She warned, he didn’t listen
Names in the Bible often tell us something about the person:
This woman is nameless; she appears only briefly in one of the gospels, Matthew’s.
In later centuries she was called Claudia Procula, but it is impossible to tell whether this was her real name or an invented one.
‘Pontius‘ is a variant on the Latin word ‘pons’, meaning ‘bridge’. It may also have been a family name linked to the ancient Roman province of Pontus in Asia Minor – at the eastern end of the Black Sea. The origin of ‘Pilate‘ is unknown. A similar Latin word is ‘pilum’, or javelin.
She was not named in Matthew’s gospel because naming a person makes them real and individual, and that was not the purpose of the gospel writer. To him she was a symbol or a literary device rather than a real person – though she obviously existed.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel wanted his listener/reader to focus on the incident and what it showed about Pilate, rather than on the person who was Pilate’s wife.
Main themes in this incident
- Messages from God. People in the ancient world were aware of the subconscious. They believed dreams could carry a significant message from God – or in the case of this Roman woman, from ‘the gods’.
- We should listen for God’s voice in whatever guise it takes. Pilate’s wife called Jesus ‘this innocent man’. Through her, God gave Pilate a chance to do the right thing. He did not.
- Listen to your own conscience. Pilate acted as he did because he cared so much about his Roman masters’ opinion. Yet for two thousand years he has been held in contempt by the whole Christian world for his fateful decision to condemn Jesus.
The story in Matthew’s gospel
During the trial of Jesus, Matthew mentions the wife of Pontius Pilate. We know very little about her except that she was high-born, Roman, well-educated and wealthy – and the wife of the Roman governor at the time of Jesus’ death.
On the morning of the trial of Jesus, she sent an urgent message to her husband: ‘I had a troubling dream. Do not have anything to do with this man.’ Pilate ignored his wife’s advice and condemned Jesus to death, making his name infamous.
Who was Pilate?
He was a very political man, always concerned about Rome’s opinion of him. His patron in Rome was Sejanus, who virtually governed Rome after the Emperor Tiberius retired to his villa at Capri. Pilate would keep his job only as long as he delivered relative peace and stability in the province he governed.
Judea was a difficult, rebellious part of the Roman Empire, and Pilate’s job was far from easy. Commentators call him cruel and oppressive, but this fails to take into account the turbulence of Jerusalem, especially at a time of one of the great festivals, when the city was jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Rebellion was a constant threat, and Pilate no doubt saw Jesus of Nazareth as a potential rebel, who must be neutralized as quickly as possible.
What was Pilate’s relationship with his wife?
He travelled constantly, keeping an eye of each area of Judea. It seems that his wife travelled with him. This may show something of the closeness of their relationship, since life in the administrative center of Caesarea would certainly have been more comfortable for her.
Perhaps he was accustomed to seek out her advice on difficult matters; educated Roman women were often quite powerful figures behind the scenes – think of Livia’s relationship with her husband Augustus. Pilate’s wife is the only person recorded who appealed the decision to condemn Jesus.
You can read the verse in Matthew’s gospel in a negative way, seeing Pilate’s attitude as dismissive, patronising, impatient.
But is could also show a man who was affectionate, tring to reassure his wife in what was a combustible situation that everything would be alright. Who knows with a husband and wife?
Messages in Dreams and Omens
When she did appeal her husband’s decision, she quoted a terrible dream she had the previous night. This dream frightened and bewildered her so much that she felt impelled to act on it.
Dreams were given great significance in the ancient world, more so than they are now. Usually they were seen as warnings against some danger, or as prompts sent by God to persuade a person to take a particular course of action.
The New Testament records several dreams that changed the course of history:
the dream of the Magi, warning them not to return to Herod (Matthew 2:12)
the dream of Joseph of Nazareth, warning him to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13)
the dream telling Joseph to return from Egypt and settle in Galilee (Matthew 2:19 and 2:22)
All of these dreams appear in the gospel of Matthew, who was writing for a Greek, Jewish and Christian audience. In his own way he knew about the promptings of the subconscious.