n inscription on a ring that was found nearly 50 years ago at an excavation near Herodium has been deciphered and could have possibly belonged to Pontius Pilate..
(photo credit: J. RODMAN/HEBREW UNIVERSITY)
An inscription on a copper-alloy stamping ring found 50 years ago has been deciphered, and is likely to have belonged to Pontius Pilate.
The Roman prefect, who was infamously credited with sentencing Jesus to die by crucifixion, ruled the province of Judea from 26 CE to 36 CE. The Greek inscription, which was published in the latest edition of the Israel Exploration Journal, includes the word “Of Pilate” [πιλατο].
Dating from the first century BCE to the mid-first century CE, the ring also depicts a krater, a type of jar that originated in classical Greece used for watering down wine. The letters of Pilate’s name flank the krater in the center of the ring. The article also discusses the typology of ancient representations of kraters in Second Temple Jewish art.
The ring was found at an excavation in Herodium near Bethlehem.
Herodium, also known as Herodion, was excavated by Prof. Gideon Prester of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1968 to 1969, during which the ring was found at the desert palace. Dr. Roi Porat of the Hebrew University headed the exploration of the site’s findings, and led the team that worked to clean and examine the ring.
Pilate’s name was not considered to be common during this time, and the seal is typical of the status of cavalry in Roman society, which is why the authors of the publication believe it belonged to the prefect. Though the ring is simple, it was likely used for daily functions, such as stamping documents by officials or court staff who would have signed documents in Pilate’s name.
Pilate was the fifth Roman prefect stationed in Judea. Archaeologists assume he used Herodium – originally built in the first century BCE by King Herod the Great – as an administrative center. The fortress palace and adjoining town were conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE during the Jewish revolt.
The ring’s study was led and produced by Malka Hershkovitz and Prof. Shua Amorai-Stark, and was co-authored by Gideon Foerster, Yakov Kalman, Rachel Chachy and Porat.
The only other archaeological evidence confirming Pilate’s existence is a Latin inscription found on a limestone block that is Pilate’s tribute to Tiberius. It was found in 1961 as a reused block within a staircase at the Roman theater in Caesarea, and is now housed at the Israel Museum. The inscription on the stone also references Pilate as the prefect of Judea. Those excavations were also carried out by Prester.
Pilate’s role in the narrative of Jesus is instrumental in that he is often posited as the secular opposite, and absolves himself of wrongdoing in the execution. Other material evidence, including epigraphic and numismatic evidence of Pilate, have pointed scholars to conclude that Pilate was a promoter of Roman religion in the form of the imperial cult. While he did appear to be particularly threatening toward Judaism specifically, scholars have argued Pilate focused on an agenda to advance the Roman imperial cult, particularly in Judea.
According to the ancient historian Josephus and canonical gospel accounts, Pilate lobbied for Jesus to be spared his eventual fate of execution, but eventually gave in to public demands for his death. He had famously sought to avoid personal accountability for Jesus’s death, as is seen in the Gospel of Matthew with the symbolic “washing of his hands.”
His actions are described in Matthew 27 as such: “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’”
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