Why was The Last Temptation of Christ banned?

Zack Kulm
7 min readApr 19, 2021
Video essay by Lit Tips

“I say one thing, you write another, and those who read you understand still something else! I say: cross, death, kingdom of heaven, God…and what do you understand? Each of you attaches his own suffering, interests and desires to each of these sacred words, and my words disappear, my soul is lost. I can’t stand it any longer!” — Nikos Kazantzakis

Deemed an unorthodox reinterpretation of the Gospels, The Last Temptation of Christ, is hailed both as a “heretical work” and “monumental masterpiece.” Its author Nikos Kazantzakis claimed that by facing the same earthly temptations as man, Christ becomes a true redeemer in the end. Following the publication of his novel, Kazantzakis was summarily excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church and his work banned by Christian groups worldwide. But what was it about the novel that sparked the anger of the church?

Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ
Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988

Just to set the record straight, The Last Temptation of Christ is a work of historical fiction and not to be confused with the Bible. Perhaps more commonly recognized today is its 1988 film adaption by screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese with Willem Dafoe playing the role of Jesus of Nazareth and Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot. Though, for decades preceding the film, the novel itself was embroiled in controversy. So, where exactly did the controversy begin?

Well, almost immediately. Published in its original Greek in 1955 then translated to English 5 years later in 1960, its author proposed a deeply meditative, philosophical, and flawed portrayal of the Messiah. One that was relatable and just as prone to sin as any other human. And, most notably, was the novel’s dying vision of Christ where he’s tempted with the chance of a normal life instead of the crucifixion. The novel’s backlash was so swift that on January 12, 1954, The Last Temptation of Christ was added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Catholic Church. If you’ve never heard of this term, imagine a blacklist that’s used by the church for works that it deems heretical.

Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church

In February of 1955, the same year it was published, the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church tried to push its authority and ban the novel in all of Greece. Their reason for its ban was that it “contains evil slanders against the Godlike person of Jesus Christ….derived from the inspiration of the theories of Freud and historical materialism, [this book] perverts and hurts the Gospel discernment and the God-man figure of our Lord Jesus Christ in a way coarse, vulgar, and blasphemous.”

Controversy towards the book permeated to the United States in 1963, where a Roman Catholic priest from Wisconsin told his parishioners of the book “that it would be a mortal sin to make it available to others” and in 1964, the Citizens Group for Clean Books petitioned for the book to be removed from libraries in Arcadia, California for being “blasphemous, obscene and defamatory.”

But what was it specifically that offended Christian groups? While reinterpreting characters and scenes from the New Testament, the novel took what was widely accepted in the New Testament and turned it all on its head. Some would even argue that Kazantzakis presented the story of Christ and his journey in a more compelling way, padding him with uncharacteristically flawed human attributes such as fear and cowardice.

Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis
Author Nikos Kazantzakis

An English translator of Kazantzakis’s work, Peter A. Bien, has said that Jesus was placed in the same psychological state as your average person who by their nature is all of good, evil, violent, hateful, and loving. And where more often than not in religious communities, individuals are encouraged to reject or even bury sin within, according to Bien, Kazantzakis makes the counter-argument that a psychologically sound individual confronts their weaknesses and channels that malevolent force into the service of good.

By adapting Jesus of Nazareth into a man, with the initial image of someone who is severely psychologically disturbed, working as a carpenter for the Romans constructing crosses for self-proclaimed Messiahs and zealots, hoping that God will either destroy him or leave him alone for his treachery, is strikingly ironic and satisfyingly poetic. He flounders under the uncertain Messianic duties prescribed to him by God, only realizing his duties gradually and infrequently. But, simultaneously, while conquering all other sins, he still wrestles with fear inside himself.

Mary Magdalene
Artistic rendering of Mary Magdalene

Even the historically uncompassionate roles of Judas and Mary Magdalene are depicted sympathetically becoming integral features of Christ’s journey. Mary Magdalene was betrothed to Jesus but after he rejects her she must turn to a life of prostitution. Jesus feels responsible for her fate. Even the mother Mary is portrayed as a concerned parent, terrified by the deadly mission her son had undertaken and wished for him to live a full and normal life, vainly trying to intervene to keep him from self-destruction.

Judas, a blacksmith, is part of a group that believes that the only way to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth and vanquish the Romans was through violent action. Judas is tasked with assassinating Jesus for his role as a cross builder for the Romans. Only in the end, after witnessing his miracles and hearing his parables, Judas becomes Jesus’s most loyal and devout follower, contrary to popular belief.

Judas Iscariot
Artistic rendering of Judas Iscariot

After the Passover meal, when the time comes for Judas to forsake Jesus, his original task of assassinating the cross builder is reintroduced. Now his disciple, Judas at first is unwilling to do so before realizing that he must. The man who didn’t understand Jesus’s pacifism, who was willing to do anything or kill anyone for his cause, now beheld the power of sacrifice. Meanwhile, a very fearful Jesus prays in Gethsemane for a reprieve dreading the torment of his blasphemy trial nearing.

As you probably realize, this more nuanced and dramatically satisfying adaption of the New Testament challenges key tenants and agreed upon narratives by the institution of the church. But what really defies Christian ideology even more so than the recharacterization of biblical figures is in the title itself. The Last Temptation.

While bearing the weight of the cross, Christ cries out, “Eli, Eli,” before fainting. There he dreams and in his vision, Jesus lives out the life of a normal man, where he weds Mary Magdalene, settles down, and grows old with a loving family. But when he’s visited by his elderly and bitter disciples, Judas calls him a traitor and coward for failing to keep his promise.

Christ on cross
The Crucifixion

It is by rejecting this final temptation in his final moments that Christ achieves victory, fulfilling his divine destiny, and naked and bloody hanging from the cross, he shouts, “It is accomplished!” realizing that he has saved the soul of man.

Since the publication, the question of whether Mary Magdalene had children with Jesus has become a theological controversy, and the church’s reaction has seemed to only intensify the matter. With bestselling books like The DaVinci Code, the idea is now embedded in the popular zeitgeist, postulating the idea of a holy lineage into the wider public sphere.

Jesus on cross

It was such deviations from the original source material that were considered heretical by seemingly challenging the legitimacy of the sacred Scriptures. The idea of Christ facing the same human temptations as you and I were considered utterly inconceivable. But Kazantzakis had other aims. The Last Temptation issues an updated version of Christ that is compatible with present-day Christianity, mixing in his belief in existential philosophy. The hero of Christ achieves meaning in his last moments in a world that is otherwise devoid of meaning. To obtain salvation, according to Kazantzakis, you must rise above your animal nature, a perfection that exists in all of humanity.

Kazantzakis was just as much a student of Friedrich Nietzsche as he was of Christ. And through this perspective, the author believed that God needed man just as much as man needed God. And through updating the religious significance in a changing world, the relevance of a deity as a sincere motivator for good just may inspire humanity to carry on towards an optimistic future.

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Zack Kulm

Writer | Blogger | Editor | News, Entertainment, Literature, and Pop Culture.