The Last Temptation of Christ

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The Last Temptation of Christ is a 1988 movie directed by Martin Scorsese and based on a 1955 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. It offers an alternative version of the life of Jesus Christ, starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, and Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene.[1]

The film proved rather controversial for its portrayal of Christ. It was condemned by evangelical Protestants, conservative Roman Catholics, and some Greek Orthodox, but also praised by other more liberal Christians for its portrayal of (what they believe to be) Jesus's dual nature as both God and man.[2]


The novel was written by Nikos Kazantzakis, a respected Greek novelist whose intellectual development included spells as a Christian and Buddhist, as well as the influence of Nietzsche and Lenin. He was highly regarded by many, being nominated various times for the Nobel Prize, and he also wrote Zorba The Greek, subject of a less controversial and more successful film. Kazantzakis said the book was inspired by his efforts to understand the nature of God and how "the yearning so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God, or more exactly, to return to God and identify himself with him, has always been a deep, inscrutable mystery to me."[3]


Both novel and film attempt to offer an imaginary version of Jesus who is more realistically human than most accounts. This Jesus feels uncertain over his mission, and is tempted by the prospect of marrying Mary Magdalene and raising a family instead of being nailed to a piece of wood.[4][5] It also portrays Judas positively, as a political thinker who radicalises Jesus and leads him on his mission.[6] However despite his doubts, Jesus ends up being crucified according to the Biblical account.

In the film's most controversial sequence, a little girl angel convinces him to climb down from the cross and set up a family with Mary Magdalene and everything is nice (after all, much of Christianity is pretty pro-family life); however when he realises the angel is actually a demon and he's being tricked by Satan, he hops back up again, and the whole Christian thing happens after all.[6]


Kazantzakis's book was placed on the Roman Catholic church's index of forbidden books.[7] The critic Roger Ebert (who liked the film) noted that it was technically blasphemous but "useful things can be said about Jesus Christ by presenting him in a non-orthodox way".[7] However some people did not agree with the validity of Scorsese's approach.

The film's New York City opening was picketed by around 500 people, mainly Greek Orthodox Christians; there were smaller protests in some other cities — only 12 people picketed in San Francisco, 6 in Toronto, and 3 or 4 in Montreal. Several north American cinemas refused to show it, notably the General Cinema chain, although the film opened in theaters owned by Cineplex Odeon, which was 49% owned by the film's makers, Universal. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association threatened to boycott any cinema that showed it for a whole year. There were also protests outside Universal Studios in California. In Washington DC, rival protestors carried signs saying "Blasphemy" and "Free Speech". On its release, the film was defended in an organised statement by directors including John Badham, Warren Beatty, Peter Bogdanovich, James L. Brooks, John Carpenter, Martha Coolidge, Randa Haines, Walter Hill, Michael Mann, Penny Marshall, Sydney Pollack, George Sidney, and Elliot Silverstein, some of whom are famous.[2]

Some Christians raised specific issues with the film, rather than a blanket opposition. It portrays Jesus as a carpenter making crosses, which is not only unsupported by evidence (people guess he probably was a carpenter based on his "father" Joseph's profession) but this also suggests he collaborated with the Romans in the execution of his countrymen, which is a serious allegation to make. The film assumes Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, which is a very common idea in Christian folklore and art but actually isn't in scripture, although it's hard to see why a Christian would take exception to this particular novel or book rather than a thousand other portrayals. There are also what some people consider theological errors, with the movie closer to pantheism or New Age philosophy at times (one writer compared the film's Jesus to Shirley Maclaine).[3] On the other hand, many objected based on mistaken conceptions about the film, such as out-of-context descriptions and a misunderstanding of what happens, e.g. mistakenly believing the film says Jesus wasn't crucified and married Mary, when that was only a dream/fantasy sequence.[3]

In 2018, The Guardian suggested that the Christian reactionaries had largely won, with the Last Temptation movie being followed by mostly devout Christian films which were successful at the box office but generally dreadful, like God's Not Dead, while other more inquiring Christian-themed films like Scorsese's The Silence and Paul Schrader's First Reformed flopped at the box office and received muted critical praise.[6] This may reflect a lack of interest in Christianity among artists, and a movement from subtle theological debate to idiots shouting stuff about atheists being evil.

However that may be unduly pessimistic, as the reputation of Kazantzakis's novel has grown; the book's 50th anniversary was the subject of a scholarly work Scandalizing Jesus? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years On, which considered both book and film.[8]

Saner reaction[edit]

The film received a mixed but generally positive reaction from critics and other secular commenters. Scorsese was nominated for an Oscar for best director (being beaten by Barry Levinson for Rain Man) and Peter Gabriel's soundtrack was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Grammy; however Keitel was nominated for a Golden Raspberry for worst actor.[9] It receives a respectable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 44 positive reviews and 11 negative reviews.[10]

Roger Ebert has argued that the film is not chiefly about Jesus, but is largely about Scorsese, with the Jesus character being closely based on the filmmaker (despite its origin in the novel by Kazantzakis and script by Paul Schrader).[7]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), IMDb
  2. 2.0 2.1 'The Last Temptation of Christ' Opens to Protests but Good Sales, New York Times, 13 Aug 1988
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 The Last Temptation of Christ, Stuart Briscoe, Preaching Today, Christianity Today
  4. See the Wikipedia article on The Last Temptation of Christ.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on The Last Temptation of Christ (film).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 The Last Temptation of Christ at 30: how Scorsese's drama still soars, Charles Bramesco, The Guardian, 10 Aug 2018
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 The Last Temptation of Christ Movie Review, Roger Ebert,, 29 Oct 2008, adapted from Scorsese by Ebert by Roger Ebert
  8. Scandalizing Jesus? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years On, edited by Darren J. N. Middleton, Continuum, 2005
  9. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) - awards, IMDb
  10. The Last Temptation of Christ, Rotten Tomatoes, accessed 29 Aug 2018