The story of Bulgakov's Yeshua Ha-Nozri and his death differs from the Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels on many aspects. It starts at the moment that Yeshua is arrested and brought to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. Yeshua turns out to be an ordinary man, with an extreme empathy, but his words are often interpreted wrongly.
According to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is an energetic character who pinches into the high priests, fills people with awe and who fears no authority. Like he's not afraid of Pilate. 27:11 - «Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, 'Are you the king of the Jews?'. 'Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied».
But Yeshua Ha-Nozri in the novel has another personality than the Jesus of the gospels. Sometimes he's funny, sometimes cowardly, sometimes manipulative. He makes it look like he never wanted the commotion he caused. He even takes distance from what the evangelist Matthew writes about him, as shown in the following excerpt from his dscussion with Pilate. Pilate asked him if he had called on the people to destroy the temple building, and Yeshua replied that the people haven't any learning and have confused everything he told them. Pilate warns him not to pretend that he's a madman. But...
- «No, no, Hegemon», the arrested man said, straining all over in his wish to convince, «there's one with a goatskin parchment who follows me, follows me and keeps writing all the time. But once I peeked into this parchment and was horrified. I said decidedly nothing of what's written there. I implored him: 'Burn your parchment, I beg you!' But he tore it out of my hands and ran away.»
- «Who is that?» Pilate asked squeamishly and touched his temple with his hand.
- «Matthew Levi,» the prisoner explained willingly. «He used to be a tax collector...»
A little later, Yeshua manipulates the situation when he notices that Pilate has got a headache. He succeeds in relieving the pain, and he inspires confidence from the procurator. Pilate tries to counter Jesus' death penalty. He considers declaring him mentally disturbed and to ban him to Caesarea Stratonova on the Mediterrean, where is his own residence as well. Unfortunately he doesn't succeed. After his negotiation with the Jewish high priest Joseph Kaifa, the chairman of the Sanhedrin, there is decided that not Yeshua, but the more dangerous Bar-Rabban will be released. So Yeshua is executed on a pole on Bald Mountain, together with the rabble-rousers Dysmas and Gestas.
In Bulgakov's text Yeshua dies from the spear, while in the gospel according to John 19:34, Christ has been pierced when he was already dead.
After having been pricked in the heart, Yeshua twitched and whispered: «Hegemon», and died. . Bulgakov’s version of Yeshua’s last words is also different from what the gospels said. According to Matthew (27: 46), (Mark 15:33) and the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus (VIII, 3), Jesus cried out in a loud voice, saying: «Ηλει ηλει λεμα σαβαχθανι?» [Eli, Eli, lama sabakhthani] or «My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?». This phrase by Jesus is a quote from King David (1040 BC-970 BC) taken from the book of Psalms, chapter 22.
The other evangelists describe quite different words. Luke (23:43-46) wrote that Jesus had cried out in a loud voice, saying: «Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit» and according to John (19: 30), Jesus said, «It is finished» when he had received the drink.
Yeshua Ha-Nozri means Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic. The Aramaic name ישוע [Yeshua] means the Lord is salvation. The name הנצרי [Ha-Nozri] means from Nazareth, the city in Galilea where, according to the gospels, Jesus lived before he started his public life.
It is not sure, however, if it is really the biblical place of Nazareth which is meant. Bulgakov is not clear about the place where Yeshua lived. In chapter 2, Yeshua said to Pilate that he comes from Gamala, but in chapter 26, Yeshua is described as the En-Sarid begger, coming from النَّاصِرَة [En-Sarid], the Arabic name for Nazareth.
Bulgakov supposes that the reader knows the Bible a little. He bases his story about Yeshua on the gospel of Matthew. But he uses the Aramaic names, which are historically more accurate: Yeshua instead of Jesus, Yershalaim for Jerusalem, Kiriath for Karioth, he investigated it thouroughly.
There are many references to the Soviet system in the biblical chapters of the novel. Caesarea Stratonova refers to the luxury dachas of the Sovjet apparatshiks, the progress of the establishment of the ratification of Yeshua's death penalty reminds of the arranged interrogations and verdicts in the Stalin era. The investigations and the manipulative constructions of Aphranius closely resemble the activities of the secret service NKVD, including the rewriting of history and the development of a propaganda strategy.