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Chapter Two - Pontius Pilate 
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Post Chapter Two - Pontius Pilate
Sympathy for the Devil , by the Rolling Stones, has the same chord pattern as Taking Care of Business by Bachman Turner Overdrive. But I am not sure if BTO read Bulgakov, which Mick Jagger cited as one of his sources, alongside Baudelaire, for the line that Satan made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate.

In this chapter, Pilate discusses truth and other such esoteric matters with Jesus and the High Priest Caiaphas. Pilate is modelled on a languid Stalinist apparatchik, with all their disdainful ease about disposal of life and their corrupt antenna focussed more on political risk than ethics or outcomes.

The first mistake Jesus makes in this interrogation is to call Pilate ‘good man’. The appearances of hierarchical power imbalance require that this appellation, with its implied empathy and common humanity, requires a sound thrashing by the centurion Ratslayer, for lèse-majesté. Ratslayer informs Christ, following Pilate’s ‘no maiming’ instruction, that the correct term of address is Hegemon.

A hegemon is a dominant state, so there is a sun king ‘I am the state’ quality to this name, indicating that Pilate is absolute monarch. Pilate didn’t enquire about 1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9 and Acts 8:16; 19:5 and 1 Cor 6:11, where the affirmation “Jesus is Lord” implies that Caesar is not Lord.

The clear intent in this chapter is to subvert the communist state, pointing out its ‘some are more equal’ Orwellian hypocrisy. The absolute power of the Party meant that its claim to rule on behalf of workers was a hollow lie. For Pilate, Christ is a seditious criminal, and his death will be a 'tremble and obey' example. Bulgakov expands on the short conversation in the Gospel of John, with its infamous line ‘what is truth?’ to illustrate the nihilistic moral vacuity that delegitimises the Soviet state.

Jesus, far from the Gospel pillar of integrity in the martyr line of bearing witness to truth, behaves much like Soviet zeks do when their spirit has been broken by torture, and snitches on Saint Matthew, the tax collecting disciple, for getting confused about what Jesus actually said. Jesus tells Pilate it wasn’t him but Matthew who added the seditious bits about destroying the temple.

Pilate’s main concerns are his headache and his dog, his only friend in the world. The secretary at the meeting has to tactfully avoid writing down this bizarre stream of consciousness which Pilate expresses after asking Jesus about truth. It only gets worse when Jesus impudently offers some advice to Pilate about the need to have faith in people. The secretary expects an immediate death sentence for this outburst, but Pilate is intrigued, and has Jesus unbound. None of this makes it into the meeting record. Jesus then describes a future kingdom of truth and justice.

The biting irony here for Soviet readers was that the communists promised a future kingdom of truth and justice, so in a sense Bulgakov’s Jesus is expressing Bolshevik rhetoric, except that the communists saw militant godlessness as central to their ideology. Pilate is furious at this truth nonsense, seeing this language from Christ as demanding an obvious death sentence.

But there is an awkward trick here. Jesus must die, but Pilate must wash his hands. The conversation with the high priest is delicate. With great artfulness, Pilate expresses astonishment that the Jews want Christ killed. He intercedes for Jesus as a mere psychiatric case, helping us to think of Soviet psychiatry where speaking the truth became a mental illness. Caiaphas calls out Pilate for his subtle dissembling, provoking the further cat and mouse game where Pilate leaps to the defence of Jesus as a peaceful philosopher. The art of hypocrisy is central to politics.

The actual trial then proceeds in public, with Pilate presiding like Stalin at a May Day parade in Red Square, with just the same cringing obsequity from the minions.


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Post Re: Chapter Two - Pontius Pilate
Robert Tulip wrote:
In this chapter, Pilate discusses truth and other such esoteric matters with Jesus and the High Priest Caiaphas. Pilate is modelled on a languid Stalinist apparatchik, with all their disdainful ease about disposal of life and their corrupt antenna focussed more on political risk than ethics or outcomes.
I agree, though I think in hands aiming more for literary universality, like Milan Kundera's, this character could have evoked all of us better. Okay, we are supposed to despise Pilate, but that may be laying the polemical intention on more thickly than optimal.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The first mistake Jesus makes in this interrogation is to call Pilate ‘good man’. The appearances of hierarchical power imbalance require that this appellation, with its implied empathy and common humanity, requires a sound thrashing by the centurion
Very Russian. I think there is an implied reference to "comrade" going on.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The clear intent in this chapter is to subvert the communist state, pointing out its ‘some are more equal’ Orwellian hypocrisy. The absolute power of the Party meant that its claim to rule on behalf of workers was a hollow lie. For Pilate, Christ is a seditious criminal, and his death will be a 'tremble and obey' example.
It is amazing how the communist slaughter of intellectuals went unremarked for so long in the West, perhaps due to complicity by John Reed and other outside sympathizers. It wasn't all secret, just not well understood. Maybe Doctor Zhivago made more difference (1957) than Darkness at Noon (1940), which was more about the Stalinist purges.
Robert Tulip wrote:
Bulgakov expands on the short conversation in the Gospel of John, with its infamous line ‘what is truth?’ to illustrate the nihilistic moral vacuity that delegitimises the Soviet state.
It is worth remembering that Lenin's Machiavellian disregard for morality was taken straight from the behavior of the Secret Police in all the reactionary states of 19th century Europe.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Jesus, far from the Gospel pillar of integrity in the martyr line of bearing witness to truth, behaves much like Soviet zeks do when their spirit has been broken by torture, and snitches on Saint Matthew, the tax collecting disciple, for getting confused about what Jesus actually said. Jesus tells Pilate it wasn’t him but Matthew who added the seditious bits about destroying the temple.
I didn't pick that up from this passage, but it does make sense of including it. Matthew didn't say that, but did quote accusers of Jesus saying "This man said, 'I can destroy this temple and raise it up again in three days."

The only other reason I can think of for Bulgakov to focus on this is the hearsay nature of the story. When I first read it I took it as an example of how the authorities will twist words to frame someone (as also seen in "Darkness at Noon") but did not know what to make of Jesus' admonishing Matthew not to exaggerate. I still wonder if there isn't some other message going on here, involving Jesus' humanity (somewhat naive humanity in this case) and how surrounding people, with less at stake, love to build up the heroism of their symbolic figures. Dunno, really.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The secretary at the meeting has to tactfully avoid writing down this bizarre stream of consciousness which Pilate expresses after asking Jesus about truth. It only gets worse when Jesus impudently offers some advice to Pilate about the need to have faith in people. The secretary expects an immediate death sentence for this outburst, but Pilate is intrigued, and has Jesus unbound. None of this makes it into the meeting record. Jesus then describes a future kingdom of truth and justice.
It was a marvelous passage, quite a riff on Pilate's famous quote, "What is truth?" Pilate does care, just not very much. Truth fades quickly into the background if he has a headache, or if power games come up with the temple authorities. More commentary, perhaps, about Russia's incessant debating of political theory.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The biting irony here for Soviet readers was that the communists promised a future kingdom of truth and justice, so in a sense Bulgakov’s Jesus is expressing Bolshevik rhetoric, except that the communists saw militant godlessness as central to their ideology. Pilate is furious at this truth nonsense, seeing this language from Christ as demanding an obvious death sentence.
For Bulgakov, godlessness is not just a transgression against religious privilege. The communists have become prisoners, as Pilate was, of the maneuverings for power. When pragmatism leads to the willing sacrifice of anything, even a totally innocent healer, then the system lacks something essentially human.

Robert Tulip wrote:
But there is an awkward trick here. Jesus must die, but Pilate must wash his hands. The conversation with the high priest is delicate. With great artfulness, Pilate expresses astonishment that the Jews want Christ killed. He intercedes for Jesus as a mere psychiatric case, helping us to think of Soviet psychiatry where speaking the truth became a mental illness. Caiaphas calls out Pilate for his subtle dissembling, provoking the further cat and mouse game where Pilate leaps to the defence of Jesus as a peaceful philosopher. The art of hypocrisy is central to politics.
I've never really understood the allure of lying to the powerful. After all, isn't it their privilege to just ignore what everyone else thinks? But it seems things are not that simple. A horse may be broken, but if you torment it, it still may kick you in the head. The people who have submitted to a system of domination may accept it - up to a point. And so the dominators still coax and flatter and appease, or at least avoid the appearance of humiliating those they rule, if only to save the cost of killing.

I'm not sure I agree with your reading of Pilate's behavior. He seems to actually believe that Jesus is crazy, and not to take seriously the threat Jesus represents to the ideological power of the Sanhedrin. Jesus is just a simple truth-teller with a gift of healing, in this account. Surely the wily spin-doctors of leadership are not threatened by the simple telling of truth.

And I am not sure about the hand-washing. The idea that it "must" happen because that is the character of Pilate doesn't seem to fit with Bulgakov's narrative approach. But if you mean that the uneasy relationship with his own conscience, part of the human side of the powerful, is an issue to be reckoned with, then I agree. Despite their projections of strength, most of the dictators of the 20th C. seemingly had to repeatedly gin up justifications for their decisions. I think it is a sort of variation on the theme of Trump having his cabinet go round the table and express abject gratitude and humble adoration. In Pilate's case this justification is provided by Caiapha, the intellectual leadership, but since it is about their power, not his, he washes his hands.



Last edited by Harry Marks on Sun Aug 27, 2017 4:53 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Chapter Two - Pontius Pilate
Thank you Harry, wonderful insights. It reminds me of my favourite books by Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward, The First Circle, August 1914, Lenin in Zurich, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and The Gulag Archipelago. You are right to mention Kundera, as The Unforgettable Lightness of Being probably had a similar role in relation to the collapse of Czechoslovakia.

One thing to bear in mind is that this whole chapter is related by Satan, on the streets of Moscow, as a way to disprove the Christ Myth Theory. The Father of Lies may well be lying, and may have his own subtle secret motives for what to include, what to leave out, what to distort. The plot device works well for narrative flow, but I would have thought that Satan would be a good Stalinist, and would prefer O’Brien’s logic of two plus two equals five, rather than this apparent warts and all expose of Pilate’s evil psychology.


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 Re: Chapter Two - Pontius Pilate
This book is not available in our local book store, it will take much time to order. When will it have version on RYP ebook apk?



Fri Sep 08, 2017 10:33 pm
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