Pilate, Herod, Jesus & the Gospel Archaeology: What Can We Learn…?

Jesus before Pontius Pilate

A recent announcement in the press says an ancient ring found in Bethlehem ‘belonged to the man who crucified Jesus’.

The man they refer to is actually the Prefect or Governor, Pontius Pilate – so, strictly speaking, not ‘the man crucified Jesus’, but the man who okayed the crucifixion.

The article also added the caveat ‘scientists believe’: as in ‘belonged to the man who crucified Jesus, scientists believe’.

I’m always a little wary of phrases like ‘scientists believe’: it’s a little vague. But maybe I’m getting too hung up on semantics.

In fact, even the idea that Pontius Pilate had Jesus crucified is disputed (there are entire books on that – which I might attempt to touch on again in another post): but that’s a diversion for some other time.

I usually publish a Christmas-related or Christmas-themed article here in the lead-in to Christmas: but I ran out of time this year to think of something good enough, so I’ve just gone with this. Not just the Pilate object, however, but a few other items of Gospel-related archaelogy that have recently cropped up.

The bronze ring was actually discovered 50 years ago during a dig at the Herodion (and by a Professor Gideon Forster from the Hebrew University). For decades, it was unclear who the inscriptions on the ring were referring to. Now it is being reported that the ring has been found to have belonged to Governor Pilate.

The name was deciphered when it was photographed with the use of a special camera at the Israel Antiquities Authority labs, according to Haaretz. It is thought the item is a “stamping ring”: and that, as Roman Governor, Pilate (Pilatus) would have worn one of these rings.

It’s not clear whether this is a conclusive announcement, or whether it’s just a working theory. Either way, findings like this seem to be periodically put out there to excite those with deep connection to or interest in the Gospel narrative or period. Often, anything that is taken to validate a historical figure like Pilate is in turn taken to validate the historical figure of Jesus or the reality of the Gospel story: although this doesn’t necessarily work, since the ring – if it did belong to Pilate – doesn’t demonstrate anything other than that Pilate was Governor in Judea.

Evidence of Pilate’s governorship in Judea has emerged before, at any rate, in the form of the inscription slab or stone bearing his name (below) and found in Caesarea in 1961. Admittedly, that damaged inscription stone is a beautiful thing: just looking at it sets off your imagination.

Tomb of Herod the Great, 2007 

But these things rarely seem to be certain.

Case in point: the 2007 discovery of Herod the Great’s tomb, which was announced very decisively and seemed to be conclusive, has subsequently been reconsidered. The tomb, discovered as part of the Herodium in the desert outside Jerusalem, was accepted by many as Herod’s resting place: but other experts have subsequently cast doubts on this, due to the small size and lack of artistic flourish – arguing that this is at odds with Herod’s reputation as the master builder.

Two years ago, Jesus’s own supposed place of burial – within the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem – was opened up and examined for the first time.

In this instance, the findings were largely taken to be positive in terms of supporting the prevailing tradition of this being the site of the tomb: although, of course, it remains inconclusive. And basically always will – even if you can demonstrate it to have been a real tomb from the right time-period, that doesn’t prove who‘s tomb it was.

I’m always partly sceptical about such discoveries and attributions, even when my initial instinct is to be intrigued. In the old days, people were traipsing around the Holy Land and labelling all kinds of random sites as being of great religious or historic significance – usually with minimal or no evidence. Such sites would nevertheless acquire mythic or holy auras and reputations about them (to this day), regardless of their authenticity.

It doesn’t help that the whole way Roman Christianity was put together under Constantine and beyond was so haphazard.

The church also created or validated spurious ‘holy relics’ all over the place, as part of a strategy to encourage worship, strengthen faith or bolster the emerging mythology.

While I’ve no doubt that such attributions or announcements in this day and age are a thousand times more likely to be reliable, it still wouldn’t surprise me if certain agencies or governments also have prestige or tourism in mind when announcing such ‘findings’ relating to Jesus or the Gospel narrative. Israeli authorities, for one thing, probably sees good reason to encourage such discoveries or associations – because it all helps bolster the Christian Zionist movement’s enthusiasm and support for the Jerusalem-centered agendas.

For the record, I’m not stating an opinion one way or the other. The Pilate ring seems fairly convincing from what I’m reading. And Herod’s tomb is up there somewhere on that mountain and is going to be found eventually.

But again, these things are often taken by evangelical Christian commentators or media as supporting evidence for the historical validity of the New Testament stories: they’re not though. Herod the Great’s existence, for example, has never been in doubt – he was a real historical figure: and his being a real historical figure doesn’t tell us anything about the reality of the Jesus story or the Gospel narrative (or indeed which version of the Jesus story – ‘canonical’, non-canonical or apocryphal – is real, if any).

Those who keenly champion such findings as being corroborations of the prevailing religious tradition also have a tendency to cherry-pick: the same enthusiasm is rarely, for example, shown towards more substantial historical resources like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the texts of the Nag Hammadi library, because they muddy the waters so much.

It’s also always worth considering that, for every ‘discovery’ we’re drip-fed over the years, a dozen others are left undisclosed, covered up or put to one side. I’ve no doubt, for example, that the Vatican has been sitting on a sizeable number of artefacts, texts and ‘findings’ for a very long time: anything that might undermine the prevailing religious orthodoxy and give support to any of the alternative theories and histories that have gained massive currency in recent decades.

Another announcement in the last few weeks claimed to have discovered an ancient image of Jesus’s face in the ruins of a Byzantine church in the Negev desert. The 1,800 year-old image is at odds with the traditional Western depiction of Jesus, showing the figure instead with a head of short, curly hair, shaven face and large nose.

Curiously, the site was discovered in the 1920s, but the identification of the faint image with the figure of Jesus has only just been suggested: apparently by the University of Haifa, which told Haaretz, “It was the face of Jesus at his baptism, looking at us.”

It really could be an ancient depiction of Jesus: in fairness, the image makes much more sense than the blue-eyed superman version of Jesus that has dominated Western iconography for centuries. The historical Jesus would’ve been a Palestinian Jew, after all: though Western Christian art and iconography has gone out of its way for centuries to not depict him that way.

It’s possible I’m just being too cynical about these things.

Putting all of that aside, I do find this stuff fascinating. Any discovery that gives more tangible link to famous historical figures like Pilate or Herod are interesting: Pilate’s a more elusive figure, while Herod on the other hand left a much bigger mark.

Myself, even as someone not especially invested in scriptures in the religious sense, I have to admit I get drawn to these kinds of discoveries and announcements too. A few years ago, even I got a little excited by the story of the Vatican having unearthed an ancient Marcus Velleius Paterculus parchment purporting to describe an eyewitness account of one of Jesus’s miracles.

I acknowledged at the time that the parchment could probably be a fake, cooked up by the Vatican to give believers a little boost: in fact, there was no parchment at all – the story itself was a fake (and I was just too stupid to bother checking at the time). I should’ve known really that the idea of a known Roman historical figure like Paterculus writing about Jesus was too good to be true.

 'Jesus Christ and the Little Children' by Carl Bloch 

But it seemed convincing enough at the time: and was actually a rather endearing passage of text, which made me all the more inclined to fall for it at the time.

Again, you can never be sure with these things.

Last year, just in time for Christmas, the story cropped up (or re-emerged, to be more accurate) about the Jordanian codices that were claimed – like the Paterculus story – to be the earliest real reference to the Jesus character.

An ancient collection of books that had previously been dismissed by mainstream experts had now reportedly been proven genuine. The codices, thought to be the oldest surviving reference to the historical Jesus, were discovered in Jordan in 2008 in the form of lead tablets. The tablet is claimed to illustrate that Jesus was seeking to restore a tradition going back to the Biblical King David and which was centered on Solomon’s Temple.

It also, it is claimed, depicts Jesus and his followers worshipping a male/female God dynamic and not the mainstream archeytpe of the male God figure.

Analysis of the metal suggests the tablets are around 2,000 years old. It is a fascinating discovery with interesting implications; though, like much of the reinterpretation and conflicting views concerning the historical Jesus (or whether there even was a historical Jesus), it will doubtless spark off fresh disagreement and debate.

The curious thing about this one is that authors Jennifer and David Elkington had been actively campaigning since 2009 for the codices to be recognised: though we were told that most experts had branded the codices as fakes. The follow-up, years later, was that tests (carried out at University of Surrey’s ‘Ion Beam Centre’) had confirmed that one of the books was compatible with a comparative sample of Roman lead from Dorset.

The ideas here would seem to make a lot of sense to me: and to correlate somewhat with mystery school traditions and more feminine ideas prior to the rise of the Roman Church and prior to the elimination of various strands of Christian traditions when the various European councils decided what texts would be included in the imperial-approved Bible and what texts were to be omitted.

In particular the male/female God dynamic would resonate much better with the until-recently suppressed Magdalene strand of Christian history or origins.

To be honest though, I’ve read so many books, intrepretations, reinterpretations, theories and reimaginings of Jesus and the Gospel narrative over the years (Barbara Thierring’s works, Laurence Gardner’s books, to name a few among many) that I really have lost all interest in trying to piece together the ‘reality’ anymore – especially since, for most people, the ‘reality’ is always going to be highly subjective anyway: and most people really don’t care what the objective truth is, but only care about defending their chosen version for the sake of either cultural/religious tradition or personal faith.

Neither of which is of any use to an objectively inquiring mind: but all of which is, of course, entirely valid in its own right and on its own terms.

Which makes everything ultimately a circular argument: those interested in or open to uncovering the real historical evidence, or reinterpreting or re-examining the traditions and the dogmas, can never convince those who don’t want to go down that path to do so: while those whose impulse is to cling to a longstanding tradition will generally dismiss any revisionist trends, no matter how valid they might or might not be.

Which, basically, leaves us at a permanent impasse.

Which was more or less the central theme in the long article I wrote here a couple of years ago about the Nativity narrative. There’s people’s Subjective Reality and there’s history’s Objective Reality – and the ‘truth’ is obviously somewhere in the middle, but the two sides of that equation are unlikely to ever meet in that middle.

Still, coming back to the main item: I would love to see Pilate’s ring up close some day, as well as the Caesarea inscription slab.

I recently visited the Roman museum in Bath, England, and the Roman Dead exhibit in London, and in both cases there were remarkably well-preserved inscription slabs or stones: and when you’re so close to them that you can reach out and touch them, you do feel like a part of you is being projected two-thousand years into the past.

When I was on the train home, coming back from the London exhibit, I was reflecting on that notion – of projecting back into the past. And it occurred to me that if or when ‘time travel’ is ever made viable, someone needs to go on a fact-finding mission back to Pilate’s time – back to 1st century Judea and the time and place(s) of the Gospel narrative. To conduct an impartial investigation, get some eyewitness testimony, maybe even get some film or images of the key characters – and then come back and present the ‘findings’ to us.

Maybe that’s the only way to settle this business once and for all. Although, if his findings pissed anyone off, there’s a chance he would be assassinated. So maybe best leave it.


Read more:The Nativity Story: Myth, Fiction, Propaganda or Fact…?‘, ‘The BEN HUR Villa and the Palace of Nero – History Struggling to Survive‘,  ‘The Mausoleum of Augustus: A Sad Tale of Neglected History‘, ‘From Pliny to Nero: Ghost Stories in the Roman World‘, ‘Augustus: 2000 Years of Man, Myth & Reality‘, ‘A Meditation on the Nature of Time & Space: Britain’s Roman Ghost Legions‘…

S. Awan

Independent journalist. Pariah. Believer in human rights, human dignity and liberty. Musician. Substandard Jedi. All-round failure. And future ghost.


  1. What-they-say? All publicity is good publicity. Always welcome the crits. The ones you bring are right-to and for me, not you being about the ‘cynical’. On ‘Evidence for the historical validity of the New Testament stories’? — is about some and some. There are claims it’s clear Jesus is a fake made-up — a Roman-based conspiracy, the hot alt. pop one — and ‘Caesar’s Messiah’. What gets me is the presumption and tone with some of its fans. All very certain and mock the doubters. Comparable to the blubbering Fundy-Mentalists on the Jesus tip. Same overwrought confidence. Which might be appropriate but for their low or no openness and those on the theological attack. That you, ‘find this stuff fascinating’ warms m’Christmas cockles. Look forward to more investigation and burning blogs. ‘The male God figure’ is one could get on, with all the hoo-ha about calling God… not “he”. We can — I don’t — make this and “her” but damn foolish in calls to compel others. Settled, in we’re made ‘male and female’ and with much reflection of what God’s like. With ‘Subjective Reality and there’s history’s Objective Reality – and the ‘truth’ is…’: Another, look forward to reading more. Here waking up on Boxing Day morn, Thoughts and some quick prayer for you. Put on a song and raise a glass this holiday time. Be well bro, burn on.

    • I do find it fascinating. At least half my family is doing devoutly Christian, so I’ve been having these arguments forever. I wasn’t convinced by the Caesar’s Messiah angle, having looked at the case. I’m more convinced of one or two other ”alternative theses” that I read a long time ago. I might try getting into some of that here around Easter: but I don’t like pissing in people’s pools too much when it comes to religious belief, so maybe I’ll leave it.

      • Nah-be pissing in my pool. More like holy water and you taking us on rambles through mysteries and myths. While God real and true for me and some, the light shining on history and traditions are always welcome. Come on… piss over Easter-time, would make that time special for me.

        • I’ll think about it. It’s not just your pool, Mark 🙂 There are other people in the pool too! Who aren’t as good spirited as you.

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