THE COINS OF PONTIUS PILATE

by Jean-Philippe Fontanille

Pontius Pilate, Roman Procurator of Judea under Tiberius, 26-36 A.D. 

Pontius Pilate is chiefly known for the part he played in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

INTRODUCTION

They 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 :

1 - The temporal proximity : Most modern experts agree in recognizing that the year now designated 30 C.E. marked the trial and the death of Jesus. Given that time-frame, Pilate's coins were minted in 29, 30 and 31 C.E.

2 - 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.

3 - 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.

So 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.

Throughout this article we will also note the exceptional character of Pilate's 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.

Pilate's 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 !

For 35 years Pilate's 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.

Nobody prays Jupiter any more, but Pilate's 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 Pilate's money ceased to be used.

Like each one of us, who carries always a few small coins in the bottom of our pockets; there is no doubt that some of Pilate's coins resonated to the last words of the most famous of all supplicants. A very long story had its beginning...  

MANUFACTURE AND CIRCULATION

 LOCATION OF MINTS

Although the prefects had their residencies in Caesarea, 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 manufacture.

 DURATION OF USE

It would seem that Pilate's 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.

AREA OF CIRCULATION

These coins circulated far beyond the frontiers of Judea. Some samples have been discovered as far away as Antioch in present-day Turkey, nearly 500 kilometers 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 kilometers, 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

THE SIMPULUM

A 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 animal's 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.

This wasn't 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 Pilate's coins, not only in the context of Judea but also in comparison with all the other coins of the Empire.

THE THREE EARS OF BARLEY

The 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 Agrippa's coin, then on another, much rarer, of Agrippa II (ears of barley held in a hand). After that, the motif disappeared altogether from ancient Jewish coins.

THE LITUUS

The lituus was the wooden staff which the augurs held in the right hand; it symbolized 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 Rome's 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. As with the simpulum, Pilate's coinage is exceptional in that it alone displays the lituus as the sole object illustrated on the face.

THE WREATH

The 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 Pilate's coins, the laurel wreath figures on the reverse side of the lituus, framing the date.

THE DATES

The 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 "L" is an abbreviation meaning "year". Tiberius became emperor on September 17 of year 14 C.E, so we have :

LIS = Year 29 C.E.   * LIZ = Year 30 C.E.  * LIH = Year 31 C.E.

THE TEXTS

The legends on Pontius Pilate's 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 Pilate's coinage consisted of only three different words : - TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC (Of Tiberius Emperor) on all three coins; - IOYLIA KAICAPOC (Empress Julia) added to the coin of year 29.

 

THE VARIETIES

The varieties on Pilate's coins are a fascinating subject of study. The most spectacular are those with retrograde motifs, with errors in texts or dates. These faults may have been due to the employment of apprentices or unskilled workers when the pressure of work was urgent because an insufficient  quantity of coins was minted at the proper time, or perhaps work was farmed out to inferior workshops to make up for too low a rate of productivity in the official mints.

THE COUNTERMARKS

Throughout the world only thirteen specimens of Pilate's coins are listed as bearing countermarks. Three of them can be found in Israel's museums, and the other ten are in private collections. I am the lucky owner of five of them which are presented hereafter.

The 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 letters "Cpi" are an abbreviation of a Greek word designating a cohort, (a detachment of about 1000 soldiers), and applies to the 22nd Roman legion, which was stationed in the region. These countermarks could have been stamped in about 36 C.E, the period when Pilate left his official post. The palm branch may have indicated the place where the cohort was stationed, where there was perhaps palm groves. Nobody knows the meaning of the letters "U" or "C".

The countermarks were therefore stamped by the Roman legions purpose connected with military affairs. It is noticeable that the engravers took care to save the central motif, which is generally clearly visible. That must have been a delicate operation to accomplish in view of the small size of both the coin and the countermark's matrix. This little detail reveals the importance attached to these coins; the countermarks add an extra dimension to objects already loaded with history. On the other hand, their scarcity is a mystery: the palm branch appears in different form; would anyone make several matrices just to mint a handful of specimens ? It seems odd, but not impossible.


5 Pilate's Coins bearing Countermarks among the only 13 specimens listed throughout the world. 

PILATE'S COINS AND TURIN SHROUD

We 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 been produced on this subject by all sorts of writers, from charlatans to eminent scientists. Let us consider the more outstanding recent developments. The verdict drawn from carbon 14 test was delivered in 1988: its conclusions was that the shroud is a work dating from the beginning of the 14th century. Many people accepted this decision as final. However, not long afterwards, some irregularities in the conduct of experiments were taken into evidence, and the scientists themselves recognized the justice of this. Worse was to come: in 1997, an Italian archaeologist, Maria Siliato, demonstrated that the samples of cloth analyzed had a 2 times higher density than the shroud. In 1999, researches from the Hebraic University of Jerusalem affirmed, after a study of the pollens in the shroud, that this object had been present in the region of what is now Israel at an earlier period than the 8th century.

One 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 numismatics ? Strange as it may seem, the possibility cannot be excluded.

It 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 for three dimensional extrapolation, so they submitted the face on the shroud for analysis. The image obtained, now famous, distinctly revealed two circular protrusions on the eyelids. The experts immediately made a connection with an ancient custom which advocated the placing of coins on the eyes of the dead to keep them closed. Archaeological excavations have confirmed this tradition. Skeletons from the first and second century C.E. have been found with a coin in each eye-socket at Jericho and at En Boqeq.

Everything then happened very quickly. The following year Professor Francis Filas, a teacher at Loyola University of Chicago, made an enlargement of the image of the left eye and noticed a strange curved shape with traces of letters above it. Intrigued, he went to a ancient coins expert from Chicago, Michael Marx, who concluded that it was probably the image of Pilate's lituus coin. I have reproduced the relevant illustration so that anyone may form their own opinion on the matter.

In 1980, an electronic analysis performed in the Overland Park Laboratory in Texas confirmed not only the soundness of Professor Filas' findings, but also allowed the admission of evidence of another coin on the right eye, without however being able to identify why precise details were absent. Other researchers, Alan and Mary Wanger, took up the investigation in 1985, applying the technique of polarized light superimposition; they though they detected on the left eye coin the three ears of barley encircled with faint traces of letters: this indicated that it could be the coin minted in year 29.

What credibility may be given to these "discoveries" ? Like everything else touching on the Turin Shroud, each discovery, whether in favor of its authenticity or against, is immediately contested by supporters holding the opposite view. The thesis of Pilate's coins on the eyes is neither more or less argued about than any other discovery or supposition concerning this shroud.

For 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 center left eye image to a coin bearing the lituus motif is actually more disturbing. The round form gives an impression suggestive of the lituus cross, (albeit a little less curved than in usual) surrounded by traces of letters which could be a vestige of the center of the inscription "TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC".


Author's email: Jean-Philippe FONTANILLE <jp.fontanille@sympatico.ca>