Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pilate’s Wife: The Power of Dreams

  Outside of the Biblical account of his work as governor of Judea, we have very little information about Pontius Pilate. According to the traditional account of his life, Pilate was a Roman equestrian (knight) of the Semite clan of the Pontii (hence his name Pontius). He was appointed prefect of Judaea through the intervention of Sejanus, a favorite of the Roman emperor Tiberius. (That his title was prefect is confirmed by an inscription from Caesarea.) Protected by Sejanus, he incurred the enmity of the Jews by insulting their religious sensibilities, as when he hung worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and had coins bearing pagan religious symbols minted. After Sejanus's fall in 31 AD, Pilate was exposed to sharper criticism from the Jews, who may have capitalized on his vulnerability by obtaining a legal death sentence on Jesus (John 19:12). The Samaritans reported him to Vitellius, legate of Syria, after he had attacked them on Mt. Gerizim in 36. He was then ordered back to Rome to stand trial for cruelty and oppression, particularly on the charge that he executed men without proper trial. According to an uncertain 4th-century tradition, Pilate killed himself on orders from Emperor Caligula in 39. 1
    What little we do know about Pilate is much more than we know about his wife.  She appears only once in the entire New Testament in Matthew 27:19: “While he (Pilate) was sitting in the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with this innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream I had about him.’”  There is no mention of what the dream entailed or what kind of suffering she had undergone. 
  The fact that she is nameless gives us some indication of her role in the story. Giving a character a name gives them a certain amount of authority or power, so the fact that she is nameless indicates that she is not even a secondary player in this drama.
   She does not approach her husband directly with this information, but sends word to him about this dream through a third party.  She does make reference to the fact that she believes that Jesus is innocent which might give us some indication of why this account is mentioned at all.  Did she realize that the people were attempting to capitalize on her husband’s vulnerability by forcing him to declare a death sentence in the case of Jesus?  Was she, perhaps, open to Jesus’ message and wanted to prevent her husband from condemning the bearer of that message to death for no valid reason?  The truth is, we do not know.
   After receiving word of his wife’s dream, Pilate washes his hands and says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves.”   The Gospel account indicates that he fears a riot on the part of the crowd and so he hands Barabbas over to them as he condemns Jesus to death.
   There are various legendary accounts regarding Pilate’s wife.  According to Christian legend, her name was either Claudia or Procula.  It was a commonly held belief that she became a Christian after Jesus’ death. She was formally canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church as is known as St. Claudia, St. Procula, or St. Procula Claudia.  There was a strong belief that she was mentioned, by name, in 2 Timothy 4:21, where it states, “Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Prudeus and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers and sisters.” 2
   What can we learn from this very short account of Pilate’s wife?  One thing we can learn is the importance of dreams.  There is a long Biblical tradition of the importance of dreams, including Joseph in the Book of Genesis, Daniel in the Book of Daniel, and even St. Joseph in the Gospel according to St. Luke.  Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) spoke of the importance of dreams.  He spoke of the archetypal quality of dreams in regard to the fact that dreams are a way of helping one to find meaning and purpose in life.  Since this is a very human quality, we can assume that Pilate’s wife was searching for meaning and purpose in her own life and that perhaps the dream she experienced had given her some insight into what would give her life meaning, namely following Jesus. 
   In 1846, Charlotte Bronté penned a poem entitled Pilate’s Wife’s Dream in which she writes:
                                                It sank, and I am wrapt in utter gloom;
                                                                  How far is night advanced, and when will day
                                                                  Retinge the dusk and livid air with bloom,
                                                                  And fill this void with warm, creative ray?
                                                                  Would I could sleep again till, clear and red,
                                                                  Morning shall on the mountain-tops be spread! 3

      Her interpretation of this dream lends itself to Jung’s understanding of dreams. The notion of the advancing night and her wonder as to when the day will retinge the dusk and livid air with bloom can be understood as a metaphor for finding some source of meaning outside of oneself.  The idea of sleeping until the morning on the mountain tops be spread can be a metaphor for God.  There are many traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, which equate the mountain tops with the Divine presence. 

     I am not saying that Ms. Bronté was able to fully interpret the dream of Pilate’s wife, since she had no way of doing so given the fact that the content of the dream is unknown; however, this does not prevent us from speculating as to what this dream might have been about or the power that it had over this woman. Obviously something happened to her as a result of this dream, otherwise Pilate’s wife would not have felt it important enough to send word to her husband about it.
   This rather short account of the life of Pontius Pilate’s wife gives us another insight into the importance of dreams, as well as the importance of following through on the various experiences we have.  While she was not in a position to prevent her husband from doing what he ultimately did, she was in a position to share with him what she was feeling and she did so.  
    While we may not experience such dreams, it is important for us to be willing to stand up for our convictions even if we cannot change the outcome.  Not standing up for one’s convictions can actually do a great deal of emotional damage to a person because they may end up being haunted by the fact that they could have or should have done something, but chose to remain silent. The wife of Pontius Pilate did not remain silent and her words, though only mentioned in one sentence, did have some impact on her husband due to the fact that he washed his hands of the situation.  Her faithfulness was recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Church and it is possible that she may have actually become a friend and disciple of St. Timothy.

                                                       End Notes

3)    “Pilate’s Wife’s Dream”

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