Re: Chapter Two - Pontius Pilate
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.
Very Russian. I think there is an implied reference to "comrade" going on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.