The story of Jesus’ life and death could have turned out differently, had Pontius Pilate listened to his wife. Kind and intuitive (and unnamed), she is known for these few words:
“Have nothing to do with that innocent man [Jesus], for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Matthew 27:19
Allow me to paint the story. Perhaps it happened something like this…
As the morning light spills into her room, Pilate’s wife jolts awake, her eyes stretched like saucers. “No! Don’t do it! No!”
Hearing her distress, servants tumble into the room. And there they see a strange sight: their disheveled and shaking mistress scrawling words onto a linen napkin used at dinner the night before.
“Here,” she says, “Take this to Pilate. Make sure he gets it immediately.” And as the door closes, she falls back on her bed, haunted by jumbled images from a dream that caused her great pain.
What did that dream include? We do not know. But just possibly: The man they call Jesus—darkness—crowds following him—blackness—crying children —a child without his mother—a cross—a hand from heaven splitting the sky…
Blocks away, on the judgment seat of Jerusalem, Pilate sits, weighing the fate of one Jesus of Nazareth, a popular rabble rouser with a divinity complex. Playing to the annual Passover tradition of letting the crowd choose one criminal over another to walk free, he has just asked the mob their opinion: “Is it to be Jesus, who is called the Messiah, or Barabbas, that you want me to release?”
As the crowd starts to roar their response, Pilate takes a closer look. More of a mob than a crowd, he thinks. This could be dangerous. Let Jesus live and I’d have another riot on my hands. It’d be one thing if the idiot would talk to me. But he won’t say anything when I ask him who he is.
And then a message is shoved into his hand. “It’s from your wife.” He unfolds it, and reads to himself: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”
Eying the advancing mob, Pilate reads the note again, then stands. “Who do you want me to release?” he asks again. “Jesus or Barabbas?”
The resounding reply: “Barabbas! Give us Barabbas!” And with that, Pilate washes his hands before the crowd, saying, “Fine. I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves.”
All rise as Pilate leaves the hall. When the servants clean up that night, they notice the dirty napkin laying facedown under Pilate’s seat. Shaking their heads at the waste of good linen, they discard it, along with the rest of the trash.
Some of the details above I have projected into the biblical story, for there’s not a lot of detail about Pilate’s wife in the Bible. (Shocking, I know.) There’s no conversation, for example, about how she got her missive to Pilate, or why she might have dreamed such a powerful dream.
Yet she is remembered in the Bible as having the courage to speak up, even though her plea was rejected. She could have cast her dream aside as just a bad nightmare. But she listened, and acted.
Given the history of powerful dreams in the Bible (e.g., God telling Joseph to go ahead and wed Mary, then telling him to leave Bethlehem for Egypt) perhaps her dream was God-inspired, a direct message from the top to stop the crucifixion. Perhaps she had watched Jesus from her window as he helped the blind to see and made the lame walk, and knew him to be a good and decent man.
Either way, she was a woman who did the right thing—so much so that she is remembered as a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. Later non-biblical writings suggest that she might even have been a secret follower of Jesus.
One thing that is clear: she spoke the truth. After Jesus was crucified, Pilate was reportedly banished to the south of France, where he committed suicide.What might we learn from Pilate’s wife?
Stand up for the innocent.
Do not hesitate to act against injustice.
Communicate with our families.
Pay attention to dreams and intuition, and to our inner lives.
Adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement.
Photo: Leonard Freeman photo. Hawaii, near Hawai’i Volcano National Park.