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C H A P T E R S E V E N “KEEP IN MIND THAT JESUS DID EXIST” Mikhail Bulgakov’s Image of Christ And, after all, who knows whether proof of the devil is also proof of God? Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, 4:11:9 The Godless One and the Writer Unlike Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, for whom the figure of Jesus Christ became a central concern of their creative lives, Mikhail Bulgakov grappled seriously with the idea of Jesus as a historical or theological entity only in his last novel, The Master and Margarita, completed shortly before his death, at the age of 48, from nephrosclerosis, the same disease that killed his father. He labored over the novel between 1928 and 1940, partially destroying one version of the manuscript in 1930 and reading drafts to select friends as he revised and modified his story.While Bulgakov tried out many titles for his manuscript,ranging from The Black Magician and The Engineer’s Hoof to The Great Chancellor and The Prince of Darkness, one consistent feature of the various drafts of the novel, predating even the creation of the novel’s titular characters, was the idea for its opening chapter. An editor and a poet are discussing Jesus Christ when the devil appears and attests to the existence of Jesus by telling them the story of Pontius Pilate and one Yeshua Ha-Notsri, an alternate transcription of Jesus’s name that Bulgakov may have first heard from Sergei Chevkin’s 1922 play“Yeshua Hanotsri:An Impartial C H A P T E R S E V E N 150 Revelation of the Truth” (“Ieshua Ganotsri: Bespristrastnoe otkrytie istiny”).1 The story the devil tells is quite unlike the accounts from the four Gospels, featuring a Christ figure who appears to be no more than an itinerant philosopher and focusing almost exclusively on the personality and psychology of the Roman procurator. This “gospel according to the devil”2 —enigmatically affirming the existence of Jesus but seemingly denying his divine attributes—was thus always a central part of the novel’s formulation, growing from one chapter in earlier drafts to four in the final version of the novel, where it becomes the work of a nameless writer known as the Master. Though this “gospel” is more about Pilate than Jesus,3 its image of Christ is nevertheless remarkable,resembling neither the Jesus of the four evangelists nor that proposed by the adherents of the historical school of biblical criticism nor yet the depictions of Jesus produced by the likes of the Bolshevik poet Demyan Bedny (real name: Efim Alexandrovich Pridvorov, 1883–1945) in Russian antireligious works published in the 1920s. Such irreverent caricatures were ubiquitous in the Communist Party’s campaign against religion, for which Bedny, as the “unofficial poet laureate of the new regime,” was a “principal spokesman.”4 Bedny’s 1925 mock epic poem New Testament without Defects by the Evangelist Demyan, which parodies the Gospels and depicts Christ as a “liar, drunkard and womanizer,”5 is one of the more prominent literary examples of the anti-religious campaign carried out in journals like Bezbozhnik, to which Bedny was a regular contributor. Demyan Bedny (literally, Demyan the Poor) is an obvious model for Ivan Bezdomny (Ivan the Homeless),the atheist poet from Bulgakov’s novel, who was commissioned to write a poem demonstrating how Jesus could never have existed. Indeed, the whole topic of anti-religious writing not only serves as the subject of the opening chapter of Bulgakov’s novel, but may also have been the inspiration for the entire book in the first place. In a diary entry of January 5, 1925, Bulgakov records a visit he undertook to the editorial offices of Bezbozhnik with the express purpose of obtaining back issues of the journal. He managed to get the previous eleven issues, which he took home to read. What he discovered in their pages may very well have provided the pretext for the novel he would begin some three years later. He writes: When I quickly looked through the issues of Bezbozhnik at home that evening, I was stunned. What stings is not the blasphemy, although it, of course, is boundless , if one speaks of its external aspect.What stings is the idea that we can prove it on a documentary basis. Jesus Christ is depicted in the guise of a scoundrel and 151 “Keep in Mind That Jesus Did Exist a swindler, he of all people...


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