(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
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