Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860

Born in 1883 on the Greek island of Crete, then a possession of Turkey, Nikos Kazantzakis was sent to a monastery on nearby Naxos at the age of four when his home island was torn by armed rebellion against the Turks. Franciscan monks introduced him to Western thought and to the spiritual heroism personified by Christ. Kazantzakis began a quest for spiritual perfection that led him to reject Christianity for a series of saviors. He became a follower first of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), then of the Indian philosopher and founder of Buddhism, Siddhrtha Gautama (c. 566-c. 486 b.c.e.), then of the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924), and, finally, of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, before returning to Catholicism in late middle age. The dominant theme of his major works—all published after Kazantzakis’s fifty-eighth birthday—is the necessity of struggling against the temptations of the flesh in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. From his personal struggles sprang his questions about Christ; these questions are explored in The Last Temptation of Christ.

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From its first publication, The Last Temptation of Christ has been a highly controversial novel; the German edition was placed on the Vatican’s list of forbidden books, the Index librorum prohibitorum, in 1954, and an English-language film version, released in 1988, scandalized Christians around the world. Kazantzakis saw Christ, like the other heroes in his life, as engaged in the struggle for freedom—freedom from limitations imposed by family, freedom from the pleasures of the flesh, freedom from political entities, and freedom from the fear of death. He came to believe that Christ, given human flesh and human experiences, removed from his heavenly home by three decades of life on earth, must have felt the same doubts and desires that other people feel, and he must have struggled to overcome these doubts and desires. In orthodox Christian terms, this position is heretical, but like the Puritan poet John Milton, Kazantzakis believed that choice is essential to virtue. For Kazantzakis, the wonder of Christ’s sacrifice lies less in his divinity than in his humanity; the stronger Christ’s attraction to temptation, the more meaningful is his ultimate choice to reject it.

The result of Kazantzakis’s exploration is a moving portrait of Christ as a man struggling toward union with God. Kazantzakis filled in from his own imagination the human details typically missing from sacred texts. The novel begins, for example, with Jesus’ tortured dreams, his subconscious and human struggles between flesh and spirit, and it ends with his agonized fantasies on the cross. Unlike the Gospel, which mentions only one incident in which the twelve-year-old Jesus amazed the elders in the Temple of Jerusalem with his wisdom, the novel describes Jesus’ early life in detail. Kazantzakis gives Jesus a father struck by lightning and completely disabled. The Gospel does not mention Joseph after the incident in the Temple. Kazantzakis also gives Jesus a domineering mother desperate for grandchildren.

Once Jesus’ ministry has begun, his disciples, all save Judas, who is weak and vacillating, bicker among themselves incessantly and achieve only a shallow, worldly understanding of Jesus’ divine message. Judas himself becomes not the archetypical traitor vilified throughout Christian history but instead a great patriot who saves Jesus from the wrath of Barabbas, who stays with him even while the others deny him, and who is chosen to betray Jesus because he alone can be trusted to follow orders and because he alone has the strength and courage to perform such a dangerous—but necessary—mission.

Kazantzakis tightens the familiar plot of the Passion, bringing causal relations to events left disconnected in the Gospel. For example, when word reaches Jerusalem that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, Caiaphas, the high priest of the Pharisees, plots with Barabbas to murder Lazarus, thereby destroying evidence of Jesus’ divinity. It is for this crime that Barabbas is to be executed when the mob chooses him, instead of Jesus, to be spared from the cross.

Aside from the final chapters, in which Christ experiences his last temptation, Kazantzakis’s most interesting additions to the story in the Gospel appear in the parables. Given his belief that Christianity is the religion of divine love, Kazantzakis writes new endings for several parables—endings more in keeping with his own vision of a forgiving, all-inclusive Christ. In his new version of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, both the wise and the foolish are invited to the wedding feast; neither is excluded. In the parable of the rich man, Dives, and the beggar, Lazarus, God allows Dives into heaven at the request of the forgiving Lazarus. Kazantzakis’s Christ tempers justice with mercy throughout the novel.

In a 1954 letter to a friend, Kazantzakis insisted that The Last Temptation of Christ was a “laborious, sacred, creative endeavor to reincarnate the essence of Christ, setting aside the dross—falsehoods and pettiness which all the Churches and all the cassocked representatives of Christianity have heaped upon His figure, thereby distorting it.” The Christ portrayed by Kazantzakis in the novel is a highly personal vision, but it is nonetheless a compelling one.

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Critical Context