As a medium of exchange, originally precious metals were used, according to fixed weights, such as the talent, the mina, and the shekel, which later became units of currency (see below). (In the NRSV, the Hebrew word for “silver” is often translated as “money,” even when the context makes such an interpretation anachronistic [e.g., Gen. 17.12–13; 42.25; 1 Kings 21.2.]) Minted coinage seems to have begun in Asia Minor by the seventh century BCE, and its use was spread rapidly by the Greeks and the Persians. The oldest coins found in Palestine are a Macedonian coin from Shechem and an Athenian coin from Jerusalem, both dated to the sixth century BCE. By the fifth century BCE coins appear more frequently in occupational strata and are commonplace by the fourth. Coins thus become a valuable means of dating for archaeologists. They are also indices of international trade patterns and political control and provide valuable data about scripts and artistic motifs.
Units of currency in biblical and nonbiblical sources and coins found in the course of excavations are generally foreign, mainly Persian, Greek, Tyrian, and Roman, although in some periods there seem to have been local mints, in places such as Gaza and Ashkelon in the Persian period. During several relatively brief periods, however, distinctive regional coinage was produced.
In the fourth century BCE, while Judah was a province of the Persian empire, a series of coins with the inscription “Judah” (yehud) in Aramaic script were produced, apparently in Jerusalem; some also give the title and occasionally the name of the Persian‐appointed governor. These are apparently the first Jewish coins. Distinctive coins were also minted by the Hasmoneans, beginning with Alexander Janneus in the late second century BCE. Herod the Great and his successors also issued their own coins, as did some of the Roman procurators, including Pilate.
During the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE), the rebels issued their own currency, an obvious expression of political independence. These coins, in denominations of shekels and half‐shekels, are made of silver and are dated from the first to the fifth years of the revolt. Their inscriptions are in Hebrew, another expression of nationalistic sentiment, and include such phrases as “Jerusalem the holy,” “the freedom of Zion,” and “the redemption of Zion.” The coins have such symbols as a chalice, a triple pomegranate, and palm and other branches; the absence of human and animal figures is clearly deliberate, in observance of the commandment prohibiting graven images, and is in marked contrast with Greek and Roman coinage. Similar coins were issued during the Second Jewish Revolt (132–135 CE), some of which name the leader of the insurgents, Simeon (Simon Bar Kochba). In poignant contrast to these numismatically expressed patriotic hopes are the Roman coins issues by Vespasian and Titus to commemorate their defeat of the First Revolt; some show a mourning figure and have the inscription “Judea captured” in Greek or in Latin.
The coins named in the Bible are listed below; over the centuries, the values of various denominations fluctuated, so that the figures given are only a sample.
daric (AV: “dram”): The standard Persian gold coin, equivalent to a Greek stater, first issued by and named after Darius I (Ezra 8.27; 1 Chron. 29.7). NRSV also uses daric in Ezra 2.69 and Nehemiah 7.69–71 for a slightly different Hebrew word that some translate as drachma. Its use in 1 Chronicles is an anachronism.
denarius (AV: “penny”): Made of silver, the denarius was approximately a day's pay for an unskilled laborer; its value was 16 as = ¼ tetradrachma = 1/100 mina (Matt 18.28; 20.2; 22.19 par.; Mark 6.37; 14.5; Luke 10.35; Rev 6.6).
didrachma: A coin worth two drachmas, equated by the Septuagint with the Hebrew shekel. In Matthew 17.24–27, it apparently means the half‐shekel used to pay the Temple tax and is equated with the stater.
drachma: The standard Greek silver coin, equivalent to the Roman denarius, and likewise equivalent to a day's pay (see Tob. 5.15). In the New Testament it is mentioned only in Luke 15.8–9. Larger denominations of the drachma were the didrachma (2 drachmas) and the tetradrachma (4 drachmas).
lepton (AV: “mite”; NRSV: “coin, penny”): The smallest unit of currency in the New Testament, the lepton was originally Greek; in the Roman period it had the value of ½ quadrans (Mark 12.42 par.; Luke 12.59).
mina (Grk. mna; AV: “pound”): As a weight, the equivalent of 50 shekels. As a coin, a mina is the equivalent of 100 drachmas, used in Nehemiah 7.71–72, and in Luke's version of the parable of the talents (Luke 19.11–27).
shekel: The basic unit of weight in Hebrew (from the verb šql, “to weigh”); its monetary value was 1 stater; 30 shekels = 1 mina = 4 denarii.
stater: The equivalent of 4 drachmas (tetradrachma), found only in Matthew 17.27.
talent: The largest weight, equivalent to 3,600 shekels; as a monetary unit it equalled 6,000 drachmas.
Michael D. Coogan