The Gospel has been the subject of many literary interpretations in the 20th century - famous examples that come to mind are Kazantzakis' 'The Last Temptation of Christ' and Saramago's 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ'. But by far the strangest and most modernist is Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita', a fantastically scathing satire of the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930's and the atheism it preached.
This radically subversive novel, which Bulgakov worked on in secret for twelve years until his death in 1940, wasn't published until 1966. And even then, the fact that it survived the Soviet censors at all was a form of poetic justice, especially as it proved one of the book's most famous phrases: "Manuscripts don't burn".
On one level, 'The Master and Margarita' tells the story of the Devil descending upon communist Moscow with a grotesque retinue of demons, who in a matter of days create complete chaos in the city, driving many of its inhabitants - who refuse to accept the supernatural nature of what is going on - insane. From the opening chapter, when he discusses religion with a poet and a critic, the Devil's mission seems to be to challenge the Moscovites' atheism.
"...this is what disturbs me: if there is no God, then, the question is, who is in control of man's life and the whole order of things on earth?"
"Man himself is in control," was Bezdomny's quick and angry reply to what was, admittedly, not a very clear question.
"I'm sorry," replied the stranger in a soft voice, "but in order to be in control, you have to have a definite plan for at least a reasonable period of time. So how, may I ask, can man be in control if he can't even draw up a plan for a ridiculously short period of time, say, a thousand years, and is, moreover, unable to ensure his own safety for even the next day?"
Note Bulgakov's irony in using the Devil, this "stranger" who is introduced as having had breakfast with Kant, to argue for the existence of God. In fact, after Aquinas' famous five proofs, and Kant's sixth, the Devil is about to demonstrate his own seventh proof to the sceptical Moscovites! But this is only the start of a much more subtle argument, which attacks religious doctrines as much as it does the doctrine of communist atheism.
It is in the mental hospital, almost one third into the book, that the hero is introduced. Known simply as the Master, he has published a novel about Pontius Pilate and has suffered a nervous breakdown after being villified in the press. The Master sums up the absurd and stifling effects of state censorship - which Bulgakov himself struggled with for most of his life - when he recounts his critics' zeal to denounce him:
There was something uncommonly fake and uncertain in every line of these articles, despite their threatening and self-assured tone. I kept thinking - and I couldn't rid myself of the thought - that the authors of these articles weren't saying what they wanted to say, and that that was why they were so furious.
Interspersed with the story of the Devil in Moscow are chapters from the Master's novel, offering an interpretation of the Gospel from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. While the elements of this story are familiar, Bulgakov (or the Master) presents a deliberately unfamiliar version of it, focusing not on Jesus (who is here called Yeshua Ha-Notsri) but on the doubts that plague Pilate after sentencing him to the cross. This strange version of the Gospel not only strips the story from all supernatural elements, but also ridicules it as a historical source. For instance, when questioned by Pilate about his role in inciting rebellion, Jesus answers - with supreme irony:
"These good people (...) are ignorant and have muddled what I said. In fact, I'm beginning to fear that this confusion will go on for a long time. And all because he writes down what I said incorrectly."
(The "he" is Matthew, here called Levi Matvei, writer of the Gospel of Matthew.)
Now, as if this weren't complex enough, Bulgakov introduces a third theme, one that our expectations were set up for by the book's motto, taken from Goethe's 'Faust'. After all, in a story about the Devil, a Faustian bargain needs to be struck. This is where the real heroine of the book comes in: Margarita, the woman who stood by the Master when he lost faith in his creation and who is still looking for him after his disappearance into the insane asylum.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, suffice to say that in return for hosting a Satan's Ball, Margarita is finally reunited with the Master. Significantly, however, amid all the novel's characters who are prey to doubt, apathy and insanity, only Margarita actively pursues what she believes in. (That is, not counting the Devil and Jesus, who both play their supernatural roles with full conviction.)
Thus Margarita underscores what is perhaps the novel's ultimate message. It is voiced in the report Pilate receives of Jesus' death.
"Did he try to preach anything in front of the soldiers?"
"No, Hegemon, he was not talkative on this occasion. The only thing he said was that he considered cowardice one of the worst of all human vices."
"What made him say that?" the guest heard a suddenly cracked voice say.
"There is no way of knowing. His behavior was strange in general, as it always was, I might add."
"What was strange about it?"
"He kept trying to look those around him in the eyes and he kept smiling a distracted kind of smile."
"Nothing else?" asked the hoarse voice.
(Quotes are from the translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor.)
Update: Of course, another important reference point is Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses', for which 'The Master and Margarita' served as a source of inspiration. Besides being as much of a literary rollercoaster, Rushdie in a way continued Bulgakov's satirical quest against religious doctrine, and translated it from Christian to Islamic culture.
An interesting article discussing the similarities between Bulgakov's and Rushdie's mission is 'Healthy Blasphemy' - although this brief quote from 'The Satanic Verses' goes a long way in epigraphing its point:
A poet's work (...) to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.