The Last Temptation of Christ unsurprisingly stuck with me. Usually when I complete a novel, I think “hmm, that was nice” and I move on to the next thing. But Kazantzakis’s interpretation of “the Greatest Story Ever Told” is rewarding and leaves a lot to think about, especially if you’re obsessed with early Christian history.
I mean, obviously it’s not historically accurate. That’s not the point. The point is that the book brings these familiar characters to life. Jesus begins the book as a sickly carpenter before transforming into the messianic figure we’ve come to know and love. However, his humanity is emphasized. At times, Jesus comes across as a jerk with megalomaniac fantasies. This helps contextualize Jesus the man and the era he lived in.
This is best demonstrated by his relationship with Judas Iscariot. Judas is a true revolutionary with a hatred for the Romans and is often frustrated by Jesus and his message of love. Jesus feels that Judas’s revolutionary ideals don’t go far enough: the concerns for the body are temporary, Jesus wants to bring salvation to the world…Jew and gentile alike.
The various characters are often puzzled by this. This universalism is too lofty, too radical to ever be realized.
And this sort of remains true today. I’ve expressed my admiration for John Dominic Crossan views: Jesus was responding to the imperial authority of the Romans. Jesus and his followers might not thought of it in that way, but that was effectively what he was doing. I don’t think enough scholars, both Christian and secular, stop to appreciate this. Not even Bart Ehrman.
I think this is best demonstrated by the cross as the official symbol of Christianity. Jesus unquestionably died by crucifixion, perhaps the most ruthless form of punishment by the Romans. And none of the early Christian apologists deny that it happened. Stop and think about that: their very leader got “owned” by the Romans. In fact, it HAD to have happened so that he could be resurrected. So Christians took this event and chalked it up as a win for their beliefs, and a loss for the ruthless rule of the Romans.
Scholars often wonder how Paul was able to convince so many pagans to convert to Christianity (or, to be more historically accurate, his form of Christian Judaism, as Paul still thought of himself as a Jew), well maybe here’s an answer: Roman rule under the Pax Romana pissed off enough people that when they heard of a man who was resurrected after a crucifixion, conversion was a way to subtly stick it to the Romans. This could be why Paul put so much emphasis on death and resurrection in his theology.
Yes, I know there are plenty of problems with this theory, chief among these is how little the Romans are criticized in the New Testament. In fact, the Gospels explicitly blame the Jews for Jesus’s death and not the Romans, even though the Romans certainly DID execute Jesus. My response to this is that you don’t have to spend more than two minutes following populist/leftist politics before realizing that they hate each other more than they hate their opposition. It is my opinion (maybe more on that at another time) that this is fundamentally rooted in these kinds of movements. Even though the Romans were THE existential threat to life in the Mediterranean world, it would have been mainstream Judaism that were the primary theological/ideological opponents of early Christianity…even if the Jews were as much under the thumb of Roman rule as they were. This is heresy in the world of radical movements, what leftists might call “class traitors” today, and it wouldn’t take much for Christian writers to switch out Romans for the Jews in regards to who was guilty for Jesus’s death.
It is this narcissism of small differences that plague radical movements, religious and political alike, and I doubt early Christianity was any different. (See Monty Python’s Life of Brian)
It is difficult to tell if the real Jesus actually preached this message of universalism, or a peaceful coexistence of all people under one God. Crossan might, but it’s more likely this was extracted by later thinkers and is now considered the ethical message of Christianity IF people could move past their short-sightedness (maybe not under “one god”, but you get the idea).
Anyways, I’ve spent too much time on this post, forgot where I was going. The end.