The Money of the Jewish Temple

Coins played an important part in Temple worship from Nehemiah's time on. The faces and inscriptions found on Temple money reveal some interesting details of Jewish history and theology.

Stan Hudson is currently pastor of the Whittier, California, Seventh-day Adventist church. He has been a numismatic consultant to the Siegfried Horn Archeological Museum at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.


Money and the organized church— they've been going together for centuries. Occasionally some may feel they are becoming too intimate! Nevertheless, it has always cost money to keep any church's doors open. Today we may use dollars, marks, or yen. Three thousand years ago, when Solomon's beautiful Temple was just opening its doors, there wasn't a dollar in sight! What kind of money did the Jews use to keep the Temple operating?

Solomon to the Captivity: the first Temple period

God inaugurated for ancient Israel its first stewardship program for a church ministry. To provide the considerable and consistent funds needed for a tabernacle or a temple, from Moses onward, each 20-year-old or older male, rich or poor, had to pay half a shekel as "an offering unto the Lord" at the time of the census (Ex. 30:11-16). The shekel then was a weight—not a coin—equaling from ten to twelve grams, or less than half an ounce. It could be cast as either gold or silver in the form of bars, bracelets, and necklaces. In fact, kikkar, Hebrew for "talent" in the Old Testament, literally means "ringlike." People would wear their money!

When Solomon built his spectacular Temple around 960 B.C., this "Temple tax" became especially important for financing such a large undertaking. The man who wanted to pay his half-shekel tax would come with his silver rings or bars to the Temple courtyard. There the priest or Levite would weigh out half a shekel on a balance scale against a standardized and inscribed stone weight Stan Hudson is currently pastor of the Whittier, California, Seventh-day Adventist church. He has been a numismatic consultant to the Siegfried Horn Archeological Museum at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. (such weights have been found, although not in Palestine). The worshiper may have received "change" and even a receipt in the form of a piece of pottery or a clay tablet with the appropriate "Paid in full" duly recorded thereon.

Zerubbabel to the first revolt: the second Temple period

The Solomonic (or first) Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. After the Persians had conquered Babylon in 539 B.C., Darius I Hystaspes (522-486 B.C.) introduced a revolutionary system of economic exchange throughout the Persian Empire, Pales tine included. This new system of coinage was copied from the recently conquered Lydians of Asia Minor, who had invented it. The standardized discs, or coins, were mass-produced from silver and gold, each disc having Darius' image stamped on it. This marked the birth of coinage.

When the Jewish governor Zerubbabel began to take offerings for rebuilding the Temple, Persian golddarics (named after Darius) and silver sigloi (Persian coins adopted from the Lydians) were received, according to Ezra 2:69. (See Figure 1 for a picture of a doubledaric.) These are the only coins mentioned by name in the Old Testament.

In the following century (fifth century B.C.), Nehemiah made an agreement with the people to reinstate the old Temple tax at the new rate of one-third shekel per year, instead of the former one-half shekel. This offering was "for the service for the house of our God" (Neh. 10:32). The likely reason the rate was lowered was that one-third shekel exactly equaled a Persian siglos, the smallest coin available at that time (there were no bronze coins yet).

Archeologists are not sure whether Persian coins were used in the actual Temple services once the Temple had been rebuilt. Possibly the image of a living thing (the Persian king) would have been considered a violation of the second commandment. In fact, it is possible that no coins were used from Zerubbabel's time through the second century B.C., because archeology suggests a long time before scales and weights were completely displaced. The terms talent and mina, referring to particular weights, not coins, were still used in Christ's time.

At any rate, by the end of the second century B.C., coins were probably fully accepted in Temple services. From this time to the first century A.D. , Jews were not able to make their own silver coins, for political reasons—their Syrian or Roman rulers wouldn't permit them. So they chose the silver coins of the nearby city of Tyre, which enjoyed a special political status. Specifically, the coins chosen were Tyrian didrachms (twodrachma pieces) and tetradrachms (four-drachma pieces), which approximated by weight the Jewish half-shekels and shekels, respectively. First minted in 126 B.C., they appeared in large enough numbers and with good enough quality to end the real need of scales and weights (if they were still used). These coins were dated according to the year of the Tyrian dynasty, 126 B.C. being "yearone."

It is ironic that Tyrian coins bore the image of Melkart, the Phoenician equivalent of Baal, Israel's old enemy. This surely stirred a resentful thought or two from the pious Jew worshiping in the Temple. The reverse carried an Egyptian-styled eagle and the Greek inscription "Tyre the holy and inviolable." The date was to the eagle's left (Figures 2 and 3).

That Jews so soon after the religious revival of the Maccabees chose coins tainted with paganism for sacred service is based on two factors: (1) the liberal Hellenistic Sadducees had gained administrative control of the Temple, and (2) no one wanted to use Roman coins, such as the tetradrachms of Alexandria or Antioch. Apparently no one wanted "Caesar's image" around the Temple. Even Baal was better than Caesar!

Because Jews came from all over the civilized world to worship in Jerusalem, they obviously didn't carry Tyrian coins. This problem was solved by setting up tables in the Temple courtyard with clerks called "moneychangers" (liter ally, "tablers") who would exchange Temple currency for foreign moneys. By the time of Christ this "convenience" apparently grew into a racket for bilking, with large profits being reaped at the expense of visiting worshipers. It was this practice, along with the selling of sacrificial animals for profit, that enraged Jesus to the point of driving everybody out of the holy grounds, charging them with making the Temple " 'a den of robbers'" (Matt. 21:13, R.S.V.).'

By the time of Christ the annual Temple tax was reinstated at the old rate of one-half shekel per year. The collectors of this tax tricked Peter into committing Jesus to its payment, even though prophets were considered exempt by extension of Ezra 7:24. Jesus, not wishing to cause unnecessary trouble, provided for His and Peter's tax by the miracle of the coin in the fish's mouth (Matt. 17:24-27). That coin would have been a Tyrian shekel, or tetradrachm. For betraying Christ, Judas received thirty Tyrian shekels from the chief priests, who probably got the money from Temple coffers. No doubt they considered it in the best interests of their ministry.

Unlike the silver coins, the bronze coins that were used in the Temple from the first century B. c. onward were Jewish. The widow mentioned in Luke 21:1-4 put into the offering box two tiny Maccabean coins, lepta (literally, "tiny things"), translated as "mites" in the King James Version (Figure 4). Though much smaller than an American penny, the widow's offering was a generous one in the eyes of God.

The first Jewish revolt

In A.D. 66 the Jews revolted against the yoke of Rome. During this revolt they melted down all the Tyrian shekels in the Temple coffers and made new all-Jewish coins. These were the first Jewish coins ever made in silver (Figure 5).

These coins carried Hebrew inscriptions dated according to the year of the revolt, "year one" being A.D. 66 and so on. Whereas previously Temple shekels read "Tyre the holy" in Greek, now they read "Jerusalem the holy," an intentional improvement. These were the last coins to be used in Temple services, for Roman soldiers burned the Temple down in A.D. 70.

The second Jewish revolt

But oddly enough, the story of Temple coins doesn't end here. It was in A.D. 132, some sixty years after the destruction of the Temple, that the Jews first minted shekels picturing the Temple. This happened when Jews again revolted against Rome, this time under the leadership of Simon bar Kochba.

During this second revolt Roman tetradrachms from Antioch were overstruck with a new Jewish design of the facade of the long-destroyed Temple, complete with a prominent fence in the foreground to keep out the Gentiles, or Romans (Figure 6). Inside the Temple can be seen the ark of the covenant, depicted lengthwise. Some of the original Roman design was often left purposely, of course, to show through—a painful insult to imperial Rome.

Historically, this remarkable coin perplexed coin experts, because it had the inscription "Simon" ("Sh'mon") on it. At first most experts thought that it referred to Simon Maccabaeus, who, according to 1 Maccabees 15:6, was given authority by the Syrian ruler of Judea to mint his own coins. That was in 140 B.C., long before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Archeology, however, has come to the rescue and proved conclusively, with the discovery of more coins, that they belonged to Simon bar Kochba's time, not that of Simon the Maccabean. It would be most difficult to strike second century B.C. coins over second century A.D. coins!

Archeology has provided evidence that even after the Temple was gone, "money of the Temple" was still being used.

* From the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.

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Stan Hudson is currently pastor of the Whittier, California, Seventh-day Adventist church. He has been a numismatic consultant to the Siegfried Horn Archeological Museum at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

September 1984

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