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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270

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...

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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.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

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 depicts Matthew writing his Gospel while Jesus is still alive, in direct response to the promptings of an angelic voice. Matthew even includes against his will details that he believes to be untrue because the angel tells him that “the truth of God . . . bears not the slightest resemblance to the truth of men.”

More striking is Kazantzakis’s portrayal of the resurrected Lazarus in chapters 25 and 26. Unlike the biblical account (John 11), which is usually taken to imply that Lazarus was restored not only to life but also to full health and vigor, Kazantzakis describes him as still vulnerable to the effects of incipient decay. As Jesus’ greatest miracle, Lazarus is cited by Jesus’ followers as proof of his divinity and by his enemies as “evidence” that must be destroyed.

In a particularly violent passage, Kazantzakis describes an attack on Lazarus by the zealot Barabbas. Intending to slit Lazarus’s throat and offer him as a Passover sacrifice, Barabbas becomes frightened at the insubstantial and apparently bloodless nature of Lazarus’s body. Although he inadvertently tears an arm from the body, he is unable to penetrate the flesh with his knife. Eventually, he snaps Lazarus’s back, breaking him in two.

The climactic scene, however, transpires during the last four chapters. At the instance that the crucified Jesus attempts to cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” he faints. He awakens to an elaborate dream conjured by Satan, who appears as Jesus’ guardian angel and disguises himself as a “Negro” servant to remain close to Jesus at all times.

In the dream Satan tells Jesus that, as a reward for his obedience, he has been rescued from the cross and will now be allowed to enjoy the common pleasures that he denied himself, namely marriage and family. From the beginning, however, this “paradise” is tinged with hints of its diabolical origin. No sooner, for instance, has Jesus enjoyed connubial pleasures with Mary Magdalene than she is brutally martyred by Saul of Tarsus. Satan assures Jesus, however, that, as there is really only “one woman with many faces,” he will still enjoy married life, only now as the husband of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, whose name Jesus assumes. Jesus fathers many children and decides that salvation lies in embracing, not heroically renouncing, such pleasures.

One day, however, Saul of Tarsus, now the apostle Paul, arrives at Jesus’ home. On discovering the “truth,” Paul nevertheless resolves to continue preaching the good news of Christ’s salvific death and resurrection because such a gospel, even if untrue, gives people their best hope of happiness.

Years pass, and Jesus and his family grow old. The unchanging appearance of Jesus’ servant boy provides the only clue that all may not be well. Then one day, while fleeing from the sacking of Jerusalem by Rome, Jesus’ former disciples, led by Judas, appear. They are full of bitterness and reproach for their old master, whom they accuse of being a traitor and a coward for accepting anything less than death on the cross.

Stung by their accusations, Jesus awakens from the dream and slowly realizes it for the powerfully vivid temptation that it was. Exhilarated by his having resisted it, he dies victorious.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

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 God, he would have to have had the doubts that any human would have about his or her path in life.

These doubts are the source of the “last temptation” of the title. While enduring the agony of the Cross, Jesus swoons and dreams that he has awakened into a life in which he escaped the torment of the religious zealot, married, and fathered children. This “life” turns out to be a fantasy placed in his mind by Satan; his disciples return and accuse him of being a traitor by denying his mission, rejecting the Cross, and negating the truth of the power of the divine Spirit, which they wish to spread throughout the world. Summoning his strength, Jesus awakens from his dream, dies, and in that death brings freedom to himself and humankind. The novel ends at this point rather than with the Resurrection because Kazantzakis thought that Christ’s death fulfilled both prophecy and his spiritual role; nothing more was needed.

Few novels have caused more outrage; religious figures of several faiths condemned the book as both blasphemous and heretical, and literary critics found the wild swings in Jesus’ character and in the attitudes of others toward him either baffling or rendering the novel flawed and episodic. Kazantzakis clearly regards Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of humankind, but his presentation of Christ does not fit any conventional religious view. In 1989, Martin Scorsese directed a film version that was faithful to the novel and even more controversial than the book on which it was based.

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