The story returns to Yershalaim, beginning with the same sentence that ends the previous chapter. A large procession is making its way to Bald Mountain, comprised of spectators, legionaries, executioners, and the prisoners. Around the prisoners’ necks hang signs reading “robber and rebel.” The sun is unbearable, making the weary soldiers hope the prisoners die quickly. Only the centurion Ratslayer seems to pay the heat no mind.
Bald Mountain is also known by other names, e.g. Golgotha or Calvary, and is the site of executions (actually just outside of Yershalaim). The huge number of participants involved marks this out as a spectacle comparable to what has recently happened in the Moscow narrative. In fact, it represents a kind of theater too. Ratslayer’s immunity to the heat represents the hardness of his character.
Matthew Levi hides on the steep side of the mountain. Earlier he had tried to break through the ranks of soldiers and reach Yeshua but was quickly beaten back. He curses himself and cries, clutching a knife hidden under his garment; as the execution drags on, he scribbles notes on some parchment, such as “The minutes run on, and I, Matthew Levi, am here on Bald Mountain, and still no death!”
Matthew Levi is at this stage Yeshua’s one true disciple, who Yeshua earlier said had misrepresented him in his writings. The knife is not part of some hair-brained scheme to free Yeshua from execution; instead, Matthew wants to end Yeshua’s suffering by killing him.
Levi pleads with God to put Yeshua out of his misery and “send him death.” He is angry with himself for leaving Yeshua alone two days earlier and for failing to break through the ranks of soldiers—if he had, he would have stabbed Yeshua in order to shorten his suffering, before stabbing himself.
Bulgakov’s use of Matthew Levi as the perspective for this chapter helps humanize the suffering of those being executed, stripping away some of the familiar mythology. Levi’s appeals to God here echo Jesus’ famous cry: “why hast thou forsaken me?” That phrase is notably absent from Bulgakov’s account, marking another divergence from the gospels.
Four hours later, Yeshua is still not dead. Levi demands an “immediate miracle” from God and curses him: “You are deaf! [...] You are a god of evil […] I curse you, god of robbers, their soul and their protector!” As the sun sets into the sea, a great storm rises up on the horizon, blowing dust in Levi’s eyes.
Levi’s attacks on God are an important contribution to the complex relationship between good and evil put forward in the book. Levi feels that god is evil for letting Yeshua die, but the counterargument is that, without mankind’s capacity for evil, the concept of “good” would cease to have meaning. The storm is suggestive of God’s presence.
Slowly dying on their wooden posts, the three prisoners are in differing conditions. Gestas is deranged and singing “a senseless song”; Dysmas suffers most, still conscious; Yeshua is fortunate to be intermittently blacking out. He is covered in flies and horseflies.
Bulgakov’s detailed description here is another effort to strip back the mythological layers of a familiar story and bring it to life. The suffering of the three men highlights the cruelty of crucifixion as a method of execution. The undignified imagery of the flies contributes to the sense of Yeshua’s stark humanity.
A hooded man (later revealed as Aphranius) orders one of the executioners to raise a wet sponge on a spear up to Yeshua’s lips, but Yeshua tells the executioner to give it to Dysmas instead. Just then, the executioner removes the sponge from the spear and “gently pricks” Yeshua in the heart, saying “praise the magnanimous hegemon!” Yeshua dies, whispering only “Hegemon.” The storm arrives over the mountain, filling the sky with thunder and lightning. The executioner kills the other two prisoners in the same way.
This hooded man is Aphranius, who does not reappear until much later. The air of secrecy that surrounds him is very much deliberate by Bulgakov, the reasons for which will become clear. Yeshua’s refusal of the sponge exemplifies his courage and compassion for his fellow man. Yeshua’s last word here is another difference between Bulgakov’s text and the various last words of Jesus reported in the gospels. One interpretation is that it is a delusional moment as he faces death, an automatic repetition of the executioner’s own words. A more attractive possibility is that Yeshua’s word implies the deep bond between him and Pilate that will become apparent later in the novel.
Soon after, only Mathew Levi is left on the hill. He makes his way to Yeshua’s post and cuts him down, before cutting the others down too. Levi gathers up the naked body of Yeshua, puts it over his shoulder, and leaves the mountain.
Levi seeks to protect the bodily form of Yeshua in a vain attempt to preserve him. The only way Levi can keep a part of Yeshua alive is by writing more about his life and teachings and disseminating this writing.