What archaeologists find is important. But what they don’t find can be just as important—such as their failure to find coins anywhere in the world before the end of the 7th century B.C. In the Holy Land, coins are not found until about 100 years later.
This total absence of coins—despite extensive excavations—is an important datum in itself. It means that Biblical references to specific coins during the First Temple Period (c. 960 B.C.–586 B.C.) are anachronistic. The Biblical historian writing at a later time, when coins were in use, assumed—incorrectly—that they were in use at an earlier period.
There are several examples of this kind of anachronism in the Bible. The author of the first book of Chronicles (writing during the Persian Period (539–333 B.C., the beginning of the Second Temple period) anachronistically assumed that coins were in use in the earlier period he was writing about; the author tells us of contributions of darics to assist in building Solomon’s Temple (see 1 Chronicles 29-7).
Before the introduction of coinage, commerce and exchange were carried on in the Holy Land by weighing precious metals—gold and silver—with weights and scales. This system was cumbersome, and the accuracy of the weights was questionable. It was also difficult for the ordinary merchant to judge the purity of the metal. With the development of international commerce, a better and simpler means of exchange was inevitable.
In Biblical sources written before 586 B.C., payment is made either in ingots of precious metals or, on occasion, jewelry. Most of the ingots mentioned in the Bible are gold, such as the gold ingots hidden by Achan which brought the Israelite defeat at Ai (see Joshua 7-21). (The references to shekels in this passage are to a unit of weight, as is clear from the passage itself; only much later did the shekel become a coin.)
Biblical descriptions of jewelry—earrings and bracelets—often include exact weights; the jewelry was deliberately molded into certain standard weights, so that it could be used as a means of exchange. (A)a In Genesis 24-22 Abraham’s servant gives Rebecca “a golden earring of half a shekel weight and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold.”
The oldest known coins were struck in Lydia, in western Asia Minor, just before 600 B.C. Gradually coinage spread throughout the Greek world. By the end of the 6th century B.C., coins were in common use among the Greeks and had reached the East in small quantities. Several Greek coins from the end of the 6th century B.C. have been unearthed in excavations in the Holy Land, Syria and Egypt.
By the 5th century B.C. the use of coins was common in the entire Middle East. Most of the coins were Greek, but the few Phoenician coins are evidence of the beginnings of local Middle Eastern mintings.
Scholars are still puzzled as to why Persian coins were not used in the Eastern Mediterranean coastal region at this time, despite the fact that Persia ruled the area between Asia Minor in the north and Egypt in the south during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. Gold darics and silver sigloi of Persia, for some unexplained reason, circulated only in Persia, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, but not in Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan.
Coins began to be minted in the Holy Land itself about 400 B.C. or shortly thereafter. The first coins were struck in Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. Naturally enough, they imitated Athenian and Phoenician coins, and depicted typical Greek and oriental symbols. (B)
Early fourth century coins from Gaza are especially interesting because they so clearly reflect the variety of cultures which had been absorbed by the local population. On these coins we find Egyptian elements and symbols such as sphinxes and the Egyptian god Bes; dolphins and galleys derived from Phoenician coins; and lions and other animals which reflect Cypriot influence. Some of the inscriptions on the coins imitate Greek inscriptions; others are in Phoenician and Aramaic. The inscriptions mention Gaza, Ashdod (a few miles north of Gaza), and the names of several local governors.
Toward the middle of the fourth century, the power of the Persian overlords declined in the Holy Land and a number of local governors began to mint their own coins. So too did the Jews of Jerusalem. (C)
The first Jewish coins, dated about 350 B.C., depict owls, imitating Athenian coins, but with Hebrew inscriptions, such as YHD (Yehud or Yehuda)—the Persian-Aramaic name for the Persian satrapy of Judaea. The only Jewish symbol on these coins is the lily, characteristic of Jewish art in Jerusalem and a frequent design used in the Temple. This symbol either replaces the olive branch depicted near the owl of the Greek coins or stands as the main design.
Although local mints in the Holy Land produced many coins, the principal coinage in use during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. came from Phoenicia. These Phoenician coins were struck in Sidon and Tyre. Most popular were silver coins weighing 28 grams and 12 grams; however, Athenian silver tetradrachmas weighing 16 grams were also widely used. These three coins comprised the large denominations. Coins of smaller value came from local mints, principally Gaza and Jerusalem. These smaller local coins varied from 1 drachma (4 grams of silver) down to the smallest denomination, the hemiobol (1/3 gram of silver).
The coins of this period were almost all silver. Neither gold nor electrum coins were in circulation in the Holy Land. The only bronze coins in circulation in Palestine were small denominations from Sidon and, on occasion, from Tyre. These Phoenician coins reflect the sea-faring interests of Phoenician culture, and depict galleys and sea-horses.
Alexander the Great’s conquest of the East in 332 B.C. ended the Persian Period and ushered in the Hellenistic Period. With that conquest, an international Attic (Greek) standard coinage replaced the variety of standards and denominations which had characterized the market in the Holy Land during the Persian Period. The standard was based on gold staters and silver drachmas; a series of denominations included heavy gold coins, less valuable silver denominations, and finally several bronze denominations. The mint at Akko (Acre) cooperated in this international coin-system.
This period is characterized by the penetration of Greek influence into the cast. Oriental mints in Mesopotamia, for example, minted coins depicting the head of Heracles on one side and the image of Olympic Zeus seated on a throne holding an eagle, on the other side. Inscribed on the coin was the name of Alexander in Greek.
In 312 B.C., after the battle of Raphia, Alexander’s empire was divided between the Seleucids in the north (including Mesopotamia) and the Ptolemies in the south (including Egypt). During the third century B.C., the Holy Land was under the rule of the Ptolemies and only Ptolemaic coins circulated in the country, minted either in Egypt or in some local mint such as Gaza, Akko, Ashkelon or Yaffo (Jaffa).
During the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus—the most prominent king of the Ptolemaic dynasty—the kingdom flourished, and relations between Alexandria, its capital, and Jerusalem, head of the Jewish community, reached its height. According to one version of the letter of Aristeas, Ptolemy II invited 72 scholars from Jerusalem to come to Alexandria to translate the Bible into Greek (the Septuagint) for his huge library, which was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. He also sent precious gifts to the Temple in Jerusalem—ceremonial objects of gold and silver.
During his reign and that of his predecessor, Ptolemy I, many tiny silver coins were minted in Jerusalem by the Jewish municipal authorities, depicting the head of the Ptolemaic king with the Hebrew inscription YHD. (Yehuda or Yehud). This had been the name of the official Persian satrapy comprising Jerusalem and some parts of Judaea, but during the Ptolemaic period, Yehuda probably referred to the city of Jerusalem.
In 198 B.C. Antiochus III defeated the Ptolemies at the battle of Paneas, and the Land of Israel passed to Seleucid dominion. No Ptolemaic coins from the 2nd century B.C. on have been found in ancient Israel; only Seleucid coins, struck in Syria Asia Minor and some local mints, were circulated. Towards the end of the 2nd century B.C., as the Seleucid regime declined, local governors and commercial centers attained a measure of independence, and dared to mint coins which depicted symbols characterizing their own cities, rather than the official royal Seleucid designs. Many coins of this period are devoted half to the Seleucid king, and half to the city in which they were minted; thus, coins of Ashkelon depict the dove of the local goddess, Astarte; coins of Tyre bear the palm-tree, symbol of that city. Jerusalem, under the Seleucid rule of Antiochus VII and Antiochus VIII, minted coins which mention the name of the Seleucid king on one side and depict a lily, the symbol of Jerusalem on the other.
The Seleucid overlordship of Palestine ended with the Maccabean revolt in 163 B.C., thus returning the country to Jewish rule and installing the Hasmonaean dynasty. The first Hasmonaean rulers did not mint coins, however Hasmonaean coinage began with Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.), who enlarged the Jewish state almost to the borders of the kingdom in King Solomon’s day. At first, Alexander Jannaeus’ coins imitated the earlier Seleucid coins previously struck in Jerusalem; for example, some depict a lily and an anchor with a Greek inscription. (G) Later Alexander Jannaeus struck coins with Jewish symbols unlike any previous coins. One such coin showed a double cornucopiae with a pomegranate between the horns, and a long Hebrew inscription- “Yehonatan the High Priest and the Assembly of the Jews”. Yehonatan was not only the High Priest; he later had himself appointed king His sons Judas Aristobolus II (67–63 B.C.) and John Hyrcanus II (63–40 B.C.) and grandson, Mattathias Antigonus (40–37 B.C.) later minted similar coins.
The Hasmonaeans did not mint silver coins even though there were no limitations on their sovereignty. Why they restricted themselves to bronze coins, we do not know By contrast, the Nabataeans, who in 63 B.C., submitted to the Romans, did mint silver coins. Interestingly enough, even during the Herodian Period, beginning with Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.) and continuing with his sons, Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Herod Philip, Jewish mintings were limited to bronze coins—probably because of the dominance of silver shekels from Tyre. (F)
During the first century B.C. and the first half of the first century A.D., the main currency in use in Palestine continued to be the silver shekel and silver half-shekel from Tyre These silver shekels, weighing 14 grams, and half-shekels, weighing 7 grams, were minted in Tyre year after year in huge quantities until about 65 A.D. They were circulated throughout the Middle East and, although bearing pagan symbols, were prescribed by the Jews as the only currency acceptable for the special sacred payments and tributes to the Jerusalem Temple. According to Jewish law, the various payments to the Temple, such as tribute money and money for the redemption of the firstborn, must be made in pure silver Because of the changes in currencies at various periods, the sages specified acceptable currencies for these offerings As long as Tyrian shekels continued to be minted, all payments had to be made in that coin. Not even the Roman dinar was acceptable. The exclusive acceptability of the Tyrian shekel probably explains why no Jewish silver coins were minted; these shekels were apparently considered sufficiently “Jewish”.
Many Tyrian shekels, mainly dating from the last fifty years in which they were minted (15–65 A.D.), exhibit certain stylistic alterations which indicate that they might have originated at a different mint Some scholars have suggested that these “new-style” Tyrian shekels were minted by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
Minting of the Tyrian shekel ended in about 65 A.D. when Nero issued his provincial tetradrachmas in the mint of Antioch. These large debased silver coins (15 grams each), once introduced to the market, caused the far superior silver coins, like the Tyrian shekel, to disappear The Jewish War against Rome (66–70 A.D.) began at almost the same time. Jewish shekels were minted in Jerusalem beginning in 66 A.D. These shekels have the same high quality of silver as those minted in Tyre; they may have been minted on blanks prepared from melted Tyrian shekels Instead of the Greek expression “Holy Tyre”, we find on the Jewish shekel the Hebrew parallel “Holy Jerusalem”. The Jewish shekels also bear the legend “Shekel of Israel” to emphasize the change from Tyrian to Jewish coins.
During the four years of the Jewish war, shekels, half-shekels, and a few quarter-shekels were minted in Jerusalem—until the 9th of Av, 70 A.D., the date of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the political independence of the Jews.
To celebrate their triumph, the Romans issued a huge issue of commemorative coins, the well-known “Judaea Capta” series, struck in Rome in gold, silver and various denominations of bronze. The coins depict the Emperor Vespasian, as a victorious soldier, standing beside a mourning Jewess, the personification of Judaea, accompanied by the Latin inscription- “Iudaea Capta”. (I) Many other Roman coins of this type were also minted, showing captive Jews, spoils of war, trophies, palm trees and symbols of victory. In addition, several provincial Roman issues celebrated the conquest of Judaea. Especially notable is a series of bronze coins from Caesarea using the Greek equivalent of “Iudaea Capta”, since Latin was generally unknown in the eastern Mediterranean.
The number of Judaea Capta coins is larger than any other series of “capta” coins minted by the Romans, (including Aegypto Capta, Germania Capta, Dacia Capta), indicating the importance to the Romans of their conquest of the Jews.
The victory in Judaea was proof in Roman eyes of the superiority of Rome over Jerusalem, of Roman culture over monotheism.
It is interesting to note here that in late medieval and Renaissance times, some Christian institutions struck imitations of the Judaea Capta coins to remind the world of the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., shortly after the death of Jesus.
The years following their crushing defeat were bitter, but gradually Jews learned to live rich Jewish lives without political independence. Some Jews, nonetheless, continued to harbor hopes of future political independence. In the late 120’s, rumors spread that the emperor Hadrian intended to rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple and to allow renewed Jewish settlement in the Holy City. These rumors aroused unjustified expectations. In 130 A.D., Hadrian did come to Judaea and did indeed re-found Jerusalem, but as a Roman colony with the name Aelia Capitolina, a city for Roman soldiers and other non-Jewish inhabitants, complete with pagan temples. (J) To the Jews, this was a double blow- Not only was Jerusalem not rebuilt as a Jewish city, but its ruins were desecrated by a pagan Roman center. This was the last straw; shortly thereafter, in 132 A.D., the Second Jewish War against Rome broke out, under the leadership of Bar-Kochba.
The revolt lasted three and a half years. At first, Bar-Kochba and his men made quite impressive gains, and inflicted a number of serious defeats on the Romans, but in the end the Jews could not withstand the huge Roman army and were ultimately forced to yield.
According to the Bar-Kochba coins, the principal purpose of the war was to conquer Jerusalem and restore it as a Jewish religious and political center.
Over 80% of the Bar-Kochba coins mention Jerusalem, sometimes on both sides. All the designs and symbols they bear relate directly or indirectly to the Holy City and its Temple. These designs include the facade of the destroyed Temple, as well as ceremonial objects used in Temple ritual—amphorae, jugs, lyres, trumpets, and harps. (K)
Bar-Kochba coins are the last Jewish coins minted in ancient times.
During the Roman period, gold and silver coins minted in Rome, as well as bronze coins minted in a number of Palestinian cities, were used in the Holy Land. Indeed, over thirty cities on both sides of the Jordan minted bronze coins, principally during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. Known as “city coins,” these coins are of great historical importance, because they provide our only information about some of these cities. Religious, political, cultural and economic backgrounds can be deduced from their designs and inscriptions. Even landscapes and architectural elements can be reconstructed. Thus, recent excavations on Mt. Gerizim near Shechem uncovered coins struck in Shechem. These coins depict Mt. Gerizim with its temples, altars and buildings so accurately that these coins provide a geographical map of the ancient site. (L)
Some of the statues depicted on various “city coins” have been found in excavations; statuary fragments can now be reconstructed with the help of these coins. Recently, the huge statue of the Tyche of Caesarea has been unearthed in excavations. The statue is broken and some parts are missing, including a small “harbor god” originally attached to the statue. The complete statue is depicted on various coins of Caesarea from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. from which we can reconstruct the precise shape of this monument.
Unfortunately, the minting of these “city coins” was stopped by the Romans in about 265 because of a dramatic monetary change in the Roman empire. After that, no coins were minted in the Holy Land until the Arab invasion in the 7th century.
(For further details, see Y. Meshorer, Jewish Coins of the Second Temple Period (Tel Aviv, 1976); Ancient Coins of the World (Minnesota, 1972), and Ships and Parts of Ships on Ancient Coins (National Maritime Museum, Haifa).)
The Bible’s Unbroken Continuity
“Only the Bible has had unbroken continuity throughout the ages down to the present. The literary heritage of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Ugarit had to be unearthed and deciphered in modern times.”
Cyrus H. Gordon, “Reflections on Hebrew Origins”, Midstream, October, 1977, p. 44.