The 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis is an alternative interpretation of the story of Jesus' life and death in the four Gospels. The novel was written in a stylistic modern Greek called Demotic, which was the common language of the Greek peasantry, rather than the elitist literary language. The English translation was published in 1960.
The novel presents Jesus as being subject to the same weaknesses, flaws, and desires as other humans, and a charge to die and suffer all the sins of the world on top of it. Unlike the movie, the novel spends quite a lot of time on the equally flawed lives of the Apostles, Jesus' family, and others. And all the while, Jewish resentment of Roman rule simmers in the background and shadows Jesus' life.
This novel provides examples of:
- Adaptational Heroism: Judas is not a traitor; he heartbreakingly turned Jesus over to the Sanhedrin at Jesus' own request. He was the only one Jesus trusted to do it.
- Adaptation Distillation: Jesus has only nine Apostles; three of the lesser known ones were left out.
- All Just a Dream: The eponymous temptation.
- Artistic License History:
- Matthew is seen writing the first Gospel while following Jesus around. The Gospel of Matthew, however, was certainly not written by an Apostle, since it uses the Gospel of Mark (who was also not an Apostle) as a source. It is discussed by Jesus Himself, who accuses Matthew of making up a bunch of stuff about Him (it was actually an angel dictating the made-up stuff). This is also a subversion, since the material Jesus objects to (such as his birth in Bethlehem) is some of the same material historians themselves find dubious.
- The book mentions king Herod dying of a terrible disease after having John the Baptist executed, then it says "Herod the Great is dead". While the Bible mentions these events and the king in question is simply named Herod each time, in reality these are 3 different Herods: Herod the Great, who kills the children after Jesus' birth; Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist; and Herod Agrippa, who died of the disease.
- Book-Ends: The book begins with Simon the Zealot's crucifixion, and ends with Jesus' crucifixion.
- Came Back Wrong: Lazarus gets resurrected as something that can be best described as a zombie. He still likes it better than being dead.
- Catch Phrase: Zebedee: "Two and two make four!"
- Death Seeker: Jesus, once he realizes that it is the only way to fulfill the prophecy.
- Doorstopper: At 170,000 words and 500 pages, it flirts with being one.
- Fiery Redhead: Judas.
- HeelFace Turn: Judas, over the course of the novel.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: Jesus at the beginning. After he continuously gets punished by God for it, he finally gives it up until the temptation at the end.
- Market-Based Title: The original title for the English-language edition was simply The Last Temptation. Evidently of Christ was added in case anyone couldn't guess from the cover who was being tempted.
- Misplaced Vegetation: Judas and an old woman ate corn, and some peasants ate sunflower seeds. Both plants are native to the Americas and thus were unknown in ancient Palestine. (In fairness, corn does not necessarily mean maize, the crop Americans refer to as corn. Outside of North America, the word corn can refer to other grains. But the description of Judas eating it suggests that it is, in fact, maize.)
- Plucky Comic Relief: The blind man from Bethany
- Pragmatic Villainy: Pilate doesn't want to kill Jesus because that would make him a martyr and make the resistance against Rome even more fierce. Also because he wants to piss off the Jews and not killing Jesus would be a good way.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Jesus and His disciples, except for Judas. Especially Jesus.
- La Résistance: A group of zealots, concerned that Jesus might antagonize the Romans, track His movements throughout the novel. Judas is their inside man.
- Tagalong Chronicler: Matthew.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: Jesus and Mary Magdalene, to an agonizing degree. Jesus' dream to finally shack up with MM is largely what the last temptation is.