Nikos Kazantzakis: The Last Temptation

August 13, 2014

41gbnhkP74L._AA160_There’s a single, interesting idea to this novel. If Jesus Christ was the son of God and born as a man, how, exactly, did he grow up and into the role? How might he have wrestled with the gradual realisation that there were other expectations of him that just normal human life? Might he have resisted, not wanted this role which was being urged on him? If a man, presumably he enjoyed ‘free will’ and had the right, therefore, to say ‘no’ to his dual role?

This is a question not dealt with by any gospel narrative, which starts from the fait accompli – he does what was expected of him, according to prophecy/ myth/ whatever you choose to call it. Kazantzakis explores the man who would like a quiet life, with a home, wife and family in Nazareth where he was born, but isn’t allowed to have this, in the apocalyptic times in which he lives, and with a voice constantly buzzing in his head to tell him that he has a special role to fulfil… and if it’s God who’s that voice, then guess who is going to win.

In the closing chapter of the novel, as he fulfils his destiny at the crucifixion – and Kazantzakis also explores the role of Judas’ betrayal as both necessary and understood and willingly undertaken – Jesus is faced with a final temptation where he is rescued from death and goes on to live the life he wished for: a peaceful life, wives, children and home. As the Romans destroy Jerusalem in 79CE his past catches up with him, he resists the temptation and the fantasised account of Matthew‘s gospel – which the author also incorporates – takes over.

It’s all a dream, a fantasy; Kazantzakis was a believing Christian, and yet his book caused a great stir when first published, and again when it was filmed. If one is a traditional Christian, I can imagine one might be enraged or offended, one might find it blasphemous, though heretical goes a bit far, as it’s only a novel. But one does not have to read it. One can also step back from it, and accept it as just another piece of speculative fiction, an alternative imagining of a time in the past. Other writers have engaged with the same material: Dorothy L Sayers in the celebrated radio drama of the 1940s, The Man Born To Be King, Mikhail Bulgakov from Pilate‘s point of view in The Master and Margarita, for example. And one can say that it’s ultimately irrelevant, I suppose: Jesus Christ was/ has been a very influential thinker and teacher whose ideas, like those of Buddha, Muhammad (peace be unto him), Confucius and others, have survived for centuries and influenced humans, who have done both good and evil in his name.

An interesting read, but I won’t be going back to it.

One Response to “Nikos Kazantzakis: The Last Temptation”

  1. […] encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton […]


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