Was Pontius Pilate’s Ring Discovered at Herodium?

Bible and archaeology news

On November 29, 2018, news broke out of Jerusalem that a ring had been discovered at Herod the Great’s eponymous mountain fortress of Herodium, just 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem. Two facts about the simple copper-alloy piece of jewelry were reason for worldwide headlines. First, the ring was discovered at Herodium … in 1969! The ring was actually unearthed during an excavation led by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Gideon Foerster during the 1968–1969 season. However, only recently did a thorough cleaning and advances in photographic technology allow for the second interesting fact about this ring to be exposed: It bears the Greek inscription ΠΙΛΑΤΟ (PILATO)—the name of Pontius Pilate!

herodium-ring

Views and cross section of the ring discovered at Herodium. Drawing: J. Rodman; photo: C. Amit, IAA Photographic Department.

Of course, the discovery of a ring bearing such an inscription is sensational. And the initial press reports were equally sensational: “Ring of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate Who Crucified Jesus Found in Herodion Site in West Bank” read one headline. Almost immediately, scholars—including archaeologist Steve Notley, Classicist David Meadows, and Early Judaism scholar Cate Bonesho—began asking one important question about the spelling of Pilate’s name on the ring.

The name PONTIUS PILATUS appears in Latin on the “Pilate Stone,” which was discovered in reuse in Caesarea. The Roman governor describes himself as [PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E, or “Prefect of Judea.” Here, Pilate, who commissioned the inscription to honor his imperial benefactor, the emperor Tiberius, refers to himself in the Latin nominative (subject) case: PILATUS.

The ring discovered at Herodium is inscribed in Greek. And while Pilate minted several coins in Greek, he never placed his name on his coins, opting yet again to honor his benefactor, Tiberius, with the Greek inscription ΤΙΒΕΡΙΟΥ ΚΑΙϹΑΡΟϹ (Tiberiou Kaisaros; “of Tiberius Caesar”). Here, Pilate inscribes Tiberius’s name using the Greek genitive, or possessive case, to indicate that the coin was minted during the rule and under the authority of the emperor Tiberius.
 


 
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In Search of Herod’s Tomb

Herodium. Photo: Duby Tal.

We can look at other contemporary Judean coins and see the use of the genitive and nominative cases there as well. Herod the Great used the genitive when minting his coins, inscribing HΡΩΔOY BAΣIΛEΩΣ (Hērōdou Basileōs; “of King Herod”). His son, Herod Antipas, used the same technique when inscribing ΗΡѠΔΟΥ ΤΕΤΡΑΡΧΟΥ (Hērōdou Tetrarchou; “of Herod the Tetrarch”).

Thus, for a Greek rendering of Pontius Pilate’s name in an inscription, we should expect the use of the nominative (subject) case, which would end in -os, or the genitive (possessive) case, which would end in -ou. This would be ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ or ΠΙΛΑΤΟϹ (PILATOS) in the nominative or ΠΙΛΑΤΟΥ (PILATOU) in the genitive. However, on the so-called Pilate Ring discovered at the Herodium, we find ΠΙΛΑΤΟ (PILATO).

The question is why?

Under what circumstance would Pilate (or anyone else for that matter) inscribe a ring with the name PILATO? One solution offered by Cate Bonesho, University of California, Los Angeles, Assistant Professor in Early Judaism, is that ΠΙΛΑΤΟ may be a Greek transliteration of the Latin dative form of the name Pilatus.

The dative form in both Greek and Latin is used as an indirect object, for example, to indicate to whom an object is being sent. If this is the case, then the thin and inexpensively-made ring may have been worn not by Pilate himself, but by someone working for Pilate, who may have collected goods for the governor on behalf of Rome in the region south of Jerusalem and sent those goods to Pilate.

Pilate used Herod the Great’s former palaces as his own residences in both Caesarea and Jerusalem, so there’s reason to believe that Herod’s palace at Herodium may have been used as a Roman administrative center. Archaeological reports indicate that Pilate repaired the Herodium water system and that Herodium continued to be active during his rule.

It is entirely possible that the Pilate Ring unearthed at Herodium in 1969 and “discovered” this past year was not worn by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate at all. Rather, it may very well have been worn by a regional administrator collecting taxes for the Romans, who simply stamped items and document seals bound for Pilate—PILATO. As the authors of the official excavation report state, “It is therefore unlikely that Pontius Pilatus, the powerful and rich prefect of Judaea, would have worn a thin, all copper-alloy sealing ring.”1

It is possible, however, that some administrator pushing papyrus for Pilate would have worn a ring like this at a southern administrative center. This explanation is more probable because it better fits all of the evidence, and is further confirmation of what we already know from the Pilate Stone, hundreds of coins, Josephus, and the Bible itself—there really was a Roman governor in Judea at the time of Jesus named Pilate.
 


 
Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.
 


 

Notes:

1. Shua Amorai-Stark, Malka Hershkovitz, Gideon Foerster, Yakov Kalman, Rachel Chachy, and Roi Porat, “An Inscribed Copper-Alloy Finger Ring from Herodium Depicting a Krater,” Israel Exploration Journal 68:2 (2018), p. 217.

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  • BHD says

    Great Stuff…new technologies are allowing for clearer analyses of such objects. Pilate is a seminal figure in Roman Politics and his relationship indirectly with the Emperor Tiberius and his fill-in Sejanus.

    Dr. Keith J. Wise

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