There is a slightly obscure, undeservedly so, Russian novel, titled ‘The Master and Margarita’ by an unfortunate and late Soviet writer, Mikhail Bulgakov. The novel is fantastical and bizarre, featuring, a cat called Behemoth, and a most dandy and gentlemanly Devil, and the character of the title ‘The Master’ himself, dwells in an asylum for the mentally ill.
Amongst this farrago of oddities appears at the beginning and end of the narrative, and I believe in a few interludes during its course, the figure of Pontius Pilate, Roman Procurator of Judea at the time of Christ’s Incarnation and life in Judea. Pilate in M Bulgakov’s book owes his place of abode (Pilate is dead and appears as a spectral wraith in the story) perhaps to Dante in some respects?
The first Canto of Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ picks up the author astray and benighted on a mountainside ‘at the middle course of his life’ – Dante’s record of his own mid-life-crisis. He is despondent, and lost, and begins to fear and hesitate. He is happily met by a figure whom Dante soon understands to be Virgil, the Roman poet, composer of ‘The Aeneid’.
Virgil, we as readers understand, has been sent to assist Dante, to be his guide, and to escort him through the chambers of Hell (The Inferno) and then into Purgatory (The Purgatorio) right through up into Heaven (The Paradiso). Virgil is a wraith, is dead, like Pilate, in Bulgakov’s novel; but Dante is yet alive and has strayed unbeknowingly into the realms of the Shades. It’s worth a glance.
In Bulgakov’s book, Pilate, like Virgil in Dante, has been allotted by Almighty Providence a place after death which is within a realm neither good nor bad; neither devils poking fiery tridents at you, nor choirs carolling lovely chorales all day. The Roman Catholics have such a place in their cosmology and they call it, commonly, ‘Limbo’.
The places allotted to Pilate and to Virgil tend to reflect their several precarious mental allegiances when they were alive. Virgil was born too early for him to be able to obtain the Good News of Christ; but nonetheless The Almighty (or maybe Dante?) could not bring himself to send Virgil ‘downstairs’ to the ‘everlasting bonfires’; nor else could Virgil be properly sent ‘upstairs’ which is reserved for the blessed. So a place was made and Virgil (and perhaps Pilate also?) was accommodated.
Virgil had been a most virtuous and humane Roman, even without him having had the Light of Christ to assist him; and so it seemed, and it seems to us readers, a just decision that he enjoys some benefit of the doubt and is allowed to dwell as a Shade in a sort of neutral but fairly innocuous place for all eternity.
Pilate on the other hand is discovered by us in ‘The Master and Margarita’ to have been placed in his own personal kind of Limbo; and nor does it seem to be permanent for all eternity. Pilate is perplexed; he is constantly reliving in his mind’s eye the encounter in his earthly days with The Man he had handed over to the crowds to be crucified by the order of the Leaders of the Temple. Pilate in the novel is seen to be having his own existential crisis during his afterlife; and which seems to him to be immensely dubious and undecided. His whole time is being spent mulling over whether or not he did the right thing and whether or not The Man he handed over was He Whom He claimed Himself to be.
So, we have Virgil given a special accommodation and privileges; but Pilate on the other hand is stuck in a loop with his memories and with a slow, haunting regret and doubt about his own conduct; and about his possibly missed opportunity passed-up during his lifetime. But both of these men are on the edge and in a state in-between; neither the one thing nor the other.
As I said, Pilate in his speech and actions, as these are recorded in St John’s Gospel, is shown to be a strange and complex character. A cynic; superstitious, sympathetic, scornful, hard, perplexed, officious, scared, abrogating his responsibilities of office, and even receptive and prescient; all these attitudes and moods like shadows mix and move in his words in the course of just one or two chapters of John’s Gospel which describe Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial. Pilate, in spite of his own wishes, seems in this Gospel and by circumstance to have been forced into a position he did not want to take up, and which he could not, and knew he could not, fully grasp, or control, or understand.
In encountering The Enigma of enigmas; Pilate himself responded in such erratic ways that he himself appears to us readers to be himself a lesser but yet fascinating enigma. He just did not know how to handle this situation set before him. Because after all, he had been called upon to judge the Judge of the World; and to decide for life or for death for the King of the Jews, whose Kingdom ‘is not of this world’.
Many persons hold that at some time in our lifetime each of us is faced with an ultimate life-choice to be decided by us: that is – do we affirm an ultimate ‘Yes’ to life, love, and goodwill toward men; or do we confirm a constrained ‘Yes’ in our heart of hearts to – as George Harrison sings it – ‘I, Me, Mine’? Many Christians see this choice and decision as being the big existential encounter of human life and one which is offered to people by Christ their Lord.
How then is it, with the Big Guy Himself stood before you yourself; when you are also The Law in the neighbourhood; and you are asked, expected, compelled to decide His life or death as The Ultimate Decision of your life? – Is it to be ‘I, me, mine’, or else, ‘life, love, goodwill to others’ – with the Big Guy stood right before you and temporally-speaking, at the mercy of your sole judgement and decision? This was Pilate’s ‘cup given him to drink’ by the wisdom of Providence. There appears to have been just room for an initial doubt to open out in Pilate’s mind, and this crack in his defences looks to have widened up allowing for a bundle of confusions, indecisions, gambits, queries, astonishments, and perplexities, to gain their inroads into his psyche and bother him and sway him this way and that.
And here is Pilate again, in Bulgakov’s novel, in his little Limbo afterlife, alone, pondering, revising, rerunning, and rewinding, this absolutely crucial episode in what was otherwise his pretty lacklustre and jobsworth kind of life. Like in the story of The Wandering Jew, there is a context for Pilate’s encounter, as given in John’s Gospel (and again in Bulgakov’s novel) which smacks almost of a mischievous cosmic joke; Pilate, this Mr. Everyday Joe, a guy accidentally in the wrong place at the wrong time, has suddenly landed in his lap an awkward ‘situation’; one which not even the greatest mortal amongst us all could have come off from without egg on his face, nor yet might look back and believe he had handled it well. As we say today: Pilate was always going to be on a hiding to nothing.
It’s about time now that I tried to substantiate with evidence this edifice I have built up as my hypothesis in the course of the past couple of pages. So here goes with some ‘illustrations’, taken from St John’s Gospel; items which I believe back up what I have argued so far.
The story can be read in full at Chapters 18 and 19 of St John’s Gospel.
Pilate really doesn’t want to know from the very start of things, and tries to dismiss this inconvenience of trying Jesus forced upon him by the Temple priests:
Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man?
They answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee.
Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death:
The canny Temple priests have backed up Pilate into a corner; like playing an opening in a chess game. Pilate wants none of it, but the tricky priests have the better gambit.
Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the King of the Jews?
Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?
Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?
Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.
Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.
Pilate weighs in straight away at the deep end asking Jesus whether he is King of the Jews. It might be out of a certain levity of scepticism that Pilate asks this question. We don’t have his tone of voice to aid us in interpreting his attitude. Nonetheless, Jesus never answers a submissive expected answer of servility when before Pilate (nor anyone else). Jesus himself weighs in with his own questing, questioning reply: ‘Who told you (to ask) that? Did you pick up the phrase ‘King of the Jews’ from someone in the crowds, or did you just pluck it out of the air?’
Not to be outdone Pilate returns answer with yet another question aimed at Jesus: ‘Am I a Jew?’ he says, again a little merrily and dismissively perhaps? Pilate seems perhaps a bit tired maybe uninterested; he seems to be saying to Jesus here that personally-speaking it makes no difference to himself one way or other whether or not Jesus is, or says he is, or thinks he is, King of the Jews.
He kind of reinforces this announcement of his blasé attitude by adding: ‘Well your own people handed you over to me; you must have got their backs up and done something?’
Now Jesus answers Pilate without any obliqueness and with fierce definition: He has a Kingdom but it is not an earthly one: And the subjects of his Kingdom do not fight and war against others, and against other Kingdoms, in the way that earthly Kingdoms do. There is going to be no Special Ops raid made by his followers in an attempt to free him.
Pilate turns the coin in his hand and admires it against the sunlight picking out another facet of it in this tough game of standoffs. So you are a King then, he says (?), asks (?), (hard to say which?). Jesus sticks to his guns: You keep telling me I am, he says. Then Jesus follows through with a concise statement of his mission in the world, for the benefit of Pilate’s curiosity. Jesus is witness to The Truth; and everyone who is responsive to this The Truth listens to what Jesus is telling them. No bones – shots straight from the hip.
This little several salvoes of fire ends with Pilate‘s piece de resistance, words which have reserved their place in history: What is truth?, he says/asks – a rhetorical question; the height of tired ennui-stricken scepticism; but with an edge of sadness and loss of hope in it. Here beginneth the lesson.
We move on a few verses:
Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him.
And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe,
And said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands.
Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him.
Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!
When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him.
The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.
When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he was the more afraid;
There is that short story which George Orwell wrote called ‘Shooting an Elephant’. A log-shifting elephant gone on the rampage has killed a man. The very valuable animal has calmed down and is now ready for more log-moving. His keeper is with him. Orwell was District Officer in the District, and was called, he brought his rifle, to the incident. A large crowd had gathered – in expectation. Orwell was The Law: British Empire Law. It was he the crowd were expecting something from. The now-mild and valuable working animal Orwell shot it dead; because he had been expected to uphold The Law and to do something, anything; so long as it was sufficiently impressive for the crowd. A good, useful animal dies, senselessly, in a city where an elephant was not easily replaceable, and worth several livelihoods. Pilate now finds himself ‘Shooting an Elephant’.
He allows his soldiers to take Jesus away and whip (scourge) him and dress him up in mockery like a Beggar King in purple and shabby-genteel fineries. A crown is made of painful thorns and he is forced to wear it on his head. No reason for this behaviour; and no reason given by Pilate, nor the soldiery, nor by St John. For the soldiers it’s just some hi-jinks to brighten the drawn-out day; some tough-guy light entertainment. Pilate seems just to condone it; hardly bothers to order it; it’s all just par for the course when faced with troublesome Judeans. ‘King of the Jews, indeed!’ the soldiers joke.
But now Pilate does something which startles us readers. The tide of levity and casual boredom and languor begins to turn to more serious tones, retaining the same landscapes of Kingship and nobility and of the Show Trial. Pilate presents Jesus, a pitiful sight, to the crowds, he is dressed up in his gladrags, but Pilate announces to Jesus’ persecutors ‘Here he is, as you would have him; but I find no fault in him’.
Pilate’s mood has changed. He speaks honestly and with some small spark of admiration beginning to glow in his heart for this Man, this would-be King, at the butt-end of things. Pilate has found himself beginning to resonate with this nobility and high seriousness, humility and honesty, who is speaking and suffering modestly and with dignity before him
Pilate announces, almost as a Master of Ceremonies presenting a star turn: ‘Behold, the man!’
Maybe the crowds sense this change of outlook beginning in Pilate? The priests had said to Nicodemus, one of their number who was a secret follower of Jesus, when Nicodemus had brought up a valid point of law in Jesus’ favour some time before this episode with Pilate: ‘Are you from Galilee, too?’ and so sarcastically were putting down Nicodemus by alluding to the town where Jesus grew up. The crowds and the priests were quick to spot chinks in defences to leverage and exploit – they probably saw Pilate beginning to ‘awaken’ to Jesus and to his aweing presence.
The crowds’ response to Pilate’s Master of Ceremonies act is furious, almost berserk. Straight out they roar with a crazy maddened rage ‘Crucify, crucify’. Their champion to whom they had led Jesus and from whom they were expecting a sentence of execution; this guy who is The Law round these parts; this guy whom they see now coming over towards Jesus’ side of things, and them stuffed, powerless to prevent this sea change; except by baying and baiting this guy who is The Law so as to get their way by frightening him with an imminent threat of a public disturbance or riot. Forcing the hand of Pilate
Pilate reiterates: I find no fault in him. Then, and perhaps typically for him, he concedes; takes the easy way out, the lazy, ignoble and blasé way out; for a Procurator whose heart is not in his job and who wants an easy ride if he can just get one out of this developing crisis. Pilate tells them, almost casually, and certainly not with any official pomp or dignity: Just take him away then and get rid of him. Crucify him if you like.
The crowd and the priests now overstep the mark a little. Trying to justify themselves a bit, maybe, because Pilate had so lacklustrely and lazily, heart not in it, acceded to their wishes. So they had to say why the wanted Jesus hanged on a cross. Thus they offer ‘too much information’.
This unexpected vignette that Jesus has to die under the priestly law because he made himself out to be God’s Son really spooks Pilate when he hears it shouted by at him the crowds. The chinks, the cracks, the weak foundations of sceptical lassitude are being prised apart and maybe crumbling? Pilate is now afraid; but of what, or of whom?
Pilate went again into the judgment hall, and saith unto Jesus, Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer.
Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?
Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.
And from thenceforth Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.
When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha.
And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King!
But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.
Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away.
Tables are turned. Pilate has now become the subject of the trial and interrogation; and Jesus the Christ has become the adjudicator of Pilate, his sometime governor. Pilate goes to Jesus; Jesus is not hauled before the Procurator. Pilate says in simple unsophisticated and earnest language, no longer a language of merry cynical rhetoric, of convoluted exchanges of witty presumption; he asks Jesus plainly; and perhaps a little affrighted in his heart: Who are you!? What are you!? (almost) Please tell me!
Jesus is silent; and I guess this silence spooks Pilate even more. Here one would think, if you were in such a position before Pilate was the golden opportunity dropped like manna to say something in your own favour with an eye to being released or else not being executed. But silence is the last thing you’d be doing. Using the leverage you have accrued I think instead.
Pilate now plays an ace; Don’t you know I can free you? Save you from the crowd? You need to speak to me.
The next part, Jesus’ words to Pilate in response to Pilate’s played ace, is an enigmatic sentence or two which I confess I am at a loss wholly to interpret. Jesus is maybe appealing to a higher power and telling Pilate that unless that higher power had invested authority in Pilate, then Pilate could have no sway over Jesus. Whom the higher power is I don’t know? Possibly both Caesar and above him delegating from above all worldly power is God himself. The person and/or group who delivered Jesus up to Pilate for judgement thus has the more sin because Jesus has been betrayed by that person or group, into the hands of the secular power delegated down from God through Caesar onto Pilate. The group or person might be Judas, or the priests, or the crowd, or all of these?
Whatever Jesus means precisely here; it scares Pilate even more. The Man before him seems wholly to have self-possession but not proudly or by being smart; there seems nothing which is able to sand up against his humble majesty of bearing and thought.
Pilate’s initial position has now turned full-circle. From now on he is trying to release Jesus. He has maybe had a taste, a touch, an inkling, an intimation, of the divine presence emanating from Jesus? Pilate is no longer lounging and trifling. Pilate presents Jesus and shouts: Behold your King!
Is this an eruption of the old man in him? Or do we take it at its face value? Pilate goes on to ask the crowd and priests: Shall I crucify your King? He really does seem caught on the horns of the dilemma or dilemmas; he has to continue to play the part of the ruler, the power, the law, before these unruly subjects; and yet inside, as a man, at that level where Jesus meets us and greets us, he is putty, and so is utterly torn and in bits.
Once again, trying to overegg their case and so spur the decision of Pilate, the crowds, the priests, offer to Pilate too much information. We have no king but Caesar. This their confession is a blasphemy, given that the Kingdom Jesus maintains is God’s Kingdom. The crowd, the priests, have overstepped the mark – before their God even. It is the red carpet of Agamemnon over again.
Pilate is said to deliver Jesus over to the crowd, but not to order his crucifixion, but deliver him over to be crucified by them. Thus the trial and interrogation ends. Exit Pilate. Not a word in history is recorded anywhere about him thereafter.
So here he is right now in his lonely thinking place mulling this rocky journey he had before the people and priests over and over again. Mikhail Bulgakov has him placed in the appropriate place I think. There is no solution for Pilate, no resolution, no dénouement, no consummation, no settlement. Jesus the Christ got under his skin; a slightly superstitious skin, but also a perceptive skin.
Like the ordinary Joe Soaps who stood guard at death camps in the knowledge that their guard duty was furthering remorseless wanton slaughters; Pilate was pinned on a specimen paper and exhibited throughout the museum of history as one whose situation was utterly impossible. The death camp guard is no hero, no martyr, no great shakes at anything except maybe keeping his head down. Ordinary persons are not expected, by God, nor by anyone else to offer themselves up as sacrificial witnesses to right conduct. The world we know is not like that. The world we are forced to live in precludes that sort of thing. That is why Jesus took the stand and died for us; it was us being killed; we were killing ourselves because we had not the strength and immensity of character to do what he did or to follow his lead. This is why at Easter in re-enactments of the Gospel story of the Passion the roles of the crowd and the priests are played by church congregations. It is we, you and me, who bayed for Christ’s blood.
We are not different to Pilate. We are all Pilates. Caught between the exigencies of the world, of keeping body and soul together; and the call of a better place; the beckoning of something beautiful and wonderful and without parallel. ‘What should such creatures as I do crawling between earth and heaven?’
Are not most of us right there in that halfway-house alone but with Pilate, like Pilate, as Pilate? How are we coerced daily into compromise with the world, the flesh, the devil; despite ourselves; despite our protestations and prayers and petitions and acts of goodwill and charity. We cannot buy our ways out of our straightjackets.
Thus arises a case for Grace; for a Way, a viable Way; one which offers Truth and Love and Mercy and Forgiveness without limit or stop; like a sweet light rain in a dry, dry drought; falling from a high source upon us.
Pintel and Ragetti had a Bible. Ragetti was reading it; although Ragetti could not read. Pintel tells him it’s no good. It would not help them. Ragetti says: It doesn’t matter if you can’t read; you get points for trying. This is us. This is truly us.
Who knows; it may all be a misplaced dream: but minds have power to make dreams realities. The writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky once commented:
‘If it could be proven that Jesus was not true in any way; I think I would prefer to stick with Jesus’.
I believe that nothing can ever be proven not true of Jesus; nonetheless I also would prefer to stick with Jesus.
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