Israeli archaeologists have concluded that a stepped-stone street once used by Jewish pilgrims to reach the Temple in Jerusalem was built by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea best known for washing his hands of Jesus’ fate.
Assuming he really was behind the street’s construction, that suggests the historical Pilate was a more complex personality than the corrupt and ruthless figure that Jewish and Christian writers describe, the researchers say. It also sheds new light on the origins of this impressive walkway, which is now one of the highlights of a controversial archaeological park in East Jerusalem.
The research published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed publication Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University analyzed coins that were found beneath and above the ancient thoroughfare. The monumental street, paved with massive stone slabs, climbs to the southern side of the Temple Mount from the pool of Siloam, running through what today is known as the City of David, the most ancient part of Jerusalem.
In the early Roman period, up until the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 C.E., it was a bustling avenue 600 meters long and approximately 8 meters wide, lined with shops, taverns and monumental features, such as a podium for public speeches.
Sections of the street have been undergoing excavation since the late 19th century. Archaeologists had previously associated its construction with different rulers, from Herod the Great, who reigned over Judea from 37 to 4 B.C.E., to one of his successors.
However, the more than 100 coins identified beneath the street’s paving now prove that the project must have been completed between the years 31 and 40 C.E., a period mostly covered by the rule of the infamous Pilate, explains Nashon Szanton, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority and a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University who is the paper’s lead author.
Just like today, coins in antiquity tended to frequently drop from people’s pockets, and could end up sealed under structures that were built subsequently.
“Dating using coins is very exact,” says Dr. Donald T. Ariel, an archaeologist and coin expert with the Israel Antiquities Authority, and one of the co-authors of the article. Some coins show the year in which they were minted. If a coin found beneath a street is dated 30 C.E. then the street had to be built that same year or any time after 30 C.E., he says.
Following multiple probes beneath the paving stones by Szanton and colleagues, as well as by archaeologists in previous digging campaigns, the most recent coins found were dated to 30 or 31 C.E., during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.
This means that the walkway, previously also dubbed by researchers the “Herodian street,” had nothing to do with Herod or his immediate successors, the new study concludes. It was most likely built after Rome took direct control of Judea, and specifically during Pilate’s tenure, which traditionally is set between 26 and 37 C.E. – though some researchers believe it was even longer.
Some archaeologists have argued that the coins minted under Pilate could have been lost in the area that was later covered by the street long after they first entered circulation, meaning the street could have been built decades later, perhaps even just shortly before the start of the Jewish revolt in 66 C.E. that led to the destruction of the city.
Not so, because then we should also find coins minted in those later periods, Szanton and colleagues counter.
We know that in 41 C.E., the Herodian dynasty briefly regained a semblance of sovereignty over Judea under Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod. As one of his first acts, the new vassal king minted a huge amount of money, so much that more than 1,000 coins issued by Agrippa I have been found in Jerusalem, compared with less than 300 from the previous decades of the first century.
But none of the relatively ubiquitous coins of Agrippa I have been found beneath the Roman stepped-stone street, Szanton notes.
“It’s not just that we found Pilate’s coins. We also have to look at what we didn’t find and would have expected to find had the road been built after Agrippa I became king of Judea,” Szanton says. “From a statistical point of view it’s hard to imagine that the road was built after 41 because we don’t have any coins from that period.”
Coins minted during Agrippa’s brief reign (41-44 C.E.) and in later periods are found at the site, but only above the pavement, in the layers of destruction and charred debris that covered the street when Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the conquering Roman legions at the end of the Great Revolt. This means that the road was in use for around four decades, from sometime in the 30s of the first century until 70 C.E.
“It seems that the coins uncovered support the notion” that Pilate built the street, says Ronny Reich, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Haifa University who has previously led the exploration of the street, but was not involved in Szanton’s research.
In the 1990s Reich and his fellow archaeologist Yaakov Billig found a bunch of coins under the pavement on one stretch of the street, with the most recent dating to Pilate’s time. They concluded that the walkway was built long after the governor’s tenure, in the 50s of the first century, by Agrippa II, the son of Agrippa I.
This rationale was based on the mention by the Jewish historian Josephus that this Agrippa had repaved the city streets in marble, as well as the fact that the paving stones showed few signs of wear, suggesting the walkway was in use for a fairly brief time before the revolt.
But the additional data provided now by Szanton and colleagues does support the idea that the street “is not post-Pilate, but Pilate proper,” Reich tells Haaretz.
Szanton acknowledges that archaeologists have not found an inscription stating that “Pontius Pilate built this street.”
While it was definitely constructed during his tenure, “we don’t know with certainty that he was behind it, but it’s unlikely that a project of such size could happen under his nose without his permission,” the archaeologist says.
This was especially true for the area around the Temple Mount, which was a flashpoint of conflict between Jews and the Roman occupiers. Building a street that facilitated access to the holy site may have been a way for Pilate to ease tensions with the locals, while also attaching his name to a major building project and promoting Judea’s absorption into the Roman world, Szanton says.
Jesus may have walked there
Whatever his motivations, the discovery brings into focus a less-known side of Pilate, the paper suggests.
Christians of course remember the Roman governor as the man who, according to the Gospels, ran Jesus’ trial and ultimately sent him to die on the cross. For Jews he was a venal and brutal ruler who often offended their religious sensibilities, such as when, according to Josephus, he built an aqueduct using money looted from the Temple.
While there may be some historical truth to those portrayals, they are also inevitably colored by theological and political biases. Besides these sources, there are only a couple of archaeological finds that are linked to Pilate – a stamping ring from Herodion and an inscription bearing his name found at Caesarea.
To these we can now add the evidence from Jerusalem showing that Pilate commissioned the stepped-stone street leading to the Temple, suggesting that, at least to some degree, the governor’s administration was interested in maintaining stability and developing the province.
“It is no longer possible to view this first period of direct Roman governance in Judea as one exclusively characterized by self-interest and corruption,” the paper concludes.
For Christian believers, the discovery also raises the question of whether Jesus ever walked the steps of the monumental street. Both ends of the walkway play a key role in multiple New Testament scenes: Jesus visits the Temple as a child and then again shortly before his crucifixion, while the Siloam pool is where he sends a blind man to be miraculously cured.
Because we don’t know exactly when Jesus was crucified and when in the 30s the street was built, it is impossible to be certain whether that specific Jew used it to move through Jerusalem, or perhaps saw it in its early building stages, Szanton tells Haaretz.
One thing is certain, though. Just like Pilate’s character, the stepped-stone street will remain a crossroads for religious and political controversy.
Today, large sections of the street can be accessed through a tunnel propped up by heavy iron beams, dug through the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan and the ancient remains of the City of David. Residents have complained of cracks and other damage caused to their homes by the excavations. The project is supported by Elad, a non-profit organization that administers the City of David National Park and promotes Jewish settlement in Silwan.
In June, the group hosted a high-profile inauguration of what it has now dubbed the “Path of the Pilgrims,” which was attended among others by Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
Palestinian and left-leaning groups have accused Israeli authorities of using the project as a political tool to "Judaize" the area and emphasize only the Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem.
Even some senior officials within the Israel Antiquities Authority have criticized the project as “bad archaeology” that the IAA “could not be proud of.”
The systematic and peer-reviewed research by Szanton and his IAA colleagues does go a long way in bolstering the scientific credibility of the research side of the project, showing that the archaeologists involved base their conclusions on the evidence emerging from the ground rather than on a politicized narrative or biased agenda. As a bonus, there is also some deep historical irony in discovering that the Jewish religious nationalists of Elad – and their Christian allies in the United States – must now come to terms with the fact that all this time they have been working to uncover and preserve the legacy of one of the most despised figures in Jewish and Christian history.