The stranger’s story is set at the Palace of Herod in Yershalaim, approximately two millennia ago. It is the eve of Passover. Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea, has been suffering from a headache all day which seems to be linked to the pervasive smell of rose oil exuding from the garden.
This is the first section of the Pilate narrative, which takes place in a completely different time and setting. It is linked to the main narrative by virtue of who is telling the story—in this case Woland. Pilate’s headache is a precursor of the moral dilemma that is to come.
A male prisoner, Yeshua Ha-Nozri, is brought before the procurator. He has been preliminarily sentenced to death for inciting “the people to destroy the temple of Yershalaim”—but the authority who had been meant to confirm the sentence had refused and sent Yeshua to Pilate for the final decision.
Bulgakov uses the Aramaic words for Jesus and Jerusalem to make them less familiar and thereby enliven the story (and lend a degree of historical accuracy). Yeshua has been found guilty of a crime, but the fact that the other authority has refused to confirm his sentence marks him out as somehow unique.
Yeshua, dressed in a white cloth and looking like he has been recently beaten, tries to deny the charge, addressing Pilate as “good man.” Taking offence at Yeshua’s apparent lack of respect for his authority, Pilate has his burly guard, Mark “Ratslayer,” whip Yeshua. Pilate insists on being called “Hegemon.”
There is a strict hierarchy at play in Yershalaim, mirroring the paranoid authoritarianism of Soviet Russia. In fact, Bulgakov can write more explicitly about authority in these sections because of the time/setting distance. Yeshua is in the habit of calling people “good” because he fundamentally believes that that’s what they are.
Pilate interrogates Yeshua. The latter claims to be “alone in the world” and to have no “permanent home.” He tells Pilate that he can speak Greek, which he uses to insist that he would never desire the destruction of the temple building. He says that “the people” have wrongly interpreted his words, mostly because Matthew Levi, a devotee who follows him around, often writes down what he says “incorrectly.”
Yeshua speaks a message of peace and has a concern for all of mankind, which ironically is what makes him “alone in the world.” His use of Greek demonstrates his intelligence to Pilate, and further creates a sense of intrigue around the mysterious man.
Pilate asks Yeshua to state accurately what he did say about the temple. Yeshua replies: “I said, Hegemon, that the temple of the old faith would fall and a new temple of truth would be built. I said it that way so as to make it more understandable.” Pilate asks angrily what right Yeshua has to talk about “truth.”
Yeshua’s message is about hope and courage—the “old faith” will fall, in his prediction, because it is based on fear and cowardice. Pilate, as the arbiter of justice, feels he has a monopoly on truth—hence his offence. The notion of truth in the Pilate chapters chimes with the question of artistic truth presented in the Moscow narrative. Yeshua’s words could also be read as Bulgakov’s clandestine way of predicting the fall of the Soviet Union.
To Pilate’s shock, Yeshua tells him that that he, Pilate, has an insufferable headache and would rather just be hanging out with his dog (Banga) than dealing with a prisoner. Yeshua advises Pilate to take a stroll and predicts a coming storm. He goes on, telling Pilate that it’s clear to him that Pilate has “definitively lost faith in people” and that “one can’t place all one’s affection in a dog.” Pilate’s secretary can’t believe what he is hearing.
Yeshua’s ability to intuit the fact that Pilate has a headache subtly mirrors Woland’s prediction of Berlioz’s death in the chapter before. Subconsciously, Yeshua is acknowledging Pilate’s moral dilemma of whether to trust his inexplicable instinct to free Yeshua or not. Pilate’s dog, Banga, is a symbol of faith.
Pilate orders Yeshua’s hands to be unbound. He suspects Yeshua of being a “physician,” which the prisoner denies, now speaking in Latin. Pilate asks Yeshua if he knows “such men as” Dysmas, Gestas, or Bar-Rabban. Yeshua replies that he does not know these “good people.” Explaining why he refers to everyone as “good,” Yeshua states that “there are no evil people in the world.”
Pilate tries to reason away Yeshua’s remarkable insight as the product of medical learning (much like the Moscow investigation will later try to reason away Woland’s actions). Yeshua’s quote about “good people” has implications for the entire novel; crucially, it does not deny the existence of evil, but the idea that people are fixedly defined by “evil” acts.
Pilate suggests that Ratslayer is a counter-example to Yeshua’s theory, but Yeshua says that Ratslayer’s cruelty is down to his hard life; Yeshua believes he could change Ratslayer if he could speak privately with him.
Yeshua believes that people will see the truth in his ideas if he is allowed to speak with them. Though he doesn’t get a chance to with Ratslayer, this is what is slowly starting to happen with Pilate.
Just then, a swallow lands nearby. Pilate asks his secretary if Yeshua is accused of anything else. Reading Yeshua’s other charge, Pilate becomes disorientated, thinking “raced, short, incoherent and extraordinary” thoughts about being lost—and an “unendurable” immortality.
Numerous critics have suggested that the bird in this chapter is Woland himself, taking on a form that allows him to listen in on Pilate and Yeshua’s conversation. This is backed up by the ending of chapter 18. Pilate’s disorientation here represents a kind of rupture in time—subconsciously, he is aware that he is involved in a decision that has consequences that reach much further than they initially appear.
Gathering himself together, Pilate asks Yeshua if it is true that he has said anything bad about the emperor, Tiberius Caesar. Pilate questions Yeshua privately on whether he knows “Judas from Kiriath” and if Yeshua said what he was reported by Judas to have said. Yeshua readily admits what he told Judas: “All authority is violence over people, and a time will come when there will be no authority of the Caesars … Man will pass into the kingdom of truth and justice, where generally there will be no need for any authority.” Instantly upon saying these words, Yeshua explains, he was arrested.
Pilate questions Yeshua privately in part because he wants to know more about the young philosopher’s worldview (rather than just to confirm or disprove his guilt). Yeshua’s eloquent comments about authority cut right to the heart of the Roman project—authority is based on fear of one’s fellow man, and therefore all authority is cowardly. This subtly takes aim at Stalin’s authority, too. Also, Yeshua’s words indicate that Judas set him up—the authorities were ready to pounce.
Pilate angrily insists on Tiberius’ ultimate authority, shouting that the “kingdom of truth” will never come. He tells Yeshua to pray to his God. Yeshua, surprisingly, asks “why not let me go?” Pilate’s eyes follow the swallow now fluttering nearby. He confirms Yeshua’s death sentence, ordering that Yeshua be kept separate from the other prisoners and, furthermore, that no prison guard is allowed to talk to him.
Pilate’s fury stems from his latent suspicion that Yeshua is right—which would deny his entire existence as a Roman authority figure. Yeshua’s request to be freed is deceptively simple and humble, making the possibility of letting him go seem uncomplicatedly easy. But by framing the question so succinctly, the answer belongs completely to Pontius Pilate.
With Yeshua gone, Pilate is visited by Joseph Kaifa, the high priest of the Jews. In honor of the great feast Passover, the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council) are to choose a prisoner to set free: either Bar-Rabban, who has preached in favor of rebellion and killed a guard, or Yeshua. Joseph Kaifa informs Pilate that they have chosen Bar-Rabban. Pilate seems reluctant about this idea, and asks a further two times, receiving the same answer. They quarrel over the decision, with Pilate implying that the High Priest’s choice not to save Yeshua, “a peaceful philosopher with his peaceful preaching,” will prevent the Jewish people from having peace. Joseph Kaifa thinks that, to the contrary, Pilate wants Yeshua freed in order to prevent their peace.
This conversation takes place in an atmosphere of suspicion and represents the delicate power balance between the Romans and the Jews in Yershalaim. Bar-Rabban is guilty of the crimes levelled at Jesus—and worse, having committed murder. This shows that Jesus’ condemnation to death is based on a base fear of what he represents. Pilate’s attempts to have Jesus pardoned by Joseph Kaifa are too little too late—Pilate has already chosen power over the “kingdom of truth.”
Pilate apologizes to Joseph Kaifa for getting “carried away.” With their entourage in tow, they head to the Yershalaim stadium, where a huge crowd has gathered.
The interest in Yeshua’s fate, and in the execution more generally, shows the intensity and pressure of the situation and reinforce Pilate’s earlier intuition that this is a day with huge consequences. It also speaks to the idea of spectacle, which Woland cunningly employs in the Moscow narrative.
At the stadium, Pilate climbs the stand and addresses the crowd. He names the four criminals who are set for execution: Dysmas, Gestas, Bar-Rabban, and Yeshua Ha-Nozri. He announces to the crowd that, in honor of the feast of Passover, one criminal will be set free: Bar-Rabban. Announcing this seems to cause Pilate pain. The people in the crowd “roar” and “shriek,” dissatisfied with the Sanhedrin’s choice. The three remaining prisoners are led to Bald Mountain, where they will be crucified, and Pilate returns to the palace.
Pilate’s pain is a kind of psychic discomfort brought on by the tension between doing what he sees as his official duty and what deep down he believes—but is afraid to admit—to be the right choice: freeing Yeshua. Again, this can be mapped onto the Moscow narrative, where people are also torn between doing what is their official duty and what they believe is right.