Remembering Pilate’s Wife
Let’s just say this:
Too many women go unnamed in the Bible.
You know what I mean? While it’s true that some men are not identified (the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12 comes to mind), it seems like more women suffer the indignity of have their name go unrecorded. I’m thinking of women such as the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:24-34), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) and the Caananite woman (Matthew 15:21-28).
To compound the problem, instead of getting named, often women in the Bible get identified according to the men in their life. This makes sense in an overwhelmingly patriarchal culture, but it’s still tragic. So you have Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:30-38), Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15), and Philip’s prophetic daughters (Acts 21:9), among others.
You also have Pilate’s wife, from Matthew 27:19.
This past weekend, as I listened to our pastor preach a wonderful Easter sermon, that verse about Pilate’s wife captured my attention. I mean, I’m sure I’ve read, or heard, that verse before, but it had failed to stand out until last Sunday.
For context, Pontius Pilate is about to decide who to release, the innocent Jesus or the criminal Barabbas. It’s clear who the crowd wants, and Pilate, more interested in the keeping the peace than establishing justice, is clearly leaning toward releasing Barabbas.
In the midst of his deliberation, however, a message arrives from Pilate’s wife. Here’s verse 19:
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
Interesting, right? Have you ever really thought about this verse?
This week I did some research, and, for the most part, the commentators don’t have much to say about Pilate’s wife. For most, the significance of verse 19 is in the ironic contrast between the message of Pilate’s wife and the clear preference of the gathered Jews.
For instance, the New Bible Commentary notes:
Nothing else is known of Pilate’s wife. This Gentile woman’s conviction of Jesus’ innocence is in contrast to the prejudice of the Jewish crowd.
OK. Still, I’m left with some questions. Was that just a random dream, or was that a vision from the Lord? If it was a divine vision, what’s the significance? And, how had she heard about Jesus? Had she met him? Is it even possible that she was a believer?!?
In the end, I’m not sure we can answer many of these questions. There’s just not enough data. She’s unnamed, and largely forgotten to history.*
But, maybe, Pilate’s wife should take her place among her sisters.
Because the story of Easter is a story marked the presence of women. Most famously, there’s Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the first people to bear witness to the resurrection (I’ve blogged about the Marys before, here). I watched a documentary on CNN during Easter week, and one commentator said something like, “for about an hour, Mary Magdalene, and Mary alone, was the church.”
But maybe not isolated. Perhaps it’s time to add another woman to our list of Easter heroines, an unnamed woman, the governor’s prophetic wife. Because, from that one verse, here’s what we do know about Pilate’s wife:
She was convinced that Jesus’ death was unjust, and she acted on her belief.
Sounds like someone worth remembering to me.
* One interesting theory, articulated by Herbert Lockyer in his book All the Women of the Bible, is that Pilate’s wife was named Claudia Procula, daughter of Emperor Augustus. Citing her appearance in the apocryphal text The Gospel of Nicodemus, Lockyer posits that this is the same Claudia mentioned by Paul (2 Timothy 4:21) and canonized by both the Greeks and Abyssinians, a woman lauded for her faith and devotion to Jesus.