NGC Ancients: Biblical Coins
Posted on 11/11/2014
Biblical coinage is one of the most popular areas of ancient numismatics. Occasionally, coins are mentioned in the text of the Bible, and such coins are in great demand by those making an effort to gain a stronger connection to the Biblical world.
There are many approaches to collecting Biblical coins. Some are inventive and challenging, such as finding a coin from each person and city mentioned in the Bible, or collecting based upon the Seven Churches of Asia Minor or the Travels of Paul of Tarsus. Other collectors seek out a much broader scope of related coins, many of which are not strictly Biblical, but which concern the history of the Holy Land.
The most eagerly sought of all Biblical coins, however, are four especially famous types: the “thirty pieces of silver,” the “Tribute Penny,” the “Widow’s Mite,” and the bronzes of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator under whom Jesus was crucified. Though these four types are desirable to numismatists, the greatest demand is by those who otherwise have never participated in our hobby, but who know of them only through their deep religious interest.
Thirty Pieces of Silver
Matthew 26:15-16, 27:3, and 27:5-6 describe how thirty silver coins were promised to Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus and how, after his deed had been done, Judas sank into remorse and cast aside the coins he had received as his bounty. These events are of great significance to Biblical history, and many people try to acquire an example of the coins described. It is generally accepted that the coins paid to Judas were shekels from the mint of Tyre, a coastal city in Phoenicia.
At this time in history Tyre was the only producer of high-purity silver coins in the region, and it is unlikely that any other coin – including Roman tetradrachms, which were of debased silver – would have served the purpose described. Indeed, at this time Jews paid their annual half-shekel contribution to the Jerusalem Temple in its only accepted form – silver coins of Tyre. The one illustrated here is dated to the 159th year of the city of Tyre, equating A.D. 33 or 34; as such, it is in high demand for it may have been struck in the year of the Crucifixion.
Jesus’ pronouncement "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21) is known to most who everyone familiar with the Bible or with Biblical history. Its numismatic relevance lies in the fact that Jesus used a Roman coin as the central object in a larger discussion of the lawfulness of Jews paying taxes to the Romans.
There is much debate over which coin Jesus was describing. In truth, there are a number of possibilities. The only limiting factors are that it would have to bear an image of a Roman ruler accompanied by an inscription naming that ruler, and that it would have to have been struck some time prior to Jesus’ pronouncement. The text does not specifically name the denomination of the coin, nor does it indicate the language of the inscription, nor which ruler was portrayed.
Ever in need of codifying such things, numismatists have traditionally identified the standard silver denarius of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) as the likely candidate.
However, such coins are rarely found in the Holy Land, and seemingly never in quantity. Thus, a debased silver tetradrachm of the Roman mint at Antioch, or a silver denarius of Tiberius’ predecessor Augustus are, perhaps, more likely candidates. However, the usual item on the list of most collectors is a denarius of Tiberius, which is supported by a long-established tradition.
The passages of Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4, which describe the selfless donation of two “mites” to the treasury by a poor widow, are among the most famous in all the Bible. Her donation is often seen as the ultimate act of charity, for even though the sum was paltry it was all that she had to offer, and thus was an act of greater value than those who may have cast in hundreds of silver coins, yet could have afforded still more.
A great variety of small bronzes circulated in Judaea at this time, and any of them could have been the type donated by the widow. Indeed, the two “mites” in question could even have been different coin types. If one wanted to narrow it down to the most probable candidates, the mites likely would have been leptons or prutot of the Hasmonean kings of Judaea struck sometime between 135 B.C. and 37 B.C.
The most common of these coins were a type of prutah struck by King Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.). They bear his royal inscriptions in both Greek and Hebrew and show on their obverse an anchor (often within in a circle) and on their reverse a star (often within a diadem or a circle of pellets). Though struck long before the Ministry of Jesus, these coins were issued in such large quantities that they still would have been commonly found in circulation at the time. To many they have become the default coin representing the Widow’s Mite, in the same way that silver denarii of Tiberius are typically accepted as the Tribute Penny.
As related in John 18:33-35 and in Matthew 27:1-2, 27:22-26, and 27:57-58, Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judaea during the Ministry of Jesus, was a central figure in the arrest and trial of Jesus. Pilate is presented as being caught squarely between the remarkable acts of Jesus and the demands of the Jewish priestly hierarchy to take punitive action against Jesus.
Though none of the small bronzes issued by Pilate bear his name, they do have dates that allow their attribution to Pilate to be made with great confidence. All have the Greek inscription TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC, indicating that Tiberius was the reigning emperor of Rome. Further precision is found in the dates on these coins, rendered in terms of the regnal year of Tiberius; they include his 16th, 17th, or 18th year of rule, which represent the period A.D. 29 to 31.
Two designs were employed by Pilate. One shows on its obverse three bound ears of barley and on its reverse a simpulum, a ladle used for religious rituals. The other type, which is more popular, shows a on its obverse a lituus (an augur’s wand) and on its reverse the date of issue enclosed within a wreath. The one illustrated here is dated to Tiberius’ 17th year, thus A.D. 30.
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Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group
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