Nikos Kazantzakis is probably best known for his novel Zorba the Greek, which was made into an award-winning film starring Anthony Quinn in 1964. Yet, Kazantzakis is also infamous for The Last Temptation of Christ, a novel so provocative that it was placed on the Vatican’s Codex of Forbidden Books in 1954. For this novel and for some of his other works, Kazantzakis was nearly excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church and was denied a Christian burial in Greece when he died in 1957, although he was given one on his native island Crete. Director Martin Scorsese turned The Last Temptation of Christ into a film starring Willem Dafoe (Jesus) and Harvey Keitel (Judas) in 1988, a film which was protested vigorously by a variety of Christian groups. I’ve never seen the film, but I have a little familiarity with the novel thanks to my all-girl private Catholic high school. Oddly enough, The Last Temptation of Christ was required reading in one of the religion classes there back in the early 1980s. I was not in that particular class, but a number of my friends were, and as we find ourselves in Holy Week (i.e., the week starting on Palm Sunday and leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday), I decided to do some “seasonal reading.” I have vague recollections of my friends being sort of weirded out by this book, or just thinking it was boring and/or bizarre, and as a 53-year-old, I can understand why a 17 or 18-year-old in 1982 might have felt that way. I can also understand why some Christians lost their minds over this novel. It is provocative, yet it is also thoughtful about the humanness of Jesus and what that humanness might have looked and felt like for him. For Catholics, Jesus is fully human and fully divine; this is one of the mysteries of the Church. He is 100% human, 100% divine. How can that be? Well, it’s a matter of faith (just like the Holy Trinity — God is three in one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit). I think that for many, it is easier (perhaps preferable) to focus on the divine nature of Jesus rather than the human nature, but Kazantzakis in this novel concentrates on Jesus’ human nature in its struggle with his spiritual and divine nature.
I think it helps to know a little about Kazantzakis before reading, and the afterward of this book by translator P. A. Bien provides some pertinent information. Kazantzakis was born on the island of Crete in 1883 and was intimately familiar with peasant life there. He received a Christian based education, which had a deep influence on his philosophical and spiritual development. He attended university and law school, and was drawn to the ideas of Nietzsche, Buddha, and Lenin, among others. He lived through tumultuous times with world wars and revolutions. The man seems to have spent his life trying to understand the struggle of the spirit versus the flesh, of good versus evil. In the prologue, Kazantzakis writes,
This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation or death — because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered.
The Last Temptation of Christ is Kazantzakis’ imagining of Jesus adult life and death, and the Jesus he imagines is struggling. The story opens just before Jesus leaves Nazareth to begin his ministry. Living with his parents in a small community, he is tormented and isolated. Jesus is an outsider and nearly an outcast. He will not marry despite his love for his cousin Mary Magdalene, and he feels responsible for her life of prostitution. He has trouble sleeping and is plagued by disturbing dreams and seizures. His mother Mary despairs of him and seems embarrassed and ashamed of his behavior. Making the situation even worse, as a carpenter Jesus accepts commissions from the Romans to build crosses used to crucify zealot revolutionaries who rebel against Roman rule. The Jewish people are awaiting the Messiah, the one who will free them from the bonds of slavery and bring them a kingdom, and a succession of zealots, presumed to have been Messiahs, have proven to be otherwise. What is the source of Jesus’ torment? The reader learns that it is his struggle to accept what God asks of him — to do His will and be the Messiah. Jesus would like to be able to marry, have a wife, have children, and work simply as a carpenter, but God plagues his thoughts and dreams and allows him no rest. Jesus endures genuine physical and psychological torment. One of the reasons he builds crosses is to try to demonstrate his unfitness to God, to throw Him off, yet it is to no avail. In anguish, Jesus takes off from Nazareth for a monastery in the desert in the hope that it will bring him some kind of relief. There he encounters Judas, a zealot who wants to kill Jesus for helping the Romans. Judas is disgusted by Jesus and his willingness to die when he (Judas) threatens him. Eventually, Judas sees that Jesus might indeed be the Messiah, but Judas’ understanding of what a Messiah will do is not the same as Jesus’. At the monastery, Jesus begins to shed his fear — one of his great stumbling blocks; he fears speaking before men and knowing what to say to them. After leaving, he seeks out John the Baptist, gathers a few disciples/apostles (Peter, Andrew, John and Jacob), and goes alone into the desert to speak with God. From there, Jesus and his followers begin traveling and preaching. Jesus’ words and miracles appeal to the poor but unsettle those who live in comfort, such as Zebedee, a prosperous man whose sons are drawn to Jesus.
One of the things I liked about this novel is Kazantzakis’ way of portraying the apostles’ lack of understanding of Jesus’ mission and what the Messiah would actually do. They, like Judas and so many in Israel, thought of the Messiah in political and earthly terms; he would overthrow Roman rule and set up a just Kingdom benefitting Jews. These guys are genuinely confused at times by Jesus’ preaching of love for everyone, even Romans. And when Jesus is arrested, they flee like frightened rabbits. This to me seems very much in keeping with what the Gospels tell us about the apostles; it was only after the Resurrection that they understood what Jesus’ sacrifice was all about.
The treatment of the apostles, however, is not what would upset readers. Having Jesus making crucifixes, being afraid and trying to run away from God would, as would his mother Mary’s actions in this novel. Catholics see her as Jesus’ first disciple, not a nag who tries to stop him. Judas and the nature of his friendship with Jesus would also be problematic for many, I imagine. On one hand, Judas makes it clear from day one what he expects from Jesus and what he will do if he doesn’t get it. On the other hand, his role at the end came as something of a surprise (it reminded me a little of Snape in Harry Potter). The last temptation itself, though, is I believe far and away the greatest problem many Christians would have with this novel. The last temptation occurs while Jesus is being crucified, when he sees the other option that is still open to him — to say no to the cross and yes to the life he always wanted for himself. The final three chapters of the novel deal with this vision in detail.
Some weighty theological questions arise from considering Jesus’ humanness in this way. Would Jesus, both fully human and fully divine, have felt fear about his ministry and tried to avoid it? Would he, fully human and fully divine, have had less than chaste thoughts and feelings for the opposite sex? Obviously, we can never know the answers to such questions, but I also don’t think that was the point of Kazantzakis’ writing about them. The point, as he pointed out in the prologue, is that we who are fully human and only human do have those fears and thoughts and feelings, but that the way for humans to succeed in the battle of flesh vs spirit, good vs evil, has already been shown to us.
This book is not a biography; it is the confession of every man who struggles.
Certainly, imagining Jesus’ inner thoughts and struggles as the vehicle to demonstrate this opens the writer up to criticism, even anger from readers. Nonetheless, as a Christian, I find that the occasional reminder of Jesus’ 100% humanity is helpful and does not lessen in any way his 100% divinity. This book is not one I would recommend to just anyone but I am glad I read it at this point in my life