An intriguing 2,000-year-old copper alloy ring bearing the inscription “of Pilatus” may be only the second artifact testifying to the historicity of the infamous Pontius Pilate. Unearthed 50 years ago, the ring was overlooked until recently, when it got a good scrub, and a second look.
Pilate, a Roman prefect who ruled the Roman province of Judaea from circa 26–36 CE, is mentioned in several accounts in the New Testament, as having ordered the trial and crucifixion of Yeshua, a Second Temple-period radical preacher from the Galilee, more commonly known as Jesus.
The ring was first found among hundreds of other artifacts in 1968–1969 excavations directed by archaeologist Gideon Foerster, at a section of Herod’s burial tomb and palace at Herodium that was used during the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 CE). Recently, current dig director Roi Porat asked that the engraved copper sealing ring be given a thorough laboratory cleaning and scholarly examination.
The scientific analysis of the ring was published in the stalwart biannual Israel Exploration Journal last week, by the 104-year-old Israel Exploration Society. It was also popularly publicized — with slightly differing conclusions — on Thursday in Haaretz, under the headline “Ring of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate Who Crucified Jesus Found in Herodion Site in West Bank.”
Archaeologist Porat told The Times of Israel on Thursday that to him, all explanations are equally possible for who was the historical owner of the simple copper ring.
“It was important to publish a careful scientific article,” he said. “But in practice we have a ring inscribed with the name Pilate and the personal connection just cries out,” said Porat.
The IEJ’s analysis, “An Inscribed Copper-Alloy Finger Ring from Herodium Depicting a Krater,” was written by a collective of scholars including Kaye Academic College’s Art & Aesthetics Department professor emeritus Shua Amorai-Stark, and several archaeologists and academics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Malka Hershkovitz, Foerster, who excavated the ring, Yakov Kalman, Rachel Chachy, and Porat. Epigrapher Leah DiSegni, also of the Hebrew University, is credited with deciphering the inscription.
While it is unclear exactly when the ring was forged, it was discovered in an eastern garden built on a porch in a room constructed of secondary building materials. The room offered an archaeological layer which dates to no later than 71 CE, with “a wealth of finds,” including an array of glass, ostraca, pottery and decorated mud stoppers, and “an abundance” of metal artifacts, such as iron arrowheads, a large number of First Jewish Revolt coins, and one copper alloy sealing ring.
At the center of the ring is an engraved krater, a large wine vessel, which is encircled by minute “partly deformed” Greek letters spelling out “of Pilatus.” According to DiSegni, the direction of writing for the broken-up word is clockwise (from upper right), and the word is partially “disturbed by a defect” in the metal. The final letter, given by DiSegni, is an educated guess, which turns the name into a possessive.
Could this “Pilatus” be the Pontius Pilate described in the New Testament?
A closer look
According to the scholars, the bezeled ring, which has a narrow outer rim, was cast in one unit by a less-than-expert craftsman. There is evidence that the “mold for this ring was engraved quickly before pouring the melted metal or that the device was not prepared by a master smith,” they write.
The design at the center of the ring, write the authors, was likewise not necessarily elite. They reference a still unpublished clay sealing bulla that was discovered in the Temple Mount Sifting Project and archaeologists have tentatively dated to the first century CE.
The unpublished clay impression has at its center a single vessel, which is described in the IEJ article as “flanked by Greek letters placed in a manner similar to that of the letters on the ring bezel from Herodium. Like the inscription on the ring, the one on the bulla gives the name of a person (or his nickname or title).”
Of note, a motif close to the handleless large wine vessel appeared on a bronze pruta coin, which dates to 67-68 CE, years two and three of the Jewish Revolt, and depicted a handled amphora. These coins date to the same archaeological layer in which the ring was found.
According to archaeologist Porat, the rebels made such a mess of the palace, that it is quite possible they would have moved a ring found elsewhere to this room and the discovery of the ring among the rabble’s rubble does not negate a Pilate connection. “The context is actually very suitable,” he said.
The authors, however, conclude that there is nothing in the ring’s design that makes it particularly either Roman or elite. They write that during the Second Temple period, the vessel “served as a meaningful Jewish symbol on sealing rings.”
“We propose, therefore, that this ring was made in a local workshop, perhaps located in Jerusalem,” write the authors.
So whose ring was it?
There’s a lot in a name
While the name Pontius was common for Romans during the Second Temple, Pilate was not. The only accepted historical artifact testifying to the life of the Roman prefect is predicated on this unusual surname.
The “Pilate Stone” is a massive inscribed building block uncovered in 1961 excavations at a theater or arena at Caesarea Maritima. According to a September 2017 Biblical Archaeology Review article by Lawrence Mykytiuk, “New Testament Political Figures Confirmed,” it was found face-down and had been modified for its secondary use as a step.
The stone contains four lines of text, two of which read, “[Po]ntius Pilate … [Pref]ect of Juda[ea].” According to Mykytiuk, the best estimated dating of the stone places it between 31 and 36 CE. The scholar writes that “the family name Pontius was common in central and northern Italy during that era, but the name Pilatus was ‘extremely rare.'” citing the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
“Because of the rarity of the name Pilatus, which appears in full, and because only one Pontius Pilatus was ever the Roman governor of Judea, this identification should be regarded as completely certain,” writes Mykytiuk.
This certainty that the name Pilate could only refer to the Roman prefect does not appear to be so complete in the case of the scholars examining the copper alloy ring. The name is derived from the Latin “pilum” (armed with javelin) and is a Roman cognomen, a sort of extra nickname given to Roman citizens that is passed on patrilineally. There is not, however, any other evidence of the name in the province of Judaea before and during Pilate’s rule.
To the authors, the man described in historical texts such as Josephus, “Antiquities and Wars”; Tacitus, “Annals”; Philo, “De Legatione ad Gaium” and the New Testament would not have worn such a simple ring.
“Simple all-metal rings like the Herodium ring were primarily the property of soldiers, Herodian and Roman officials, and middle-income folk of all trades and occupations,” they write. “It is therefore unlikely that Pontius Pilatus, the powerful and rich prefect of Judaea, would have worn a thin, all copper-alloy sealing ring.”
As to whose ring it actually was, the authors offer a few suggestions, including other Early Roman period men called “Pilatus.” Likewise, the name may have referred to those under the historical Pilate’s command, a member of his family “or some of his freed slaves,” they write.
“It is conceivable,” write the authors, “that this finger ring from a Jewish royal site might have belonged to a local individual, either a Jew, a Roman, or another pagan patron with the name Pilatus.”
It did not, they conclude, belong to the Roman prefect himself.
Porat offers another possibility, however. What if, maybe, Pilate had a gold ring for ceremonial duties and a simple copper ring for everyday wear?
“There is no way of proving either theory 100% and everyone can have his own opinion,” said Porat. Regardless, “it’s a nice story and interesting to wrap your head around.”