he travels into the desert, settling with a band of ascetic monks who want him to succeed their dying abbot as the leader of their commune. Realizing that to do so would be to abandon the world, Jesus leaves the monastery and wanders alone into the desert. There, the Tempter appears to him in various forms (a lion, a woman) and offers Jesus ease from his confusion,...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

The Last Temptation of Christ Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Israel is occupied by the forces of the Roman Empire. In his village of Nazareth in Galilee, Jesus has just finished building a cross ordered by the Romans when Judas Iscariot, a member of the rebel group called the Zealots, comes to ask his help. Judas’s leader, known simply as the Zealot, has been sentenced to be crucified that same day. Judas believes that the Zealot is the Messiah promised to the Jews by the ancient prophets, the man who will save Israel, and that if the people rise up against the Romans to prevent his execution, the Zealot will reveal himself as the Messiah and cast the Romans out of Israel.

Jesus refuses to take part in the rebellion, which he knows the Romans will crush. He has long suspected that he himself is the Messiah, but he is terrified of crucifixion, and he is angry that the role God has chosen for him will deny him the earthly joys beloved by all men in ancient Israel: a hearth, a home, a loving wife, and children. When he was younger he loved Mary Magdalene, but the hand of God kept them apart, and Jesus blames himself for Mary’s descent into sin.

Jesus’ fear and anger have led him to rebel against God, and as part of that rebellion he has built the cross for the execution of the Zealot. He delivers the cross to the Romans and helps to set it in place. The people of Nazareth are stunned, and the planned rebellion never occurs. After the crucifixion, the people call Jesus a traitor, and Jesus, ashamed, sets out for a distant monastery, where he stays for some months. There he gives himself to God and begins his ministry.

For some months, Jesus wanders Galilee and Judea, preaching the Gospel. At Capernaum he saves Mary Magdalene from a mob under the sway of Barabbas, the bandit and Zealot. He...

(The entire section is 722 words.)