KAZANTZAKIS, Nikos, The Last Temptation of Christ. Translated by P.A. Bien. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998; 1988; 1960.
Original citation: Ο τελευταίος πειρασμός [O telefteos pirasmos] — Die letzte Versuchung [German translation by Werner Kerbs]. Berlin-Grunewald: F. A. Herbig, 1952.
Condemned: December 16, 1953.
§4: Books by non-Catholics dealing in any way with religion (unless in total agreement with Catholic dogma).
§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.
§11: Books containing apocrypha.
Additional notes: Not published in Greek until 1955; highly censured (but not officially banned) by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church.
He [Jesus] felt as though he had already reached the monastery in the desert, as though he had put on the white robe and begun to promenade in the solitude; and his heart was a small goldfish swimming in the deep, tranquil waters of God. Outside, the world was falling apart; within him, peace, love, and security. (1998: 93)
The Greek writer and humanist Nikos Kazantzakis lived from 1883 to 1957, an astoundingly tumultuous period of world history that included two world wars, massive political and intellectual shifts, the dissolution of empires, and the beginning of a slew of national independence movements resulting from the same. It’s not surprising that a curious, multilingual man of letters living during this time would have so much to say about it and the influences that had led to such massive change.
According to his English-language translator, P.A. Bien, Kazantzakis was “a man whose entire life was spent in the battle between spirit and flesh.” He lived in self-imposed exile outside of his native island (Crete) and country (Greece), mostly in France, Germany, and Italy. He sought enlightenment, variously, through deep study (and, often, translations into Modern Greek) of the Greek classics, the philosophy of Nietzsche, sacred Buddhist texts, and communism. For a time, he was even a disciple of the intensely ascetic Greek Orthodox monks of Mt. Athos. Katzantzakis’ intellectual wanderings eventually led him back — he had studied under Franciscan monks as a child — to the New Testament of the Bible, and, more specifically, to the story of the Passion of the Christ.
Now, if you’re a Christian, ex-Christian, or perhaps just Christ-curious, you are likely familiar with the contents of the New Testament and the Bible as a whole. Perhaps you enjoy it on an aesthetic and/or intellectual level, or even refer to it regularly in your spiritual journey through life. However, if you’ve ever thought to yourself, I know I’m supposed to enjoy or otherwise derive some kind of powerful meaning from this, but why is it such a difficult read? it’s worth remembering that you are not alone.
Of that so ubiquitous and perennially referenced compilation of late-Bronze Age texts, originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the American novelist and poet Jesse Ball recently wrote,
The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.
Not surprisingly, some Bible fans got very offended.
To attempt to play arbiter here, both parties are missing the point: Originating in an era long before the printing press and other efficient means of replication and preservation, it’s amazing that any texts have survived to the present day. And, like it or not, to consistently sell to and be read (or at least perused) by billions throughout the world is an impressive feat, regardless of relative literary quality. Taken as a whole, the Bible is most certainly a foundational document of Western civilization, though it is by no means the only one.
At any rate, ever since the Old (aka Hebrew) Testament and the New (aka Christian) Testament were first smacked together — that is, once the latter was composed by a multitude of parties and then compiled, translated, trimmed, re-translated, purged, re-compiled, and, as the centuries passed, re-translated over and over again — people around the world have been trying to make sense of what this dense, ponderous text really means. And, its creation being at a remove of somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 years before the present moment, this doesn’t make our interpretation of such a book any easier, especially if we’re looking to it for specific guidance on how to live in 2018.
Like any sacred scripture, the Bible’s opacity is part of its appeal; if it were abundantly clear what its contents intended, much of its mystique and power would be diminished. What’s more, this opacity makes it infinitely open to interpretation, depending on its readers’ specific motives. To Nikos Kazantzakis, however, the message of the New Testament was as simple and relevant as it ever had been or will be: to be Christlike is to live simply, care for your neighbors, and, ultimately, to renounce those temptations toward sin that would prevent us from doing the same. Hence the title of the book. His version of the historical Jesus is a soul-searching, complicated, flawed, and decidedly humane figure, one that we can all, at least in part, relate to. He is a man tempted by the most common earthly delights such as romance, comfort, wealth, and power. His divinity derives from his struggle to rise above them all.
In order to tell this story, Kazantzakis needed to do something rather innovative: novelize the story of the Passion of the Christ. Though risky in light of the dogmatic restrictions the various Christian churches have on unauthorized biblical texts (apocrypha) or unauthorized interpretations/adaptations of established ones (anathema), for a twentieth-century audience this approach proved to be a stroke of genius. Soon after its international publication and translations in the early 1950s, The Last Temptation of Christ made Kazantzakis a household name. It also, of course, earned his book a place on the Index.
In 1988, 22 years after the Index’s demise, a film adaptation of the book was released, directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Willem Dafoe.