The debris and detritus of past civilizations is unearthed by excavators, sometimes to be identified, sometimes misidentified, sometimes stored away and forgotten.
One such piece of rubbish looks like being one of the most significant recent discoveries, with a direct connection to a biblical character. Though when I say ‘recent’ this particular artefact was actually found 50 years ago and only identified this year through modern technological methods.
Anyone visiting the Holy Land is likely to see the Herodium, if only from a distance. It is certainly worth a visit, a remarkable mountain-top palace fortress built by King Herod. Rising up like a volcano not far from Bethlehem, it is visible on the horizon from Jerusalem. It stands as a testament to Herod’s power and to his fear. It gave a commanding presence in the region, but also a secure bolt-hole to hide from his enemies. When Herod died in 4 BC his body was buried here. Archaeologist Ehud Netzer found the remains of his tomb in 2007, after 35 years of searching the site. In a cruel twist he was then killed in an accident at the archaeological dig three years later.
Others would occupy the strategic site after the time of Herod. By the time of the ministry of Jesus it would be useful to Pontius Pilate, as Roman governor of Judea. However, outside of literary references (the Gospels, Josephus, Tacitus and Philo) and a few coins bearing his name, there was no archaeological evidence for Pilate until 1961. Archaeologists excavating at Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, found a large monumental stone, 68cm high, bearing the inscription ‘Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.’ Pilate had an official residence here, but the stone had been broken down and used as filler in a later building. It was quite accidental that such a record would be preserved for modern times.
No one knew at the time, but just a few years later in 1969 archaeologists at Herodium unearthed a dull, unidentifiable signet ring which would then be largely forgotten for nearly five decades. As already said, archaeology generally deals in rubbish and many finds will end up stored away in boxes awaiting the curious. Many important archaeological discoveries are made not out in the field, but in museum storerooms!
So it proved with the cheap, alloy ring when it was subjected to ‘reflectance transformation imaging photography.’ This technology requires computer-processing power to combine multiple photographs and bring out fine details otherwise lost to corrosion and weathering. It would have been impossible in 1968. But the ring has now revealed a name and image of a bowl.
The name is Pilate, though it misses a final Greek sigma which is unusual. However, the letters run in the reverse direction indicating it was a signet ring designed to be stamped on official documents. Being of cheap metal and the unusual spelling, it may have belonged to an administrator in Pilate’s household, but who knows? The Israel Exploration Journal notes: ‘Since the name Pilatus is rare, it is not inconceivable that this ring belonged to Pontius Pilatus himself.’
Bible is history
It is a remarkable thought that, as the years go by, yet more direct evidence emerges for biblical events and characters. Pilate is one of 23 New Testament figures whose existence has been confirmed by archaeology and they are added to over 50 Old Testament characters who have been identified from outside of the Bible. One thing is for sure, the number only continues to grow. With the passage of time the Bible is not receding into myth, but returning into history.
Chris is the D.L. Moody Lecturer in Apologetics, Moorlands College.