A bronze ring bearing the name of Pontius Pilate was found near Bethlehem fifty years ago, during an archaeological excavation at Herodium, a fortress built by King Herod.1 It had been overlooked for decades but archaeologists discovered Greek writing when the ring was cleaned and photographed by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Originally found among hundreds of other artefacts in the 1968–1969 excavations at Herodium, current director of the excavation, Roi Porat, requested that the ring be given a thorough laboratory cleaning and scholarly examination.

The ring has an image of a wine vessel, known as a krater, around which are letters spelling “Pilatus”. Governor of the Roman province of Judaea under the Emperor Tiberius, Pilate presided at Christ’s trial and delivered him to be crucified ( John 19:16). Although he was reluctant to condemn Christ to death, Pilate abdicated responsibility for the crucifixion by symbolically washing his hands (Matt 27:24).

Pontius Pilate ruled Judaea from AD 26 to 36. He opened his term of office with an act of provocation toward the Jews when he allowed the troops to enter Jerusalem with standards which bore the image of the Roman emperor. Later, Pilate appropriated the Temple funds to finance the construction of an aqueduct to Jerusalem and massacred the protesting Jews when he visited the city to view the work in progress.The New Testament alludes to other harsh actions by Pilate while governing Judaea (Luke 13:1).

Opinion is divided as to whether the ring belonged to Pontius Pilate himself, or was used by his staff to seal letters and stamp documents with melted wax. Some scholars think that the ring is too plain and simple to have been worn by a Roman governor.

Writing in the Israel Exploration Journal,3 the team of academics which closely examined the ring, suggested it was unlikely that Pontius Pilate, the powerful and wealthy governor of Judaea, would have worn a thin, bronze sealing ring. The design is simple and it may instead have been used by members of Pilate’s staff. Either way, archaeologists and scholars are agreed that the ring has an obvious personal connection with Pilate.

Danny Schwartz, a professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that he did not know of any other Pilatus from the period and the ring showed he was a person of stature and wealth. Although there are several references to Pilate in the writings of ancient historians, notably Josephus and Tacitus,4 the discovery of this inscribed ring is only the second archaeological artefact that provides evidence of the historical existence of the Roman governor.

In 1961, a massive stone block with a Latin inscription was uncovered in excavations at a theatre at Caesarea. It was found face-down and had been reused as a step. The stone contained four lines of text, two of which read, “[Po]ntius Pilate… [Pref]ect of Juda[ea]”5. The Caesarea inscription included the name of the emperor Tiberius, verifying Luke’s statement that Pilate was governor of Judaea in “the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1).

While the name Pontius was common for Romans during this period, the name Pilatus was not. And because only one Pontius Pilate was ever the Roman governor of Judea, scholars are certain that both the Caesarea inscription and the text on the ring found at Herodium can be identified with the Pilate of the New Testament.

This is further evidence of the Bible’s historical accuracy and reliability as an ancient source, and we can therefore place full confidence in the biblical record and its revelation of the true God and His purpose.

References:

1. Nick Squires, “Bronze ring found in ancient fortress near Bethlehem may have belonged to Pontius Pilate”, The Telegraph, 30 November 2018, online at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/11/30/bronze-ring-found-ancient-fortress-near-bethlehem-may-have-belonged/

Amanda Borschel-Dan, “2,000-year-old ‘Pilate’ ring just might have belonged to notorious Jesus judge”, The Times of Israel, 29 November 2018, online at https://www.timesofisrael.com/2000-year-old-ring-engraved-with-pilate-may-have-belonged- to-notorious-ruler/

Robert Cargill, “Was Pontius Pilate’s Ring Discovered at Herodium?”, Bible History Daily, 4 December 2018, online at https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/pontius-pilate-ring-herodium/?mqsc=E4011783&utm_source=WhatCountsEmail&utm_medium=BHDWeek%20in%20Review%20Newsletter&utm_campaign=ZE8ADHZ90

2. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 2.9.2-4; Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.1-2.

3. 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, v. 68, no. 2, p. 208-220, article abstract online at http://israelexplorationsociety.huji.ac.il/iej.htm

4. Annals, 15.44.

5. The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Inter-Varsity Press, 1980, pt. 3, p. 1229; Jona Lendering, “Pontius Pilate”, in Livius, online at http://www.livius.org/articles/person/pontius-pilate/pontius-pilate-8/