Most of the evidence we have for the life and death of Jesus Christ comes from the Gospels and associated religious writings. However, archaeologists flipped the biblical script in the 20th century when they discovered a number of hugely important artifacts, including the fascinating Pilate Stone. This remarkable block of limestone records Pontius Pilate's dedication of a temple to imperial gods. Pontius Pilate and Jesus had a rough history, as Pilate was the one who condemned Jesus to death.
So, why is this stone so important? The crux is it provides independent, non-partisan historical evidence of Pontius Pilate, an important official in the province of Judea who famously "washed his hands" of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Thanks to the Pilate Stone we now know without a doubt that the man who ordered the crucifixion lived and breathed.
Before this discovery, all the evidence of Pilate that historians had was literary. It came from the Gospels and the writings of ancient historians like Josephus or Philo of Alexandria, but no independent archaeological evidence could corroborate that a man named Pontius Pilate ever lived. Once archaeologists saw the name of Pontius Pilate on a block in Judea, they could conclusively prove that Pilate was not an invention of ancient writers, but in fact did live. As a result, scholars can use this as evidence to debunk the idea that Jesus himself never lived.
The giant hunk of limestone with Pilate's name on it bears just four lines of an inscription, but these lines are quite remarkable. Reconstructed by archaeologists, they read as follows:
"To the honorable gods (this) Tiberium
Prefect of Judea,
What exactly was a "Tiberium"? A building or group of buildings containing a temple to the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who ruled the empire during the time Pilate and Jesus were alive. Perhaps people worshipped the image of Tiberius here; indeed, although the emperor wasn't a fan of deification, he did permit his subjects to honor him as a god in the eastern provinces.
For biblical newbies, Pilate was a really important figure in the New Testament - he was the Roman official who ordered Jesus's crucifixion! In the Gospels, the Jews brought a captured Jesus to Pilate, an important official in the Roman government of Judea. The Jews accused Jesus of subverting the Jewish people, banning imperial taxation, and calling himself a monarch.
Pilate admitted Jesus did not seem to be guilty, but the crowds clamored for Jesus's punishment. Then, he famously "washed his hands" of the situation, literally rinsing his hands to show the Jews, not he, was guilty of spilling Jesus's blood. But he then gave the prisoner to his soldiers and thus ordered Jesus's crucifixion.
According to Flavius Josephus, Pilate was a terrible human being. He brought busts of Emperor Tiberius with him to Judea from Rome and tried to put them up in Jerusalem. Judaism forbids the display of graven images, so the Jews were furious. When they went to protest, Pilate surrounded them with soldiers and threatened to kill them if they did not back down. Rumor has it, though, that he backed down, impressed by their willingness to die for their cause. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish-Egyptian historian, called Pilate "spiteful and angry" and cited his violent and abusive nature as symbolic of his poor character.