A small finger ring found in the ruins of the Fortress of Herodium in Israel some 50 years ago has now been cleaned, studied and identified as very possibly being the ring of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate who governed what was then the Roman province of Judea in the time of Christ from AD 26–36. It was Pilate, of course, who famously tried Jesus and turned him over to be crucified.
The ring was found along with a great many other artifacts in excavations conducted at Herodium in 1968–1969 by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but it was not thoroughly cleaned and its inscription read until only recently at the request of the current excavation director, archaeologist Roi Porat. The results of this cleaning were published just this last week.
In addition to the image of a large wine vessel, the ring was found to bear a simple inscription in Greek – which the Romans used to communicate with the people of the Eastern Mediterranean areas that they controlled. The inscription reads “of Pilate” meaning “belonging to Pilate.” Could this be the Pontius Pilate of biblical fame? Although the name of Pilate is known to every Christian today, Pilate was a somewhat rare name in the 1st century. The name is derived from the Latin “pilum” (armed with a javelin) and is a Roman cognomen – an extra name sometimes given to Roman citizens. But there was only one Roman Governor of Judea called Pilate, and it is perhaps unlikely that the ring would have belonged to another individual of the same name.
In fact, only one other artifact has been discovered in Israel bearing the name of Pilate – the so-called “Pilate Stone” – a massive inscribed building block discovered in 1961 excavations at Caesarea which was a Roman headquarters in Judea. That stone bears four lines of text, two of which read, “[Po]ntius Pilate … [Pref]ect of Juda[ea].”
But what of the newly identified ring – could it be an item personally worn by Pilate himself? The answer is that this is unlikely. The ring is made of relatively inexpensive copper alloy and its workmanship is somewhat rough (see photo) – not what we would expect of the personal ring of the most powerful man in ancient Judea at that time.
However, the fact that the ring probably was not worn by Pilate himself is of little importance. Kings, governors, and other rulers of that era commonly wore signet rings by which they impressed seals on the documents they sent out in order to “sign” them – just as we sign letters or official documents with our names today. Ancient rulers of that time also often gave, loaned, or had cheaper copies of these rings made for their highest-ranking assistants so that they could issue commands and seal official documents on behalf of the ruler himself (for an Old Testament example, see Esther 3:10; 8:2).
The newly identified ring is very likely such an assistant’s seal – a secondary ring entrusted to an individual who had been given the authority to relay or issue commands or statements on behalf of Pilate himself. But this does not make the connection between the ring and the biblical figure of Pontius Pilate any less real.
The “Pilate Ring” joins the already known “Pilate Stone” as further confirmation of an individual mentioned in the Bible – in this case, an otherwise little-known Roman governor who, through his mention in the New Testament, would become one of the most famous or infamous Romans of all.