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Pilate Stone

The “Pilate Stone” is an engraved stone, bearing the name of Pontius Pilate, the Perfect of Judaea in 26-36 CE. The stone was found in 1961 in secondary use as a step in the scalae (stairways) of Caesarea’s ancient theatre.

The inscription suggests that the stone was originally placed at the entrance to a temple erected by Pilate, in honor of Emperor Tiberius.

This discovery was significant in the Christian world as it was the first time the name Pilate, the judge of Jesus, was found in an inscription from his time.

The stone is the only epigraphic evidence to this day to mention the judge of Jesus.

The stone is on permanent display at the Israel Museum. Next to it are a few more significant discoveries from Israel that relate to Jesus, namely the  Caiaphas ossuary and the sekelatal remains of the Crucified man Jehohanan.

Pontius Pilate and Christianity

It is very likely that without Christianity Pontius Pilate would probably be known only to a few historians and researchers. Pilate was one of many commissioners in the Roman Empire, appointed to rule Judea in the years 26-36 CE. Little is known about him before and after this period.

The most detailed account on Pontius Pilate is in the writings of the first century CE Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Josephus depicts him as a stiff and cruel governor, lacking any political wisdom. Right after being appointed, Pilate tried to place Roman military symbols, including busts of the Emperor, in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  Jews at that time were following strictly the second commandment which prohibits any figurative art, and all the former Roman governors respected that. Pilate didn’t, and his act resulted in great unrest among the Jewish people. Only after much protest, he agreed to remove the disputed symbols.

Later Pilate decided to confiscate the treasuries of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, to finance a water aqueduct. This move caused more protest, yet this Pilate, without hesitation, sent his soldiers and massacre protesters. No wonder that another contemporary Jewish historian, Philo of Alexandria, sums up the character of Pilate as an arrogant and stubborn.

Yet the New Testament portrays Pilate quite differently. The Gospels present Pilate as a bureaucrat, with a weak character and a hesitant judge, influenced much by the crowds. Pilate judged Jesus and condemned him to death for declaring himself “King of the Jews” (which equaled a declaration of rebellion for the Romans). Although Jesus did not deny that, according to the Gospels Pilate still offered to release him. Yet, “The people” according to the Gospels, preferred the release of a thieve called Barabbas, and execute Jesus. Pilate followed this request, but washed his hands, and stated that he is not to be accused of condemning Jesus to death.

On the other hand, in Josephus’s testimony, it was the “principal men”, not “the people”, who influenced Pilate to condemn Jesus to death (Antiquities 18:64). The “principal men” were probably the priests, which were indeed powerful, and corrupt. It is possible that the priests would recommend a death penalty to someone who appeared as a threat to their monopoly of managing the temple, and its treasuries.

Can archeology contribute to a better understanding of the personality of Pilate? The evidence related directly to Pilate is very limited, but very interesting.

Pontius Pilate Coins

A quadranes minted by Pontius Pilate

A bronze coin minted by Pontius Pilate. Its reverse depicts a Simpulum, a libation ladle used in Roman rituals.

Some of the Governors who ruled Judea in the first century CE issued small bronze coins. One group of such coins was minted in 29-31 CE. That means they were minted by Pilate, although his name does not appear on them.

It seems that unlike the previous governors of Judaea, Pilate deliberately chose to decorate his coins with cultic Roman symbols, such as the Simpulum (a Roman libation ladle), and a Lituus (a Roman staff). These coins were minted in large quantities, and this selection of symbols seems to be a deliberate provocation of Pilate, knowing this would steer Jewish feelings.

The Caesarea Inscription is another demonstration of Pilate’s policy to enhance Roman Pagan cult. It seems that the combined historical and archaeological evidence requires a revision of the trial of Jesus, the credibility of the narrative presented by the Gospels, and the medieval Christian notion that the Jews in general should be blamed for the death of Jesus. Jesus was condemned to death by a Roman governor, in a Roman province, and he was executed in a Roman way (Crucifixion as a death penalty does not exist in Judaism).

The Pilate Ring

pilatus ring

photo and drawings of the “Piltus ring”. Drawing by J. Rodman. Photo by C. Amit, IAA photographic department. Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University and the expedition to Herodium.

Herodium is a fascinating archaeological site, south-east of Bethlehem. About 2,000 King Herod designed it to be a fortified desert palace complex, as well as his burial place.

In 1969 the first excavations were carried out at the site by a team from the Hebrew University. Among the many artifacts that were uncovered was a copper alloy that was part of a ring. Only in 2018 it was cleaned, and it proved to depict a jar, and a Greek legend around it reading “PILATO”  – “of Pilate”.  When published, it was speculated that perhaps this ring was used to sign documents in the name of Pontius Pilate, or maybe even was used by him.

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