Pilate’s Coins Reflect His Nature

Pilate is one of the central characters in the legal proceedings that sent Jesus to the cross. When Pilate realized that his interrogation of Jesus was going nowhere and the uproar of the crowd was escalating, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Mathew 27:24, NIV) Was this an act of indifference? Was Pilate trying to appease the crowd? Or was there something more behind this metaphor of water and washing hands? If we examine the coins that Pontius Pilate authorized while Jesus walked this earth, perhaps it will provide insight into Pilate’s spiritual persuasions that allowed the crucifixion of our Lord.
Historically, the Roman Emperor appointed a Procurator or governor over Roman provinces. These Procurators, like Pilate, produced small, copper coins for use in everyday commerce. Each governor produced his own crudely-made coins, hand punched on a piece of bronze.
Pilate minted two types of these coins. The first bore the image of a libation ladle and the second had an auger. Consider how these symbols provide insight into Pilate’s background, world view and religious perspective.
The first coin used the image of the simpulum, a Roman ceremonial ladle used in Roman pagan ceremonies. At that time the libation label was used to pour out offerings to the Roman pagan gods.1 The inscription on the front of the coin read: TINEPIOY KAICAPOC, translated it means of Emperor Tiberius. This clearly pointed to Pilate supporting Tiberius’s claim as the head priest and emperor over the Roman Empire.
The reverse of this coin showed barley leaves, which probably reflected the local economy. The inscription read IOYLIA KAICAPCC translated of Empress Julia and referred to Julia, mother of Tiberius. These coins were thought to be minted by Pilate in the years 29-31 AD, although there is some argument that none were made in the year 29.
The Bible reminds us that wine offered as drink offerings was presented only to God. These offerings as ordained and described in scripture were very different from the Roman offerings made to pagan gods.
The second type of coin issued showed an auger called a lituus staff. It also bore the same inscription as the earlier coin. Allen Brent wrote, “Augury sought the divine will regarding any proposed course of action which might affect Rome’s pax, fortuna and salus (peace, good fortune and wellbeing). Political, military and civil actions were sanctioned by augury, historically performed by priests of the college of augurs and by haruspices on behalf of senior magistrates.”2
The reverse side of these coins showed a wreath along with the same inscription, of Empress Julia, mother of Tiberius. The symbols that Pilate chose to use on the coins circulated in Judea were like sending an arrow to the heart of the Jewish people. It was almost like he went out of his way to use symbolism that directly offended the Jews. His coins not only pictured the overwhelming power of Rome, they promoted pagan religion.
Today, we use historical political figures we may or may not like on our coins, but they still display the wording; “In God we trust.” Imagine if we were forced to use coins every day that highlighted pagan or witchcraft symbols and we had no choice but to use them to buy bread and other necessities.
Some portray Pilate as a weak, indecisive or cowardly leader. However, his coins tell a different story. He believed in sorcery and the Roman pagan gods and pushed those beliefs through symbols on his coins. By doing so, he participated with the work of the enemy of man’s soul.
These examples from 2000 years ago help document the mind of the person who ordered the crucifixion of Christ and ruled Jerusalem on behalf of Rome. Though part of God’s plan, Pilate was much more than an innocent bystander. He placed on his coins what resonated in his heart. With the freedom of choice his rule gave him, he did nothing to stop the crucifixion even though he did not believe Christ’s actions warranted the death penalty. Though he believed his authority gave him power over life and death, God defied the very symbols on his coins with the resurrection of Jesus. The power of his coin didn’t go beyond the worth of the copper it came from. In the end, God had the last word and we remember Pilate as the man who didn’t.


1. John Scheid, “Sacrifices for Gods and Ancestors,” A Companion to Roman Religion, Blackwell, 2007, p. 269.

2. A. Brent, A., The Imperial Cult and the Development of Church Order: Concepts and Images of Authority in Paganism and Early Christianity before the Age of Cyprian, illustrated, Brill Publishers, 1999, p. 20.