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Coins of the Bible

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Archives / 1980 / July

 

 

Coins of the Bible

Stan Hudson
Stan Hudson is a student at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and is numismatic consultant for the Horn Archeological Museum on campus.

 

Few tangible reminders of everyday life have seen as little change over the centuries as have coins. Except for production techniques, coins have received little improvement in concept from Bible times.

The value of gold and silver as a medium of exchange was widely known, of course, even before the invention of coins. In the Old Testament we find references to such usage. Abraham's wealth was measured in gold, silver, and cattle (Gen. 13:2). When precious metals were meant to be used as money they were formed into ingots or wedges (such as Achan's wedge of Joshua 7:21) and large rings, easy to transport (the bundles of money of Genesis 42:35). This latter usage is preserved in the word kikkar, or talent, meaning "circular" or "ringlike."

Before coins in standard shapes and sizes were invented, payment was determined by weight. In fact, the terms "to pay" and "to weigh" were ex pressed by the one word shaqal. From this verb we get the word shekel (or more accurately, sheqel), which came to denote a somewhat fixed weight of approximately 12 to 14 grams.

By the time of Solomon standardized stone weights, some with inscriptions of values, were used to determine the value of precious metals in barter transactions. Solomon warned against the practice of cheating by using more than one set of weights (Prov. 20:23).

Herodotus accurately assigned the invention of coinage to the Lydians, a small but wealthy merchant nation in western Asia Minor. The first coins, minted about 640 B.C., were struck in electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, originally thought to be an element in its own right. Soon gold alone was being used; silver followed in the time of Croesus (mid-sixth century B.C.). These tiny coins were of similar styles, having either a crude animal (often a lion) or geometric designs on one side, and deep incuse, or sunken, impressions on the other.

When, in 547 B.C., Cyrus took Sardis, and all Asia Minor became a Persian possession, the Persians quickly saw the advantages of the coin. Darius I (Hystaspis) (521-486 B.C.) introduced the gold daric, perhaps named after himself, and its silver counterpart, the siglos. These coins were the first to depict a human being (the issuing king). The daric is mentioned in the Old Testament in Ezra 2:69 and 1 Chronicles 29:7, and it is probably the coin mentioned in Ezra 8:27 and Nehemiah 7:70-72, although different words are used. Also, the shekel of Nehemiah 5:15 may refer to the siglos. These are the only Old Testament coin references.

By the end of the fifth century B.C. coins were being produced in Gaza, Aradus, Tyre, and Sidon, but the Persians deserve the credit for introducing coinage to Israel. Small silver coins, perhaps minted locally, exist with the word Yehud, the Persian name for the province of Judea, inscribed in Aramaic. These were struck in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.

One coin of particular interest shows a bearded head in a Corinthian helmet on the obverse, and a throned deity on the reverse. Since rendering a conquered nation's god on local coinage was a common Persian practice, it is generally thought that this deity is none other than a Persian representation of the God of the Jews (based, perhaps, on Ezekiel's vision), and thus unique in coinage. The rarity of the coin suggests its unpopularity in Judea.

With the entrance of Alexander III (the Great) came the Attic standard of coinage, consisting of the drachma. Alexander established dozens of mints throughout his empire. Acre, later called Ptolemais, became the mint for Pales tine. Alexander's coinage became a standard for centuries. On the obverse of his drachma and tetradrachma was depicted Hercules (or Alexander as Hercules), and the reverse pictured a seated Zeus. The already old custom of placing a "mintmark" on the reverse was continued. The usual legend consisted of Alexandrou—that is, Alexander's (money). The quality of these coins was excellent; they were popular and often counterfeited. The following Ptolemaic and Seleucid rulers continued using similar styles and weights.

The earliest Jewish ruler to strike coins was Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus) 104-78 B.C. For reasons of political dependency and poor economic conditions, these coins were struck only in bronze. Jewish silver coins weren't made until the time of the first Jewish revolt, A.D. 66-70. Jewish coins were never made in gold.

Both in style and weight Yannai's first coin resembled an earlier coin struck in Jerusalem between 132 and 130 B.C. by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus VII (Sidetes). It was slightly smaller than a United States cent and bore a lily on the obverse, with an anchor on the reverse. Yannai's coins had both Hebrew and Greek inscriptions. The Hasmonaeans retained the Hebrew script on coins, as more classical, albeit less common, than the spoken Aramaic.

Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) showed his desire for strengthening foreign elements in Judaea by means of his coins. Only Greek inscriptions were used, a practice copied by his sons. The military character of his reign also shows on his coins in such symbols as shields, helmets, and warships.

Though usually careful not to offend his Jewish subjects, Herod made the only coin ever produced by a Jew for Jews depicting a living thing (contrary to the second commandment). The small bronze coin carried the figure of an eagle—probably the same eagle figure, erected on a Roman-style standard in the Temple courtyard, that caused a riot at the end of Herod's reign. If so, we can date this coin to about the time of Christ's birth—5 or 4 B.C.

Archelaus (Judea, Samaria, and Idumea), Antipas (Galilee and Perea), and Philip (Ituraea, Trachonitis, and other territories) continued minting bronze coins of various sizes, all bearing both the name of Caesar and their own. Later Herods showed less and less Jewish flavor on their coins, preferring to imitate Roman coins.

After Herod Archelaus was banished from Judea, Roman procurators governed his territory from A.D. 6 to 41 and again from A.D. 44 to 66. These rulers minted small bronze coins of uni form size, copying those of the Hasmonaeans and Herods. It was two of these coins, either of the Hasmonaeans, Herods, or procurators that the poor widow of Mark 12:42 cast into the Temple offering box. Such a coin was called a prutah in Aramaic, but this word would be unknown to Mark's non-Jewish readers. Instead, he used the word lepton, which meant a "trifling or tiny thing." He then adds, "which make a farthing," i.e., a Roman quadrans, smallest of Roman coins, to show how monetarily insignificant the widow's offering was.

The procurators weren't allowed to mint coins bearing their own names. Fortunately, however, the coins are dated; and together with the names of the Caesars and other historical records, we can determine the procurator who minted them.

The infamous Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26- 36) made three coins of two different designs. Either he was ignorant of the Jews' religious feeling or he didn't care, for his coins portray strikingly pagan symbols—the lituus (augur's wand) and the simpulum (libation ladle).

Antonius Felix (A.D. 52-59/60) minted two coins of different designs. One coin bore crossed palm branches, the other crossed war shields. Interestingly, the latter is the more common of the two types. A third type, having a barley ear, has usually been attributed to Felix, but now some think that Porcius Festus (A.D. 58 or 60-62) may have struck this type shortly after arriving at Caesarea to replace Felix. Whether produced by Felix or Festus, this coin, struck in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea, was current while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea.

Since these small bronze coins (lepta) were usually poorly struck and had irregular flanges, often with sharp edges, Jesus' reference in Luke 12:33 to "bags which wax not old" (that is, leather purses that don't wear out) is more understandable. It wouldn't take long for these coins to wear out any leather purse they were in.

Seven coins are mentioned by name in the New Testament—the lepton (Mark 12:42; Luke 12:59; 21:2); three Greek silver coins, the drachma (chap. 15:8), the didrachma (Matt. 17:24), and the stater, or tetradrachma (verse 27); the quadrans (chap. 5:26; Mark 12:42); the assarius (Matt. 10:29; Luke 12:6); and the denarius (Matt. 18:28; 20:2, 9, 10). Mina and talent are money terms used in the New Testament, but they refer to weights of silver rather than coins.

The drachma is an unusual coin of Christ's time. The Roman denarius has long replaced the Seleucid/Greek silver coins and was their equivalent. It has been- thought that perhaps the coin (mentioned only in Luke 15:8) was a Cappadocian drachma, bearing Tiberius' bust, since these coins have been found in Palestine and were contemporary with Jesus' story of the woman and her lost coin. I feel, however, that the coin was Seleucid. Jesus' reference seems to be to a bride's dowry portion retained from a wedding. Such coins would be passed from mother to daughter and would ex plain both the presence of a coin no longer in current circulation and the woman's desperation.

The didrachma and tetradrachma (actually stater) are references to silver coins from the city of Tyre, used in the business of the Temple. The staters were equal to shekels, and because the Jews were forbidden to issue their own silver coins, they were forced to use coins from this merchant city. Ironically, the coins bore the image of Israel's old nemesis, Baal. Money-changers were on hand to render service, changing foreign currency into these Tyrian coins for a percentage. Judas was paid with thirty staters.

The quadrans and the assarius were Imperial Roman coins meant to circulate throughout the Empire. The size of a United States cent, the quadrans bore religious symbols, while the larger assarius usually pictured the emperor. The King James Version renders both these coins as "farthing" (Matt. 5:26; 10:29; Mark 12:42; Luke 12:6).

By far the most frequently mentioned coin of the Bible is the denarius, mentioned sixteen times. The denarius was a silver coin the size of a U.S. dime and was worth ten assarii. This is the coin rendered "pence" and "penny" in the King James Version. Civil taxes to Rome had to be paid in this coin. Pious Jews questioned the morality of such an act.

When the Jews revolted from Rome in A.D. 66, they immediately melted down all the Tyrian silver coins in the Temple coffers (and perhaps the circulating denarii as well) and minted the first Jewish silver coins. These shekels and half shekels had a chalice on the obverse, and pomegranates on the reverse. Bronze coins were also struck with similar designs. These coins bore revolutionary slogans such as "The Freedom of Zion," and were dated according to the year of the revolt—"Year Two" (A.D. 67) or "Year Four" (A.D. 69). For the first time since the Hasmonaeans the inscriptions were all in Hebrew.

The second revolt, A.D. 132-135 (led by Bar Cocheba), again saw the Jews minting coins in silver and bronze. During this period, coins were struck over existing Roman coins, often leaving some of the original design showing. As the Jews intended, this infuriated the Romans. The shekel from this revolt is the only coin of antiquity to depict the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Since the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans some sixty years earlier, dating this coin was, for a time, a problem. It is now thought that the design was meant to recall the past abuses of the Romans and instill in the Jews moral outrage and courage for battle.

Thus the ancient world of coins, involving politics, religion, and culture, gives modern students an interesting view of everyday life in Bible times.

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