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.
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 narrative liberties. In chapter 23, for example, he...
(The entire section is 1,672 words.)