Universal recognized that The Last Temptation [of Christ] could generate controversy. To defuse the tensions, the studio insisted that the project have a new working title--"The Passion." And Universal hired two conservative religious opinionmakers, Tim Penland and Reverend Larry Poland, as consultants on the marketing of the project. Penland and Poland would inadvertantly play a larger role in the film's promotion than anywone could have foreseen. Asked to make suggestions about the script's acceptability to born-again audiences, the pair called for revising almost two-thirds of the text, and resigned when Universal did not respond to their pleas. Then they spearheaded the assault on The Last Temptation, condemning it as an "insult to Christians."Keyser, page 184-185:
At the outset of the project, however, Scorsese deflected worries about religious controversy by assuring Universal's executives that he wanted to make the film so he could "get to know Jesus better" (Scorsese 1989, 120), by accepting a budget less than half that of the average Hollywood film, by agreeing to "a long term multi-picture arrangement under which the filmmaker will produce, direct, and develop projects" exclusively for Universal, and by reiterating his constant refrain that The Last Temptation of Christ was based not on the Bible but on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
The original plans for The Last Temptation of Christ envisioned a European premiere at the 1988 Venice Film Festival and then an American premiere on 23 September 1988 at the New York Film Festival. Then fate intervened. In June 1988 Universal's consultant Tim Penland resigned, returning to his evangelical roots to mastermind a fierce fundamentalist attack on the film, the studio, and Scorsese. The tone for the ensuing controversy was set by director Franco Zeffirelli, who was widely quoted as assailing "the Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world" for commissioning The Last Temptation of Christ. Zeffireli later denied he had made these remarks, yet he redoubled his attacks on the film and the filmmakers, causing a brouhaha at the Venice festival.