The Wife of Pilate: Dreaming of Jesus

Matthew 27:15-26

keep-calm-it-was-all-a-bad-dreamSo, here we are, all rested and ready to worship this morning. Hopefully you had a good night’s sleep and pleasant dreams, but that also raises a question: Do you remember what you dreamed last night? Or how about any dreams you may have had in the past?

Scientists tell us that all of us dream during REM sleep, but very few of us remember those dreams. The ones we do remember are often the scary or anxious ones and scientists tell us that the reason is that when we’re anxious or depressed our dreams take on a more vivid quality that make them memorable. I still remember a dream I had when I was about 8 or so when killer elves were trying to climb up on my bed and I was beating them back with my Bill Mazeroski autographed baseball bat. For a kid who was afraid of the dark, that kept me awake for weeks and still makes me shudder.

Sometimes those dreams are recurring ones that grab us when we’re most anxious about something—like the dreams I’ve had over the last several months where it’s Sunday morning but I forgot to prepare a sermon and show up at church late underdressed and frantic. That’s a scary dream, let me tell you, especially when it happens just before the alarm goes off on Sunday morning!

jacobs-ladderDreams are often the product of our brains playing out our inner anxieties, fears, and hopes while we sleep, but the Bible reveals that dreams can also play a different role—they can be a vehicle for divine revelation—scary or marvelous dreams depending on the perspective of the one doing the dreaming. Indeed, the Bible is full of such dreams, from Jacob dreaming of a stairway to heaven to Joseph’s dreams that the younger son would rule the elders—a dream that got him in a lot of trouble. Joseph and Daniel were both interpreters of dreams, which was a coveted ability in the ancient world, though their interpretations were often bad news for the ruling pagan government.

The Gospel of Matthew, which was written to a largely Jewish audience, picks up the Old Testament theme of dreams as revelations from God. In chapter 2, God comes to another Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Mary as his wife despite her precarious position being with child from the Holy Spirit. It was in a dream that the Magi were warned not to go back to report to Herod about the child Jesus and it was another dream that told Joseph to take the family and flee to Egypt.

In fact, you could argue that Matthew is really framing his gospel with dreams because the divine dreams we see at the beginning are also there at the end—this time a dream given to an unlikely source—the wife of Pontius Pilate. Like the Magi, she is a Gentile, and also like the Magi at the beginning of the Gospel, she is given a dream aimed at saving the life of Jesus.

Claudia IconWe know virtually nothing about Pilate’s wife. This is the only verse in the whole Bible in which she appears—in fact, it’s the only reference to her in all of history. But like we’ve seen with the other characters we’ve explored in this series so far, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any stories about her. The apocryphal gospels, which appeared from about the second to fourth centuries, named her “Claudia Procula,” which connects her to the Proculi family of wealthy Roman knights, making her a good match for the knightly Pilate. The medieval mystery plays portray her as a little more suited to a romantic comedy by calling her “Procla” or “Percula” or the “dear little woman” who canoodled with Pilate like a couple of starstruck lovebirds. Whatever her name was, we can infer that she was likely very wealthy, probably attractive, and very devoted to her husband.

She would have to have been devoted given that she was with him in Judea. Early in the imperial period, Roman governors were not allowed to take their wives with them on station, the Senate believing that wives were too high maintenance and could be a distraction. By about 21AD, however, the restriction was lifted and wives went with their husbands to the field. The wife of Pilate (we’ll call her Claudia just for argument’s sake) would have spent most of her time with the governor at his palace in Caesarea on the coast enjoying the sea breezes and the amenities to which wealthy Romans were entitled. Jerusalem, on the other hand, was a dangerous place, especially during festivals like Passover when crowds gathered and rioting and revolution was always a possibility.

And yet, Matthew tells us that Claudia accompanied Pilate even to Jerusalem, which may have indicated that the medieval playwrights were more on the mark. They were likely deeply in love and “clinging together like limpets” as Ann Wroe points out in her marvelous historical study of Pilate and his times—an interesting disposition given the public portrait of Pilate we talked about earlier in this series.

Pilate and wifeBut there may have been other reasons she decided to join him in Herod’s old palace there in Jerusalem. Early Christian tradition suggests that she was fascinated by Judaism, a curiosity in the Roman world given that the Jews only believed in one God. Claudia would have had time to study these strange people while in the city, even if from a distance as going out into the city and marketplace by herself would have been prohibitively dangerous. We don’t know if she ever saw Jesus of Nazareth before that fateful day in the palace, but it’s clear from Matthew’s point of view that she certainly saw him in her dreams.

It was very early in the morning when the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate for judgment. We might imagine Pilate rising before the sun, taking the ientaculum or a light breakfast of flat bread and fruit prepared by the household slaves, kissing his sleeping wife and then heading out to see what those noisy Jews wanted so early in the morning. Claudia lay in that deep sleep that usually happens just before waking, and it was then that she had a dream—a troubling, distressing dream about a man she had never met—Jesus of Nazareth.

Matthew doesn’t tell us what form the dream took. In the 19th century, preachers and playwrights imagined that she saw Jesus’ face, which looked a lot like the paintings in 19th century homes—a gauzy, mostly white Jesus with sad eyes full of suffering. The medieval playwrights characterized her dream in more scandalous theological terms—that it wasn’t God who was giving her the dream but rather it was a product of Satan, who wanted to use Claudia to keep her husband from sending Jesus to the cross where he would die for the sins of the world. The medieval church thus saw her as a little more like their portraits of Eve—a weak-willed woman duped by the devil.

calpurniaBut we don’t get that sense so much from Matthew. The dream, whatever form it took, scared her awake and, unlike most dreams, she couldn’t simply shake it off to the recesses of her memory. The Romans believed that dreams that happened after midnight were the ones that would ultimately come true. Their literature and history are full of examples of this belief, like the dream of Calpurnia, the wife of Julius Caesar, on the eve of the Ides of March (which is today, by the way) in which she dreamed that their house was crumbling and that her husband lay stabbed on her breast. That same night, Julius Caesar reportedly dreamed that he was soaring above the clouds and joining hands with Jupiter, the chief Roman god. Caesar was assassinated that morning.

Claudia’s dream was powerful and vivid enough to call her servant from her bed where she scrawled a hasty note to be given to Pilate as he sat on the judgment seat. She knew she could not deliver it herself as women were not permitted in the place of justice. They could only sit outside, behind a curtain, and listen to the proceedings. Claudia no doubt did this often, listening in to see how her husband was doing and how he was being approved or challenged—important data given that her fate was tied to that of her husband.

The note read, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Here we get a glimpse into the dream—the one she saw in it was innocent, and the suffering of an innocent man troubled her greatly. We all know the momentary suffering of waking up from a nightmare—that moment when the dream and the reality intersect and the fear still grips us. We check our surroundings, maybe even get up and walk around just to reestablish our bearings while our senses shift from the dream to the present. In this case, however, the dream is the reality.

I don’t remember ever seeing Jesus in my dreams, though that would be far better than seeing the killer elves again. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have dreamed about him, however, and most of the time Jesus comes to them as a comfort, a peaceful presence, a friend with gentle words, speaking an encouraging truth in the midst of deep anxiety or illness. But I wonder if we would be as open to have him shake our dreams with his suffering—to be troubled by him in such a way that our lives are utterly transformed when we awaken.

I think, for example, about the vision of Paul on the Damascus road, which was another “vision” but a waking one where the persecutor Saul is knocked off his feet, struck blind, and confronted by the reality of risen Christ. When Paul regained his sight, he was a completely different person, now driven by the dream of Jesus into his own life of suffering for the Lord. Might there be a similar waking dream for us? One in which the reality of Christ so shakes us, so sticks in our memory, that we will see everything about our lives in a new way?

american-dream-post-war-abundance-swscan00536-copyThere are, after all, plenty of other dreams out there to be had. We are famous in this country, for example, for promoting the American dream—a term first coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 which says that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. That’s not a bad dream, but unfortunately it’s a dream that has mutated and exchanged the “the pursuit of happiness” for the pursuit of stuff—the more of it you have, the better you are. Our stuff isn’t making us happy, and yet we’re conditioned to dream about more and better. Christian futurist Tom Sine once said that even Christians in America are caught up in that dream and that what we see in many of our churches is “the American dream with a little Jesus overlay.”

wife of pilatePilate’s wife was used to living in the Roman world that provided the economic and political foundation for our own, and yet when Jesus intruded on her dream she realized that everything she held dear was being called into question—wealth, power, security, status—none of it would allow her to really rest easy. The poor, wandering preacher from Galilee needed none of those things and yet he exuded a sense of authority and clarity that would keep at the forefront of her dreams the rest of her life. He was about to die, unjustly accused, reluctantly sent to death by her loving husband. Pilate had sent many people to their deaths for trying to upset the Roman dream, but this one was different somehow. Somehow, with this crucified prophet, a different dream was forming.

“Have nothing to do with this man,” she wrote to her husband. But here’s the thing—that’s simply not possible. Pilate took her seriously and tried to wash his hands of Jesus, but like Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare play, the “damned spot” of his responsibility won’t come out. One thing you can never be about Jesus is neutral. He is either everything, or he is nothing. You must be either hot or cold, as John told the church in Laodicean. He is either a liar or a lunatic, or he is Lord, said C.S. Lewis. He is not the savior of moralistic therapeutic deism, simply wanting us to be happy and fulfilled with the things of this world. He will either conflict with our dreams or he will give us new ones, but he will never fully conform to the kind of dreams we normally have, American or otherwise. His dreams involve a cross, and we will never fully realize his dream until we are willing to “suffer a great deal” because of him.

And here’s the irony—it’s that suffering that leads to true “happiness” beyond our wildest dreams. When we allow Jesus to intrude on our dreams, our vision somehow becomes clearer, our anxiety lessened, and our fears pushed back. Most of our dreams are driven by our fears. Jesus goes to the cross so that we will have nothing to fear, even the fear of death itself. Even if it was the devil whispering into Claudia’s ear that morning, nothing would stop Jesus from going the full distance to save us and give us a new dream of life free from the anxiety and bondage of sin and death.

And if you begin dreaming that dream, new possibilities emerge. The college student lays aside dreams of financial success in order to live among the poor as a teacher or a doctor. The wealthy entrepeneur uses his skill at making money not for his own gain but as a way of making the world to look more like God’s kingdom. The high schooler lays aside dreams of popularity to sit with the kid at lunch that everyone else ignores. See, when Jesus starts to run loose in our dreams we will not look at the world, at our relationships, at our stuff in the same way ever again. We will dedicate them all to Christ and in doing so we will be living an entirely different dream—the dream of the kingdom of God.

Procula - SaintLike her husband, Claudia (if that was her name) disappears from the text and from history at this point. But like the others we’ve already talked about in this series, that did not stop legends from forming. Origen, the great Christian theologian and historian of the 2nd/3rd century, said that she was the first Gentile convert to Christianity, “the proselyte at the Gate.” The Eastern Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox churches celebrate her as a saint because she tried to save Jesus from death. Perhaps she became a secret benefactor of the Roman church. We don’t know what happened to her after her single verse appearance in the Bible.

What we do know, however, is that Jesus hasn’t stopped intruding in the dreams of his people. Whatever it is that you dream about, be it fair or frightening, how might your dreams be different if you follow him? How will you let him run loose in your life?


Wroe, Ann. Pontius Pilate. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. Pp. 41-45, 253-257.

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