Coins and numismatics (Luke 15)

Illustration: Roman money changer

Although silver and gold were highly valued in commercial exchange from very ancient times, throughout much of the Old Testament period precious metals were measured by weight and were not struck into coins. The first coinage probably came from western Anatolia (Turkey) around the seventh century B.C. The practice may have been initiated by commercial traders rather than by governmental authorities, but most experts suggest that the Lydian kingdom was the first to coin silver and gold.

The use of coins gained widespread acceptance when the Persian Empire issued standardized coinage. Kings and emperors soon realized that coins were an effective propaganda tool; the image of the king’s face was stamped onto them, after which they were disseminated throughout his territories and beyond. Coinage was especially useful for the Phoenicians, since their economy was based on trade.

Coins were introduced in Jerusalem by the fifth century B.C. Early Jewish coins of the Persian and Hellenistic periods often bear the inscription Yehud (“Judah”) and are called “Yehud coins”. It is surprising to observe that some of them also bear an image of the head of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess, on the obverse and that of an owl, the sacred bird of Athena, on the reverse side.

After the Maccabean revolt, the success of which allowed the Jews to throw off Greek rule in Jerusalem, the Jews developed a more native coinage that reflected their religious sensitivities. There is debate as to whether Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) or John Hyrcanus I (135-104 B.C.) was the first Hasmonean ruler to strike coins. For the most part Jewish rulers from this period avoided stamping an image of the ruler’s face on coins since such coins were not well received by pious Jews.

Hasmonean rule ultimately gave way to Herodian governance. The coins of Herod the Great and his sons made use of a number of symbols (the pomegranate, grape cluster, ship’s prow, helmet or tripod) but usually respected Jewish custom in not exhibiting the images of their faces.

A number of different coins were in use in the Holy Land during the New Testament period. The shekel was indigenous to the area. The mite, a copper coin of little value (“mite” is and Old English translation of the Greek lepton), may have been a copper prutah, a cheap coin minted during the Hasmonean period but still in use during Jesus’ lifetime.

The silver denarius from Rome was circulated throughout the empire, due in large part to the universal presence of the Roman army. The coin given in tribute to Rome in Jesus’ day had the image of the emperor Tiberius Caesar on the obverse and his mother Livia on the reverse side. Therefore, when Jesus asked whose likeness was on the coin, the obvious answer was “Ceasar’s” (Matthew 22:20-21).

A single denarius was equal to a day’s wage; thus the loss of a single coin was significant (Luke 15:8). Other coins, such as the copper shekel, dated from an earlier period but still may have been in circulation in Jesus’ time. Coins from the Hasmonean and earlier rulers also remained in circulation. The variety of coins and the inconsistency of their weights made the money changer a practical necessity of economic life.

Numismatics, the scientific study of coins, is one of the archaeologist’s most useful tools, due to the particular advantages offered by coins as artefacts:

  • Coins often bear the name and sometimes the likeness of the ruler of an area at the time of production. Therefore, they can be dated with a high degree of precision and can aid in the dating of surrounding structures.
  • Coins tell much about the official propaganda of a particular period. By studying their portraiture and imagery, scholars gain insight into the persona a ruler attempted to create.
  • Coins generally exist in large numbers, a fact that allows scholars to undertake highly accurate comparison and analysis of the numismatic evidence.

Still, scholars need to exercise caution, since some coins supposedly from the ancient world are actually modern forgeries.

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