Apr 9, 2015

Pilate's Wife (Matt 27:19)

“Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream" (Matt 27:19, ESV). 

One of the unique contributions of Matthew’s account of the Passion is the reference to Pilate’s wife. Here is a list of observations concerning this brief but intriguing reference.

Matthew does note the name of Pilate’s wife but church tradition calls her Claudia, Claudia Procula, or Claudia Villa Procula. However, the name Claudia was apparently introduced rather late (1619) In the Acts of Pilate in the Gospel of Nicodemus, she is said to be a proselyte or God-fearer (Act. Pil. 2.1). Origen suggested that she later became a convert to Christianity (Comm. ser. Matt. 122) and she was canonized as a Saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. According to Michael Green, she was, “the illegitimate daughter of Claudia, the Emperor Tiberius’ third wife, and so she was a grand-daughter of Augustus. She was therefore much better connected than her husband, and it may be that it was due to her that in ad 26 he gained the appointment as “prefect of Judea” (The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, BST [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001], 290).

Pilate’s wife refers to Jesus as a “righteous man.” “Wordsworth well remarks, “In the whole history of the Passion of Christ no one pleads for him but a woman, the wife of a heathen governor, the deputy of the emperor of the world” (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., St. Matthew, vol. 2, The Pulpit Commentary [London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1909], 585. The affirmation of Jesus also undergirds the righteous Gentile motif in the Gospel. As Ulrich Luz states, “Against the dark background of the increasingly obvious Jewish guilt the message of the Gentile woman appears as a ‘bright foil’ (Matthew 21–28: A Commentary, Herm, ed. Helmut Koester [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2005], 498).”

The reference to a “dream” (or perhaps more technically a nightmare) is consistent with Matthew’s interest in dreams which is particularly prevalent in the birth and infancy narratives (cf. 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). So dreams bookend Jesus’ life. The implication that this was a revelatory dream emphasizes the spiritual context of the scene even as it is being played out on a political or civic stage.

From a narratival perspective, v. 19 serves as an interruption to the trial narrative. But it is an important one theologically. At the same time it affirms the innocence of Jesus, the travesty of justice that is about to take place, and the guilt of Pilate as a participant in the murder of Jesus.

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