Coins of the Bible

by MBG

Bible Coins

From far left clockwise around nickel and dime (for size comparison): a silver Tyrian Half-Shekel, a bronze Prutah from the First Jewish Revolt, a silver Denarius issued by Vespasian, another silver Denarius issued by Vespasian, a bronze Lepton, a bronze Lepton, a bronze Lepton, and a bronze coin of Antiochus Epiphanes.

An Introduction

One day while playing around on Ebay, I decided out of the blue to see if there was anything for sale from the Roman Empire. This is something I had never thought to look for and I really didn't expect to find anything. I was surprised at the number and affordability of ancient coins that could be found there.

That's how it all got started. Very soon I was absorbed into my hobby, learning as much as I could about these tiny pieces of history. In fact, the historical nature of the coins fascinated me even more that collecting them as a type of investment like many collectors do. Just think, you can hold in your hand a piece of tangible history!

Very soon I began to focus on coins with Biblical ties. It is absolutely amazing how numismatic evidence proves and supports the Bible! On this page, I want to give you an overview of some common Biblical coins by showing some that I have collected. These may not be the sharpest examples available, but I think they will be a good starting point. Hopefully in the future I will be able to extend this section with more information and more coins.

A Brief History of Biblical Coins

Coins, as we know them today, were first produced in Lydia around 650 B.C. Before this time, precious metals were often transferred as ingots bearing a stamp of authority from their producers. These were not commonly used as much of the ancient economy still was based on bartering. Once the Lydian coins began circulation the practice quickly spread throughout the nearby regions.

By 500 B.C. Athens was setting the standard for coinage, a standard that would become widespread thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great. This system was based on the silver Drachm. One of the most famous Greek coins is the silver Tetradrachm which was valued as four drachms. Drachms would be divided into six silver Obols. There were many other fractional issues that were even smaller. Also there was a gold Stater which was valued at twenty drachms. To make it even more confusing, there was a silver stater that, depending on issue, was worth two or four drachms.

The Attic system spread throughout the Helenized world. It replaced any system that may have been in place, such as in Persia. In Persia, the coins consisted maily of the gold Daric and the silver Siglos. These were probably the first true coins that the Israelites would have encountered. In fact, it is thought that the first truly Jewish coins (known as "YEHUD" coins) were provincial issues on the Persian standard.

With the division of Alexander's empire after his death, the region of Judaea was caught in a struggle between the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Persia. Both issued coins in Judaea following the Attic system, but the Seleucid coins seem to be more plentiful because of the large number of small bronze issues. These small bronze coins, called Chalkoi, had five different denominations ranging in size from 1.1 grams to over 10 grams. It is not very clear today about the values of these bronze coins.

For a brief time, Israel gained independence during the second and first centuries B.C. because of the efforts of the Maccabees. During this time, they minted numerous small bronze coins. All these denomination were based on the bronze Prutah. There were a few larger coins minted that were worth up to eight prutahs. The most famous Jewish coin, however, is probaly the Lepton which was a half-prutah. This coin is believed to be the "Widow's Mite".

Finally, the Romans came onto the scene with a different coinage system. This system spread throughout the Roman empire, but it did not completely eradicate the Greek system. In some areas, both were used. This system lasted throughout the Roman empire with various changes. In fact, coins with the same name had completely different values, and even metals, at different times.

The Roman system could be complex and subject to many variations over time, but we are fairly sure of the values used during the life of Christ. This system featured the silver Denarius, which is the "penny" of the King James Bible. The bronze Sestertius was valued at one-fourth of an denarius. The bronze As (sometimes spelled assarion) was valued as one-sixteenth of an denarius. The bronze Dupondius was valued at one-eighth of a denarius. The smallest bronze coin that was in general use was the Quadrans which was worth one-fourth of an as. There was a gold coin called the Aureus that was worth twenty-five denariuses.

During the Roman occupation of Judaea, local issues of coins were still made and the prutah was made equal to the Roman Quadrans. During the Jewish Revolt from 66 to 70 A.D. more Jewish coins where issued, including prutahs and silver Shekels. The last Jewish coins to be minted until modern times were minted during the Bar Kochba revolt from 132 to 135 A.D.

Examples of Biblical Coins

These are coins from my collection that I think help illustrate the types of coins and the importance of their history. Click on the small pictures to see larger pictures. I have also included the customary references for the coin for further research.

A Bronze Coin of Antiochus Epiphanes

Coin Coin

Coin reference: Lindgreen 1031, SNGCop 195

As I said before, we know very little about the different denominations of Seleucid coins. One thing we do know and appreciate is that they often have "serrated" edges which often remind people of bottle caps. This coin is about 13mm across and features the diademed head of Antiochus Epiphanes on the obverse and a seated deity (Apollo?) on the reverse. It would have been minted between 175 and 164 B.C. most likely during the earlier portion of his reign.

The real interesting thing about this coin to me is the fact that it is a coin of Antiochus Epiphanes. He is one of the worst villains in Jewish history and is prophesied about in the book of Daniel. Antiochus IV one of the first Greek rulers to assume titles of deity, such as "theos epiphanes" or "god-manifest". He carried on the continuing struggle against the Ptolemies for Judaea. He ruthlessly crushed a rebellion in Judaea that sparked from a false rumor of his death. In 167 B.C., he sacked Jerusalem and executed many Jews. He also made an attempt to Hellenize the Jews by outlawing their religion and traditions. He went so far as to re-dedicate the Jewish Temple to Zeus and offer a pig on its altar (the Abomination of Desolation). These actions sparked the Maccabean revolt.

Antiochus Epiphanes is believed to be the "little horn" in Daniel 8. He is also scene as a foreshadow of the Antichrist in Daniel 9:27. He is also believed to be the "vile person" of Daniel 11. He is also spoken of in the books of the Maccabees and Josephus' Wars of the Jews.

A Tyrian Half-Shekel

Coin Coin

Okay, my example of this coin is not the greatest. These are some of the most sought after coins by collectors and good quality ones go for hundreds of dollars. I am working on cleaning this one, and if I ever get it cleaner I will post new pics.

The Tyrian Shekel was one of the most important coins to the Jews. This coin was used to pay the half-shekel Temple tax each year. This coin was chosen because of it's correct size, outstanding quality, and easy availability. The choice to use these coins is even more surprising since they featured images that the Jews normally would find abhorrent. The front of these coins shows the head of the deity Melqarth, and the reverse featured an eagle and the inscription "of Tyre the holy and inviolable".

The use of these coins created another problem for the Jews - how would the people get them? Because of the sacred nature of the coin's use it was rarely used for any purpose away from the Temple. This created a thriving industry for the "money changers" at the Temple. They would exchange common money for the shekels for a fee. This fee was approved by the Jewish authorities at eight percent.

An interesting note on these coins is that evidence suggests that they were minted for some time in Jerusalem itself. The shekels were minted in Tyre beginning around the year 126 B.C. It would appear that in 18 or 17 B.C. that these coins began to be minted in Jerusalem, where they continued to be minted until the Jewish revolt in 66 A.D. There is an abundance of evidence that supports this change, including changes in style and the locations of finds of the latter styles. To be honest, I haven't determined which group mine falls in.

Coins of Alexander Janneus

Coin Coin

Coin reference: Hendin 471

Coin Coin

Coin reference: Hendin 472

Probably the most interesting of the Hasmonean rulers was Alexander Janneus, the great nephew of Simon and Judah Maccabee. He was not content with ruling as High Priest and adopted the title "king". He led military campaigns that expanded his kingdom to about the same size as David's. In the end he fell into disfavor with the Pharisees due to his disregard of his High Priesthood. Josephus states that his death was brought about due to his heavy drinking. He reigned over Judaea from 103 to 76 B.C.

Janneus issued a tremendous amount of coinage. In fact, there is some evidence that some of these coins were still in circulation over three hundred years later. His coins commonly feature two symbols: the upside-down anchor and a star. The anchor was a symbol borrowed from the Seleucids and probably was meant to represent his conquering of the Judaean coastline. The star design is often confused for a wheel, but is actually a star surrounded by rays.

There is a problem in regards to Jewish coins that is nowhere better illustrated than with the coins of Alexander Janneus. The problem is that it can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between prutahs and leptons. Usually the size or weight gives them away, but it is sometimes not so easy. There are numismatists that believe that some of the leptons may actually be underweight prutahs. There are also a large number of coins with crude or incomplete designs which tend to vary also in size and weight.

Why is this important? I feel it is important to be correct and consistent in terminology. I often see coins that I believe are mislabeled for sale. Perhaps more important to the collector is that the famous Widow's Mite was most likely a lepton. It is highly probable that the mite was a lepton issued by Alexander Janneus.

So, what are the coins displayed here? All three are listed as leptons in the fourth edition David Hendin's Guide to Biblical Coins. I, however, wouldn't be surprised to see the first coin listed as a prutah based on its size. The only one I feel certain is a lepton is the one on the right in the bottom picture.

A Prutah of the First Jewish Revolt

Coin Coin

Coin reference: Hendin 661

In May of 66 A.D., the Jews revolted against Rome in effort to once again gain independence. This brought the might and wrath of the Roman Legions down upon Judaea under Vespasian and Titus. Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and the final Jewish stronghold of Masada fell in 73.

During the first five years of the revolt, the Jews minted and circulated their own coins. These consisted of silver shekels, bronze prutahs, and various fractional issues. Most of these coins are dated with the year of the revolt, such as my example which is dated "Year Two". They also usually included a slogan similar to the one displayed on this coin: "The Freedom of Zion".

Judaea Capta Coins of Vespasian

Coin Coin

Coin reference: Hendin 759

Coin Coin

Coin reference: Hendin 771, BMC 75

Coins were often used to carry propaganda to the masses. One of the most famous instances of this is the "Judaea Capta" series of coins. This spread the news of the mighty conquests of Rome and helped to solidify the power of Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian.

These coins were minted in almost every denomination. These can feature vague references to the victory, such as the second coin with a reverse image of Victory and the inscription "Victoria Augusti". Many show Judaea personified usually as a mourning woman, such as the reverse on the first coin. The most famous inscription on these coins is "Judaea Capta" ("Judaea" captured), but often simply the name "Judaea" appears.

Judaea Capta coins were minted throughout the empire for a span of around twenty-five years. Coins of this type and imagery were even minted in Judaea by rulers that had remained loyal to Rome. History records that the Judaean campaign was the only major conflict for Vespasian and his sons and they squeezed every bit of glory from it that they could.