Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Master and Margarita: Bulgakov's Christology

Pilate, Centurion, and Yeshua
Illustration by Charlie Stone

Literary critics who have commented on Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, have often noted the very human Jesus portrayed therein. But Bulgakov's Yeshua -- as he is called in the novel -- has some rather mysterious qualities. He seems capable of reading people's minds and predicting the future.

For instance, he knows what Pilate is feeling and thinking:
"The truth is, first of all, that your head aches, and aches so badly that you're having fainthearted thoughts about death. Not only are you too weak to talk to me, but you're even having trouble looking at me. That I, at this moment, am your unwilling executioner upsets me. You can't think about anything and only the only thing that you want is to call your dog, the only creature, it seems, to whom you are attached. But your sufferings will soon end, and your headache will pass." (Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, tr. by Burgin and O'Connor, p. 17)
Pilate's headache is soon over, as Yeshua notes:
"Well, then, it's all over," said the prisoner, looking kindly at Pilate, "and I am very glad that it is. I would advise you, Hegemon, to leave the palace for a short while and take a stroll somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps in the gardens on Mount Eleon. There will be a thunderstorm . . ." the prisoner turned and squinted his eyes at the sun, ". . . later on, towards evening. The walk would do you good, and I would be happy to accompany you. Some new ideas have occurred to me which may, I think, be of interest to you, and I would be especially happy to share them with you since you strike me as being a very intelligent man." (Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, tr. by Burgin and O'Connor, p. 18)
While this latter prediction may be nothing more than an observant man's close scrutiny of meterological conditions, and though Yeshua does go on to say that he knew about the dog from Pilate's unconscious gesture of "petting," Bulgakov's Yeshua seems extraordinarily prescient. Left unexplained is how Yeshua could know that Pilate was thinking about death.

Yeshua's powers remind the reader of Wolands ability to read people's minds and foretell the future -- though we learn much more of the latter's abilities in these respects -- and if Woland is Satan, then who is Yeshua?

Bulgakov was writing in an especially repressive period of Soviet history, so we cannot expect him to have expressed his views explicitly. However, he does at one point early in his book's first chapter refer to Jesus as "Jesus Christ" when describing a conversation between Berlioz and Bezdomny:
This conversation, as was learned subsequently, was about Jesus Christ." (p. 4)
In this conversation, Berlioz asserts that Jesus never existed, and he criticizes Bezdomny's poem -- which was written to satirize Jesus -- as having depicted a Jesus who seemed too real. A few paragraphs later, Woland joins the two in conversation and asserts that Jesus had lived:
"Keep in mind that Jesus did exist." (p. 12)
But which Jesus? The "Jesus Christ" about whom the conversation turned? Woland's story of Yeshua's appearance before Pilate seemingly portrays a very human Jesus . . . but we have already seen enough to raise some a question about that.

But for now, I leave the question open.

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At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When people ignore or reject the Biblical portrayal of Jesus Christ, a person can conjure up any image that crosses his or her mind.
This book is just one example.


At 2:49 AM, Blogger Tor Hershman said...

As Anonymous said, "...a person can conjure up any image."

We humans have taken nothing more than fire, rocks and sticks and made jets, skyscrapers and PCs, in only 10,000 years, we CAN surely twist thoughts in all/any directions.

However, walkin' into a wall will still hurt regardless of what you 'think' of the wall.

At 5:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, it could be an example of a man ignoring the biblical portrayal . . . or it could be an instance of a man writing a novel under the Soviet eye and having to be very careful.

That's my current question.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Tor, thanks for visiting again (after a couple of years, is it?). I'm not sure how your comment relates to my blog entry, but I'm happy to have visitors.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:24 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

Fantastic novel. I have no idea what Bulgakov might have been implying about the humanness of Jesus, but many of the characters strike me as very empathetic: Pilate and both the title characters.

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, the Pilate character is well-drawn and interesting. He seems to have gotten more sympathy in the Orthodox churches than in the Catholic or Protestant ones. In fact, he's a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Good to hear from you again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:36 AM, Blogger Tom Kirk said...

Which portrayal of Jesus Christ in the bible do you suggest Bulgakov rejects? If anything, many of the meetings and close talks with Pilate were taken from John. However scenes such as Pilate washing his hands to symbolize his innocence were taken from Matthew. However John is most known to portray Jesus as the word of God that accepts an innevitable death as the result of his earthly vocation, while Matthew and Mark focus much more on Jesus' suffering as a human. In all of the synoptic Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. In my interpretation, Son of Man indicates a character with the utmost devotion to serving humanity rather than a sacrifice that "saved" all believers from their sins. In fact Bulgakov does not make clear which portrait of Jesus he most associates with. He quotes from every Gospel and he gives Jesus the power to read minds and tell the future, while portraying him entirely as a man and referring to him only as Yeshua of Nazareth. To say he ignores or rejects a biblical portrait of Jesus Christ is both entirely false and confusing. Jesus is portrayed differently by every single biblical author. Bulgkov takes from many of these portrayls while introducing a soviet perspective that takes Jesus first and foremost as a man.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Kirk, in your comment, "To say he [i.e., Bulgakov] ignores or rejects a biblical portrait of Jesus Christ is both entirely false and confusing," I infer that you're directing your query to Uncle Cran. Do you want me to alert him to your comment?

Jeffery Hodges

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