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Biblical Coins

September 6, 2018

(Jesus replied)“Show me the coin for the tax.”And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”  When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.(Matthew 22:19-22 ESV)

 

Introduction

 

Coins from the biblical period offer tangible reminders of everyday life during ancient times, but also reveal the geo-political and religious situation of their era.  Minting and circulation of coins began during the seventh century BC.  Nevertheless, coins did not generally touch upon biblical history until the Persian or Post Exilic Period (539-332 BC).  From that time forward, coins have been a central medium of trade and exchange and used as illustrations by Jesus Christ in several of His parables and messages to followers that emphasize their plight provide lessons from the common use of money in the culture of the day.  Coins were struck from circular blanks, called flans.   The produce flans, workers poured molten metal into limestone molds, normally with several carefully drilled round sockets connected by narrow channels.  Once cooled, the strip of flans were reheated and each flan hammer struck on a solid base between two incised dies until an entire strip of coins was completed. Afterwards, the workers cut each newly minted coin from the connecting strip, often leaving one or two short rectangular shaped protruding stubs on each coin.  Off center strikes were commonly found, while double stampings and other blunders are somewhat more seldom encountered.

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

Before the widespread circulation of coinage occurred during the Post Exilic Period, payment for a product or service was determined by weight in gold, silver or other semi-precious material. The biblical Hebrew term sheqel, which also serves as the currency exchange unit for the modern State of Israel, originates from the verb “to weigh” and represents a fixed weight of about 12-14 grams.  Like their neighbors, ancient Israelites collected “Hack silver” consisting of broken jewelry, ingots and other small pieces of precious or semi-precious metal for bartering purposes.  The biblical Hebrew term keseph, which in Modern Hebrew usage refers to “money” or “cash,” actually denoted silver in antiquity.  Old Testament references to coins are limited to Ezra 2:69 and 1 Chronicles 29:7, which mention the dariccoin (cf., Ezra 8:27; Nehemiah 5:15; 7:70-72), named after Persian king Darius I (Hudson 1980: 26-27; Hendin 1987: 25-37).  Perhaps the most biblically significant Old Testament coins are the tiny silver Yehud coins minted for the province of Yehud (Judah). No larger than the head of a 16 penny nail, the Yehud series of coins are historically important for several reasons. They are the first Jewish coins struck in Jerusalem using archaic Hebrew lettering and minted by semi-autonomous Jewish provincial administrators (see further e.g., Meshorer 1967: 35-40; 1982a: 13-34; Kindler 1974: 8; Hendin 1987: 31-37; and their brief treatment in the Persian Period Artifacts essay in this volume).

Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (104-78 BC) was the first autonomous Jewish ruler to mint currency. These bronze coins, slightly smaller than a penny, resembled earlier Seleucid coins minted by Antiochus VII, but Alexander Jannaeus inscribed his coins in both Hebrew and Greek (Meshorer 1967: 56-59; 1982a: 35-98; Kindler 1974: 14-19; Hendin 1987: 40-46).

Coinage minted by Herod the Great (37-4 BC) exclusively used Greek inscriptions.  One of his later coins depicted an image of an eagle, violating the second commandment and consequently likely contributed to riots near the end of his reign (Meshorer 1967: 64-68; 1982b: 5-30; Kindler 1974: 27-33; Hendin 1987: 59-64).

Roman procurators, such as Pontius Pilate (AD 26-36), minted small copper coins that continued the tradition of the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties (Meshorer 1967: 102-106; Kindler 1974: 94-106; Hendin 1987: 81-88).  Most likely two of these coins, called lepta(singular lepton) in Mark 12:42 represented the poor widow’s mite tithed to the Temple (Luke 12:59; 21:2; Meshorer 1982b: 172-187; Hendin 1987: 173).  

The Roman denariuswas a silver coin about the size of a dime and represented a day’s wage (Matthew 20:1-16).   The most frequently mentioned coin in the Bible, the Good Samaritan paid two denarii to the innkeeper to care for the robbed man (Luke 10:35) and the coin Jesus Christ referred to when He instructed His audience to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s was a Roman denarius(Matthew 22:19; Mark 12:15-16; Luke 20:24). In all, the New Testament mentions the denariussixteen times (Hudson 1980: 28; Hendin 1987: 171-172).

The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) may refer to an earlier Seleucid coin handed down from mother to daughter as a wedding dowry known as the Greek drachma.  Since the Roman denariushad long since replaced the Greek drachmaas standard currency in the region, these coins had limited circulation (Hudson 1980: 28).

The didrachmapayment for the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24) and the tetradrachmacoin Peter retrieved from the mouth of a fish to pay taxes at Capernaum (Matthew 17:27) are Tyrian coins known in Greek as a stater.  The chief priests paid Judas Iscariot thirty pieces of silver (staters) to betray Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:14-15; 27:3-10; cf. Zechariah 11:10-14; Hendin 1987: 173-174).

Jewish rebels minted bronze and silver coins during the First Jewish Revolt (66-70) and the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135).  During the First Revolt, rebels inscribed their coins entirely in Hebrew and dated them from year one to year five.  They included nationalistic slogans such as The Freedom of Zionand Jerusalem the Holy.  The corpus of Bar Kochba coins include variants featuring the façade of the Temple, ironically already destroyed 60 years previously (Meshorer 1967: 88-101; 1982b: 96-165; Kindler 1974: 52-93; Hendin 1987: 89-112).

Larger cities, such as those of the Decapolis (a league of cities including Scythopolis, and Pella, Gerasa, Gadera, Hippos, Abila as well as Philadelphia in Transjordan), minted their own coins (e.g., Barkay 2003; Spijkerman 1978; Meshorer 1985; Hendin 1987: 129-170). Many excavation reports publish groups of coins with various dates found at specific biblical sites (e.g., DeRose Evans 2006), while other studies focus upon coins minted by specific polities (e.g., Meshorer 1975).

After an extraordinarily bloody five years of war, Roman troops finally broke through the last Jewish defenses in Jerusalem, effectively ending the First Jewish Revolt, except for groups of rebels holding out in a few desert redoubts.  To commemorate this great victory of the Flavian emperors, Rome issued a series of coins inscribed with Judaea Capta(Judaea Captured).  Struck in Gold, Silver and Bronze and minted at Caesarea for circulation Judaea, Samaria and the Galilee for a decade, the coins featured the bust of Vespasian or Titus with the reverse showing variations of a palm tree flanked by the victorious emperor and a captive or seated and mourning Jew or Jewess.  As one could easily imagine, these coins were a most painful reminder to the decimated Jewish population of their defeat (Meshorer 1967: 107-109; 1982b: 190-193; Kindler 1974: 113-123; Hendin 1987: 113-128).

Other monetary terms, such as minaand talentrefer to units of weight rather than currency. The minaweighed about .6 kilograms (Ezra 2:69).  Its most notable attestation in the New Testament is the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27; cf., 1 Kings 10:17).  The talentvaried in weight between 26 and 33 kg (57-75 lbs.; e.g., Matthew 25:14-30).

 

Physical Description

 

Six biblically significant coins selected from the Horn Museum collection are presented here:  

Two bronze coins of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC; 862.0010; 962.0011) featuring a star and an anchor on the reverse (Meshorer 1967: 118-119; Kindler 1974: 17).

A leptoncoin of Herod the Great (37-4 BC; 1166.0001) depicting an anchor and double cornucopiae with a caduceus on the reverse (Meshorer 1967: 129; Kindler 1974: 32).  

A “Widow’s Mite” leptoncoin (357.0027) minted by Pontius Pilate displaying an augur’s wand with the name Tiberius and a wreath on the reverse (Meshorer 1967: 133; Kindler 1974: 103).

Two First Jewish Revolt coins (457.0028; 1666.0027) that depict a narrow-necked amphora with a vine branch with leaf and tendril on the reverse.  The two coins are inscribed with “Year Two” (AD 67-68) and “Deliverance of Zion” and “Year Three” (AD 68-69) and “The Freedom of Zion” respectively (Meshorer 1967: 155-156; Kindler 1974: 54-55).

A Tyrian silver sheqel.

Two coins from the Judaea Captaseries (1766.0029; 2757.0042) with the first coin showing a bust of (check) and a (check) on the reverse.  The second coin features a bust of Vespasian with the emperor galloping over a fallen enemy (probably a Jewish rebel) on the reverse.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Barkay, Rachel

2003    The Coinage of Nysa-Scythopolis (Beth-Shean).  Jerusalem:  Israel Exploration                          Society.

 

Bressett, Kenneth

            2013    Money of the Bible.  Third edition.  Atlanta: Whitman.

 

DeRose Evans, Jane

2006    The Coins and the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Economy of Palestine.  The Joint              Expedition to Caesarea Maritima Excavation Reports 6.  Boston: The American                          Schools of Oriental Research.

 

Hachlili, Rachel, and Killebrew, Ann

1983    Was the Coin-on-Eye Custom a Jewish Burial practice in the Second Temple                              Period?  Biblical Archaeologist46/3: 147-153.

 

Hendin, David

            1987    Guide to Biblical Coins.  New York:  Amphora.

 

Hudson, Stan

            1980    Coins of the Bible.  Ministry53/7 (July): 26-28.

 

Kindler, Arie

1974    Coins of the Land of Israel.  Translated by R. Grafman from                                                            Hebrew.  Jerusalem: Keter.

 

Kindler, Arie, and Stine, Alla

1987    A Bibliography of the City Coinage of Palestine:  From the 2ndcentury B.C. to the                        3rdcentury A.D. BAR International Series 374. Oxford:  B.A.R.

 

Klawans, Zander H.

1995    Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins.  Edited by Ken E.                                                    Bressett.  Racine: Whitman Coin Products and Western.

 

Madden, Frederic W.

1967    History of Jewish Coinage and of Money in the Old and New                                                          Testament.  Prolegomenon by Michael Avi-Yonah.  Library of Biblical Studies.  New                  York:  Ktav.

 

Mayer, Leo A.

1966    A Bibliography of Jewish Numismatics.  Edited by Michael Avi-                                                      Yonah.  Jerusalem: Magnes.

 

Meshorer, Ya’akov

1967    Jewish Coins of the Second Temple Period.  Translated by I.H. Levine from                                 Hebrew.  Tel-Aviv: Am Hassefer.

1975    Nabataean Coins.  Qedem 3.  Jerusalem: Institute of Archeology, Hebrew University.

1982a  Ancient Jewish Coinage.  Volume 1: Persian Period through Hasmonaeans. Dix                          Hills:  Amphora (revised and expanded in Meshorer 2001).

1982b  Ancient Jewish Coinage.  Volume 2: Herod the Great through Bar Cochba. Dix                            Hills:  Amphora (revised and expanded in Meshorer 2001).

1985    City Coins of Eretz-Israel and the Decapolis in the Roman Period.  Catalog 252.                          Jerusalem:  The Israel Museum.

2001    A Treasury of Jewish Coins:  From the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba.  New                                York: Amphora.

 

Reifenberg, Adolf

1953    Israel’s History in Coins:  From the Maccabees to the Roman Conquest.  London: East              and West Library.

1963    Ancient Jewish Coins.  Third edition. Jerusalem:  Rubin Mass.

 

Spijkerman, Augustus

1978    The Coins of the Decapolis and Provincia Arabia, edited by Michele Piccirillo. Collectio              Maior 25. Jerusalem:  Franciscan.

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