by Jeremy Stein
One of the most interesting archaeological discoveries to close out 2018, surprisingly enough, was not unearthed in 2018, but 50 years ago at the site of Herodium, one of the palace fortresses of Herod the Great.
During the 1968-1969 excavations, a first-century copper alloy ring was unearthed. The ring was overlooked and sat untouched until November 2018. The ring was identified by the use of new technology as bearing the inscription “of Pilate.”
Immediately following the discovery of the ring two schools of belief formed. The first school believes the ring could be evidence (and therefore belonged to) Pontius Pilate of the gospels who served as the Roman authority in Judea from A.D. 26-37. Others who argue against this possible conclusion, toss the owner of the rings name to simple coincidence.
The latter of the two views, however, has some challenges to its conclusion that argues against the connection of the ring to the Pilate of the New Testament.
The Nov. 30 New York Times article argues “it is unlikely that the ring belonged to Pilate, in part, such simple rings usually belonged to soldiers and lesser officials, not to someone as wealthy and powerful as Pilate.”
The problem with this argument is that it is based on an assumption of whom Pilate was, as many have improperly identified Pilate as a rich and powerful governor. When just looking at the English versions of the New Testament, specifically the gospels Matthew 27:11, 27, 28:14, and Luke 20:20, the translations usually render “governor,” a term most associated in many biblical commentaries as “procurator.”
A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (written in 1885) — a landmark work by Emil Schurer — is one of the earliest modern academic sources to misidentify Pilate as a “procurator,” based off of the late first century historian Tacitus’ misidentification of him (Annals 15:44), an error that came to impact and influence much of the 19th and the 20th centuries’ thought on the world of Jesus and Pilate. The problem arises with a lack of handling the literature in the Greek World and its usage in the Greek Bible.
When looking at the language of the gospel passages previously mentioned, the word used to describe Pilate in an official manor is Hegamonos. The translation of the word Hegamonosto governor in our English Bible is a not a clean step. The word actually has a wide range of use and can be tracked in both Koine and Attic Greek as the verb “to lead.” It can also be seen in historical writings as early as the 5th Century BC in the writings of those like Herodotus and Thucydides who’s usage represent princes, clan chiefs, governors, rulers, guides, and, most importantly, military heads.
Although the language of the Roman Empire for the commoner was Greek, the Imperial language itself was Latin. This is reflected throughout the land of Israel — the main imperial remains uncovered over the course of archaeological histories, such as road markers and the remnants of official buildings, such as public temples, have been primarily in Latin. The most important of these for this topic is the “Pilate Stone.” Found in 1961 in Caesarea Maritima, the Pilate Stone is a dedicatory stone to what appears to be a temple in honor of Caesar Tiberius.
The Pilate Stone served as the first archaeological evidence for the historical existence of Pontius Pilate (as previously the historical knowledge of Pilate was contained to ancient literature such as the New Testament) and corrected the believed understanding of Pilate’s official title and role in Judea during the ministry of Jesus to “prefect.”
A procurator and a prefect, although serving similar roles, were not interchangeable titles. Procurators were civil officials who were selected by the Empire (either directly from the emperor or by the senate) to govern essentially as a politician, as most were from a civil or fiscal background and therefore often shied away from military force unless necessary. Both Felix and Festus historically and archaeologically have been identified as procurators.
A prefect, on the other hand, was a short-lived position, serving as a chief military officer and overseer of a province in the Roman Empire. The position of the prefect was used mainly in volatile developing regions and provinces of the Empire where force was more often necessary. This makes a career soldier the perfect fit for the role. The position was abolished during the reign of Claudius, sometime around the years AD 41 to 44, giving understanding as to why Emil Schurer’s source, Tactius, born in AD 56, would be unfamiliar with role and refer to Pilate as “procurator.”
This aspect of the use of military force can arguably be seen better in Pilates’ reign than any other prefect in Roman history due to the writings of both Flavious Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, who both attest to Pilates' blood spilling atrocities in the name of “peace and order” (Josephus Antiquities 18:3-4, Wars 2.9; Philo Gaius38:299-305).
Prefects more often than not came from the ranks of the military in order to allow them to keep control in a different way than the procurators. Therefore, when the statement of the original argument, that “the ring discovered at Herodium would have belonged to a soldier and not a ‘rich’ Roman governor,” is examined with scrutiny, the statement is actually correct and it would therefore fit the description of Pilate (that we have both in the literature of the New Testament as well as the Pilate Stone): a prefect, a career soldier in a place of temporary power in order to instill order by force — not a pocket-filled career politician.
The ring is only the second artifact found in the land of Israel along with Pilate stone that bears the name “Pilate.” Hebrew University archeologist Roi Porat points out to The Times of Israel the name Pilate was not known to be held by any other in the region during the 1st century. In light of these pieces of evidence, when examining the historical realities of the ring, it becomes entirely possible (and even arguably likely) that the ring itself bears a connection to the Pilate of the gospels.