A Roman ring with “Pilato” on it found in Israel?

A story today in Haaretz, here, has been repeated across the news outlets:

Ring of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate Who Crucified Jesus Found in Herodion Site in West Bank

The ring was found during a dig led by Professor Gideon Forster from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem 50 years ago, but only now has the inscription been deciphered

Nir Hasson | Nov 29, 2018 8:12 AM

A far better article by Amanda Borschel-Dan – timestamped 4:08pm – appears in the Times of Israel here.  This references the actual scholarly publication.

Views and cross-section of finger ring that may have belonged to Pontius Pilate (drawing: J. Rodman; photo: C. Amit, IAA Photographic Department, via Hebrew University)

The ring was first found among hundreds of other artifacts in 1968–1969 excavations directed by archaeologist Gideon Foerster, at a section of Herod’s burial tomb and palace at Herodium that was used during the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 CE). Recently, current dig director Roi Porat asked that the engraved copper sealing ring be given a thorough laboratory cleaning and scholarly examination.

The scientific analysis of the ring was published in the stalwart biannual Israel Exploration Journal last week, by the 104-year-old Israel Exploration Society. It was also popularly publicized — with slightly differing conclusions — on Thursday in Haaretz, under the headline “Ring of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate Who Crucified Jesus Found in Herodion Site in West Bank.” …

The IEJ article is vol. 68 (2018), pp.208-220, although I don’t have access to it.  The abstract in the IEJ site reads:

208.  SHUA AMORAI-STARK, MALKA HERSHKOVITZ, GIDEON FOERSTER, YAKOV KALMAN, RACHEL CHACHY and ROI PORAT: An Inscribed Copper-Alloy Finger Ring from Herodium Depicting a Krater

ABSTRACT: A simple copper-alloy ring dated to the first century BCE–mid-first century CE was discovered in the hilltop palace at Herodium. It depicts a krater circled by a Greek inscription, reading: ‘of Pilatus’. The article deals with the typology of ancient representations of kraters in Second Temple Jewish art and with the possibility that this ring might have belonged to Pontius Pilatus, the prefect of the Roman province of Judaea or to a person in his administration, either a Jew or a pagan.

The Times of Israel continues:

The IEJ’s analysis, “An Inscribed Copper-Alloy Finger Ring from Herodium Depicting a Krater,” was written by a collective of scholars including Kaye Academic College’s Art & Aesthetics Department professor emeritus Shua Amorai-Stark, and several archaeologists and academics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Malka Hershkovitz, Foerster, who excavated the ring, Yakov Kalman, Rachel Chachy, and Porat. Epigrapher Leah DiSegni, also of the Hebrew University, is credited with deciphering the inscription.

While it is unclear exactly when the ring was forged, it was discovered in an eastern garden built on a porch in a room constructed of secondary building materials. The room offered an archaeological layer which dates to no later than 71 CE, with “a wealth of finds,” including an array of glass, ostraca, pottery and decorated mud stoppers, and “an abundance” of metal artifacts, such as iron arrowheads, a large number of First Jewish Revolt coins, and one copper alloy sealing ring.

At the center of the ring is an engraved krater, a large wine vessel, which is encircled by minute “partly deformed” Greek letters spelling out “of Pilatus.” Interestingly, according to DiSegni, the direction of writing for the two words is different, and one word is “disturbed by a defect” in the metal.

According to the scholars, the bezeled ring, which has a narrow outer rim, was cast in one unit by a less-than-expert craftsman. There is evidence that the “mold for this ring was engraved quickly before pouring the melted metal or that the device was not prepared by a master smith,” they write.

The design at the center of the ring, write the authors, was likewise not necessarily elite. They reference a still unpublished clay sealing bulla that was discovered in the Temple Mount Sifting Project and archaeologists have tentatively dated to the first century CE.

The unpublished clay impression has at its center a single vessel, which is described in the IEJ article as “flanked by Greek letters placed in a manner similar to that of the letters on the ring bezel from Herodium. Like the inscription on the ring, the one on the bulla gives the name of a person (or his nickname or title).”

Of note, a motif close to the handleless large wine vessel appeared on a bronze pruta coin, which dates to 67-68 CE, years two and three of the Jewish Revolt, and depicted a handled amphora. These coins date to the same archaeological layer in which the ring was found. …

The authors, however, conclude that there is nothing in the ring’s design that makes it particularly either Roman or elite. They write that during the Second Temple period, the vessel “served as a meaningful Jewish symbol on sealing rings.”

“We propose, therefore, that this ring was made in a local workshop, perhaps located in Jerusalem,” write the authors. …

To the authors, the man described in historical texts such as Josephus, “Antiquities and Wars”; Tacitus, “Annals”; Philo, “De Legatione ad Gaium” and the New Testament would not have worn such a simple ring.

“Simple all-metal rings like the Herodium ring were primarily the property of soldiers, Herodian and Roman officials, and middle-income folk of all trades and occupations,” they write. “It is therefore unlikely that Pontius Pilatus, the powerful and rich prefect of Judaea, would have worn a thin, all copper-alloy sealing ring.”

As to whose ring it actually was, the authors offer a few suggestions, including other Early Roman period men called “Pilatus.” Likewise, the name may have referred to those under the historical Pilate’s command, a member of his family “or some of his freed slaves,” they write.

“It is conceivable,” write the authors, “that this finger ring from a Jewish royal site might have belonged to a local individual, either a Jew, a Roman, or another pagan patron with the name Pilatus.”

It did not, they conclude, belong to the Roman prefect himself.

This is sober and sensible.  Good to see that the excellent and careful scholar Leah Di Segni is the transcriber.

For those wondering, note that in the depiction of the ring that the inscription goes round with the letters “backwards” P I and then (left to right) O T A L.  To my ignorant eye this looks odd; but of course I know nothing about such items.

It is really curious that the two items from Israel both referencing the famous Pilate should both be discovered by the same archaeologist, tho.

Could this be fake?  It seems to have a provenance, but one might wonder just where it has been over the last 50 years.  People produce fakes to obtain fame or fortune, and anything like this would ordinarily be suspicious, precisely because its discoverer would be likely to obtain both.  It is reassuring to see a collective publication, therefore.  It is a great pity that no normal person can access it.

It would not be particularly surprising to find a ring associated in some way with the household of Pilate at Herodium, of course.

All the same, it is generally wise to be wary around spectacular finds.


The letter of Tiberius to Pilate (Epistola Tiberii ad Pilatum)

A little while ago I wrote a post on the apocryphal Letter of Pilate to Tiberius, which is a Latin text of the renaissance period.  Perhaps it was written as a composition exercise, or something, but it is not ancient.

A correspondent asked me about the date of another item in the same bunch of apocryphal texts, the so-called Letter of Tiberius to Pilate (Epistola Tiberii ad Pilatum).

This item is a Greek text, which has been dated on linguistic grounds to no earlier than the 11th century AD.[1]  The Greek text itself was printed by M.R. James in Texts and Studies 5 (1893), 78-81, with an introduction on p.xl-l; these were reprinted with the same page numbers as Apocrypha Anecdota. The introduction begins as follows:

A very much later effort of the ecclesiastical romancer is the Letter of Tiberius to Pilate. This has been twice printed, and both  times very badly, by Birch and Fleck. I think it is just worth while—seeing that both the editions are rather uncommon books— to give here a text which I have constructed from a comparison of the two.

“Birch” is A. Birch, Auctarium Codicis Apocryphi N. T. Fabricani, Fasc. i, Havniae (1804), p.172; and the text is printed from Codex Vindobonensis 246.  “Fleck” is F.F. Fleck, Wissenschaftliche Reise, Band ii, Abth. ii, Leipzig (1837), p.145; and he prints the text from Codex Taurinensis Regius Graecus C. ii. 5 (no. cccii).  It is likely that each just printed the manuscript as it was before him – ah, how easy to do this, when you don’t have to give a facing translation! – and so James’ otherwise odd proceeding does have scholarly value.

J.K. Elliot, The Apocryphal New Testament, p.224 states:

Although this is a Greek text, it has a typically Western view of Pilate regarding him as a criminal. The Eastern churches, and the Coptic in particular, regarded him as a saint and martyr. It is late in date (possibly from the eleventh century), and has affinities with the Acta Pilati (Greek B).

Although Tischendorf knew the text of the letter in two separate manuscripts (Vindobon.-Nessel 246 and Paris 1771) according to his introduction to Evangelia Apocrypha (pp. lxxix f.), he chose not to include it.

From this we learn of a better shelfmark for the Vienna manuscript, and of a Paris copy.  I wonder whether the Turin manuscript still exists, however, after the fire of 1904?

An abbreviated translation of the work is given again by M.R. James in his Apocryphal New Testament (1924), p.156-7.  There is an introduction and translation in Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament, OUP (2014), 285-8.[2], which is apparently a subset of his Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations, 2011, p.529.  The translation is as follows:

The Letter of Tiberius to Pilate

This is the reply of Caesar Augustus and sent to Pilate Pontius, who holds the rule in the eastern part of the kingdom. He also wrote his judicial decision and sent it with the courier Rahab, to whom he gave two thousand soldiers as well.

“Because you condemned Jesus of Nazareth to a violent death that was completely unjust, and before condemning him to death you handed him over to the insatiably furious Jews, and you showed no sympathy for this righteous man, but dipping your pen you delivered a disastrous judicial decision, and having him flogged you handed him over to be crucified, without cause, and you received gifts for condemning him to death, sympathizing with him in what you said, but in your heart handing him over to the lawless Jews—or all this you will be brought to me as a prisoner to defend yourself and render to me an account of what you have done, on behalf of this one whom you handed over to death without cause. Oh your shamelessness and hardness! When I heard about this in a report, I was moved in my soul and cut to the core. For a certain woman has come to me, calling herself a disciple of this man; she is Mary Magdalene, from whom others testify that he had cast out seven demons. She has testified that this one performed great healings: he made the blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear; he cleansed lepers and, to put it simply, as she herself testified, he performed these healings by a word alone. How could you permit him to be crucified without cause? Even if you did not receive him as a god, at least you should have sympathized with him as a physician. But even from your own treacherous writing that has come to me you have pronounced your penalty, since you write that he is greater even than the gods that we worship. How could you deliver him over to death? But just as you condemned this one unjustly and delivered him to death, I in turn will deliver you to death justly. And not only you, but also all your councillors and companions, from whom you received the gifts for his death.”

As he gave the letter to the letter carriers, Augustus’s judicial sentence was also given them in a written order, that they were to kill the entire race of the Jews with the sword, and that Pilate was to be brought to Rome as a condemned prisoner, along with the leaders of the Jews, those who were then the rulers of the region, Archaelaus, the son of the despised Herod, and his companion Philip, and those who were their chief priests, both Caiaphas and his father-in-law, Annas, and all the leaders of the Jews. When Rahab went forth with the soldiers, he did as he was commanded, and slew the entire male race of the Jews with the sword, and the gentiles sexually defiled their profane wives; and the loathsome posterity of their father, Satan, came to life and rose up. The courier took Pilate, Archaelaus, and also Philip, Annas, and Caiaphas, and all the leaders of the Jews, and led them as prisoners to Rome. But it came about that while they were passing through a certain island named Crete, Caiaphas was miserably and violently severed from life. When they took him in order to bury him, the ground would not receive him at all, but cast him out. Seeing this, the entire multitude took stones with their own hands and cast them on him, and so buried him. But the others came to anchor near Rome.

Now there was a custom among the ancient rulers that if someone was condemned to death but should happen to see their face, he would be spared from his condemnation. And so Caesar ordered that Pilate not see him, so that he might not be saved from death. Because of this command, they bricked him up in a certain cave, and left him there. But they rolled Annas up in the skin of an ox, and as the leather dried out under the sun, he was pressed tightly in it, so that his intestines came out through his mouth, and it violently tore away his wretched life. But all the other Jews who were given over to him he delivered to death. They killed these by the sword. But Archelaus, son of the despised Herod, and his companion Philip, he ordered to be impaled.

One day the king went out to hunt and was pursuing a certain deer. The deer came to the opening of the cave and stood there. Now Pilate was about to be killed by the hand of Caesar. That the inevitable might be fulfilled, Pilate moved forward to see the ruler, while the deer was standing in front of him. Caesar placed an arrow on his bow to shoot the deer, and the arrow passed through the opening and killed Pilate.

All who believe in Christ, our true God and savior, give him glory and greatness. For to him is due the glory, honor, and worship, with his Father who is without beginning, and the Spirit who is of his same nature, now and always, even unto the ages. Amen.

The text is, in other words, a medieval fiction.  It is part of the numberless medieval folk-stories with supernatural elements which are so alien to the modern western mind, but so typical of the medieval imagination.

  1. [1]R. Gounelle, “Rapport de Pilate, réponse de Tibère à Pilate, comparution de Pilate,” in: P. Geoltrain & J.-D. Kaestli, Écrits apocryphes chrétiens, vol. 2, Paris: Gallimard (2005) pp. 304-7. Via here.
  2. [2]A title that would have irritated M. R. James, who would have found it annoying that any professional scholar would propagate a work under such a title.  It is calculated to suggest to the unwary reader that these texts are somehow equivalent in age and status to the New Testament but merely not included in it by its compilers.  James patiently explains over several pages why William Hone and his Apocryphal New Testament – which attempted the same trick – is misleading, and adds, “The point is this, that when Hone or any one else speaks in terms which suggest that our New Testament is the result of a selection made by a council of the Church or any similar body, from among a number of competing books which might just as well have been included in it as not, he is very much astray.”