The Pontius Pilate stone – a warning from history

There are people who claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but then there are people who say the earth is flat. Both groups are very much in the minority. There’s no question, however, about the existence of one of the key contributors to the Jesus story, namely Pontius Pilatus, Roman governor of Judea from 26 to 36 CE. Information about him can be found in the writings of the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus. In support of this, during a 1961 excavation which included the magnificent open air theatre [see above] in the ancient coastal city of Caesarea Maritima (Caesarea by the Sea), a limestone block containing his name was discovered.

This city was originally a trading/fishing village dating back to the invasion of the eastern Mediterranean coast by the ‘Sea Peoples’ known as the Phoenicians. It was greatly enlarged, along Greco-Roman lines, by King Herod the Great (of ‘slaughter of the innocents’ infamy, whose Jewish ancestry was not quite ‘kosher’). As well as a deep sea harbour, it boasted not only this spectacular theatre, but also various temples, and a vast stadium for sports competitions, chariot races and gladiatorial games. Dominating all of these was his own monumental two-part palace. The lower level contained a rock-cut, olympic sized, colonnaded swimming pool, and the upper level crowned a promontory jutting a hundred metres out into the Mediterranean sea. (For Aberdonians like myself, Dunnottar Castle will come to mind, not (sadly) set against the blue Mediterranean, but the grey North Sea.)

Guess where Pontius Pilate set up house, and spent most of his days, during his time as governor! When Judea became a Roman province in 6 CE, not Jerusalem, lost somewhere over yonder among the forbidding Judean mountains, but ‘Caesarea by the Sea’ became the civilian and military capital. Pilate would only (dutifully but grudgingly) have left his seaside palace to go to Jerusalem on occasions when, overcrowded at Festival times, there might have been a possible threat to the ‘Pax Romana’, the Roman peace.  

So, what about the ‘Pilate Stone’? It would initially have been seen on the ‘Tiberium’, a temple dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius, to whom Pilate owed his position as governor – a smart move!  Bearing in mind that English ‘u’ was Latin ‘v’, the word “Tiberieum” can be seen at the top, with “.. tius Pilatus” underneath. Sophisticated techniques have led to the following reconstruction and translation of the original inscription – “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judaea, made and dedicated this Tiberieum to the Divine Emperor”.

Alas, as all too often happens, the ‘glorious’ past eventually gets trodden underfoot. The Tiberium bit the dust in the 4th century, and this limestone slab was put to better use as a building block for a set of stairs added to the structure of the still standing Herodian theatre. And the warning from history? Old Father Time doesn’t belong to the ‘levelling up’ brigade. He takes the lead in ‘levelling down’!

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