Martin Scorcese’s 1988 film version of Nikos Kazantzakis’1953 novel of the same name was very controversial upon its release, with many Christians marching protest against its depiction of Jesus. The book’s, and subsequent film’s central and inexcusable flaw, these people argued, was in their portrayal of Jesus as too human, as a fallible figure prone to the mental characteristics common to man: lust, fear, doubt, and so on. Actor Willem Defoe’s portrayal of Jesus was true to Kazantzakis’ vision of a Jesus who, while without sin, was nevertheless burdened with a degree of humanity that was considered sacrilegious in its time.
While many Christians opposed Kazantzakis’ and Scorcese’s depiction, however, many other Christians found Defoe’s portrayal deeply moving and spiritually respectful.
Whether the book and film’s portrayal of Jesus are historically accurate is something that will never be known, except for individuals for whom the New Testament is the word of God and, consequently, beyond reproach. For many in this category of individual, the fictionalized portrait is just that: fiction. Its representation of a Jesus who, in his “dying”moment, would dare to entertain thoughts associated with mere mortals, including lust for Mary Magdalene, is obviously speculative and not subject to scientific inquiry. Such dissection, however, was not the point. As the film opens, there is a disclaimer stating that the film “is not based on the gospels.” It is merely an adaptation of Kazantzakis’ novel, which, by definition, is fiction. To the extent that the gospels describe Jesus as human, then the notion of Jesus experiencing doubt or fear, or even lust, is not outside the realm of possibility.
Given the tendency of filmmakers to portray real-life individuals inaccurately, whether for dramatic purpose, political conviction, or whatever motive may be ascribed, then there is no reason to expect “The Last Temptation of Christ” to be historically accurate, especially given the dearth of reliable biographies of somebody who lived more than 2,000 years ago. What is important isn’t whether Scorsese’ s film presents an accurate depiction of Jesus – and one could argue that the portrayal by former divinity student Scorsese is very respectful of its subject – but rather whether it is spiritually accurate. In that respect, the film deserves greater accolades than it received upon its release.