Pilate, Centurion, and Yeshua

Literary critics who have commented on Bulgakov’s masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, have often noted the very human Jesus portrayed therein. But Bulgakov’s Yeshua — as he is called in the novel — has some rather mysterious qualities. He seems capable of reading people’s minds and predicting the future.

For instance, he knows what Pilate is feeling and thinking:

«The truth is, first of all, that your head aches, and aches so badly that you’re having fainthearted thoughts about death. Not only are you too weak to talk to me, but you’re even having trouble looking at me. That I, at this moment, am your unwilling executioner upsets me. You can’t think about anything and only the only thing that you want is to call your dog, the only creature, it seems, to whom you are attached. But your sufferings will soon end, and your headache will pass.» (Bulgakov,Master and Margarita, tr. by Burgin and O’Connor, p. 17)

Pilate’s headache is soon over, as Yeshua notes:

«Well, then, it’s all over,» said the prisoner, looking kindly at Pilate, «and I am very glad that it is. I would advise you, Hegemon, to leave the palace for a short while and take a stroll somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps in the gardens on Mount Eleon. There will be a thunderstorm . . .» the prisoner turned and squinted his eyes at the sun, «. . . later on, towards evening. The walk would do you good, and I would be happy to accompany you. Some new ideas have occurred to me which may, I think, be of interest to you, and I would be especially happy to share them with you since you strike me as being a very intelligent man.» (Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, tr. by Burgin and O’Connor, p. 18)

While this latter prediction may be nothing more than an observant man’s close scrutiny of meterological conditions, and though Yeshua does go on to say that he knew about the dog from Pilate’s unconscious gesture of «petting,» Bulgakov’s Yeshua seems extraordinarily prescient. Left unexplained is how Yeshua could know that Pilate was thinking about death.

Yeshua’s powers remind the reader of Wolands ability to read people’s minds and foretell the future — though we learn much more of the latter’s abilities in these respects — and if Woland is Satan, then who is Yeshua?

Bulgakov was writing in an especially repressive period of Soviet history, so we cannot expect him to have expressed his views explicitly. However, he does at one point early in his book’s first chapter refer to Jesus as «Jesus Christ» when describing a conversation between Berlioz and Bezdomny:

This conversation, as was learned subsequently, was about Jesus Christ.» (p. 4)

In this conversation, Berlioz asserts that Jesus never existed, and he criticizes Bezdomny’s poem — which was written to satirize Jesus — as having depicted a Jesus who seemed too real. A few paragraphs later, Woland joins the two in conversation and asserts that Jesus had lived:

«Keep in mind that Jesus did exist.» (p. 12)

But which Jesus? The «Jesus Christ» about whom the conversation turned? Woland’s story of Yeshua’s appearance before Pilate seemingly portrays a very human Jesus . . . but we have already seen enough to raise some a question about that.

But for now, I leave the question open.


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