by Jean-Philippe Fontanille

Author of "The Coins of Pontius Pilate"

- Numismatic knowledge is not required for comprehension of this study -


It is essential, in order to grasp the importance of the artistic creation studied here, to briefly review the historical context in which this exceptional coin was minted. We are in 29 AD, and Jesus preaches in Galilee. According to the date now commonly agreed upon by the majority of exegetes and historians, his death will occur the following spring.

Jordan river.


Christianity’s oldest known artistic evidences are paintings located in Rome’s so-called catacomb of Callixtus. They are dated to the beginning of the third century at the earliest, two centuries after the events. As for the oldest manuscripts, they are dated to the first third of the second century, even there, they are only fragments of a few words. Before that, nothing. From the century following Jesus’ death, we have no object, no evidence regarding him, his disciples or the cult  which he inspired at a very early date. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they do not exist (e.g. relics) but their dating and authenticity are far from being established.


This situation is however easily explained. Christianity’s diffusion was much slower and more chaotic than that of Islam for example. Evidences are extremely rare, at least until emperor Constantinethe first’s contribution to make it the Roman empire’s official religion in the fourth century.


The coin which is the subject of this study is a copper “prutah” (plural “prutot”) of Pontius Pilate bearing two unusual features: a palm-branch countermark and a “figure-like” shape that is part of the design. This 29 AD coin is a specimen of a good minting (see fig. 1) that can be classified in the aVF (about very fine) category according to the international numismatic code. It presents then a quality and an appearance somewhat above average of other Pontius Pilate’s coins whose usual appearance is located around the F+ (fine +), a category below. Its purchasing power was equivalent to one of our quarter-dollar or euro. It was enough to buy a loaf of bread or a fruit. It seems that this coin, incrusted with calcium deposits, must have resided in an environment especially rich in mineral salts…


Pilate’s coins, like those of other prefects and procurators, show neither his effigy, nor his name. Only the emperor’s name could be mentioned (in this case, Tiberius). These inscriptions, to which the date is added (it is through it that we can attribute a coin to a specific leader), are labeled in Greek, inherited from the Hellenistic period. Coins were the only way to introduce the name of the supreme authority in the homes of the farthest conquered provinces of the empire.

TIBEPIOY   KAICAPOC  LIV » (Tiberius emperor, year 29 AD) on the obverse

- « IOYLIA  KAICAPOC » (empress Julia) on the reverse. Julia was Tiberius’ mother.

- « LIV » means that we are in 29 AD. The date was noted according to an alphanumeric code devised by the Greeks (see the Coins Facts section). The starting year was the year when the emperor took power.


The central motif on the obverse of this coin, the simpulum was an important liturgical utensil of the polytheistic Roman cult (see fig. 3). Similar to a ladle, equipped with a handle, shaft and receptacle for liquids, it allowed priests to taste the water or wine that was then spread on the head of a sacrificial animal. After which, the augur examined the bowels for signs sent to men by the gods, so as to interpret them.

This is not the simpulum’s first appearance on a Roman coin (e.g.


There is no doubt that the engraver who realized this coin’s die took incredible liberties with the official design. As a matter of fact, figure 2 shows well that the left superior area of the coin on the right is cluttered by non official motifs that we will study in greater detail.

The Countermarks section).


1. The Silhouette
The precise dimensions of this silhouette which is part of the design are 6.8 mm high by 3.4 wide. Its surface is then less than a quarter square centimeter! Let us note also the proportions: the height is exactly double the width.

This silhouette could be that of a child, unless it is of an adult wearing loose clothing, often the case in warm countries. In fact the sleeves are hanging under the armpits and there appears to be a belt tightening it at waist level. Although hands and feet are not represented, I do not think that some meaning or artistic effect should be the cause, it is more likely that the engraver wanted to simplify the graphic by a voluntary omission.

Simpulum was a liturgical utensil intended to be filled with water or wine according to the ritual practiced. It is in its receptacle that the silhouette falls. Now, if we had asked a Jew of that period what did the image of a human body plunged in water invoked, he would have answered without the least hesitation: baptism.

This work, as surprising as it is admirable, means then that the engraver deliberately chose to hijack the simpulum’s original vocation, symbol of the occupying power’s cult, to transform it into a symbol of the occupied people.

2. The inverted lituus
As well as that mysterious silhouette, we find another alien element on this coin. A lituus is ancestor of the present day bishop’s crozier, used by the Roman priests. Engraved inverted, its curved part replaces the letter “E” in "TIBEPIO" providing this word with an unexpected esthetic quality (fig. 6). The effective and successful artistic effect suggests that the engraver, definitely as imaginative as he was independent, must have proceeded to multiple trials and sketches before undertaking such a die.

It is interesting to note that as early as the following year (the crucifixion year) the lituus would replace the simpulum and become the main illustration of Pilate’s new coins. We note that the middle of the lituus has been obliterated a few years later by the application of the countermark which proves its presence (jointly with the silhouette) on the original die.

lituus is represented upside down (fig. 6) must be considered as a subversive “counter symbol” thrown in the occupier’s face.

lituus’ crook is mingling with the “E” in« TIBEPIO » could not be explained by a simple artistic effect, no matter how ingenious. It would also be a means to make this too openly subversive symbol more discreet. In addition, it is located exactly in the middle of TIBERIUS’ name, as if to show the engraver’s will to take on the occupier’s supreme authority, the emperor himself.

This stunning coin with its “illegal” images testifies at the same time to the Jewish resistance to the Roman occupier. Without a doubt the oldest engraved testimony of Jewish resistance to an oppressor, a precursor of the moving shekels minted 37 years later during the 1st Jewish revolt.


First of all, let us indicate that the term “Christianity” used in the title is a simplification. It is obvious that the adepts of Jesus were fully Jewish and that none of them could have imagined for a single moment the scale of the sequels that History would reserve for this movement.

nd commandment formally forbids all reproduction of a living being. It is even one of Judaism’s foundation still scrupulously observed today.

Galileehates the Torah!”. John the evangelist also called up to mind the inhabitants’ reputation for impiety by quoting: “Can a prophet come out of Galilee?” (7, 52)

lituus’ crook with the “E”s curve testify of a sensitivity and instruction level above the average. On the other hand, coins are such an ordinary part of daily life that the idea to examine them in detail does not come to mind. Who would be able to draw from memory the obverse of coin that we use on a daily basis?


This already exceptional coin has also a countermark consisting of a palm-branch between “C-P” in a depression. Only 13 specimens of Pilate’s coins with countermarks are known around the world (see The Countermarks section). Three of them are in museums in Israel, the other ten are in private collections. I am fortunate enough to have 5 of them.

Israel Numismatic Journal, 1992). This fascinating study shows that these countermarks have been applied around 36-37 for a use related to Roman soldiers stationed in the area. The countermark of the coins that interests us represents a palm leaf flanked by the letter “C” on the left and “U” to the right (the “C” is a little bit difficult to see here) whose signification is unknown. This proves that this coin was still in circulation at the time and remained so afterwards.


I have often noted the strong, fascinating power exerted by Pontius Pilate’s coins, whether you have faith or not. They represent something authentic, essential, which is intensely felt by everyone. How often have I been asked “Can we touch them?” in the fashion of a child wanting to reassure itself that what it sees is real. Touched, they must have been, for close to a century, before spending 19 others beneath the ground or the sand, exposed to the vagaries of weather and time.

What can we say then of this coin and of its fascinating engraver who, by his almost microscopic and “clandestine” work puts us even deeper into the heart of these events?

1.   Anticipates by almost 3 centuries the oldest artistic evidence of Christianity

2.   First artistic evidence of Jewish resistance

3.   Precise and undeniable dating of the work

4.   Presence of a lituus in addition to the silhouette (2 alien elements)

5.   Presence of a countermark (only 13 known)

6.   Accumulation of all these elements on the same area of the same side of the same coin.

It is proper to add that the size of this work is exceptional by itself and that the following coincidence is also extraordinary: these motifs have been applied on a coin minted by one of the main actors of the trial and the crucifixion -hence the birth of Christianity- even before these events occured! Now, Pilate’s coins were far from being the only ones in circulation at the time... 

Let us finally recap the 3 “stratas” presented by this coin:

1.   The “official” graphics (it integrates all the elements)

2.   The alien elements (the silhouette and the lituus figuring on the original die)

3.   The countermark (applied a few years later)