The Message of Pilate’s Wife James Jacques Tissot (1836-1902)
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Do not have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’ –Matthew 27:19
This verse is in the middle of Matthew’s account of Pontius Pilate’s questioning of Jesus. There is no recorded response of Pilate to this message. He is already convinced that Jesus is innocent, and he is trying to get him released. However, when he does give in to the pressure being exerted on him and does agree to allow Jesus to be crucified, he asks for a bowl of water so he could ‘wash his hands’ of the whole affair. Was this perhaps at least an attempt to abide by his wife’s wishes? Maybe, maybe not. There is no direct link between this verse and any other verse in Matthew or in any other part of the Bible. Pilates’ wife and her dream are nowhere else mentioned. But this is an interesting little verse.
First of all, where did it come from? How did Matthew, writing his Gospel several years after these events, find out about that dream and this private message to Pilate from his wife during the trial? Pilate served in Judea only a few more years, and even while he was there, it would have been unlikely that the Roman governor’s wife would have anything to do with this band of disciples of a country preacher. That is, unless she sought them out; and there is some evidence that perhaps she did.
Pilate’s wife is not named in the Bible, nor is she even mentioned anywhere else in the Biblical record. But she is mentioned several times in other early Christian literature. In these writings it is said that her name was Procula (or sometimes Claudia, or, Procula Claudia), and in those other old documents, there are accounts of her conversion to Christianity. Not only that, but she seems to be important enough to be declared a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is also some evidence that she might have been persecuted for her faith and died a martyr. The collected writings from these early years of the church fill many volumes, and some are more accurate than others. Legends have crept into many of them. But there is reason to believe that these accounts of Pilate’s wife becoming a Christian are true.
One of the big reasons to believe that Procula did become a Christian is the presence of this little verse. It was a private message from a wife to her husband. It is not the sort of thing that Pilate would have wanted known. When Ronald Reagan was president it was reported that his wife Nancy had some interest in astrology. Critics wondered if she was influencing the president with that nonsense, and if national policy was being directed by the stars in the sky. This is not the kind of publicity that a politician wants. Pilate would not have wanted it known that while he was on the judge’s seat deciding a case of capital punishment, his wife was sending him instructions based on her dreams. The religious leaders already had him in a tough spot with Jesus. He certainly did not need this additional embarrassment.
However, if years later Pilate’s wife did become a Christian, she certainly would have been a celebrity in the early Christian community, and her story would have been of great interest and widely circulated. Under those circumstances, it is very easy to imagine Matthew learning of that dream and including it in his Gospel.
The brief verse tells us nothing of the source of Procula’s dream, but there are two possibilities. First of all, it might have come directly from God. That happens in the Bible, and I don’t doubt that it still happens. But this doesn’t happen very often in the Bible, and I don’t think it happens to many people today. And without a clear sign that some dream or inner voice is from God, it is best to assume that it is not. Without a single word about divine revelation in this verse, it is best to assume the second possibility, that the dream came to her the natural way.
When dreams come to you in the usual way, you have to have some previous knowledge of what you are dreaming about. Pilate’s wife, therefore, must have heard something about Jesus. Perhaps she had heard about his ministry for three years already; teaching large crowds, healing many people of all sorts of ailments, and even raising the dead. Perhaps she had taken an interest in the incredible work of this holy man. Somehow, Procula had heard enough to form an opinion about Jesus, for when she sent that message to her husband she said, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man.” Innocent. Well, that is exactly what the chief priests, and then Pilate, had been spending the last few hours trying to decide– whether Jesus was innocent or guilty. But Procula’s mind was already made up. “Have nothing to do with that innocent man,” she said.
We see in this single verse just a hint of the impact Jesus was beginning to have. In the previous months, the crowds following Jesus had been in the thousands. By the time of the trial, the crowds were gone. Only the disciples and a few women remained, and most of them had deserted Jesus. When Jesus rose from the dead, his closest followers returned, and then many others came back; and then on Pentecost Day, the number of believers in Jesus again grew into the thousands. Then, within just a few generations, it is estimated that well over half of the people living in the Roman empire believed in Jesus as Lord.
Pilate’s wife was perhaps one of the very first. She was at the very least fascinated by him and deeply disturbed that her husband might condemn him. Think of what she felt when Pilate came home for supper and said that Jesus was on the cross. And think of what she must have thought when the report came on Sunday morning that the tomb was empty, and people had reported seeing Jesus. It seems to me that those accounts of Procula becoming a Christian could very well be true. In time, a majority of the Romans would believe that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord.
Matthew 27:24 — When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
Colossians 3:11-12 — Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Merciful God, creator of all the peoples of the earth and lover of souls: Have compassion on all who do not know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; let your Gospel be preached with grace and power to those who have not heard it; turn the hearts of those who resist it; and bring home to your fold those who have gone astray; that there may be one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. –Amen
—Book of Common Prayer, 1979