Maybe, maybe not

Christianity Today recently released a list of “Top Ten” archaeological discoveries in 2018, and several important things were announced during the year, though some of them had been found earlier.

Photo by Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority.

On the first day of 2018, for example, Israeli archaeologists excavating a large house later demolished and covered by an ancient Roman street near the Western Wall and Temple Mount discovered a seal impression dating to the 6th or 7th centuries BCE, when the first temple still stood. Seal impressions (also called bullae) are fairly common in excavations, consisting of a small lump of clay that was once used to seal an important document, then impressed with an image from a carved seal, perhaps on a ring or a pendant, indicating its owner.

What’s unusual about this seal is that it depicts two men wearing striped robes facing each other, and the title sar ‘ir, meaning something like “governor of the city,” a title used twice in the biblical record (2 Kings 23:7, 2 Chronicles 34:8). Though similar seals have appeared on the antiquities market, this is the first one to be discovered in a scientific excavation that could establish the provenance and date, confirming the existence of a position described in the Bible. That’s an important find.

Photo: Gabi Laron, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Conservation: Mimi Lavi, Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

An excavation at Abel Beth Maacah in the far north of Israel turned up an intriguing head made of faience, a glass-like product. The head dates to the 9th century BCE, when representational art was extremely rare, and it is similar to the way Egyptian art depicts Semitic people. Since the image is so finely done and wears what appears to be a crown (or headband?), it is widely thought to depict some elite person, likely a king — but who? Abel Beth Maacah was located in a contested border area where Israel, Aram (Syria), and Tyre met. If the head indicates a king, would it be Ahab of Israel, Hazel of Aram, Ethbaal of Tyre, or someone else? We can hope further excavations may turn up more clues.

At the top of Christianity Today‘s list is a ring found 50 years ago at the Herodium, a monumental hill and palace built by Herod the Great several miles south of Jerusalem as a retreat from the city and the location of his tomb. The old find, a thin ring made of copper alloy and quite corroded, was recently cleaned and photographed using modern analytic techniques, enabling researchers to identify its inscription, in Greek letters, as pilatō. A number of Christian news outlets immediately announced that the personal ring of the man who ordered Jesus’ death had been found.

There may indeed have been a connection between the ring and Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who ruled Judea from 26-36 BCE, but it’s highly unlikely to have adorned his finger.

Views and cross section of the ring discovered at Herodium. Drawing: J. Rodman; photo: C. Amit, IAA Photographic Department.

Most inscriptions of Roman rulers have their names in the nominative or genitive cases, but “Pilatō” appears to indicate the dative case, typically used for indirect objects. In that sense, it could be rendered “to Pilate,” or “for Pilate.” The ring was cheaply made and shows no great workmanship, depicting only the inscription surrounding a large bowl called a krater, a common image in Judaic art at the time.

Is it likely that the rich ruler of Judea would wear such a cheap ring, rather than something made of silver or gold and precious stone? His personal seal, surely, would have been engraved more carefully and would probably have used the fuller version “Pontius Pilate” and included his title as “Prefect,” as in a stone inscription found at Caesarea.

So, to whom did the ring belong? It’s the sort of ring worn by soldiers or run-of-the-mill government officials. Although the name “Pilate” was not particularly common, it could have belonged to someone in that category who shared the same name.

More likely, perhaps, the ring could have been used by a government administrator in charge of handling shipments of supplies, packages, or documents to Pilate. There is evidence that Pilate made use of Herod’s previous palaces in both Jerusalem and Caesarea, so the Herodium could have served as an administrative center. The use of the dative case on the ring could indicate that a particular item was “for Pilate.”

Whether the man who ordered Jesus’ death ever wore the ring is unlikely, but the appearance of his name is yet another chilling reminder of the real political situation under which Jesus lived — and died — but will never be found in an excavation.

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