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In Pilate’s Wife, Some See An Unlikely Saint

(UNDATED) For all of Pontius Pilate’s faults, one was distinctly damning: he didn’t listen to his wife.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Roman governor of Judea received a note from his spouse during the trial of Jesus. “Have nothing to do with that just man,” she writes, “for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of him.”
Pilate, of course, failed to heed his wife’s warnings, and sentenced Jesus to die. Though he famously tried to wash his hands of the act, the result was centuries of infamy, and perhaps a few nights sleeping on the couch.
Pilate’s wife, meanwhile, remains an enigma. She’s consigned to an off-stage role in the Bible, neither described nor named. But early Christians dubbed her Claudia Procula, called her the first gentile follower of Jesus, and canonized her for trying to save him.
Claudia’s story hardly ends there. In fact, each subsequent generation has remade Claudia in its own image. She’s a tool of the devil in medieval Passion plays, a tortured seer in Victorian literature, and a proto-feminist who speaks truth to power in the minds of some modern women.
“She’s an outstanding example of a woman who had this intuition, this feeling,” said Barbara Litrell, who co-wrote a booklet on biblical women distributed by FutureChurch, a group that pushes for gender equality in the Catholic Church. “She knew that Jesus was a special person and she feared for her husband.”
Claudia figures prominently in “Women at the Foot of the Cross,” a Lenten prayer booklet that follows the Stations of the Cross and highlights the often unheralded role of women in Jesus’ life. More than 140 parishes or people have ordered the booklet this year, said Sister Christine Schenk, FutureChurch’s executive director.
“Men, and some women, caught up in the patriarchal system do not recognize the value of women’s insights,” the booklet reads in the section about Pilate’s wife. “Often women themselves doubt and fear to follow what they know deep in their hearts.”
Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, said all we really know about Pilate’s wife from the Bible is that she had a dream — a plot device often used by the evangelist Matthew.
Bock aligns Pilate’s wife with the Roman soldier at the cross and the Good Thief crucified with Jesus as “people who come from a pagan background who get an indication that something important is going on” during the Passion. “They know that this is not just some Jew off the street standing in Pilate’s office,” Bock said.
Early Christians wove complex stories from the Bible’s thin threads.
Some apocryphal writings give Claudia an imperial pedigree as the high-born granddaughter of the Roman emperor Augustus, thus lending her support for Jesus a certain first-century cachet. Origen, an early church father, calls her the first gentile to believe in Jesus’ teachings.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast day of St. Procula Claudia on Oct. 27, according to Deborah Belonick at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. A hymn sung in her honor on that day using a variation of her name says, “The Lord and Helmsman now hath thee standing before Him, who stood once before Pilate thy husband, O Procla.”
The Rev. Asteraye Nigtu, an Ethiopian Orthodox priest in Kansas City, Kan., said Claudia is considered one of the 36 sainted women who followed Jesus during his lifetime. Curiously, the Ethiopian church also canonized Pontius Pilate.
“He was very sensitive and compassionate for Jesus Christ,” Nigtu said, “he was not cooperative with the people who wanted to crucify him.”
Some Medieval writers, though, portrayed Claudia — and her dream — in a more sinister light. Just as the devil tempted Eve to eat the apple and thus bring death into the world, the devil also sought use Claudia to forestall man’s salvation. If she had succeeded in convincing Pilate to pardon Jesus, humanity would remain unredeemed, the thinking went.
“The judgment Pilate was to make would be wicked and damnable,” Anne Wroe writes in her book “Pontius Pilate,” “but it would also be liberation and essential.”
Most contemporary Christians, though, consider Claudia a hero, and female artists especially have been intrigued by her legend. Charlotte Bronte, best known for her novel “Jane Eyre,” penned “Pilate’s Wife’s Dream,” a poem that imagines Claudia as an overwrought seer who envisions a “dreadful doom for Pilate.”
Some time later, letters purportedly written by a piously Christian Claudia emerged. Many historians doubt their authenticity, but that hasn’t stopped publishers from selling books and spoken-word recordings of “Claudia’s Letter.”
California writer Antoinette May has taken a decidedly quieter if no less imaginative approach to Claudia. Her 2006 novel, “Pilate’s Wife: A Novel of the Roman Empire,” envisions her as a sensual and spiritual seeker.
“I was intrigued by this woman who had a dream,” May said, “and tried to change history.”
By Daniel Burke
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • nnmns

    Didn’t Pilate do “God’s bidding”? Wasn’t he fulfilling “God’s Plan”? How could any Christian get mad at him? Same for anyone else involved in Jesus’ purported killing. Or their descendants. Religion makes fools of us all, though sooner or later we’d all get there even without it.

  • pagansister

    Gee! If Pilate had listened to his wife, we might never have had Christianity. That would have made the last 2000 plus years totally different, huh? We might have all been Jewish or Pagans or something entirely different.

  • sinsonte

    Could it be that Chistians have alwsys missed the point of the story? Could it be that polyytheists and idol-worshippers are as likely to receive a message from God as are the apostles? Could it be that there’s nothing special about being in the Judeo-Christian tradition? Could it be that that God speaks to whomever She wants?

  • jestrfyl

    Some of God’s best work has been with folks who are outside the Abrahamic traditions (J/C/I). “We” (I must include myself, simply to be fair) just don’t appreciate the competition.
    For a literary conceit, Mrs P. has generated a lot of interest. Of course, it looks like Mr P himself was a bit out of time, and perhaps a literary conceit himslef. But Matthew was not repeating history, he was telling a story in order to make a point. His point was that God works with people not from the expected and ordinary places. According to matthew, Mr. P was manipulated by Caiaphas, who also manipulated the crowds inside the city for the holiday. He was not so successful with the crowds outside the city walls. Jesus was killed not by “The Jews” or “The Romans”, but by anxious men who were afraid of losing the position, status, and means for gaining ever more wealth. Some things never change.

  • Henrietta22

    Just think of all the unsung women of Mrs. P’s day that never made honorable mention?

  • David Murdoch

    There have been archaeological finds confirming the existence of a roman governor in Judea named Pontius Pilate, and according to Tacitus, Pilate was the procurator at the time that the founder of the christian religion was killed.
    If Pilate hadn’t killed Jesus, God could have found some other means for Jesus to have been sacrificed in the hands of sinners, it wouldn’t have changed the establishment of the christian religion.
    There are probably all sorts of saints, both women and men, down history who did something important, but we will never have heard they even existed or what they did.

  • nnmns

    “If Pilate hadn’t killed Jesus, God could have found some other means for Jesus to have been sacrificed in the hands of sinners, it wouldn’t have changed the establishment of the christian religion.”
    Just stop and think about what a strange idea that is. “God”, being a powerful god (they tell us) could have started a religion about him in all sorts of ways not involving a painful (or, if Jesus was (a) “God” not at all painful) death. All “He” would have needed to do was a few miracles; a particularly good one would be to have written his instructions across the sky in various languages all around the world in clouds that didn’t move for a week. Heck, that would still be impressive.
    And anyway he already had a religion, Judaism. Some might say he wanted one for everyone but lets face it, Christianity hasn’t exactly spread all over the world. It’s only one of many and he didn’t even get it well established on the land over the oil. Oh, wait, maybe that’s his religion too and he enjoys watching his religions squabble over this and that. Like a kid with toy armies.
    Anyway if people weren’t raised Christians most would laugh at the very ideas behind it.

  • Tom

    I feel the same way about listening/reading to Dawkins. He doesn’t know how life began, only that it all started with a single cell; yet it was definitely spontaneous and completely unguided (of this he is sure). Only an infant would fail to perceive the logical absurdity of making such statements.

  • nnmns

    Well I have to differ. I agree you can’t be sure it was spontaneous but the alternative idea, that something capable of generating life happened spontaneously (“spontaneous generation of a god) or that something that complex has existed forever is more improbable. After all, that first bit of life, whatever it was, didn’t have to be nearly as complex as an amoeba. Nothing it needed to defend itself against. All the food it could use. All the time in the world (well, a few billion years anyway and that’s a LOT of time) and a whole planetfull of different kinds of environments for it to happen in. So that’s not so unlikely.
    Now if you want to speculate on an elementary goddish thing suddenly appearing some time after the Big Bang and evolving into an all-powerful, all-knowing god or starting a chain of more and more improved gods or just periodically upgrading itself till there appeared one of the gods that various people here think they know and love (or hate or ??) that would be an interesting conversation and I’d be happy to participate. I suspect we could come up with some cool new concepts. Or maybe that’s been done various times in the past and I just don’t know it. Anyway it would be interesting.

  • Tom

    The spontaneity of life’s beginning isn’t what I take issue with; rather that one claims to know that one particular aspect (one cell, common descent, etc) but readily rules out design. Granted from what we can observe from mitosis the process always seems to start with one cell but always through reproductive not original means.
    Based on the mechanism of DNA replication it would more likely than not be spontaneous given all the different moving parts involved and how the process would grind to a halt given any of the components weren’t functioning properly or were missing.
    As for the evoluting god phenomenon you describe it would be rather cool indeed to discuss this. The Latter Day Saints believe that their God Elohim was once human but was elevated to Godhood by other Gods through his obedience and virtuous living as a mortal. As for mortals evolving into deities on their own volition I don’t believe I’ve heard this theory proposed before. Maybe sci fi is your vocation, nnmns. Perhaps you’re the next incarnation of L Ron Hubbard. I’ve yet to run any tests but your pheton level seems way higher than average :-)

  • jestrfyl

    I heard an interesting thing on Science Friday, Talk of the Nation, NPR yesterday. A “Flotsamologist” proposed that pumice, which apparently carries many of the molecules necessary for life, may have been floating on the ocean, which it does in its ashen form, and hit by lightning, providing the electrical charge that completed the “equation” for the first cells. A fascinating theory. Of course, now we can argue that God aimed the lightning and got it all going. Basically, we can argue about it forever, without ever being sure. But this sure makes for a great starting point for some amazing research.

  • jestrfyl

    Back on topic…
    Historians have discovered records of a Pilate, but not during the years that Jesus ministry was supposed to have happened. Basically, each of the Gospel writers pick this and that from natural and political history, swirled it together to make their stories more interesting, and we now try to swallow them whole as one big lumpy fact. Try reading not as a journalistic piece (still subjective) and more as a story making a point. It is more truthful than it might seem, even if the facts are conveniently rearranged.

  • nnmns

    Regarding sci-fi, I do read some. There’s a book, “Calculating God” by Robert J. Sawyer. I’ve recommended it here before. [Spoiler Alert] It turns out to be about a god that lives through, and influences, big bangs. It started by accident as a plasma cloud or something such several big bangs ago and evolves itself to a more and more capable state and looks out for life forms, including us. But I wouldn’t bother praying to it.
    Kind of a neat story, though it has problems, such as having to trash evolution to sell its plot.
    Not sure about those phetons.

  • jestrfyl

    “Calculating God” is a good book, worth reading. I have a small collection of religiously themed sci/fi. One of my favorite authors is James Morrow, but his stuff would offend most conservatives. James Blish has written some good stuff, too. Robert Heinlein is one of the most famous for challenging traditional religion is a wonderfully positive way. Also look for Octavia Butler, Michael Bishop, and even (especially) Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke. This is a whole topic that almost deserves its own thread. Speculative and Science Fiction is a genre prone toward religious musings.

  • nnmns

    j, if you start or find such a thread let us know. I, for one, spend more than enough time here on the surface of B’net and rarely venture into other parts.

  • Pingback: Saint PROCLA, the wife of Pontius Pilate | Dormition of the Theotokos Orthodox Church

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