The Coins of Pontius Pilate

by Andrew McIntyre

Pontius Pilate was appointed governor of Judea by the Roman Emperor Tiberius in 26 AD and he held that position until his removal in 36 AD. According to the Christian gospels, Pilate presided over the trial of Jesus Christ and found him not guilty of subversion. However, pressured by a religious mob, Pilate had Jesus crucified. Even though Pilate's governorship lasted 10 years, he only produced local coinage in Jerusalem for a period of three years (29, 30, and 31 AD). What is remarkable about the coins of Pontius Pilate is that the coins most likely cover the year of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Most biblical scholars accept that Jesus was born under Herod the Great. However, historical record shows that Herod died in 4 BC. Rightly or wrongly, it is the monk Dionysus Exiguous (c. 470 – c. 544) who is credited and blamed for the error in the AD dating system. If Jesus was 33 years old when he was crucified and he was born in 4 BC (no Year 0) then the year of crucifixion would be 30 AD according to the modern calendar. The coins of Pontius Pilate are bronze and, strange as it may seem, the inscriptions on his coins are in Greek. This is because Greek was the dominant written language of the Holy Land dating back to Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Aramaic was the predominant spoken language of the region.

The coins of Pontius Pilate come in two styles. On the front (obverse) of the 1st type is the symbol of the simpulum which was a Roman wine container used in Roman religious ceremonies. This symbol would probably have offended the local Jewish population and this coin was only produced in 29 AD at which time Pilate's coinage was redesigned. The Greek inscription on the front is TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC which means [coin] of Emperor Tiberius. The reverse inscription is IOYLIA KAICAPOC which translates to Empress Julia, mother of Tiberius. The reverse symbol is three stalks of grain and appears to have no special meaning. Although hard to see on this coin, there is a date in Greek on the obverse, LIς = Year 16, referring to the 16th year of Tiberius' rule as Emperor of Rome. The second type of coin of Pontius Pilate, with the symbol on the front being a lituus, or curved wooden staff, is traditionally attributed to having been produced in 30 and 31 AD only. However, some scholars believe it was first produced in 29 AD as there are several specimens that have LIς which would equate to Year 16. As the first type with the grain stalks was not produced after Year 16, it is quite plausible the coins of the second type with the lituus staff were first produced towards the end of Year 16 to replace the first type. The second type then would have continued on for Year 17 & Year 18. The lituus staff was used in Roman ceremonies related to astrology but it is conceivable to pass it off as shepherd's staff. The inscription again was TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC which means [coin] of Emperor Tiberius. The reverse symbol was a laurel wreath with an inscription listing the date of the coin in Greek, either LIZ ( L = Year, I = 10 + Z = 7) for Year 17 = 30 AD or LIH for Year 18 = Year 31 AD. There are other well documented inscription errors on some coins which either would be a sign of carelessness or ignorance on the part of the coin engraver. Therefore, the coin with LIZ for Year 17 = 30 AD is taken to be the year of crucifixion.


LIZ = Year 17 = 30 AD LIH = Year 18 = 31 AD


Sources :
The Coins of Pontius Pilate by Jean-Philippe Fontanille
Pontius Pilate, 29AD, Prutah 2.05g © Gorny & Mosch
Antonio Ciseri's painting of Pontius Pilate presenting Christ to the crowd.

Last updated 4/16/2007