The story of Bulgakov's Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth) differs from the gospels on many aspects, and 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, who is pursued by a bunch of religious fanatics who write down all his words and interpret them 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 appear as if he did not want 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 even manipulates the situation when he notices that Pilate has 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, by the way, is his own residence as well. Unfortunately he doesn't succeed. After his negotiation with the Jewish high priest Joseph Kaifa, also 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 ("Silence on the second post!") and Gestas. It's Aphranius, the man with the hood, who touches Yeshua's foot after the execution and declares him officially dead
Yeshua Ha-Nozri means Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic. 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 declares himself to Pilate that he comes from Gamala, but in chapter 26 Yeshua is described as the En-Sarid begger, where En-Sarid is 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 novel. Caesarea Stratonova refers to the luxury dachas of the Sovjet apparatshiks, and the progress of the establishment of the ratification of Yeshua's death penalty reminds of the arranged interrogations and verdicts in the Stalin era.