Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The main Christian theme in The Master and Margarita is presented in the three chapters of the so-called Jerusalem story, featuring the last days of Jesus Christ, his confrontation with Pontius Pilate, and the Crucifixion. Foremost is the question, What is truth? which Pontius Pilate poses to the itinerant Yeshua Ha-Notsri, when they face each other shortly before Pilate turns Yeshua over to the authorities, thus “washing his hands.” Bulgakov uses this biblical mainstay because of the Bolshevik insistence on their “truth” being the only one. Without making a direct comparison between Christ’s suffering and that of the Russian people in the Soviet period, he insinuates that the suffering arises for the same reason.

It should be kept in mind that Bulgakov changes many details found in the Gospels to suit his own purposes. Some examples of the differences: Pilate’s intention to save Christ; Yeshua’s denial that he had arrived in Jerusalem on foot rather than on a donkey or that he had tried to incite the populace; the nature of Judas’s betrayal of Christ, meaning that without it there would be no Crucifixion or Resurrection; and the account of the Crucifixion by Matthew, the only disciple left with Yeshua. The differences stem partly from Bulgakov’s agreement with one of the Gnostic beliefs that good and evil are of the same value, as illustrated by the motto to the novel, “That Power I serve Which wills forever evil yet does forever good,” borrowed from Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823). Bulgakov is known to have studied Gnosticism during the writing of The Master and Margarita. Most important, by making Yeshua (Jesus) an itinerant and by changing many details from the Gospels, Bulgakov wants to make his points, the most important of which are bringing the Gospels and, indeed, Christianity down to earth, and making comparisons with, and satirizing, the Soviet reality of his time.