Anyone who is familiar with stories about Jesus, even those who have never read the gospels for themselves know about Pontius Pilate who ordered the crucifixion. Besides the New Testament Pilate was mentioned by Josephus at the end of the 1st century CE. Yet, skeptics have doubted the existence of Pilate for centuries until a stone with his name and title was unearthed in the 1960’s in the ruins of coastal Caesarea in Israel. Now the archaeologists believe they have found Pilate’s ring!
The ring itself was found Professor Gideon Forster in 1969 during the excavation of Herodion. Herodion is one of Herod’s famous fortresses in Judea, not far from Bethlehem. Many believe that it is also Herod’s final resting place. The ring was among hundreds of small items taken from the dig. When first examined it revealed a depiction of a krater, a wine vessel, and an inscription, but it was not legible. Recently, with the help of modern technology, scientists were able to read the inscription. It was a Greek inscription ΠΙΛΑΤΟ (PILATO), which they believe is the name of Pontius Pilate!
But of course, nothing is that simple when it comes to investigating the past and trying to figure it out. The spelling PILATO is problematic. In Latin Pilates proper name would have been PONTIUS PILATUS, and if it was to be spelled in Greek letters it would have been ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ (PILATOS) with Sigma on the end. If the message conveyed “belonging to Pilate” then it would have spelled out ΠΙΛΑΤΟΥ (PILATU) literally “of Pilate” in Greek. But the ring does not show any damaged or missing letters, PILATO is all it says. This alone casts some doubt in connecting the ring to the character of Passion stories.
It is easy to see why archeologists want to believe it belonged to Pontius Pilate. Pilate is not at all a common name in the region, not like John, Joseph, Mary or Jesus. The location fits, the era does as well. Pilate was the prefect, or governor, of the province of Judea, on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire, roughly from A.D. 26 to 36. The design of the ring is a bit too elaborate for an average citizen. Many rings worn by Roman soldiers during this era are very simple. On the other hand, it was made of copper, hardly a decoration for a wealthy governor.
A solution for the unusual spelling of governor’s name may be that ΠΙΛΑΤΟ is a Greek transliteration, a sounding out of Latin name – PILATUS. In fact, the ring bears Pilate’s name but it may have not been his or even warn by him. Signet rings were used as seals by clerks, so some administrator may have used this ring on Pilate’s behalf. It may not be Pontius Pilate’s personal ring, but it may still be a tangible artifact that confirms Pilate’s rule in Judea and the story of Jesus’ execution.
Sources: Haaretz, NY Times, Biblical Archaeology.