The name of the man who ordered Jesus crucified and ran his trial, the ancient infamous Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, has been deciphered on a bronze ring found in excavations at the site of Herodion near the West Bank’s Bethlehem, some 50 years ago.
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.
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Findings were recently handed over to the current team that works at the site, led by Dr. Roee Porath, also from Hebrew University.
The ring was one of thousands of items found in the dig. The famous name on it was discerned after a thorough cleansing, when it was photographed with the use of 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 writing translated as saying “Pilatus.’”
The name Pilatus has been linked to that of Roman governor Pontius Pilate, mentioned in the New Testament as Jesus’ executioner. Pilate was the fifth of Roman leaders in Judah, and apparently the most important of them. He ruled in the years 26 to 36, and some say even from the year 19. The name was rare in the Israel of that era, says Professor Danny Schwartz.
“I don’t know of any other Pilatus from the period and the ring shows he was a person of stature and wealth,” Schwartz said.
A stamping ring of this type is also a hallmark to the status of the cavalry in Roman times, to which Pilate belonged. The ring is quite simple, therefore researchers believe it was used by the governor in day to day work, or belonged to one of his officials or someone in his court, who would use it to sign in his name.
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There has been one other find in Israeli archaeology with the name Pilatus on it, which is also attributed to the infamous Roman. In the 1960s, Prof. Forster found a stone with the name inscribed on it as well.
The Herodion fortress was built by King Herod who also gave it its name. Following his death in the first century, it became a huge burial site. But the upper part of the complex continued to be used by Roman officials ruling over Judea at that time. It is likely that Pilate also used the Herodion as a central government administrative headquarters.
Pilate is a well-known historic figure, whose image was one of a powerful ruler. The historian Josephus says he moved iconic medallions bearing the imperial bust of Caesar into Jerusalem against Jewish law which forbade such idols in the holy city. There was a huge outcry after this act was discovered, which ended when Pilate threatened the protesters with mass slaughter.
“The Jews seemed to have rehearsed it ahead of time, falling to the ground as one, craning their necks to proclaim how they would sacrifice their lives not to violate the teachings of the Torah.” Pilate responded by immediately ordering the statues taken out of Jerusalem, Josephus wrote.
In another instance, Josephus tells of how Pilate used treasures from the holy temple to pay for renovations of the water system Herod had built in Jerusalem.
Researchers point at stories in the New Testament about the Bethlehem region where Herodion later became the site of a large Christian village.
“You can see he had a natural link to the Herodion,” Porath said. “Even for Herod it was more than just a tomb site with a palace. It was also a significant site of government. You can see the unusual significance this site had. “
The research into the ring was led by Professor Shua Amurai-Stark and Malcha Hershkovitz, and an article about it appeared last week in the Israel Exploration Journal.