The Pontius Pilate Coinage
Jean-Philippe FONTANILLE ©
2001 All rights reserved
Fontanille may be reached by E-mail at email@example.com
are not really beautiful, or truly rare, nor are they of very great monetary
value. Yet these apparently modest coins carry in their weight an era and an
act which would have immense consequence to the history of the world. Indeed,
they are closely associated with three basic factors which saw the foundation
of Christianity :
- The temporal proximity : Most modern experts agree in recognising that the
year now designated 30 C.E. marked the trial and the death of Jesus. Given
that time-frame, Pilates coins were minted in 29, 30 and 31 C.E.
- The geographic proximity : The most credible hypothesis indicates that these
particular coins where struck in Jerusalem, the city in which the significant
events took place.
- The human proximity : Pontius Pilate himself designed and put the coins
into circulation, and of course he was the man who conducted the trial and
ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.
it is that everyone, whether a believer or simply a lover of history or of
numismatics, will find in these coins direct evidence of and witness to an
episode the memory of which has survived 2000 years : A momentous event which
has to a great extent fashioned the world we know.
this article we will also note the exceptional character of Pilates coins :
Exceptional in the nature of the images they bear, for the numerous variants
they offer, for the presence of countermarks, and above all for the part their
originator played in history. The putative appearance of these coins imprints
on the Turin shroud has yet to be confirmed by more solid scientific proofs.
coins are Roman coins, the words on them are Greek, they were circulated in
Judea, and today they are to be found distributed among world-wide collectors
after having spent 2000 years buried in the earth. They were minted and used
during a period which produced an event destined to change the face of the
world, and issued at the command of one of the principal actors in that event.
An amazing and dramatic destiny for apparently such humble and unassuming
little coins !
the sphere of numismatics, Pilates coins are at the opposite extreme of
certain coins which are struck each year exclusively for collectors. Bright as
Horse-guards buttons, these specially minted coins have never been used and
never will be; their technical quality is immaculate but their historical
value is negligible.
35 years Pilates coins were passed from hand to hand every day. They knew
the scent of spice-stalls, heard the merchants ranting, smelled the sweat
and dust of daily works. They were alive to the sounds of Hebrew, Aramaic,
Greek and Latin voices now haggling over a price, now offering prayers to
YHVH, Jesus or Jupiter.
prays Jupiter any more, but Pilates coins are surviving witnesses to a time
when the first Christians were considered as a messianic sect among several
others in the midst of Judaism in crisis. The absolute split between Judaism
and Christianity took place from about 70 C.E, the year which marked the
tragic ending of the first Jewish rebellion. It was from that time, too, that
Pilates money ceased to be used.
each one of us, who carries always a few small coins in the bottom of our
pockets; there is no doubt that some of Pilates coins resonated to the last
words of the most famous of all supplicants. A very long story had its
MAN AND HIS METHODS
in 26 C.E. the Emperor Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate to be Prefect of
Judea, the territory had already been under Roman domination for nearly a
century. The least that we can say is that the man was rather harsh. His
mindset and culture were typically Roman, and it would have been difficult to
reconcile his attitude with that of the Jews, whose beliefs and customs he
never understood, and for which he had little regard or interest.
in spite of the evident problems of communication and understanding with the
people, Pilates relations with the priestly authorities seem to have been
good. As a governor he showed evidence of goodwill and of imagination, and it
would appear that, unlike other procurators, he was not implicated in corrupt
practices, either active or covert; there is nothing to show that he was
either dishonest or treacherous. In the final analysis, his appointment was
properly managed except his implication in the barbaric act which resulted in
the ending of his mandate. It must be remembered, though, that severity and
harshness were the normal order of the day in times long ago, difficult though
this may be for us to comprehend in our actual democratic days of relative
the GBC, David Hendin mentions an original hypothesis put forward by Florence
Aiken Banks. In a small way, I have allowed myself to supplement her
assumption which is deduced from the images appearing on Pilates coinage
which we will study in the following paragraphs. The theory is as follows :
Before becoming prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate followed the calling of
soothsayer or seer. The Emperor Tiberius, well-known for the importance he
attached to the interpretation of signs and portents, called up upon
Pilates services for a number of years in the course of which a friendship
and trust built up between the two men (even nowadays it is not unknown for
certain heads of state to consult astrologers and rely on their advice !). The
link between Emperor and foreteller finally resulted in the nomination of
Pilate to the prefecture of Judea.
PILATES COINS DIFFERED FROM OTHERS
should keep it clear in our minds that the coins of Pontius Pilate, like those
of other prefects and procurators, bore neither his effigy nor his name. Only
the emperors name and title appeared, although on the coin of year 29 the
name of the emperors mother was inscribed. These inscriptions, to which the
date was added, are written in Greek. Coins were the only means of introducing
the name of the supreme authority into the conquered provinces in the most
remote parts of the Empire.
QUESTION OF DESIGN AND SYMBOLS
Pontius Pilates coinage was limited to only two models. The first struck in
year 29, and the second in 30 then re-issued in 31. The date of issue was
stamped on the coins; the complete collection of Pilates coins consist of
only these three samples. Happily for collectors of coins, each of these
issues presents numerous variations which are particularly interesting, and
certain variants which are extremely rare; these will be detailed later.
illustrations mark a total break with those of other prefects and procurators
as well as with the all other monetary categories in circulation in Judea at
if Pilate hadnt become known universally for his involuntary part in the
origination of Christianity, he would still have had a special place in the
domain of numismatics for the uniqueness of his coins.
effect, each of his coins presents on one of their faces an object associated
with divination or Romans religious rites: the simpulum on the money of
year 29, and the lituus on that of year 30 and 31. It must be admitted
that when dealing with a nation so strongly attached to monotheism and who
rejected any form of divination, it would have been hard to find a clumsier
way of giving offence.
as we do, that the monies of other prefects and procurators conformed in
general to the Law in using motifs recalling those of the Asmoneans and of the
more respectful Herods, it is tempting to surmise that in the opinion of the
Jewish population the coins were a provocation to both the people and
OR IGNORANCE ?
theory of provocation still seems rather implausible. Even if it is true that
Pilate was ignorant of Jewish customs, it wasnt in his interest to repeat
an error of the same magnitude as that of the busts. He was most probably
surrounded by counsellors who were well-informed of local beliefs. The immense
Roman Empire had not been built by fools, but even nowadays we know quite well
that certain ministries are directed more by civil servants than by the
ministers themselves ! It must not be forgotten that relations between Pilate
and the priestly authorities (who had not failed to manifest disapprobation in
a similar situation) were not bad.
that if Pilate had really wanted to offend the Jews with his coinage, he could
quite well have engraved the Emperors portrait in the first instance using
the pretext that Herod Philip done much the same in his little neighbouring
I see it, the theory of provocation, even if it ought not to be discarded,
rests on a fragile basis and we need to examine a certain number of
inconsistencies which are hard to resolve.
my mind the hypothesis which seems the most probable is this : Pilate greatly
wished to illustrate his coins with the simpulum and then the lituus because
there were strong links which tied him personally to those symbols, as
suggested by F.A. Banks; and not because he wanted to provoke anyone. Being
aware of the incongruity of the chosen images in the context of local beliefs,
he tempered the simpulum on the first issue by engraving three ears of barley
on the reverse side, this being a harmless or neutral symbol so far as the Law
was concerned. Moreover, the same dichotomy was evident when, in years 30 and
31, Pilates coins carried on one side the lituus and on the other a laurel
wreath, another neutral motif which the Jews were long accustomed to seeing on
it were possible to see into Pilates mind when he was choosing designs for
his coinage, it would be easy to imagine him thinking : One side for me,
one side for them.
important element pleads in favour of mitigation of the potentially negative
impact of the symbols: they are unrecognisable ! This impression is not only
due to the (deliberate ?) simplicity of the drawing. Only the Roman
citizen, familiar with the practices of divination and augury, would have been
able to identify those objects with any certainty.
is no reason why things should have been fundamentally different for the
Jewish people of that epoch. Like other people of antiquity, they were for the
most part artisans, fishermen or farmers who had neither the means nor the
need to acquire a high level of learning and for whom the life-style and
behaviour of distant Rome were matters of indifference, and any case
inaccessible. One cannot imagine the ordinary Jew expressing lively
indignation each time he had to spend one of Pilates coins. What is more,
the reverse face of the coins presented a familiar and conformist object which
was easily identifiable.
for the priestly authorities, who were bound to have known the true
significance of the symbols, we can reasonably suppose that they accepted the
coins as a stop-gap. Taking into account the obstinate nature of a prefect who
had the power to oversee their business, nobody was really interested in
rocking the boat while relations were fairly good. Not just for a motif
anyway. In addition, the credibility of the high priests themselves was at
that time considerably reduce in the eyes of the people since they had been
appointed by the Romans and were not true descendants of the Sadoq family.
it seems quite reasonable to regard Pilates coins, long believed to be the
provocative objects which they might at first seem, as being in reality a
subtle compromise which would satisfy the Law (after a fashion), and, more
profoundly, the will of the prefect.
MANUFACTURE AND CIRCULATION
the prefects had their residencies in Cesarea, the administrative capital of
the province, it seems that their money was minted in Jerusalem. Indeed, a
specimen dated year 31 has been found in this town in an incomplete state of
would seem that Pilates money was in current use for at least 35 years.
Indeed, some of it has been discovered among other coins during the excavation
of remains of dwellings destroyed by the Romans during the first Jewish
revolt, which is evidence that they were still in use at that time.
coins circulated far beyond the frontiers of Judea. Some samples have been
discovered as far away as Antioch in present-day Turkey, nearly 500 kilometres
from Jerusalem where they were minted. Others have also been found in Jordan.
These limits represent a circulation area of at least 100.000 square
kilometres, that is five times larger than the size of the state of Israel.
Taking into account that it was a time when distances were expressed in terms
of days of march, one begins to see the important influence of these coins.
THE IMAGES AND THE TEXTS
fairly frequent symbol from the Roman religion of the time, the simpulum
was a utensil used by the priests during their religious ceremonies. This
little ladle, provided with shaft and a handle, allowed the priests to taste
the wine which they poured onto the head of an animal destined for sacrifice,
after which the soothsayer was empowered to examine the animals entrails
for signs and portents sent to men by the Gods through the medium of the
interpreter. As I pointed, none of this would have been obvious at first sight
of the motif except perhaps to a Roman citizen. However, it throws some light
on the theory put forward by F.A. Banks.
wasnt the first time that the simpulum appeared on Roman coins, but it is
the first time it figured alone. This fact gives an additional specificity to
Pilates coins, not only in the context of Judea but also in comparison with
all the other coins of the Empire.
THREE EARS OF BARLEY
three ears or barley are featured on the opposing face of the simpulum. Unlike
the simpulum, these ears of barley are not in contravention of the Jewish Law.
The motif is nevertheless distinctive because it is the first time it appears
on a Judean coin. The motif would reappear twelve years later on one of Herod
Agrippas coin, then on another, much rarer, of Agrippa II (ears of barley
held in a hand). After that, the motif disappeared altogether from ancient
might ask why is it that the central ears is upright while the other two
droop. The GBC mentions the possibility that Pilate wanted to symbolise his
authority over the Jews, but it is possible that it was simply a matter of
aesthetic choice. Nevertheless, it may be noted that on Agrippa Is money,
all three ears are upright :
lituus is by way of being the star of Pilate coinage, not only because
the two coins it illustrates (those of years 30 and 31) offer many more
varieties than that of year 29 with the simpulum, but also because its form is
sufficiently striking to remain engraved in the memory. Even more than the
simpulum, the simpulum was a very important symbol of the Roman cults. It was
carved on the frieze in the Temple of Jupiter the Thunderer at Rome.
lituus was the wooden staff which the augurs held in the right hand; it
symbolised their authority and their pastoral vocation. It was raised toward
heavens while the priests invoked the Gods and made their predictions. Legend
records that Romulus used it at the time of Romes foundation in 753 B.C.E.
It is interesting to note that the cross used in present times is the direct
descendant of the lituus.
with the simpulum, Pilates coinage is exceptional in that it alone displays
the lituus as the sole object illustrated on the face.
laurel wreath is a symbol of power and victory, and figures on various ancient
Greek and Roman coins. In Judea it can be found during the reign of John
Hyrcanus I (134 to 104 B.C.E.). After that, Herod Antipas, speaker for Pilate,
used it on all his coins. On Pilates coins, the laurel wreath figures on
the reverse side of the lituus, framing the date.
notation of dates uses a code invented by the Greeks whereby each letter of
the alphabet was assigned a number. This code would be used again in Judaism
under the name of Guematria. The system is simple : the first ten letters of
the alphabet are linked to units (1,2,3...), the following ten letters to tens
(10,20,30...) and the four remaining letters to the first four hundreds.
the date is always inscribed beginning with an L, an abbreviation
meaning year. Pilates three coins all follow this with an I
(the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet, associated with the number 10), to
indicate that the first decade of the reign of Tiberius has passed; after
which Pilates first coinage bore a V associated with 6, which shows
that we are in the sixteenth year of Tiberius reign. The second coinages
date ended with a Z, or number 7 (17th year of Tiberius reign), and
finally, the third of Pilates coinages ended with an H, or number 8
(18th year of Tiberius reign).
became emperor on September 17 of year 14 C.E, so we have :
= Year 29 C.E.
legends on Pontius Pilates coins are written in Greek. Judea, governed by
the Ptolemy dynasty (301 to 198 B.C.E) then by the Syrians until 63 B.C.E,
came under the same powerful influence of the Hellenic culture which touched
the other territories of the ancient Persian Empire won by Alexander the
Great. In spite of a certain amount of resistance, this Hellenistic heritage
eventually crept into every aspect of daily life. Apart from the dates, the
texts on Pilates coinage consisted of only three different words :
TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC (Of Tiberius Emperor) on all three coins;
varieties on Pilates coins are a fascinating subject of study. The most
spectacular are those with retrograde motifs, with errors in texts or dates.
the world only thirteen specimens of Pilates coins are listed as bearing
countermarks. Three of them can be found in Israels museums, and the other
countermarks represent a branch of the palm tree flanked by Greek letters
C, or Cpi or U. According to the most credible hypothesis,
the most frequent
countermarks were therefore stamped by the Roman legions purpose connected
with military affairs. It is noticeable that the engravers took care to save
COINS AND TURIN SHROUD
will not enter into the arguments between the partisans and the adversaries of
the authenticity of this shroud. An immense amount of literature has already
might well say that the Turin shroud guards its mystery to this day. Could it
be possible that new developments may come from so unexpected a field as
all began at NASA in 1978. At this time researchers Jackson, Jumper and
Stephenson wanted to test the capacities of their VP8 new computer, specially
then happened very quickly. The following year Professor Francis Filas, a
teacher at Loyola University of Chicago, made an enlargement of the image of
1980, an electronic analysis performed in the Overland Park Laboratory in
Texas confirmed not only the soundness of Professor Filas findings, but
credibility may be given to these discoveries ? Like everything else
touching on the Turin Shroud, each discovery, whether in favour of its
my part, I must admit that I have failed to detect any trace of the year 29
coin on the right eye. On the other hand, the similarity of the centre left
eye image to a
remarkable web site : www.shroud.com/lombatti.htm presents all
the details of this controversy (more than 20 pages)
Pilate coins and varieties :
The Countermarks on Pilate's coins :
Pilate coins and Turin shroud :