The Last Temptation, by the Greek writer, novelist and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, created controversy as soon as it was published in 1951. The Vatican put it on their Index of Forbidden Books, and the Greek Orthodox Church excommunicated the author. When the novel was turned into a movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, in 1988 by Martin Scorsese, a number of countries banned it from being shown and there were protests worldwide at screenings.
So why the controversy? While the four Gospels have very few moments where Jesus seems to struggle with himself over the mission which led to his execution, the Jesus in Kazantzakis’ novel is plagued with doubt and suffers temptation right up to, and during, his crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus is tempted by the powerful thought that he could have turned away from his calling and taken up an “ordinary” life: married to Mary Magdalene, with a family of his own, living into old age.
In the book, Kazantzakis explains why he was so keen to explore the human aspect of Jesus, including his struggles with temptation: “If he had not within him this warm human element, he would never be able to touch our hearts with such assurance and tenderness; he would not be able to become a model for our lives. We struggle, we see him struggle also, and we find strength. We see that we are not alone in the world: he is fighting at our side.”
Despite the church’s insistence that it believes Jesus was both truly God and truly human, over the centuries, Jesus’ power and divinity have been stressed to a much greater extent than his weakness and humanity. The Last Temptation is a powerful exploration of Jesus as a real, flesh and blood human being.
What readers have said about the book…
“When Kazantzakis describes the raising of Lazarus, the early life of Mary Magdalene, the domestic lives of Martha and Mary, it is as if an old box of lantern slides had suddenly become a moving picture. The author has achieved a new and moving interpretation of a truly human Christ.” Times Literary Supplement
“A lyrical and towering portrayal of a frightened, tormented saviour who is confused, understandably reluctant and, ultimately, very human.” Ted Maul, Amazon
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Jesus has probably inspired more books and biographies than anyone else in human history. But which of them are worth reading if you’re exploring the life of Jesus for the first time – or even for the second or third times?
Written by Simon Jenkins
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