The Dream of Pilate’s Wife 

In chapters 26 and 27 of Matthew’s Gospel, the author sets a compelling scene. Jesus has been arrested, deserted by his disciples, denied by Peter, beaten and humiliated by callous men under the jurisdiction of the High Priest, and is now standing before Pilate, the governor of Judea.

In contrast to Jesus’ vulnerable and lonely state, a large clamorous crowd made up of locals and pilgrims, all in “holy-day” mood because of the Passover festival, are being incited by their powerful religious leaders who want Jesus dead.

Behind the scenes is Pilate’s wife. She has had a dream which is troubling her. Because of the dream, she knows Jesus is innocent of any crime.[1]

In the ancient world, everyone, from all stations of life, believed in signs and auguries of various kinds. They were how the gods communicated to people. Dreams, especially, were thought to be a typical way the gods, including the God of Israel, spoke to people.

The Bible records several people receiving dreams from God. In Matthew’s Gospel, the dreams of Joseph (Matt. 1:20; 2:13, 19-20, 22) and of the Magi (Matt. 2:12), as well as the dream of Pilate’s wife, are mentioned.

Pilate’s wife had not yet told her husband the dream. But now Jesus is standing before her husband, and she has vital insight into the situation.

While Pilate is already sitting on the seat of judgement in the public square, she hastily writes a message and hands it to a servant who delivers it to her husband. The message reads, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matt. 27:19 NIV).

Despite the stresses of the situation, it seems Pilate listened to his wife’s message and took it seriously.

Pilate calls out and asks the crowd, “What do you want me to do with Jesus?” When the crowd shouts back, “Crucify him!” he asks, “What crime has he committed?” (Pilate knows that the real reason for Jesus’ arrest is the self-interest of the jealous religious leaders (Matt. 27:18).)

Pilate was known for his brutality and he did not shy away from bloodshed. Yet, he washes his hands of the situation and hands over the responsibility of Jesus’ fate to the crowd, a responsibility and a culpability which they accept. Nonetheless, most of the Christian Church consider Pilate guilty of Jesus’ death because he did not release him.[2]

Who was Pilate’s Wife?

Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ arrest, interrogation and crucifixion is reaching its climax when the author includes the line about Pilate’s wife. Why did he choose to include this piece of information about her dream and her message?

The information recorded in Matthew 27:19 can only have come from someone close to Pilate. Perhaps Pilate’s wife is the source of the information which she, herself, relayed to the first Christians. The original audience of Matthew’s gospel may even have known her. In his commentary on Matthew, Origen suggests she became a Christian.[3]

In the spurious Acts of Pilate—which is included in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, a collection of writings written between 150-400—there is a fuller account of Jesus’ appearance before Pilate. Several elements in the story are fabrications but some of them may contain a germ of truth.

In this apocryphal account, Pilate describes his wife, who is named Procula, as a God-fearer (a Gentile convert to Judaism) and as someone who favoured Jewish customs (2.1). This seems likely when we consider that Pilate’s wife would normally have stayed at the governor’s residence in Caesarea but that, according to Matthew’s Gospel, she was in Jerusalem during the Passover, even though the city was not a safe place during festivals when religious fervour was high. As a God-fearer, she may have come to Jerusalem specially to observe the Jewish festival of Passover.[4]

While it is plausible that Pilate’s wife was a God-fearer and may even have become a Christian, we cannot know this with certainty. Whatever the case may be, of all the characters mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, this woman is the only person who states Jesus’ innocence.

In opposition to the will of the Jewish leaders, and against the determined shouts of the crowd, she sent a clear message telling her husband what to do, or, rather, what not to do: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man . . .” This is no small thing, it would have taken some courage, and in some churches Pilate’s wife continues to be celebrated for responding to the dream she received from God and for declaring Jesus’ innocence.[5]


Endnotes

[1] There is an echo in Matthew 27:19 to the story that Calpurnia, the wife of Julius Caesar, who, after dreaming of her husband’s murder, warned Caesar not to go the Senate during the Ides of March (Plutarch’s Life of Caesar 63.8-11). Caesar was killed in the Senate house on the Ides of March, on the 15th of March 44 BC, to be precise.

[2] The Apostles’ Creed, for example, states that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried . . .”

[3] J.P. Migne, “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew” in Greek, lines 256-257, Patrologia Graecae. Pages 6-7 in this source here.

[4] We know that a few high-status Roman women with powerful husbands converted to Judaism and Christianity. More on this here.

[5] Pilate’s wife is recognised as a saint, Saint Procula, in the Eastern Orthodox Church and in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, her feast day is celebrated on the 27th of October.

In a poem published in 1611, author Amelia Lanyer uses the character of Pilate’s wife who speaks to her husband and holds him responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. She tells him that having Jesus condemned to death is a worse sin than Eve’s which brought about the subjugation and cruel treatment of women, and she asks for freedom and equality for women. More about Amelia Lanyer and her poem here.

There is a letter which claims to have been written by Pilate’s wife, Claudia Procula, but it is not authentic or very ancient. It may date from the fifteenth century. The letter can be read here or here.

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Actress Claudia Gerini plays Pilate’s wife in The Passion of the Christ (2004). In the film she is given the name Claudia Procles.


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