Analysis : ‘Temptation’ May Lead to Examination and Renewal of Faith

Times Religion Writer

Despite vociferous religious opposition to “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the film that was released Friday, many churches may use the occasion to examine anew and proclaim their beliefs about Jesus--especially the doctrine that he was truly tempted yet sinless.

Christianity holds that Jesus was fully God and fully human, and a verse in the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews (4:15) explains that Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Other pertinent verses include Hebrews 7:26, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5, 2 Cor 5:21.

Not that theater managers should expect parties of parishioners queuing up to see the movie as a stimulus for group discussions. Some Christians rarely attend movies; many more avoid an R-rated film such as “Last Temptation” with its scenes of blood, violence and nudity.


If the large protest by Christians on Thursday at Universal Studios or was any indication, groups of churchgoers will appear at the theaters only to demonstrate against the film. Yet, some clergy have suggested that the enormous publicity generated by the pre-release protests could be turned to faith’s advantage, not merely Universal Pictures’ advantage.

When the U.S. Catholic bishops this week officially gave the movie a “morally offensive” rating, Bishop Anthony G. Bosco, head of the bishops’ Department of Communication, suggested that Catholics “use the issuance of the film as an opportunity to place before our people again the true image of Christ, the Christ of Scriptures and of the church.”

Boycott Urged

The conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has advised members not to patronize the movie. But the Lutheran communications executive, the Rev. Paul Devantier, said the furor “may provide an opportunity for Christians to explain their understanding of Christ and the Gospel.”

Right after he saw the movie last month, the Rev. Robert Maddox, a Southern Baptist minister, said he thought that the film “could trigger a great deal of real productive conversation around the country about the Christian faith, what it is, what it is not.”

The very title of the Martin Scorsese-directed film and the Nikos Kazantzakis novel suggests the central theme common to both--that Jesus is tempted to evade his messianic role and martyrdom, right up to a “last temptation” while on the cross.

Possible Misrepresentation

But the implications of the final scenes may have been misrepresented by antagonistic descriptions of the movie’s content.


Because Jesus in that dream-like “last temptation” marries and impregnates Mary Magdalene, then loves and fathers children by the biblical sisters Mary and Martha, many protesters have inferred that Jesus really had sexual desires that show up in his dream.

A verse attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (5:28) is cited to demonstrate that Jesus would never lust for a woman: “I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

But this logic may be faulty. It may be an open question whether dreams really reflect our desires. Secondly, Matthew 5:28 probably is not to be taken literally. Matthew’s next verse (5:29), also attributed to Jesus, says that “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. . . .” Biblical interpreters sometimes have suggested that since 5:29 is not to be taken literally, then 5:28 is also an exaggeration designed to make a point.

Aside from that, however, the “dream sequence” in the film may be a misnomer. Not so much a dream deriving from his own thoughts, the episode appears to be the devil’s final attempt to dupe Jesus. Satan fools Jesus into thinking that he was spared the crucifixion by God, and it almost works. A sweet-looking girl who identifies herself as his guardian angel appears to remove the crucifixion nails from Jesus and take him away. Leading him to believe that God has not forsaken him after all, Jesus asks, “You mean I don’t have to be the Messiah?”

Only when Jesus is an old man in this vision and confronted by his disciples, especially Judas, who recognizes instantly that the girl is a manifestation of Satan, does Jesus realize that he was deceived and must fulfill his role to die on the cross. The “dream” (and the movie) ends with Jesus smiling on the cross and saying, “It is accomplished.”

Temptation Themes

Some biblical basis exists for the temptation themes. Satan is the one who offers Jesus enormous power in Gospel stories of the temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13), an episode also important to the movie.


According to Duke University Divinity School Prof. James Efird in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, the Gospel temptation or “testing” of Jesus in the desert “is implicitly presented as Jesus’ struggle over whether to obey God’s call to be a servant-messiah or to interpret messiahship in the traditional terms of power, strength and conquest. Such a struggle can be detected throughout the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, where it is made clear that the disciples never really understood Jesus’ commitment to a servant ministry.”

The popular image of Jesus is that of a perfectly good and steadfast figure. Some Gospel verses allow for ambiguity, however. When a man addresses Jesus as “good teacher” in Mark’s 10th chapter, Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Scholars usually say that the point there is that the adjective should only be applied to God. As for steadfastness, Jesus’ pre-arrest anguish in Mark has him praying to God to “remove this cup from me” if it is His will.

Religious protesters also have said Jesus is defamed by “confessing” to sins against Mary Magdalene. Early in the movie, Mary Magdalene, a prostitute plying her trade, is within eyesight of those waiting their turn and Jesus, who wants to talk to her. After everyone has left, Jesus seeks her forgiveness, saying he has wronged her.

Destined to Be Married

Though it is not clear in the movie why he apologizes, it is in the novel. Kazantzakis depicted Mary Magdalene and Jesus as destined to be married, but Jesus has a seizure and his struggle to learn his mission rules out marriage.

The Rev. Joseph W. Brownrigg, a United Methodist minister who has taught church and college courses on the novel, said he interprets that episode to mean that Jesus had reason to apologize to Mary for her embarrassment, if not disgrace, before other residents of Magdala. She then turns to prostitution.

Some religious critics of the movie contend that Jesus is a voyeur who looks lustfully at Mary in the scene in her bedroom, but others who have seen the movie disagree.


That the biblical Jesus might have glimpsed a bare breast or have been seen in a brothel may not be beyond imagination. Sermons commonly acknowledge that the Gospel picture of Jesus, criticized by contemporaries for drinking wine and dancing, also has him associating with people considered disreputable at the time, including “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34 and Matthew 11:19).