If you’re looking for a way to spice up your Easter festivities with some unusual literature, this post is for you. Historical fiction isn’t my cup of tea, with very few exceptions, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s Pontius Pilate, a novel-within-a-novel which recounts the trial and execution of Yeshua Ha-Nozri under the direction of the famous Roman procurator. Pontius Pilate is supposed to be the magnum opus of a Russian author who becomes bitter when the Russian literati reject it, leading him to burn the manuscript and move into an insane asylum. Chapters from the story are scattered within Bulgakov’s stunning work of Russian magical realism, The Master and Margarita.
Pontius Pilate plays on the idea that the gospels as we have them today are unreliable, but are nevertheless based on actual historical circumstances obscured over time. The story begins on Good Friday as a prisoner is brought before Pilate, the Roman procurator, after being accused of inciting the people to destroy the temple and teaching that the rule of Caesar would come to an end. As in the New Testament account, the Sanhedrin has sentenced him to death and the procurator must sign off.
During their exchange Yeshua is depicted as something of a holy fool—a fervent, peaceful, wandering vagrant who had gathered a small following by preaching obscure claims such as “cowardice” being the worst of sins, and that “every man is a good man.” Matthew Levi, his main disciple, has kept a record on parchment of his teachings, but Yeshua fears this record is obscuring things and stirring up the populace. (It should be noted that contemporary New Testament scholars actually date Mark earlier than Matthew, but we’re dealing with historical fiction, so we can grant a good deal of leeway.)
The intriguing dialogue between Yeshua and Pilate is beautifully offset by Bulgakov’s attention to the scenery of Jerusalem on the night of the great feast, but it is the psychological state of Bulgakov’s characters that really catches my attention. We discover Pilate’s irritation at having to meddle in the squabbles of Jews, his crippling migraine, his distaste for the architectural style of Herod, and his love for his dog. By contrast, Bulgakov effectively obscures Yeshua from our view, though he is depicted as man, not Messiah. (Or is he?)
As Pilate interviews Yeshua he becomes impressed by his wisdom, but his irritation and fear override this impression and he affirms the death sentence, an act which haunts Pilate’s dream later that night:
The Procurator…preferred not to go inside. He had ordered a bed to be prepared on the balcony where he had dined and where he had conducted the interrogation that morning. The Procurator lay down on the couch, but he could not sleep. The naked moon hung far up in the clear sky and for several hours the Procurator lay staring at it.
Sleep at last took pity on the hegemon towards midnight. Yawning spasmodically, the Procurator unfastened his cloak and threw it off, took off the strap that belted his tunic with its steel sheath-knife, put it on the chair beside the bed, took off his sandals and stretched out. Banga [Pilate's dog] at once jumped up beside him on the bed and lay down, head to head. Putting his arm round the dog’s neck the Procurator at last closed his eyes. Only then did the dog go to sleep.
The couch stood in half darkness, shaded from the moon by a pillar, though a long ribbon of moonlight stretched from the staircase to the bed. As the Procurator drifted away from reality he set off along that path of light, straight up towards the moon. In his sleep he even laughed from happiness at the unique beauty of that transparent blue pathway. He was walking with Banga and the vagrant philosopher beside him. They were arguing about a weighty and complex problem over which neither could gain the upper hand. They disagreed entirely, which made their argument the more absorbing and interminable. The execution, of course, had been a pure misunderstanding: after all this same man, with his ridiculous philosophy that all men were good, was walking beside him – consequently he was alive. Indeed the very thought of executing such a man was absurd. There had been no execution! It had never taken place! This thought comforted him as he strode along the moonlight pathway.
They had as much time to spare as they wanted, the storm would not break until evening. Cowardice was undoubtedly one of the most terrible sins. Thus spake Yeshua Ha-Nozri. No, philosopher, I disagree – it is the most terrible sin of all!
Had he not shown cowardice, the man who was now Procurator of Judaea but who had once been a Tribune of the legion on that day in the Valley of the Virgins when the wild Germans had so nearly clubbed Muribellum the Giant to death? Have pity on me, philosopher! Do you, a man of your intelligence, imagine that the Procurator of Judaea would ruin his career for the sake of a man who had committed a crime against Caesar?
‘Yes, yes . . .’ Pilate groaned and sobbed in his sleep.
Of course he would risk ruining his career. This morning he had not been ready to, but now at night, having thoroughly weighed the matter, he was prepared to ruin himself if need be. He would do anything to save this crazy, innocent dreamer, this miraculous healer, from execution.
‘You and I will always be together,’ said the ragged tramp-philosopher who had so mysteriously become the travelling companion of the Knight of the Golden Lance. ‘ Where one of us goes, the other shall go too. Whenever people think of me they will think of you – me, an orphan child of unknown parents and you the son of an astrologer-king and a miller’s daughter, the beautiful Pila!’
‘Remember to pray for me, the astrologer’s son,’ begged Pilate in his dream. And reassured by a nod from the pauper from Ein-Sarid who was his companion, the cruel Procurator of Judaea wept with joy and laughed in his sleep.
The hegemon’s awakening was all the more fearful after the euphoria of his dream….
A footnote in the 1997 Penguin edition of the book adds: “Yeshua’s words are fulfilled in the Nicene creed: ‘one Lord Jesus Christ…who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate…’ — words repeated countless times a day for nearly two thousand years in every liturgy or mass. Later in the novel, Pilate will say that nothing in the world is more hateful to him than ‘his immortality and his unheard-of fame’.”
In fact, Pilate will try to atone for his decision by seeking revenge upon Judas and by offering Matthew Levi a position as librarian at his estate in Caesarea. But he remains haunted by the vagrant philosopher for the rest of his life and beyond. Bulgakov’s account is captivating, so I re-read it as part of my Easter tradition. It captivates me precisely because it doesn’t simply try to reinforce an “orthodox” view of Jesus’s trial and execution, but rather gives us a view through a heavily refracted lens.