Pontius Pilate: His Cruelty, History and Role in the Death of Jesus

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Jesus brought before Pilate

Pontius Pilate was a former-military leader who served as the Roman prefect for Judea for 10 years. Little is known about his life other than that he was born south of Rome, had difficulty dealing the Jewish priestly class and Jewish sects and had a reputation for cruelty. He is best known for his role in the trials of Jesus and is significant because he is person from the Jesus story who is well documented historically.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: When you hear the name “Pontius Pilate” you probably think of Jesus. After all, were it not for Jesus the vast majority of people would never have heard of him. Historians remember Pilate as a rash and headstrong ruler who unnecessarily offended the religious sensibilities of Jews in Roman Judea, plundered the Temple treasury, and — most famously — sentenced Jesus of Nazareth to die. He was, in other words, an ineffective leader whose actions contributed to political unrest in the region and who is best known for executing a Galilean teacher for treason. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, October 27, 2019]

But who was the man who killed Jesus? Was he a reluctant participant in a miscarriage of justice or a hardened military man? Did the trial of Jesus leave any impression on Pilate or, as some sources tell us, did he eventually convert to Christianity? One thing is for sure: Without Jesus almost no one would know Pilate’s name and without Pilate there would be no Christianity. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 5, 2020]

Historians and scholars are generally much less kind to Pilate than the Gospels. According to Philo of Alexandria he was a man of “inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition” and is on record for killing suspects without trial. He ordered his troops to carry imperial images of Caesa in The Temple and appropriated sacred Temple funds to build an aqueduct. He once surrounded a mob of several thousand people in a stadium and threatened to chop of their heads. On another occasion, he ordered his men to infiltrate a demonstration and beat up everyone they could their hands on. His career ended when he was recalled to Rome, presumably for excessive cruelty, after her ordered his cavalry to break up a gathering around a prophet in Samaria.

Websites and Resources: Jesus and the Historical Jesus PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ pbs.org ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks Biblical History: Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

Pilate as the Governor of Judea

Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect (governor) of Judea, a province of the Roman Empire, from roughly A.D. 26 to 37. In 1961, archaeologists unearthed a limestone block with an inscription referring to “Pontius Pilate” as the “prefect of Judea” at Caesarea Maritima, a Roman port on the coast of the Mediterranean in Israel. The discovery provided firm first-century evidence of his existence and job. This is unlike many biblical figures, which lack tangible proof of their existence; in addition to this "Pilate stone," we know about him from Jewish historians and philosophers, bronze coins, a ring that may have belonged to him, and the four gospels. Despite this there a lot of disagreement about the kind of man and administrator that he was. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 5, 2020]

Pilate's interogation of Jesus

According to the BBC: “Pilate had 6,000 crack troops with him and 30,000 more on call in nearby Syria. He was effectively a dictator; so long as he kept Rome happy, he had absolute power, including power of life and death. The case against Pilate is that he found Jesus not guilty, but had him executed in order to keep the peace. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“We don't know what Pilate was like. The Bible story paints him as a weak but innocent man who didn't want to execute a man he believed innocent, but who gave in to political pressure. Some historians disagree. Philo, writing at the time, said that Pilate was calculating, cruel and brutal. He probably had a typical Roman's disdain for any other culture, thinking the Jews not nearly as civilised as the Romans. Pilate was well known for having executed prisoners even without trial, so it would not be out of character for him to be responsible for killing Jesus.” |::|

David L. Silverman of Reed College wrote: Quite apart from Pontius Pilate's complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus, there is ample evidence to show that he took a high-handed line to the government of his province. Christian writers noted that he had suppressed a riot by massacring a group of Galileans, and accused him of worse (Luke 13:1 "At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices"). For the Jews Pilate's worst offense was belittling the taboo against graven images by introducing military standards into the city, and depositing golden shields inscribed with the name of Tiberius, imperial cult objects in other words, in the palace of Herod. As Philo tells it, Pilate worried about the Jewish protest over the shields, because he feared that if they actually sent an embassy they would expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without a trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty (Philo Emb. 302). Indeed, an embassy to Tiberius eventually succeeded in procuring the ouster of Pilate, which shows continuing concern on the part of the imperial administration for keeping the Jews happy. [Source: David L. Silverman, 1996, Internet Archive, Reed College]

Pilate’s Cruel, Brutal Reign Over Judea

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Pilate is “best known for his religious insensitivity and heavy-handed approach to leadership. A former soldier, Pilate took an aggressive stance towards those under his rule. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, Pilate flouted the Jewish prohibition against idolatry by having Roman soldiers bring imperial standards that included the emperor’s image into Jerusalem (albeit at night). The incident provoked outrage and a crowd journeyed to Pilate’s residence at Caesarea to implore him to remove the standards. They remained there, prostrate, for five days. After five days of protest, Pilate gathered the crowd in the market-place, seemingly to render a decision on the matter. Instead of speaking, he had soldiers encircle the protesters and draw their swords. He told the Jews gathered there that unless they relented he would have them cut in pieces. In response, the protesters purportedly bared their necks as a sign that they were prepared to die. At this point, Pilate had to back down, and removed the standards from the city. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, October 27, 2019]

Helen Bond, professor of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh and author of Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation, told The Daily Beast: “Pilate does seem to have realized that he'd totally underestimated public opinion and he does back down. Some have seen this as a sign of weakness, but to me it suggests a shrewd operator who wasn't ready to spill blood unnecessarily.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 5, 2020]

This wasn’t the only occasion on which Pilate insulted Jewish sensibilities. At one point the Emperor Tiberius had to berate Pilate for putting gold-coated shields on display in Herod’s palace. The first-century philosopher Philo describes him as vindictive, having a temper, and inflexible. He was removed from his position after 10 years as governor after a massacre at Mount Gerizim. According to Josephus, Jewish and Samaritan delegates complained to Vitellius, the governor of Syria (the neighboring Roman province), who sent Pilate to Rome to explain his actions.

Message of Pilate's wife

The Jewish philosopher Philo, who calls Pilate “inflexible, stubborn, and cruel,” offers another story that also portrays Pilate as an over-zealous ruler. In his Embassy to Caligula he writes that Pilate deliberately tried to “annoy” the Jewish people by setting up gilded shields in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. When the authorities asked him to remove them, he refused and the people had to write to the Emperor Tiberius asking for his help. Philo adds that Pilate was afraid that the people would reveal to Tiberius “his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behaviour, his frequent execution of untried prisoners, and his endless savagery.” If true, it would seem that Pilate treated Jesus better than others. Philo is biased, but it’s obvious that Pilate was no diplomat either. On another occasion, Josephus says, Pilate used funds from the Temple treasury to pay for the construction of an aqueduct. Compared to these stories, the biblical descriptions of Jesus’s trial before Pilate make him appear reasonable and thoughtful.

According to Josephus, Pilate’s governorship ended after the slaughter of a group of Samaritans near Mount Gerizim. Pilate was then recalled to Rome for a hearing. We do not know what happened but one thing is certain: Pilate did not return to Judea. One historically questionable tradition, relayed in the writings of the fourth century Christian historian Eusebius, says that Pilate committed suicide.

As negative as these sources are about Pilate, said Bond, it’s important to remember that when he arrived in Judea it had only been under Roman control for two decades, “his role was very much subjugation and 'educating' the local population in the ways of Rome… he must have been reasonably skilled in negotiation and diplomacy, otherwise it's hard to see how he could have lasted for a decade.”

Pilate and Judea

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “Pilate was not a happy choice as Prefect of Judea. He had a reputation as a man who had sticky fingers. In a period where graft and corruption was the prerogative of a provincial official, he still had a high profile as somebody who was corrupt. He had a reputation for executing untried prisoners, for venality and theft.... He's not somebody you'd want to get on the wrong side of. Pilate occasioned riots in Jerusalem. He would get nervous when there were crowds of Jews. And of course he was legally responsible to be up in Jerusalem when it was the most crowded of all. He would leave this very nice, plush, seaside town in Caesarea, which was, you know, a nice pagan city. Plenty of pagan altars. All the stuff he wanted. And had to go up to Jerusalem where all these Jews were congregating and stay there for crowd control until the holiday was over. He was in a bad mood already by the time he got to town. And Passover would fray anybody's nerves. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“[And] remember in this period, government depends on spies. It's particularly [important] if you're an occupying power. You need to have spies to know what's going on. People reporting came back, "Lookit, there's somebody who's really getting people excited and agitated talking about a Kingdom of God." Pilate doesn't care about theological niceties. Pilate doesn't even care about legal niceties. This is why ... ultimately, he's fired for his corruption and incompetence. Hearing that somebody is a trouble maker would be enough. Boom. He's dead. I think that's probably what happened with Jesus....

Pilate Orders Jesus’s Death Without a Trial

Reza Aslan wrote in the Washington Post: “The Gospels portray Pontius Pilate as an honest but weak-willed governor who was strong-armed by the Jewish authorities into sending a man he knew was innocent to the cross. The Pilate of history, however, was renowned for sending his troops onto the streets of Jerusalem to slaughter Jews whenever they disagreed with even the slightest of his decisions. In his 10 years as governor of Jerusalem, [Source: Reza Aslan, Washington Post, September 26, 2013 /+]

“Pilate eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands to the cross, and the Jews lodged a complaint against him with the Roman emperor. Jews generally did not receive Roman trials, let alone Jews accused of rebellion. So the notion that Pilate would spend a moment of his time pondering the fate of yet another Jewish rabble-rouser, let alone grant him a personal audience, beggars the imagination. /+\

“It is, of course, conceivable that Jesus would have received an audience with the Roman governor if the magnitude of His crime warranted special attention. But any “trial” Jesus got would have been brief and perfunctory, its sole purpose to officially record the charges for which He was being executed.” /+\

Was Jesus guilty of his own death? According to the BBC: “Not in any sense of guilt that most people would understand. A soldier who goes on a mission that is certain to lead to death is a brave man, not a guilty one. Jesus was faithful to his vocation, even though it led to his death; but he was not guilty in the same sense that Caiaphas and Pilate are guilty. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

Pilate Declares Jesus Guilty of Treason

Jesus's second interview with Pilate

According to the BBC: “Instead of leading with the conviction for blasphemy, Caiaphas claimed that Jesus was guilty of sedition. Jesus, Caiaphas said, thought himself, or his followers thought, or people said that he was the King of the Jews. This was a capital crime against Rome and Pilate had to deal with it whether he wanted to or not. The rumour raced round Jerusalem: Jesus of Nazareth was on trial for his life. Crowds began to gather, some of them probably a mob organised by the Temple authorities; just what a Roman governor hoping for a peaceful Passover did not want. |::|

“Pilate asked Jesus if he was calling himself King of the Jews. Jesus made little or no reply. Pilate read the reports that he had from his officials and saw that it was quite clear that Jesus wasn't leading a military revolution. There was simply no evidence against Jesus. |::|

“Pilate said, 'this man is innocent'. The crowd was angered by the verdict and began to shout for Jesus to be crucified. Pilate faced a dilemma: If he released Jesus there might be serious riots. But the alternative was to execute an innocent man. Pilate wanted a way out (he didn't need one - it was well within his authority to execute people on flimsy evidence) and he tried a masterstroke of lateral thinking. There was a Passover amnesty, which allowed the Roman governor to release a prisoner on the festival. Pilate offered the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, a convicted murderer. |::|

“The crowd shouted for Barabbas to be released. There was no way out for Pilate, but he made a last attempt at saving his own reputation. Pilate declared that Jesus was innocent and condemned him to death by crucifixion. Then he symbolically washed his hands in front of the crowd, telling them he was innocent of Jesus' blood. |::|

Pilate's Motives?

Why did Pilate execute Jesus when he believed him to be innocent? “According to the BBC: “Pilate was desperate to keep the peace. His career in the Roman Empire depended on his running the province smoothly and efficiently. He had 6,000 soldiers on hand to keep the peace in a city bulging with 2.5 million Jews. The religious authorities, whose cooperation he needed for a quiet life, wanted him to execute Jesus and there was an angry mob baying for Jesus' blood. To release Jesus would have been likely to cause a riot; Pilate could have lost control of the city, and possibly the province.Pilate sacrificed Jesus to preserve Roman rule and his own career. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“No matter how little he thought of the people of Judea, Pilate could not get out of attending the major festival of Passover.The message of Passover was one that was certain to unsettle anyone who was trying to keep the Jewish people under their thumb, for it celebrated the time when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the Holy Land, shaking off foreign oppression. |::|

“So it's no accident that nearly all of the riots that we hear about in the first century took place at Passover. Pilate would have been anxious about any possibility of trouble breaking out, particularly trouble near the Temple, the heart of the Jewish community. And because trouble in that sort of situation is contagious, Pilate knew that he would have to be ruthless in stamping out any sort of disorder. |::|

“The Romans wouldn't have been able to rule without an extensive network of spies, so it's certain that Pilate knew all about Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, his preaching and the havoc he'd caused in the Temple. But Pilate was probably unprepared for the problem that Caiaphas presented him with when he brought Jesus before him. |::|

“Pilate's fate: Pilate was recalled to Rome to be tried for his brutal treatment of Jews, but the Emperor Tiberius died, and Pilate was never brought to trial. He is thought to have committed suicide in 37 AD - not long after the crucifixion. There is a Christian tradition that Pilate and his wife eventually converted to Christianity. |::|

Different Portrayals of Pilate

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The Gospels portray Pilate in a relatively sympathetic way. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate is reluctant to accept responsibility for the death of Jesus. He literally washes his hands of the blame. In John, Pilate is more philosophical and discusses the nature of truth with Jesus at the trial. In Luke, Pilate appears weak but outright declares Jesus to be innocent while in Mark, Pilate plays a more domineering forceful role. Bond argues that each of these different portraits of Pilate reflects the historical and political circumstances of their authors. We aren’t learning about the character of the historical Pilate so much as we are the agenda of the authors of the four Gospels. That said, Pilate’s choice to execute Jesus doesn’t demand much explanation. As Bond told me, “Any prophetic figure who talked of an alternative Kingdom and brought a following to the holy city at Passover was likely to be on Pilate's watch list.” If anything, the fact that Pilate executed only Jesus and made no efforts to round up and condemn his followers shows a measure of restraint. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 5, 2020]

Non-Christian records for Pilate end with his removal by Vitellius. We know nothing about the rest of his career or death. There is a brief reference to him in the writings of Celsus, a second-century critic of Christianity, in which we are told that “the one who killed Jesus” (i.e. Pilate) was not punished by God for killing Jesus. But by the fourth century two diametrically opposed stories about his fate were circulating.

Crowning with Thorns by Titian

In the first Pilate was punished for killing Jesus either by being exiled/executed by the emperor or by taking his own life. In one variant on this tradition, in the Mors Pilati, Pilate was sentenced to die by impalement. Wanting to avoid this humiliating death he took a knife that was smuggled to him by a friend and “opened his guts with a single cut.” Roman soldiers took his body, placed it in a weighted sack, and threw it into the Tiber. Unfortunately for them demons that surrounded him stirred up storms and hail in the river with the result that the body had to be removed. They subsequently tried throwing his body into the Rhône but when the same tempest-like storms appeared they were forced to bury him deep in a pit in mountains near Lausanne, Switzerland. According to some ancient sources, “certain diabolic machinations” still “bubble up” there. In other stories Pilate moved even further afield; one 16th-century legend states that Pilate was sent into exile in Andalusia and there’s even an improbable tradition that claims that he originally came from Scotland.

In an article drawing together most of the legendary material, Professor Tibor Grüll of the University of Pécs argues that traditions about Pilate’s fate circulated in different geographical regions. The Western tradition demonizes Pilate as the ‘Devil’s man’ while the Eastern ones turn him into a martyr and saint. What these reflect, he suggests, are different attitudes towards Pilate’s role in the crucifixion. In the texts that describe Pilate as a saint “the Jews” are painted as those ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus. Bond agrees: “The idea that Pilate converted is a testament to how well the gospel writers manage to shift responsibility for Jesus' death away from Rome and onto Jews.” She also observes that all of these traditions about the death of Pilate reflect the Christian assumption that anyone who encountered Jesus would have been profoundly affected by the experience. In all probability, however, Pilate’s interactions with Jesus would have been brief and — to Pilate — unmemorable. All the same it was this routine day at the office that secured his place in history.

Was a Christian-Convert Pilate Rescued by an Angel

Candida Moss wrote: The alternative narrative of Pilate’s fate goes in a completely different direction and claims that he converted to Christianity and, ultimately, became a martyr. By the end of the second century the North African writer Tertullian claimed that when Pilate arrived in Rome he told Tiberius the miracles that accompanied the death of Jesus because he was “already a Christian in his conscience.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 5, 2020]

A fifth-century Syriac version of the Acts of Pilate recounts how when Pilate was beheaded his head was “received by an angel.” Another version, the Martyrium Pilati, which was popular among Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic Christians, claims that Pilate was crucified twice — once by the Jews and once by Tiberius. His body and those of his wife and children were then buried near the sepulcher of Jesus in Jerusalem. In Coptic and Ethiopic Christianity, Pilate and his wife were canonized as saints. Coptic Christians named their children Pilate after him and it remained a popular boys name all the way into the 18th century.

A fragmentary apocryphal story known as the Gospel of Peter has Pilate declare that he is “pure from the blood of the Son of God.” Christians worked to exculpate Pilate because blaming the Romans was poor advertising for the Christian movement. As a consequence, of course, they ended up blaming Jewish leaders and the Jews in general for the crucifixion, despite the fact that Jewish leaders did not have the authority to condemn anyone to death. The misrepresentation has contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism from late antiquity until the present day. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 1, 2018]

In some later traditions Pilate’s wife (who attempted to prevent Pilate from executing Jesus), and even Pilate himself, is commemorated as a saint. In others Pilate is supposed to have committed suicide out of remorse for having been involved in the death of Jesus. Most astonishing of all, the second-century theologian and bishop Irenaeus of Lyon stated that heretical Christians claimed to possess a portrait of Jesus painted by none other than Pilate himself. As ridiculous as it sounds, the rumor was not easy to put to rest: in the medieval period a forged letter, purporting to be by Pilate, circulated claiming to contain an eyewitness portrait of the face of Jesus.

Evidence Pilate Wasn't Such a Bad Guy After All?

Archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem revealed in 2019 suggest that perhaps Pilate was not as bad as he was made out to be.Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: As reported by LiveScience, archaeologists working in Jerusalem have excavated an important nearly 2000-foot-long street that connected the Temple Mount to the pool of Siloam, an ancient religious site where people would bathe and collect fresh water. The existence of the street was well known to archaeologists ever since its discovery by British archaeologists in 1894, but what has emerged from the more recent excavations was that it was Pilate who was responsible for its construction.[Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, October 27, 2019]

The archaeologists from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority who excavated the street discovered a hundred coins dating to between 17 and 30/31 A.D. trapped in the paving stones. This leads them to conclude that most if not all of the construction was performed while Pilate was governor of the region as construction must have been finished by 30/31 A.D., during Pilate’s tenure as governor.

Donald T. Ariel, a coin expert who works with the Israel Antiquities Authority, said “Dating using coins is very exact… As some coins have the year in which they were minted on them… statistically, coins minted some 10 years later are the most common coins in [excavations of sites in] Jerusalem, so not having them beneath the street means the street was built before their appearance, in other words only in the time of Pilate.”

The discovery that Pilate was responsible for building the street from the pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount suggests that there was another side to the intemperate governor. One in which Pilate funded public works for the benefit of both the local people and their religion. That Pilate would take such steps is especially interesting given that Joan Taylor has suggested that Pilate had been trying to promote the imperial cult in the region. Whether the purpose of the road was to serve religious tourists, benefit locals, or facilitate healing practices, it seems that Pilate’s building project was altruistic in nature: it was something he did either to placate or to please Jewish authorities and locals. All of which suggests that perhaps Pilate was more sensitive and complicated than we have thought.

Pilate Inscription

The Pontius Pilate Inscription, an inscription found in Caesarea Maritima in 1961, confirmed that Pilate was the Roman prefect in Judea at the time of the crucifixion of Christ.The inscription is written in Latin on a slab of limestone 82 centimeters high and 65 centimeters wide. The four lines of writing are a Building Dedication withPontius Pilate as the Dedicator (praefect of Judea). It has been dated to approximately A.D. 26–37 and was discovered in Caesarea, Israel in 1961 by Antonio Frova and now is in the Israel Museum [Source: translation by K. C. Hanson & Douglas E. Oakman]

Pilate inscription

The inscription reads: [DIS AUGUSTI]S TIBERIEUM [. . . . PO]NTIUS PILATUS [. . .PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E [. .FECIT D]E[DICAVIT] To the honorable gods (this) Tiberium Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, had dedicated

According to PBS: This inscription found at “Caesarea Maritima, which refers to Pontius Pilate, is one of the most important discoveries made in the archeological work of the last two decades. Precisely because it's the first piece of hard evidence of the existence of Pontius Pilate. Now, for Pilate, of course, we have a number of literary references, both in the Jewish historian, Josephus,and also among the Christian gospels. But this is the first piece of direct evidence from an archaeological source which actually gives us his name and tells us he was there as Governor. The city of Caesarea Maratima was actually the Governor's residence. This was the capitol city, from the perspective of the Roman political administration. So, it would have been where Pontius Pilate would have lived, where he would have had his court. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998 \=/]

Paula Fredriksen of Boston University told PBS: “Pontius Pilate, is one of these first round of governors posted to the province of Judea, once it was given over to Roman military governorship. And the stone that we now have from Caesarea ... is very important. It gives us three pieces of information. First, it tells us that Pontius Pilate was the Governor. Secondly, it calls him a Prefect. That's what we see in line three of the text. Thirdly, and in some ways most interestingly, the first line tells us that Pilate had built a Tibereum. What that means is, a temple for the Emperor Tiberius, as part of the Imperial Cult. Thus, here we have, at Caesarea Maritima, a Roman Governor building a temple in honor of the Roman Emperor. [Source: “Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 \=/]

Pilate’s Ring?

In the late 1960s, while excavating at Herodium, near Bethlehem in the West Bank, archaeologist Gideon Forster discovered a bronze ring. It was one of thousands of finds and its discovery bring much attention at the time. But in 2018, after it was cleaned up and deciphered, scientists announced that it belonged to Pilate. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 1, 2018]

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The ring was discovered in 1968-69, shortly after the conclusion of the Six Day War. From there, the items discovered at the site were passed to the current team of archaeologists who work on the site. It was only when the ring was cleaned and photographed using special equipment at the Israel Antiquities Authority labs that the inscription on the ring became visible. The ring includes a picture of a wine vessel, surrounded by the word “Pilatus.”

Now, with the discovery of what is potentially Pilate’s ring, we may have a second piece of evidence to ground history’s most famous story. As Professor Danny Schwartz remarked, “[we] don’t know of any other Pilatus from the period and the ring shows he was a person of stature and wealth.” There are, unfortunately, some things we still don’t know. The Herodian excavation site covers the fortress built by King Herod the Great. After his death, the upper part of the fortress complex continued to be used by Roman governors. It is possible that Pilate used the site for administrative purposes. But because the ring was discovered 50 years ago, we have little information about the circumstances of its discovery. Thus we can’t use that context to figure out when it was deposited in the ground. Nor is there a detailed explanation as to why the item took so long to identify.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860, IMDB

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2024

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