The Old Testament is filled with plenty of villains and bad guys (not to mention a few bad gals – we’re looking at you, Jezebel) but screenwriters making New Testament movies find they have fewer to choose from. One who has given us the classic “washing his hands of the whole thing“ adage and a few bad jokes about his name is Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea under the Emperor Tiberius who was said to have presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion. Roman Catholics are reminded of this bad guy during every Mass when they recite either the Apostles or Nicene Creed. That’s a lot of badness coming from someone who has very little non-biblical evidence supporting his actually historical existence … until now. Israeli archaeologists have confirmed that a stepped-stone street once used by Jewish pilgrims to reach the Temple in Jerusalem was built by Pontius Pilate and its construction shows he may not have been a such a bad guy … at least before he washed his hands.
“Based on archaeological and historical data, the creation of the street has variously been attributed to some time in the Herodian period, to the reign of Herod and to the days of Herod Agrippa II. Here, based on numismatic evidence, we propose a more precise timeframe. We suggest that the street was constructed in the 1st century CE, in the middle of the first period of direct Roman rule, specifically during Pontius Pilate’s tenure as governor of the newly named province of Judea. We bolster this claim with a discussion of Pilate’s mandate and goals as provincial governor.”
In a recent study published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, Israeli researchers offer new evidence using coins discovered beneath the ancient road to link its construction to the time of Pontius Pilate. Dr. Donald T. Ariel, an archaeologist and coin expert with the Israel Antiquities Authority and one of the co-authors of the paper, analyzed coins found underneath what was once a major thoroughfare to the Temple Mount. It has been called a “Herodian” street by researchers who put its construction in the reign of Herod the Great, another biblical villain who ruled Judea from 37 BCE to 4 BCE.
However, Ariel points out in Haaretz that coins don’t lie, but those that lie on grounds where they were dropped can eventually be paved over, accurately dating the time of construction. The coins found under this road were dated to around 30 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius and Pontius Pilate. Furthermore, there were no coins found from the reign of the next emperor, Agrippa I.
Unfortunately, as Nashon Szanton, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the paper’s lead author, admits, there’s no plaque or sign announcing “Pontius Pilate built this street.” On the other hand, historical evidence suggests that it would have made sense for a Governor Pilate to construct the thoroughfare, connecting the Jewish temple with the Roman world. The nearly 2,000-foot-long (600 meters) road, which required 10,000 tons of stone to build, went from the Siloam Pool, where Jewish pilgrims stopped to bathe and get fresh water, to the Temple Mount. A road which linked the two cultures would have shown that Pilate was a uniter, not a divider, and perhaps not as corrupt as once believed – a description obviously influenced by long-standing hatred over his final hand-washing action.
Will this confirmation of Pontius Pilate’s existence and his attempt to fairly govern the residents of Jerusalem change modern perceptions of him? That’s unlikely. If his portrayal by David Bowie in The Last Temptation of Christ didn’t help, hoping for redemption via a street is a road to nowhere.