What Did Pilate’s Wife See in Her Dream?

“While Pilate was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.’” (Matthew 27:19)

Le Rêve de la femme de Pilate ("The dream of Pilate's wife"). Engraving by Alphonse François (1814-1888) after Gustave Doré.
Le Rêve de la femme de Pilate ("The dream of Pilate's wife"). Engraving by Alphonse François (1814-1888) after Gustave Doré. (photo: Register Files)

The Gospel according to St. Matthew contains a small detail not in the other Passion accounts. The wife of Pontius Pilate sends a message to him asking him not to have anything to do with Jesus, because she has had a terrible dream and suffered much because of him. She says that Jesus is innocent (Matthew 27:19).

From that verse, tradition and literature have developed a great story of conversion. Pilate’s wife has been named Procula or Claudia and in the Eastern and Ethiopian Churches she is revered as a saint. The apocryphal but influential Gospel of Nicodemus mentions her dream and Pilate’s reaction to it: he is more concerned in that account than St. Matthew’s Gospel indicates. Annas and Caiphas persuade him that his wife’s dream and distress are signs of Jesus’s sorcery and Pilate proceeds with the trial.

Origen, one of the Greek Fathers of the Church, taught that Procula Claudia became a Christian after the Resurrection because of that dream. The York Mystery Plays include Pilate’s wife and her dream, but offer the opposite interpretation: Satan comes to tempt Pilate wife’s to thwart Jesus’s purpose to redeem and save us through His Cross and Resurrection by preventing her husband from condemning Jesus to death. The York Mystery Plays were performed for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi to tell the story of Salvation History from Creation to the Last Judgment. Each play was organized and performed by a different guild; they were suppressed during Elizabeth I’s reign in 1569, but have been revived in modern productions.


Dorothy L. Sayer’s Radio Play

The English mystery novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers, wrote "The Man Born to Be King", a series of radio plays for the BBC during World War II. The plays, broadcast monthly, told the story of Jesus from His Nativity to His Resurrection. At the time, Sayers’ use of colloquial English was controversial to those accustomed to the style of the King James Bible.

Pilate’s wife Claudia has a minor recurring role in several of the plays. First she makes contact with a woman whose daughter was healed by Jesus; then she witnesses Jesus’s proclamation that “before Abraham was, I AM” (in “The Feast of Tabernacles”); she and Pilate see His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (in “Royal Progress”). Pilate tells her that he will have to condemn Jesus to death. He must cooperate with the Jewish authorities in order to keep the peace and to stay in the good graces of Caesar—and she agrees, because her husband “must not offend Caesar!” (in “The King’s Supper”). After receiving her warning about the dream in “The Princes of this World”, Pilate changes his mind about immediate judgment against Jesus and investigates the charges against Him—but of course, condemns Him to death eventually.

While Jesus is hanging on the cross, at about the ninth hour, Sayers includes a scene in which Pilate asks Claudia to describe the dream that troubled her so. She tells him that she was on a ship and that she heard a cry; the skies became dark and the Aegean rough. The captain of the ship tells her that “Great Pan is dead.” She asks the captain, “How can God die?” and he replies, “Don’t you remember? They crucified him. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Then Claudia heard a chorus of voices repeating the words of the Apostles Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate” and “crucified, dead, and buried” with her husband’s name repeated in different languages. It seems like a bad omen to both of them, that Pilate’s name is so connected with this one judgment, remembered through the ages (in “King of Sorrows”). 

In the last play, “The King Comes To His Own”, Claudia hears that Jesus has risen from the dead. She feels a little dizzy; she and her husband are glad to be leaving Jerusalem. Since Claudia’s first reaction to the news of the Resurrection is to call upon the Roman god Apollo, her path to becoming a Christian is not clear. 


Gertrude von le Fort’s Short Story

Like Dorothy L. Sayers in "The Man Born to Be King", Gertrude von le Fort, author of "The Song at the Scaffold", depicts Claudia's dream in "The Wife of Pilate" to be her hearing the words from the Creed: "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried . . ."; "Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et supultus es . . .".

But where Sayer's wife of Pilate hears different languages and voices; von le Fort's version of the dream has Claudia traveling through time from the catacombs, to a Roman basilica church, to Gothic cathedrals ("the massive halls began to stand upright, as though they hovered weightlessly in the sky, freed from all the laws of stone") in which the choirs sang the words, and then to even more unrecognizable--to her--buildings with "strange draperies". She hears Renaissance polyphony with the words woven in different strands of sound. Her vision is of the Church through the ages proclaiming the Nicene Creed at Mass.

The short story or novella takes the form of a letter from Claudia's freed Greek servant, recounting the effects of Pilate's condemnation of Jesus on Good Friday on Claudia and on her relationship with her husband. Claudia seeks out the “Nazarenes”, followers of the Risen Christ, in Rome, and hears them proclaim the Creed during their worship. She attends many of their meetings but is hesitant to be baptized because of her husband’s action. Claudia does not find mercy and forgiveness from the Christian community and stops attending. But Nero’s persecution of Christians after the fire in Rome leads her to seek them out again and she receives a baptism of blood in the Coliseum. I won't spoil the end, but it is wondrous, as those words continue to echo: "Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et supultus es . . ."


Holy Week, Easter, and the Creed

Instead of reciting the Nicene Creed, we renew our baptismal promises at Easter and those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil make their vows. If baptized candidates join the Church at the Easter Vigil they make a profession of faith ("I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.") before being confirmed and receiving Holy Communion. Throughout the Triduum, however, as we participate in the three greatest days and nights of the Church’s liturgical year, we are professing our belief in the Creed, joining that chorus of voices Sayers’ and von Le Fort’s Claudia heard in a dream on Good Friday in Jerusalem. It is not a dream for us because He is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6)