Review: The Coins of Pontius Pilate

Jean-Philippe Fontanille and Sheldon Lee Gosline. The Coins of Pontius Pilate. Marco Polo Monographs 4. Warren Center, PA: Shangri-La Publications, 2001. 176 pp., 4 color plates, b/w illus. throughout. ISSN 1527-2265. Hb.: $34.50, Pb. $26.00.

Jean-Philippe Fontanille and Sheldon Lee Gosline (hereafter F. and G.) should be commended for their attempt to bring together in one place the current knowledge concerning the coins of the most (in)famous of the governors of Roman Judaea. They should also be recognized for their obvious passion for their subject, although at times the raw enthusiasm seems to lead the authors astray of some of the more likely historical and numismatic conclusions to be drawn from their study.

The book is essentially divided into an historical and a numismatic section. The first 38 pages are devoted to providing an historical overview of Judaea under direct Roman rule and to detailing the evidence for Pontius Pilate, the man. The final 42 pages of the main text provide a study of the three bronze coin types issued by Pilate in years 16, 17 and 18 (A.D. 29, 30 and 31, respectively) of Tiberius’ reign, including a very thorough study of type and inscriptional variants. The variant catalogs (pp. 44-46, 50-55, 58-68) are some of the most useful features of the book. In addition to the main text, The Coins of Pontius Pilate also includes three appendices covering such subjects as the current market for Pilate’s coins, their possible appearance on the Shroud of Turin, and a classification table with a concordance to Y. Meshorer’s Ancient Jewish Coins and D. Hendin’s Guide to Biblical Coins.

High quality black-and-white digital images of the coins and enlargements of their various features are liberally sprinkled throughout the book in order to aid the reader in understanding the complexities of the series. The four pages of plates are a special treat because, unlike in most numismatic studies, they are presented in full color. The green and tan patinas are quite beautiful, despite the crudeness of the actual coin designs.

It should be pointed out that The Coins of Pontius Pilate is really two books in one, because immediately following the English language text (pp. 1-108) is a French version (pp. 109-176). Unfortunately, the French and English texts are not identical translations of one another. Some of the historical detail present in the English version, which suffers from typographical and grammatical errors, has been dropped out of the French.

The historical section is generally well presented, although in spots it might have benefited from deeper research than a cursory reading of the entries in the Catholic Encyclopedia. In the first chapter F. and G. provide the background for the fall of the Herodian dynasty and the establishment of Judaea as a Roman province in A.D. 6. The authors make a good point of explaining that although it is common modern practice to describe all of the Roman governors of the region as the “Procurators of Judaea,” Pontius Pilate as well as all the other governors before A.D. 44 was an equestrian prefect rather than a procurator.

A brief chapter detailing the types of coins that circulated in Judaea at the time of Pontius Pilate, as well as a description of changes in Jewish money follows this historical overview.

The final chapter of the historical section (pp. 17-33), which deals specifically with the person of Pontius Pilate and his rule in Judaea, is one of the most interesting in the whole book. F. and G. provide a biography based not only on the standard ancient accounts of Josephus, Philo Judaeus and the four Gospels, but they also draw on some of the more obscure apocryphal sources, such as the Life of Jesus in Arabic and The Doctrine of the Apostle Addai. Anyone with an interest in biblical and particularly early Christian history would enjoy reading this chapter.

A discussion of the old debate concerning the new Roman religious types that Pilate employed for his bronze prutot (pp. 34-38) introduces the numismatic section. Instead of adhering to the established custom of using types clearly inoffensive to Jewish Law, he issued coins depicting the simpulum (a ladle for pouring wine on sacrificial animals) and the lituus (augur’s wand). The question that naturally arises from this break with tradition has been whether Pontius Pilate did so in an attempt to provoke his Jewish subjects or out of ignorance that such symbols might cause upset. Following the work of H. Bond, F. and G. come to the reasonable conclusion that if Pilate, who had a reputation for offending the Jews in the ancient sources, had really wanted to stir up trouble he could have done a much better job by placing the head of the emperor on his coinage. One is also tempted to agree with the authors’ suggestion that the especially poor rendering of the types on many of the coins would have made them ineffectual agents provocateurs. Concerning the choice of types, F. and G. make the interesting observation that Pilate had his coins struck on one side with a Roman emblem (lituus or simpulum) and on the other with a neutral “Jewish” symbol (wreath or grain ears). It may be worth adding that what appears to be the purposeful pairing of Roman and Jewish symbols had already occurred on the dated issues of Herod the Great (see O. Hoover, The Picus 4 (1995), pp. 8-29).

F. and G. spend the next 29 pages describing the types and inscriptions used on Pilate’s coins and cataloging their many variants with photographs. The description of variant types is quite useful although the authors’ interpretation of some anomalies tends towards the fanciful. For example, the authors see in an irregularity on an apparently unique specimen of year 16, the “profile” of a child falling into the simpulum (p. 46). They also suggest that the lituus was probably not offensive to Jews on the grounds that a small lituus also appeared on the portrait coins of Nero issued under Herod Agrippa II (A.D. 56-95). F. and J. fail to appreciate that these coins were struck in Neronias (Caesarea Philippi), a predominantly pagan city, in which the strictures of Mosaic Law had little force.

Although the discussion of dates and date variants (pp. 58-63) is extremely thorough there is, however, some unfortunate confusion about the debate concerning the lituus issues bearing the date LIZ (year 17) which F. and G. curiously suggest hinges on a misinterpretation of the letters S and lower case sigma. Instead, the actual argument advanced by some scholars is that the Greek letter Z is really a poorly engraved and retrograde letter sigma. Thus the date should be understood as year 16 (A.D. 29). While the generally poor quality of Pilate’s coins and three variants of LIZ in which S replaces Z (var. 2i, 2j and 2l on pp. 60-61), make this argument plausible, the authors are probably correct to recognize LIZ as a perfectly reasonable Greek date representing year 17 (A.D. 30). F. and G. also point out that variants of the date LIH (year 18=A.D. 31) are very rare. They may be even less common than they suggest, for variant 3c with LIN for LIH appears to be a trick of the coin’s patina and the horizontal H character of variant 3d may be a more formal letter Z.

A good overview of inscriptional variants is also provided on pp. 64-68 with the reasonable suggestion that a combination of haste, illiteracy, and poor estimation of letter space by the die engravers should be blamed for the large number of misspellings, particularly in the spelling of the title KAICAPOC. The star variant is the simpulum issue 1d in which the letter E of Tiberius’ name has apparently been replaced by a character closely resembling the lituus of Pilate’s later issues.

Having described the wide-ranging characteristics of the three main types of Pontius Pilate coins, F. and G. tackle the thorny issue of the rare countermarks that were applied to some of his coins. These countermarks normally depict a palm branch flanked by the Greek letters sigma and pi, which K. Lönnqvist (INJ 12 (1992-93), 56 ff.) has interpreted as an abbreviation of speira, the Greek term for a Roman cohort. The authors’ theory that the palm branch represents a palm grove in which the countermarking legionary cohort was stationed is hard to accept since whenever this emblem appears as a countermark on Roman provincial and earlier Hellenistic coins it tends to symbolize victory or general success. It is also difficult to support the alternate suggestion that the palm branch represents a lulav used at the Jewish festival of Sukkoth (pp. 73-74) if sigma does indeed represent speira. One is hard pressed to imagine why a group of Jewish rebels would describe themselves in Roman military terms. Close inspection of the mysterious CY inscriptional variant (figs. 109 and 118) shows that the letter Y is a misread pi. A die flaw seems to have created the tail of the Y.

The final section (pp. 74-77) of the main text is devoted to the strange anomalies on a single coin (fig. 109), including the letter E of TIBEPIOY replaced by what appears to be a lituus, and the mysterious “profile” located above the simpulum type. The latter has the appearance of a small man or child with outstretched arms, but it is impossible to be sure what it is since it is immediately bordered on the upper left by a countermark. It is impossible to know how much, if any, of the “profile” was obliterated in the countermarking process. Thus it is also impossible to know whether the “profile” is really an intentional figural representation or the result of some flaw in the die or mint error. Nevertheless, the authors have interpreted the “profile” figure as falling into simpulum, a receptacle for holding liquid, and therefore as a possible representation of proto-Christian baptism. The extremely speculative nature of this theory hardly needs to be pointed out. It is highly unlikely that any proto-Christian die-engraver would have tried to draw attention to himself by drastically changing the coin type of one of the most hated prefects of Judaea. It is even less likely that a proto-Christian would have recognized dipping in a ritual vessel as a form of baptism. Baptism, as promoted by St. John the Baptist, always took place in the Jordan River (Matt. 3:4-5; Mark 1:4-6). St. John was so well known for his harsh wilderness lifestyle that later Christian art depicted him conducting baptism by pouring water with his bare hands or with a shell, a product of nature, never a simpulum or a similar vessel.

No book attempting to give an overview of Pontius Pilate and his coins would be complete without some comment on the much-debated Shroud of Turin. The authors do not disappoint their readers in this area, providing in an appendix 15 pages of discussion as well as six pages of pertinent bibliography. F. and G. should be applauded for their even-handed and non-partisan approach to the question of the Shroud’s authenticity. They give a good general history of the scientific study of the Shroud and then move on to the main question regarding the possible placement of Pontius Pilate prutot over the eyes of the Shroud image. Particularly notable in this discussion is the attention to the archaeological evidence for the placement of coins over the eyes of the deceased as a Jewish custom dating back to the first century A.D. Using digitally enhanced enlargements of the eye areas, taken from the original STURP photographs, F. and G. conclude that two lituus coins have been placed over the eyes, while they do not rule out the possibility that a simpulum type (turned to the grain ears reverse) may have been placed over the left eye.

Although many of the conclusions presented in The Coins of Pontius Pilate should be viewed with skepticism, the raw data on variants and the historical introduction will no doubt make it a popular book among collectors of the series and those interested in biblical history.

—Oliver D. Hoover