Few may be aware that the Greek Orthodox Church glorified the wife of Pontius Pilate Claudia Proscura as a saint. She is commemorated on 9 November, new style.
If any of our faithful ever travelled on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia, they would be surprised to find in its Orthodox churches the icon of the martyr Pontius Pilate, depicted with his wife Claudia. The veneration of these two individuals is an ancient tradition in these churches. They are the only example in the history of the Church of saints spouses commemorated on the same day. According to the tradition of the Ethiopian Church, Pontius Pilate and his wife were put to death for refusing to worship the statue of the Roman Emperor after they had both converted to Christianity.
The fate of Pontius Pilate after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is disputed among historians. According to some, Pilate killed himself while in exile to Gallia. Others suggest that he was executed during the reign of Emperor Nero. According to legend, the bad omens accompanying the martyrdom of Christ continued to follow Pilate and his wife Claudia long after the death of the Saviour and caused them great grief until Pontius finally converted to Christianity under the influence of his spouse. According to popular apocryphal writings, complicity in the killing of Christ gave Pontius Pilate a guilty conscience that left him sleepless for many years and sent him looking for a way to wash away his iniquity.
The legends of Russian folklore underline the gravity of Pilate’s crime that nothing in the world could relieve. Finding no peace in life or death, Pilate remained a lifetime stranger and vagrant. Мichail Bulgakov integrated these legends into the storyline of his novel “Master and Margarita”.
Whatever was the case, there is good reason to believe that Pontius Pilate eventually became a Christian. Second-century Christian writer Tertullian suggested in one of his writings that soon after the crucifixion of Christ Pilate converted to Christianity and even tried to convince Emperor Tiberius to follow suit. Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons writes about an icon of the Lord painted by Pontius Pilate. Saint Augustine Aurelius talks of him as a saint in one of his sermons. All three authors stood at the foundations of the written tradition of the ancient Christian Church.
As for Pilate’s wife Claudia, two Orthodox Churches – Coptic and Greek – have venerated her as a saint martyr since early times. In different writings, she goes by the name Claudia and Procula, so both are not used concurrently. We find references to her conversion in the writings Athanasius the Great, Augustine Aurelius, Johann Malala, and several other authoritative Christian authors.
The name Claudia is also mentioned in the second epistle to Timothy (4:21), which some scholars of the bible attribute to the wife of Pontius Pilate. In ancient Rome, death sentences handed out to royals were often commuted to banishment. Claudia came from the Flavius family, related to emperors Wespacian and Dominican. That she could have her death penalty commuted seems plausible. It is therefore quite possible that she may have joined the Synaxis of Christ’s apostles and their disciples.
In the middle ages, multiple legends were in circulation in the vision of Pilate’s wife. Many paintings make references to it.
According to one legend, while in Jerusalem, Claudia met the family of the first priest of the synagogue Yair, and enjoyed the company of his wife Salome and their twelve-year-old daughter Semida. Hearing about Semida’s death, Claudia came to her funeral. There, she witnessed the miracle of her resurrection and met Christ for the first time.
The Gospel says nothing about this incident. It only tells us that Pilate’s wife sent a servant to her husband to relay to him this message: “Do not 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). The bible gives us no details about the dream or the nature of the suffering. The apocryphal writings describe only the reaction of the first priests to this message: “See, have not we told you before that He is a seducer? He plunged your wife into sleep!”
The letter of Claudia Procula to Fulvia is an example of early Christian apocryphal writings. There is absolutely no proof of authenticity. Nor is there a consensus among historians on its dating, Some date it to the early years of Emperor Nero.
The full text of Claudia’s letter can easily be found on the internet. Incidentally, the letter makes interesting reading in and off itself, as it mentions indirectly the authentic details of the events pertaining to the life and death of Jesus.
It presents the following description of Claudia’s dream.
The time came to retire; but when I laid my head on the pillow to find sleep, a mysterious force suddenly took possession of my mind. I saw Jesus, appearing as she had described their God. His face shone in majesty like the sun. He flew on cherub wings and a fiery flame executed His orders, and He stopped on a cloud. It appeared that He was ready to judge the people assembled before Him. With one gesture He separated the righteous from the wicked. The first, the righteous, were raised by Him to the great eternity of divine salvation, but the second the wicked were thrown in a fiery sea. He showed them His wounds with which His body was covered, and said with a terrible voice: Give me back my blood which I spilt for you! Then those unhappy men asked the rocks and the mountains of the earth to swallow and cover them. In vain had they formerly felt secure from suffering, and in vain they protected themselves with the eternal and insurmountable illusion. They perished. What a dream, or better, what a revelation!
The full text of Claudia’s letter can easily be found on the internet. Incidentally, the letter makes interesting reading, as it refers, if indirectly, to several authentic details about the events pertaining to the life and death of Jesus.
The surviving Apocrypha give us no further details about the lives of Pontius Pilate and his wife after Christ’s resurrection. There is no way for us to confirm the authenticity of the apocryphal accounts.
Our inquisitive minds are eager to know about the fates of the biblical characters. What happened to the wealthy youth who left Christ in sadness, the Canaan woman and her daughter, the demon-possessed man from the land of Gerasenes? Who were the saints who resurrected after Christ’s death, and were seen by many? Where did they go, and what happened to them after? Whether or not we will know these details any time in future, we should concentrate on the most important message of the Scripture and the Church Tradition. Together, they emphasise that we should first seek to know how to find salvation for our souls. The rest can await its turn.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds