Scholars contend Roman ring not connected to famous prefect
Is this Pontius Pilate’s ring? First published in 2018, the small copper ring quickly made international headlines with its captivating one-word Greek inscription: ΠΙΛΑΤΟ (Pilato)—the name of Pontius Pilate. While much of the initial news coverage indicated the ring may have belonged to Pilate himself, most scholars were far more cautious, suggesting that it more likely belonged to someone in Pilate’s administration. However, a new study published in the journal ‘Atiqot argues that the ring has no connection to Pontius Pilate at all.
Originally discovered in Gideon Foerster’s 1968–1969 excavations at the site of Herodium, the inscription on the ring could only be read decades later, once it had been cleaned and photographed with advanced digital methods. The ring itself was poorly crafted out of simple copper, with defects in the metal that made it difficult to read the inscription. The ring bears the form of a handless krater (a vessel for holding wine) with a line of Greek text on either side.
According to the original publication in the Israel Exploration Journal, the Greek inscription reads simply “Pilato,” the genitive form of the name Pilate, translated as “of Pilate.” While the original team was cautious in their interpretation, they proposed the ring may have been crafted in a local workshop for a member of the administration of Pontius Pilate, the infamous Roman prefect of Judea who sentenced Jesus to death.
The authors of the new study—Professors Werner Eck and Avner Ecker, of the University of Cologne and Bar Ilan University respectively—are not convinced. According to the pair, the reading Pilato is possible but very unlikely, given the debate surrounding the identity of several of the letters and whether the two lines of text even form a single word. Furthermore, if the reading is correct, it is unlikely that the inscription referenced the famous Roman. As discussed by Eck and Ecker, it would be very unusual for a high-ranking Roman prefect to use Greek for an administrative inscription, much less a Greek inscription that was so poorly written. It is certainly true that the Pilate Stone, discovered in Caesarea Maritima, was written in Latin instead of Greek, although several coins from the period do have Greek inscriptions.
Furthermore, the use of low-quality metal and the inclusion of a krater shape, which at the time served as a Jewish rather than Roman symbol, are further reasons to doubt a connection between the ring and the Roman administration. Despite their disagreement with the original publication, Eck and Ecker acknowledge not being able to offer an alternative interpretation. However, they propose that the two lines should be understood as forming distinct words, with at least one being an abbreviation rather than a single name.
Regardless of how Pilate’s ring is understood, the historical evidence for a Roman prefect by the name of Pontius Pilate is substantial. Beyond New Testament references (and the above mentioned Pilate Stone), Pilate is known through the work of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (Embassy to Gaius 304–305), the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish Wars 2.169–177), as well as many second-century texts. In the end, the evidence in support of Pilate’s existence is more substantial than for most first-century provincial governors, even without Pilate’s ring.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the illuminating world of the Bible with a BAS All-Access membership. Combine a one-year tablet and print subscription to BAR with membership in the BAS Library to start your journey into the ancient past today!Subscribe Today