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John Bazemore, Associated Press
A stone with a Latin dedicatory inscription of Pontius Pilate was part of an exhibit of Holy Land artifacts at Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta in June 2007. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Until the summer of 1961, absolutely no archaeological evidence existed that would demonstrate that Pontius Pilate, a pivotal figure in the New Testament gospels, ever really existed. Some literary sources mention him — including a few brief allusions in Jewish material (e.g., Josephus) and in late Roman chronicles (e.g., Tacitus) — but no administrative records survive from him and no genuine letters of his have been preserved. Plenty of Roman ruins exist in Israel, but none bears his name, and a historical Pilate isn’t required to account for them.

Jamie-Andrea Yanak, Associated Press
The Latin inscription "Pontius Pilate" is seen on this stone that was part of the dedication of a building in Caesarea circa 30 A.D., is one of the artifacts that was on display at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, Ohio in March 2006. (AP Photo/Jamie-Andrea Yanak)

He has loomed large in subsequent Christian thought and legend. One thinks, for example, of the memorable opening line of Sir Francis Bacon’s early 17th-century essay “Of truth”: “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”

But did he really even exist? Critics eager to dismiss the New Testament Gospels as imaginative fiction (along with their accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) were only too happy to point to the lack of evidence for Pilate as support for their broader dismissal.

In June 1961, however, while working in the Mediterranean seaside ruins of Caesarea Maritima, a team led by the Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova found a sizable piece of limestone — slightly more than 0.8 meters wide and somewhat less than 0.7 meters high — that bears the name of “Pontius Pilatus.” The Latin inscription read as follows:

To the Divine Augusti (this) Tiberieum

... Pontius Pilate

... prefect of Judea

... has dedicated (this)

Pontius Pilate most likely made his headquarters at Caesarea Maritima, travelling up to Jerusalem only when he had to do so. (From a cynical Roman leader’s point of view, Jerusalem was a virtually ungovernable den of incomprehensible religious fanatics, while Caesarea possessed and still retains the charm that could easily have made it the site of a beautiful coastal resort.)

Sea coast and ruins of Caesarea Maritima before sunset in Israel.

The inscription says that Pilate had built a “Tiberieum” — evidently a temple in or near Caesarea dedicated to the then-reigning Roman emperor, Tiberius, who ruled from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37. Plainly, as others also did, Pilate was seeking to flatter the emperor. (Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, had founded the important city of Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, in Tiberius’ honor sometime around A.D. 20.)

This fact perhaps explains the power over Pilate of the implicit threat from Jesus’ Jewish accusers, as recorded in John 19:12: When Pilate wanted to release Jesus, “the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend.”

The so-called “Pilate Stone” is historically significant because it dates to Pilate’s own lifetime. It is contemporary evidence. Yet — powerfully illustrating the distinctly random nature of archaeological discovery — the excavators could easily have missed it, simply discarding it as rubble. By the fourth century, it had been incorporated into a set of stairs in Caesarea’s Herodian theater. There, the inscription faced downward — fortunately, because that position preserved it from being worn away.

The “divine Augusti” to whom the dedication refers are the late (deified) Augustus Caesar (reigned 27 B.C. to A.D. 14) and his wife Livia, who were, respectively, the stepfather and the mother of Tiberius. The inscription identifies Pontius Pilate as the “prefect” of Judea, a title that seems to connote not only a governmental or administrative role but a military one — which seems to fit the brief literary references to his career.

A replica of the “Pilate Stone” stands directly to the east of Caesarea’s “Palace of the Procurators” — a place of enormous New Testament interest in its own right, where the apostle Paul was imprisoned for over two years under the Roman governors Felix and Festus (Acts 23:31-35; 24:27) and where he made his famous speech before Festus and Agrippa (as recorded in Acts 26) — while the original stone itself is located at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, where it is protected from erosion and other damage.

24 comments on this story

It is, quite simply, no longer tenable to argue that Pontius Pilate never existed. And, while Pilate’s demonstrable reality certainly doesn’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead or atoned for our sins, or that he merits our devotion as our divine Lord, it constitutes an important part of a cumulative case for the reliability of the gospel accounts — which do, in fact, assert all of those things. In answer to Pilate’s question “What is truth?” (John 18:38), the New Testament declares that Jesus himself is (John 14:6).