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Pontius Pilate should have listened to his wife

Pilate’s wife appears in one verse of St Matthew’s Gospel proclaiming Jesus’s innocence

By on Monday, 14 April 2014

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri

The reading of the Passion according to Saint Matthew yesterday featured one of the most mysterious verses in the whole New Testament.

It was this:

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’ (Matthew 27:19).

Pilate’s wife appears, and disappears, in this one verse. Moreover, this verse is found only in the gospel of St Matthew, and in none of the other synoptic gospels. What on earth does it mean? Why is it there? Did Luke and Mark also come across this verse but decide not to include it, not seeing its purpose? What in fact does the verse add to our understanding?

The verse is rather like the tip of an iceberg, in that it suggests some sort of back story, and sure enough, from late antiquity onwards, quite a few imaginative writers have obliged and filled in the gaps for us. Wikipedia has a useful round up of all the Pilate’s wife related literature, and film too.

This idea of every character having a novel in their hinterland is a modern phenomenon, but in the time of the evangelists the novel was unknown, and the idea of character was alien. St Matthew brings Pilate’s wife on stage for one verse only, for a very simple reason, because he needs her for one verse only. She is there to give the reader an important message, namely that Jesus is innocent. She knows this because she has been told it in a dream – the Romans took dreams seriously, as did the Jews, as St Matthew’s infancy narrative makes clear, where St Joseph is informed by dreams on several occasions.

If the dream is authoritative, so too is the messenger. Pilate’s wife is a Roman matron of the upper class, rather like a few of the early Christians. Indeed, some of the first readers of the Gospel of St Matthew may well have seen in her a mirror image of themselves, as we know that quite a few Roman matrons were attracted to Christianity. One could almost say that Pilate’s wife, though not a follower of Jesus herself, is nevertheless a good advertisement for the following of Jesus by other matrons.

There may be other things to take into account when we consider this verse. Pilate, we are told, is sitting in the judgement seat, when he receives his wife’s message. That she should interrupt the sitting of a court is a token of the urgency of her message. But Pilate does not listen, and comes to the wrong judgement, the spectacularly wrong judgement for which he will be famous throughout history. Ironically, his wife, who has no public role to play, and who sends a message, presumably because she cannot intervene in person – his wife, this political non-person, has better judgement that her husband the Roman Procurator. If she had been in charge, things would have been very different. But Roman matrons were barred from taking any part in politics.

Is Saint Matthew hinting that men should listen to their wives, because their wives often know better? The gospel was written after AD 70, some time during the early years of the Flavian era. Saint Matthew would have known of two Roman matrons who gave their husbands advice, the Augusta Livia, who was married to Augustus, and the Augusta Agrippina, married to her own uncle Claudius. But more to the point than these powerful ladies of the past, was the powerful lady who had got her claws into the future emperor Titus. She was Julia Berenice, Queen of Chalcis, born a princess of the Herodian dynasty,who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, and who had ambitions to marry Titus and rule Rome with him. The Romans did not like her, perhaps because she reminded them too much of Cleopatra, and Titus was eventually persuaded to ditch the ambitious eastern Queen.

There is no suggestion in the gospel that Pilate’s wife is anything but as Roman as he is. Berenice was Jewish. But the Acts of the Apostles, in chapters 25 and 26 suggests that Berenice is not hostile to Christianity. Her brother wants to set Paul free, and her brother is supposed to be utterly under her thumb.

I wonder when writing of Pilate’s wife, did Saint Matthew have these other powerful ladies in mind, one of whom was all too contemporary? Did he view Berenice as a possible friend at court for the Christians? Does Pilate’s wife stand for all those powerful Roman women, who lived in the background, but nevertheless, spoke up for Christianity?

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