Pontius Pilate is the procurator of Judea who prefers staying in his residence in Caesarea Stratonova on the Mediterranean Sea, but who is now at the palace of Herod the Great in Yershalaim on the days of the Jewish feast of Passover. He has to judge a certain Yeshua Ha-Nozri. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, has sentenced him to death. Because Ha-Nozri is a Galiliean, Pilate had refered his case to the tetrarch, who refused to make a decision on the case and delegated the Sanhedrin's court order to Pilate for ratification. Pilate decides to interrogate the man and gets fascinated by him. The meeting turns from a typical interrogation into a dialogue, during which Ha-Nozri tells intriguing things, and does even more intriguing things. He knows about the terrible hemicrania which torments the procurator, and he makes it disappear. En passant he makes a sharp, but correct analysis of the hegemon's emotional condition. Pilate is disposed to declare him innocent or, in the worse case, to ban him to Caesarea Stratonova. But a «diplomatic» conversation with the high priest Joseph Kaifa forces him to another judgment. Ha-Nozri's death penalty is confirmed.
Yeshua Ha-Nozri is executed together with two other condemned, Dysmas and Gestas, on Bald Mountain. The execution is followed by a terrible cloudburst, the soldiers are already pursued by raging streams as they run downhill. Ha-Nozri's body disappears. In a discussion with Aphranius, the head of the secret police, Pilate can hardly hide his affection for Ha-Nozri. He tries to question Aphranius about the execution, and especially about Judas from Kiriath, the man who, in in exchange for thirty tetradrachmas, had helped on Yeshua's arrest. Pilate whispers to Aphranius that he was informed about plans to kill Judas from Kiriath, and asks to protect him.
Pilate has moods of melancholy, anguishes and bursts of infernal headache that continue to vibrate for a long time. The only one he loves, and the only one who loves him, is Banga, his dog.
Despite the measures of the secret police to keep an eye on Judas, he is stabbed down by two men while a third one, a man with a hood, is watching it. After the murder this man rides to the palace of Herod. Aphranius can't find the murderer, but he knows who took Ha-Nozri's body. It's Matthew Levi, with whom Pilate has a conversation. Pilate wants to read the parchment on which Levi had written meticulously Yeshua's words. After heaving read it, he offers the job of librarian in Caesarea to Matthew Levi, but he refuses. He says that he wants to devote the rest of his life on trying to kill Judas of Kiriath. «Don't trouble yourself», Pilate replies, «Judas has already been killed this night. I did it».
At the end of the novel, when the devils have their last flight with the master and Margarita, they stop on a stony, joyless, flat summit next to the figure of a seated man with a dog. Possibly the seated man is deaf, or else too sunk in his own thoughts. It's Pilate, who has been sitting there for about two thousand years, tormented by his immortality and his unheard-of fame. Woland admits the master to set him free. So the Master cups his hands to his mouth and cries out so that the echo leapes over the unpeopled and unforested mountains: «You're free! You're free! He's waiting for you!». And Pilate rushes headlong down the path of moonlight, together with his faithful dog...
The name Palestina was used in the Roman era to indicate the region between the river Jordan and the Mediterrean Sea. From 37BC to 4BC, Herod the Great (73BC-4BC) was the king there, he was elected by the Roman Senate and had sworn an oath of allegiance to Rome. After his death his kingdom was divided between his three remaining sons. First he had executed his three other sons - Alexander, Aristobulos and Antipater - because of alleged rebellious plans. Herod Antipas (20BC-39) ruled over Galilee and Perea, his stepbrother Herod Philip (4BC-34) ruled over the Decapolis and the northwest. A third brother, Herod Archelaus (23BC-18), ruled at first over Judea, Samaria and Idumea. But he was removed by emperor August (63 BC-14) in the year 6. Since then his territory was governed by a procurator or prefect under surveillance of the governor of the Roman province Syria. From 26 to 36 this procurator was Pontius Pilate. Herod Antipas and Herod Philip were tetrarchs. Originally, a tetrarch ruled over one fourth part of the territory. In the first century of our calendar the Romans used this term also to refer to the sovereign of a small subsector of their vast empire.
In The Master and Margarita Pilate asks his secretary: «The accused is from Galilee, was the case sent to the tetrarch?» According to the gospels, Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod to pronounce judgement. This was meant to flatter Herod because Pilate was at odds with him. Furthermore, Pilate was sensitive to his reputation since, on October 18, 31, his position had been weakened by the fall of his friend Lucius Aelius Seianus (20 BC-18), a favourite of emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37). By scheming and intrigues, Seianus had acquired much power in the Roman Empire. But when a plot was discovered to seize the power, he was executed. It is possible that, from that time, Pilate got quite apprehensive of any suspicion from Rome that he would not be loyal to the princeps.
From how the gospels describe the trial of Jesus, not long after Seianus' fall, we learn indeed that Pilate became sensitive to what the emperor could think of him. Although he had not found grounds for the death penalty for Jesus, he gave in to the pressure from the Jewish leaders. He was afraid that they would report him to Caesar if he set someone free who had said: «I am the King of the Jews».
Herod felt honoured when Pilate sent Jesus to him, but he sent the accused back to him anyway. Pilate passed his judgement and then washed his hands. Since then, Herod and Pilate had friendly relations again.
The whole area in that time was disunited by religious dissensions (conservative Jews against Jews supporting the Greek influences) and ethnical dissensions (Jews against Samaritans, the inhabitants of Samaria, who believed in the same god as the Jews, but who were of unpure blood) and suffering under the Romans and their collaborating figureheads.
The historical Pilate would have been an inflexible and ruthlessly hard character, his rule was marked by corruption, violence, assaults, ongoing executions without convictions and limitless cruelty. Pilate had his residence in Caesarea Stratonova. In January he sent a garrison of soldiers to Jerusalem in winter quarters. Riots followed. Against his will Pilate returned to Jerusalem himself and stayed in the palace of Herod the Great, which inspired Bulgakov for writing the following dialogue between the man with the hood (Aphranius) and Pilate:
- The procurator doesn't like Yershalaim?
- Good heavens! There's no more hopeless place on earth
Pilate continues by saying that he wishes with all his heart that the feasts should be over soon, because then he will «finally have the possibility of going back to Caesarea».