SUMMARY: A 2,000 year-old copper-alloy ring discovered more than 50 years ago might have belonged to Pontius Pilate, who the Bible states judged Jesus prior to his death. Scholars have different theories about this overlooked finger ring inscribed with Pontius Pilate’s name.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, – Luke 3:1 (ESV)
Inscribed with Pontius Pilate
Can scholars prove ownership of a 2,000 year-old ring, inscribed with Pontius Pilate’s name? Did it likely belong to the famed biblical judge who handed down Jesus’ sentence? Very little evidence exists to document the famous ruler who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ after the council decided he should die for performing many signs (John 11:47-48, 53).
Archaeological dig sites, like the Kishle, in the old part of Jerusalem support the story narrative. However, no definitive evidence had been found. The ring changes all of that.
The Times of Israel reports, 50 years ago a copper-alloy ring was excavated from a dig at a section of Herod’s burial tomb and palace at Herodium, near Bethlehem. At the time of its finding, it went unnoticed. Under the direction of the current dig director Roi Porat, it was cleaned and re-examined. The inscription was that of Pontius Pilate. More specifically, inscribed with ‘of Pilatus.’ This is only the second piece of evidence discovered so far that proves the existence of Pilate, who served as the Roman Governor for 10 years (AD 26-36).
Inscribed with Pontius Pilate’s name: Copper-alloy ring that may have belonged to him. (drawing: J. Rodman; photo: C. Amit, IAA Photographic Department, via Hebrew University. Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy UNC-Chapel Hill)
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.” – Matthew 27:24 (ESV)
As Christians are celebrating advent, and anticipating the day which honors the birth of Jesus Christ, does this evidence contribute to proving the historical accuracy of the biblical record?
While one could surmise various explanations for the ring, the site director offers his thoughts. In a comment to the Times, Porate states that “in practice we have a ring inscribed with the name Pilate and the personal connection just cries out.”
The historical connection is solidified by the dating of the strata and other material found that connects to when Pilate was Governor. As noted in the analysis published in the Israel Exploration Journal, that particular layer has been dated to being no later than 71 BC by a large number of artifacts.
Pontius Pilate’s Name: More Evidence
The craftsmanship and style of the ring is of obvious importance. However, one might also have the thought – Aren’t there other people named Pilate that this ring could have belonged to? How do scholars know it belonged to the infamous governor Pontius Pilate who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus?
It is in fact not a common name. The discovery of the “Pilate Stone” in the 1960’s, inscribed with:
To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum
…prefect of Judea
…has dedicated [this]
… recognizes a man named Pontius Pilate and that he was Governor. It has been deemed authentic due to the location in which it was found and the date attributed to it.
Before the discovery of this stone, critics had questioned if a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate ever existed.
Pilate stone discovered in the coastal town of Caesarea, which was the capital of the Iudaea province during the time Pontius Pilate was Roman governor. (public domain, via wikipedia)
The Times also notes another reference that suggests the family name of ‘Pontius’ is common but the name ‘Pilate’ is exceedingly rare. So that in all likelihood, this is the Pontius Pilate who delivered the judgment upon Jesus.
Alternate theories abound due to the fact that the IEJ authors suggest a Governor would not wear such a simple copper-alloy ring. That he would have worn something more extravagant and fitting for his office. And that it likely belonged to someone of lesser stature, such as a family member, soldier or a freed slave.
The scholars themselves are not in agreement, as director Porat offers that it is conceivable to believe he may have had an ‘everyday ring’ and a gold one for official duties and ceremonies. Either way, and as with most questions about history, there is not a way to prove either opinion fully. This willingness to examine theories from all sides, allowing critical thinking and a chance for the evidence (like that of Pontius Pilate’s name), to ‘speak’ will continue to advance study.
This story once again highlights the reality that the world’s museums and antiquities storehouses are filled with thousands of boxes of hidden treasure – artifacts that haven’t seen the light of day since they were unearthed decades or even centuries ago. Most of these items have never been adequately studied, or need reinterpretation, and the backlog is only growing. A major effort is needed to refocus efforts on addressing this issue; a task that could take generations to complete.
Many doubted the existence of Pilate until the large stone inscription was found. His ring was lying in storage for 50 years before being cleaned, interpreted and recognized for what it is. What other significant finds have already been excavated, but lie unknown in some dark corner? And how many of these might link to the biblical account? Keep Thinking!
TOP PHOTO: Christ before Pilate (Credit: Unknown Artist, 6th century mosaic, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – Ravenna, Province of Ravenna. Emilia-Romagna Region, ITALY)