Although he played a critical part in the death of Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate is a rather shadowy figure. The recent identification of a ring the Roman governor wore makes him come into sharper focus.
Experts in Israel have identified a ring that may have belonged to Pilate, as it bears his name, the man who oversaw the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
According to Haaretz, the bronze ring was discovered 50 years ago during excavations at the Herodion fortress in the Judean desert.
“The ring was found during a dig led by Professor Gideon Forster from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a short time after the Six-Day War in 1968-69, as part of preparations to open the site to visitors,” Haaretz reported.
But recently those findings were handed over to a team that works at the site, led by Dr. Roee Porath, also from Hebrew University.
The ring was one of thousands of items found. The famous name on it was discovered after a thorough cleansing, when it was photographed by a special camera at the Israel Antiquities Authority labs.
The inscription on what was apparently a stamping ring included a picture of a wine vessel surrounded by Greek letters translated as saying “Pilatus.” It is said by archaeologists to be only the second artifact from his time ever found with his name.
Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judea from roughly 26-36 AD, is known from the New Testament, in which he is the man responsible for passing final judgment on Jesus.
“The Gospels present Pilate as an almost sympathetic character who only reluctantly agreed to condemn Jesus to death, but other historical sources suggest that he was a hardened military man unwilling to demonstrate much sensitivity towards the religious sensibilities of the Jews,” wrote the Daily Beast.
That more negative view has other substantiation. The Jewish historian Josephus says while other Roman prefects had removed effigies from their standards when they came into Jerusalem, Pilate allowed his soldiers to march the standards into the city at night. The incident caused uproar and Pilate had to back down.
“This wasn’t the only occasion on which Pilate insulted the Jewish people: at one point the emperor Tiberius had to berate Pilate for putting gold-coated shields on display in Herod’s palace,” according to the Daily Beast.
There is some disagreement over whether the ring belonged to Pilate.
Some find it unlikely that the ring was his as these types of simple rings usually belonged to soldiers and lesser officials, not to someone as wealthy and powerful as a prefect.
“We think it implausible that a prefect would have used a simple, all-metal, copper-alloy personal sealing ring with a motif that was already a well-known Jewish motif in Judea before and during his rule,” says a report in the Israel Exploration Journal.
“But in practice, we have a ring inscribed with the name Pilate and the personal connection just cries out,” Roi Porat, one of the authors of the report, told The Times of Israel. The name Pilate was not common at the time.
Herodium, near Bethlehem, where the ring was found, was built by Herod the Great, a king within the Roman Empire, and is the site of his tomb. (One of his sons, also named Herod, was king in Jesus’ time.) The site is controlled by Israel and is claimed by Palestinians, says the New York Times.
The ring was found in a room filled with bits of glass, shards of pottery, arrowheads, coins, and other items.
Another point of interest is use of Pilate’s name.
Biblical Archaeology said, “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’).”