Понтий Пилат

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The story of Pontius Pilate is a novel written by the master after he had won a hundred thousand rubles in a lottery. Although the novel was never published, the critics attacked it in the press with fierce personal attacks on the master himself.

The reader of The Master and Margarita is presented the story of Pilate in three large pieces as a novel-in-the-novel.

The first part is told by Woland to Mikhail Berlioz and Ivan Bezdomny in chapter 2 at the Patriarch's ponds. It describes the interrogation of Yeshua Ha-Nozri, and the secret meeting of Pilate with the high priest Kaifa to decide on the fate of Yeshua.

The second part is dreamed in chapter 16 by Ivan Bezdomny in the hospital of Doctor Stravinsky, and is about the execution of Yeshua.

The third part is read by Margarita in the basement of the master in the chapters 25 and 26 of the novel, after she was reunited with him. It is about the funeral of Yeshua and the murder of the traitor Yehuda of Kiriath.

Pilate in the novel of the master

According to Bulgakov, Pontius Pilate is the Roman procurator of Judea who preferes to be in his residence in Caesarea Stratonova on the Mediterranean, but who has to spend the days of the Jewish feast of Passover in the palace of Herod the Great (73BC-4BC) in the city of Yershalaim. He is supposed to judge a certain Yeshua Ha-Nozri who was sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court. Basically, he is expected to ratify the death sentence of the Sanhedrin.

Pilate decides to interrogate the man and becomes 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 consider 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.

After the execution of Yeshua on Bald Mountain, Pontius Pilate had a meeting with Aphranius, the head of his secret service, during which he can barely hide his affection for Ha-Nozri. On the other hand, his aversion to Yehuda of Kiriath, the man who had betrayed Yeshua to Kaifa for thirty tetradrachms, becomes obvious. During their conspiratorial conversation, which is full of suggestions, insinuations and unspoken intentions, they decide not only about what has to be done, but also about how the facts will have to be presented to the public. Yehuda is stabbed by two men, accompanied by a third one, a man with a hood. 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.

Matthew Levi, the follower of Yeshua, has a conversation with Pilate and says that if necessary he will devote the rest of his life to try to kill Yehuda of Kiriath. «Don't trouble yourself», Pilate replies, «he has already been killed this night. Don't be jealous. I did it».

Meeting between the master and his hero

At the end of The Master and Margarita, the master's novel and Bulgakov's novel become interwoven. In chapter 32, when the demons have their last flight with the master and Margarita, they stop on a joyless, flat summit with a man with a sharp-eared dog. It's Pilate, for about two thousand years he has been sitting on this platform, tormented by insomnia and unwanted fame. Woland authorizes the master to free him. He cups his hands to his mouth and cries out: «You are free! Free! He's waiting for you!» And Pilate, together with his faithful guardian Banga, rushes headlong down the path of moonlight.

Historical and political background

The biblical story of The Master and Margarita takes place in Palestine. In Roman times, the name Palestine was roughly used to indicate the region between the current cities of Sidon in Lebanon and Damascus in Syria in the north, and the Dead Sea in the south. From 37BC to 4BC, Herod the Great (73BC-4BC) was the king, he was appointed by the Roman Senate and had taken an oath of allegiance to the Romans. After his death, his kingdom was divided among his three living sons. Herod Antipas (20BC-39) got in control of Galilee and Perea, his half-brother Herod Philip (4BC-34) ruled over the Decapolis and the northwest. A third brother, Herod Archelaus (23BC-18), ruled initially over Judea, Samaria and Idumea. The city of Yershalaim, as Jerusalem was called in Aramaic, was situated in Judea, and the city of Caesarea Stratonova, where Pontius Pilate had his residence, is 120 km more to the north, in Samaria.

Herod Antipas and Herod Philip were tetrarchs. A tetrarch was the ruler over a fourth part of the territory. In the first century of our chronology, however, the Romans also used this term to indicate the ruler over a small area of their vast empire. Herod Archelaus was a so-called ethnarch. That's a title given to the vassal kings or client kings of the Romans.

It is far from proven, and according to many historians even very unlikely, that the meeting of Pontius Pilate and Jesus would actually have taken place. Jesus was not the only Jewish man who claimed to be the Messiah at that time. Whoever did this was routinely arrested, tortured and publicly put to death by the Roman magistracy in Jerusalem as a warning to the Jewish population. This was a standard procedure with which the prefect almost certainly did not personally get involved.

Not the fifth procurator

In The Master and Margarita, Pontius Pilate is called «the fifth procurator of Judea» a few times. This is one of the rare mistakes of Bulgakov in his descriptions of the Palestinian world of that time.

In the year 6, the ethnarch Herod Archelaus was deposed by Emperor Augustus (63BC-14). From then on, his territory was ruled by a «prefect», under the supervision of the governor of the Roman province of Syria. Until the year 41, the rulers over Judea would continue to called «prefect». From 26 to 36, this ruler Pontius Pilate. It was only under Claudius I (10BC-54), who was emperor from 41 to 54, that the title of «procurator» was introduced. From 43, after a brief interregnum of «king» Herod Agrippa (11BC-44), the ruler was called «procurator». Despite the fact that there was no noteworthy difference in function, Pontius Pilate was not «the fifth procurator», but «the fifth prefect of Judea».

By the way, Bulgakov was not the only one who made this same mistake. Some of the sources he consulted to write the biblical story of The Master and Margarita made the same mistake. In 1892, the French writer Anatole France (1844-1924), pseudonym for Jacques Anatole François Thibault, wrote the story Le Procurateur de Judée. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (55-120), to which Mikhail Berlioz refers in chapter 1 of The Master and Margarita, wrote about «the procurator Pontius Pilate» in his Annals, fifteenth book, forty-fourth chapter. In Tacitus' time, the ruler over Judea had already a new title. He was called «legatus» since the year 70. And in the archives of Bulgakov was found an excerpt of the book Die Christusmythe or The Myth of Christ, written in 1909 by Arthur Drews (1865-1935), a German philosophy professor from Karlsruhe. Arthur Drews was a fierce opponent of the idea that Jesus would have really existed. He also called Pilate a «procurator».

Mikhail Bulgakov also calls Pilate an «equestrian». This is a correct title, because Pilate belonged to the equites or knights, a social class which in ancient Rome consisted of citizens whose financial capacity was strong enough to fulfill their service with their own horses. In terms of status level, they ranked just below the senators.

Finally Bulgakov also uses the description «son of an astrologer-king and a miller's daughter, the beautiful Pila». There are no historical sources to justify this, but the French Bulgakov expert Marianne Gourg wrote in her comments to Claude Ligny's translation of Le maître et Marguerite in 1995 that Bulgakov could have found this detail in the Latin poem De vita Pilati or About the Life of Pilate by the 12th-century poet Petrus Pictor or Peter the Painter from Sint-Omaars (Saint-Omer) in French Flanders. This poem existed in Russian translation. It consists of 369 rhyming couplets on the various legends concerning Pontius Pilate. One of those legends which was told in the region of Mainz in Germany was about Pilate's ancestry. This legend is about the astrologist Ata and the miller's daughter Pila, and is mentioned in Pontius Pilatus, der fünfte Prokurator von Judäa und Richter Jesu von Nasareth or Pontius Pilate, the fifth procurator of Judea and Judge of Jesus of Nazareth, written by Gustav Adolf Müller (1866-1928), and published in Stuttgart in 1888.

Pilate's name would thus come from Pila, his mother's name. Pila would come from pilum, meaning spear.


In The Master and Margarita, Pontius Pilate asks his secretary: «The accused is from Galilee, was the case sent to the tetrarch?». According to the bible, Pontius Pilate had referred Jesus to Herod Antipas (20BC-39), the tetrarch of Galilee who, according to Luke 23: 7, happened to be in Jerusalem at that time, with the request to make a judgment. This was meant to flatter Herod, because Pilate lived at odds with him. Moreover, Pilate was sensitive to his reputation, since on October 18, 31, his position was greatly weakened by the fall of his friend Lucius Aelius Seianus (20 BC-18), a favorite of Emperor Tiberius (42BC-37). With scheming and intrigue, Seianus had acquired much power in the Roman Empire. But when a plot was discovered to seize power, he was executed. It is possible that, from that moment on, Pilate became rather worried for any suspicion from Rome that he would not be loyal to the emperor.

From the way the gospels describe the process of Jesus, not so long after the fall of Seianus, we do indeed learn that Pilate had become sensitive to what the Emperor would think of him. Although he had not found grounds for the death penalty for Jesus, he gave in to the pressure of the Jewish leaders. He was afraid that they would report him to the Emperor if he had released someone who had said: «I am the King of the Jews». Herod Antipas felt honored when Pilate referred Jesus to him, but he sent the suspect back. So Pilate made his judgement and washed his hands. According to Luke 23:12 «Pilate and Herod became friends on the same day; for they were in enmity against the others before».

A good man?

In chapter 1 of The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Berlioz says that Philo of Alexandria (20BC-50) and Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100) «never said a word about the existence of Jesus». In our comments on Yeshua Ha-Nozri we described how Berlioz, at least as far as Titus Flavius Josephus is concerned, was mistaken. Or maybe not. Anyway, they both wrote about Pontius Pilate, Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews, and Philo of Alexandria in Visit to Gaius. From their writings we learn that Pilate was tough and that he had a ruthlessly harsh nature. His rule was marked by corruption, acts of violence, assaults, boundless cruelty and constant executions without condemnation. That could well be the reason why Pilate is so surprised by the fact that Yeshua called him a «good man» in The Master and Margarita.

The end of Pilate

In 36 the authority and influence of Pilate faded quickly. After an incident in which he had killed a number of Samaritans, people went to Lucius Vitellius (5BC-51), the governor of Syria, to complain. Vitellius ordered Pilate to go to Rome to justify his actions to Emperor Tiberius. But when Pilate arrived in Rome on March 16, 37, Tiberius had already died. After that, Pilate would have served as an imperial officer in the South of France where he would also have died, but there is no certainty about it. Other sources suggest that he died in Italy, whether or not by suicide.

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