The coinage traditions in Palestine under the Romans derived from two sources: a royal one, inspired by the coinage of the Seleucids, and a civic one, inspired by the Greek and Phoenician cities. The Hasmonean kings began issuing coins from the late second century B.C.E. The coins were bronzes, mostly of small module. A number of the images on the coins were adopted and adapted from Seleucid coinage, such as the anchor symbol (the founder of the Seleucid dynasty reputedly had an anchor-shaped birthmark); but others, such as the lily, had local significance (the type had occurred on Persian-period coins of Judah and on small bronzes struck in Jerusalem under the Seleucid king Antiochus VII [r. 138–129 B.C.E.]). Several scripts were employed on these coins, often in combination: Greek, Aramaic, and a form of Hebrew generally referred to as “Paleo-Hebrew” or “Neo-Hebrew.” Unlike the coinages of other kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean, the Hasmonean coins conspicuously avoided portraits of the rulers, probably in obedience to the Second Commandment’s instruction to avoid graven images.

Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.) continued this tradition of bronze coinage without portraits, utilizing two mints, Sebaste (the city he founded) and Jerusalem. The inscriptions were exclusively in Greek, which probably reflects a desire by Herod to be seen as a participant in the communal culture of the eastern Mediterranean. His coinage, however, is otherwise generally conservative and quite crude in style, particularly when one considers the magnificence of his ambitious building projects. Like those of the Hasmoneans, the Herodian coins, which are exclusively of bronze, are generally of small module and bear a limited variety of designs, some of them borrowed from Hasmonean coinage: anchors, diadems, and cornucopias. No coins bear any images of this famous ruler.

The division of Herod’s kingdom between his sons in 4 B.C.E. led to some diversity in the royal coinages. That of Herod Archelaus (r. 4 B.C.E.–6 C.E.) and that of Herod Antipas (r. 4 B.C.E.–39 C.E.) continued the tradition of small bronze coins without graven images. Archelaus’s coins are assumed to have been struck at Jerusalem; Antipas produced coins at the city he founded, Tiberias. The third son, Herod Philip (r. 4 B.C.E.–34 C.E.), ruled a population containing a significant number of pagans and produced coins at Caesarea Paneas that were more in keeping with those of other kingdoms of the region, bearing portraits of the Roman emperors Augustus (r. 27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) and Tiberius (r. 14–37 C.E.). On some coins the image of Philip himself appears, looking very much like a member of the Roman elite. This is the earliest known portrait of a Herodian ruler (the coins are dated to 1–2 C.E.).

The removal of Archelaus by Augustus in 6 C.E. and the subsequent rule of Judea by Roman prefects did not put an end to the tradition of small bronze coins without portraits. The prefects continued to issue coins in the Hasmonean/Herodian tradition at Jerusalem but replaced the names of the kings with those of emperors and members of the imperial family. Because the coins are dated by regnal years of the emperors, it is possible to identify which prefects issued them: Coponius (6–9 C.E.), Ambibulus (9–12 C.E.), Valerius Gratus (15–26 C.E.), and Pontius Pilate (26–36 C.E.). However, none of these prefects placed his own name on the coins, meaning that their exact role in the supervision of this coinage remains conjectural. These bear some resemblance to Roman provincial issues struck at Antioch, Alexandria, and even Rome in that they refer to no other authority than the emperor and his family. In this sense, at least, they constitute a kind of imperial coinage. The content continued Hasmonean and Herodian themes: cornucopias, lilies, and vines. Those of Pontius Pilate are unique in that they bear Roman priestly symbols: a simpulum (ladle) and lituus (priest’s wand). This use of apparently pagan symbols has been seen as evidence of Pilate’s antagonistic attitude toward the Jews, but it is not clear what responsibilities the prefects had with regard to the issue of coinage and whether the designs were chosen by them.

Herod Agrippa I (r. 37–44 C.E.), the grandson of Herod the Great, inherited various territories and minted a variety of coins with portraits of emperors as well as his own portrait. Initially he struck coins at Caesarea Paneas. However, when he was granted Judea in 41 C.E., the coinage that he struck in Jerusalem conformed to tradition of small bronze coins without portraits, in this case depicting three corn ears (a type previously used by Pontius Pilate) and a parasol (presumably employed here as an emblem of royalty). Toward the end of his reign he utilized another mint, Caesarea Maritima, to strike coins with a series of portraits, including of the emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 C.E.), his own image, and that of his son, Herod Agrippa II (r. ca. 49–ca. 94/5 C.E.).

After Herod’s death Judea reverted to direct Roman rule through imperial procurators. The first to issue coins, Antonius Felix (r. ca. 52–60 C.E.), did so only in the last year of Claudius’s reign, from Jerusalem. The coins continued to lack portraits but referred to Claudius, his wife Agrippina, his son Britannicus, and his adopted son Nero. The final issue of procurator coins came under Nero (r. 54–68 C.E.) in 59 C.E., when Porcius Festus was procurator.

These coinages in the royal tradition are found in very large numbers in the region of Roman Judea/Palestine. They also occur in small numbers at sites outside Palestine: in northern Syria and Cyprus. Some see this as evidence for Jewish communities there preferring these coins or evidence of special links between Palestine and the places concerned, but it may simply reflect a need for small coins of this kind, which were not produced in any quantity by the cities of the region. The wide circulation of small bronzes from the First Jewish War, well outside the confines of Judea/Palestine, may well indicate that people did not pay much attention to the designs that originally gave legitimacy to these small bronzes.

Later rabbinic sources use the Hebrew term prutah (plural prutot) to describe small bronze coins, and it is assumed that the name corresponds with the common small denomination minted under the Hasmoneans, Herodians, and prefects and procurators. These coins average about 0.5 to 0.6 inches (13–15 mm) in diameter and weigh about 0.07 to 0.08 ounces (2–2.5 g, weights vary from issue to issue). However, it is quite apparent from the sizes and weights that the Hasmoneans and Herodians issued other bronze denominations apart from prutot. Some larger ones are clearly multiples of the prutah. In the New Testament a Greek term, lepton, is used to describe a very low-value denomination, which is qualified in Mark’s gospel (12:42) as half of the Roman quadrans: “two lepta, which are a quadrans.” The prutah is commonly equated with the quadrans, and therefore, the smallest and lightest of the Hasmonean and Herodian coins are commonly designated as lepta.

There are other bronze coinages produced in the region during this period that, like those of the prefects and procurators, lack references to any authority other than the emperor. Unlike coins of the prefects and procurators, they bear legends in Latin and carry imperial portraits. They are attributed to mints at Caesarea Maritima or Caesarea Paneas, but there is no consensus on the authority responsible for them. Were they struck by the procurators, or were they authorized by Agrippa II? If the latter, it is surprising that he chose to produce the coinage anonymously.

The Hasmoneans and Herodians issued no precious metal coinage, nor did the prefects and procurators. Most of the silver coinage in circulation consisted of shekels and half-shekels minted by the city of Tyre. The Tyrian shekel weighed slightly over 0.5 ounces (14 g) and was made of almost pure silver. The coins were highly regarded because of their purity, and they were used in Judea for payment of the temple tax. However, their circulation was confined to the southern Levant (encompassing the Phoenician cities); there is no evidence that the Tyrian shekel circulated more widely in the eastern Mediterranean. Tyrian silver coinage was unusual: it bore no explicit reference to any authority other than the city of Tyre, and to all intents and purposes it looks like a civic coinage. Most cities in the eastern Roman Empire struck coinages with imperial portraits, but as an “autonomous” city Tyre seems to have been able to go on issuing coins without imperial portraits long after they had become the norm. More remarkably, it was able to continue making silver coinage without imperial portraits.

However, during the reign of Nero there was a major change to the standard of fineness of the imperial silver coin, the denarius, and this had a knock-on effect on provincial silver coinages such as Tyre. Put simply, the Tyrian silver was now too pure and too heavy to be allowed to go on circulating. Production was discontinued, and the coins rapidly disappeared from circulation. They were replaced by a provincial silver coinage minted at Antioch in northern Syria. This coinage conformed more closely to the new standard of the denarius. Unlike the Tyrian coinage, the Antiochene issues bore imperial portraits and carried no explicit reference to any authority other than the emperor. A few hoards exist from the time of the First Jewish War (66–70 C.E.) that show a period of transition: Tyrian shekels together with Antiochene silver coins with portraits of Nero, but it is clear that the latter quickly replaced them.

The Greek terms for this silver denomination were tetradrachmon and stater (the latter term occurs in Matt 17:27). A term for it in rabbinic sources is sela (plural seloʿim).

Another term for a silver coin found in the New Testament is “denarius” (often Anglicized as “penny”). The penny is central to one of the best-known scenes in the New Testament involving coins: that of the so-called tribute penny (Matt 22:15–21, Mark 12:13–17, Luke 20:19–26). The Pharisees approach Jesus and ask if it is lawful to give tribute to Caesar. Jesus asks them to bring him the tribute money, and they bring him a penny. He asks “Whose is this image and superscription?” When they reply, “Caesar’s,” he tells them, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (KJV). Such passages appear to give a lively and immediate impression of coins in use in the first half of the first century C.E., but as a source for the kind of coinage used, the gospels need to be used with care. Their dates of composition and the audiences for which they were intended (e.g., Christian communities at Rome) need to be considered.

Traditionally, the tribute penny has been identified as a contemporary denarius of the emperor Tiberius (the story makes clearest sense if the image and superscription belong to the current caesar). However, there is no evidence that such coins circulated in Judea at the time. There are none in hoards from the region, and the main coins in circulation were Tyrian shekels and half-shekels, which did not bear imperial portraits. Archaeology has revealed no coins bearing the image and superscription of Tiberius that would fit with the New Testament accounts. The biblical account of the tribute penny cannot be used as firm evidence for the circulation of denarii in Judea at the time of Jesus. The coins in question were minted at the other end of the Roman Empire, at Lugdunum (modern Lyon), and seem to have circulated mainly in the western empire (Gaul and Germany). There are two hoards of Tyrian shekels that also contain denarii from this period, but these are exceptional and do not have coins of Tiberius. Their absence does not disprove the New Testament accounts, but better evidence is needed before it can be stated that denarii were in circulation in Judea during the first half of the first century C.E. Denarii certainly were circulating by the time of the Second Jewish War (132–135 C.E.), when they occur in hoards; the rabbinic sources use the term zuz (plural zuzim) or dinar to describe this coin. The introduction of denarii to the region may have occurred after Nero’s reforms and the elimination of the Tyrian silver coinage.

Another remarkable development was the coinage of the First Jewish War. The coinage eschewed Greek script altogether, in favor of a Paleo-Hebrew script like that previously used by the Hasmoneans, and consciously employed Jewish symbols. There can be little doubt that this was an intentional declaration of statehood. The inscriptions defiantly proclaim statements like “shekel of Israel” and “Jerusalem the Holy” and are dated by a new era of statehood, years 1–5 (66–70 C.E.). However, the coinage conforms to existing standards and was in this respect not a break with past practice. The largest denominations were silver shekels and half-shekels, presumably intended as a replacement for the Tyrian silver coinage (the phrase “Jerusalem the Holy” may deliberately parallel the phrase “of Tyre the Holy” found on Tyrian silver). The commonest bronze type is in the old royal tradition, being of the same size and weight as the issues of the prefects and procurators. Its types are identical to those found on an issue of Tiberius under the prefect Valerius Gratus: a vine leaf and amphora. Like issues of the prefects and procurators, this type enjoyed a wide circulation in the east, probably as small change.

The end of the First Jewish War marks the end of fine silver coinage and the regular issue of prutot in the old tradition. The coinages produced afterward are much closer to the Greco–Roman tradition, a statement that holds true even for the royal coinages. A prominent ally of the Romans in this war was the Herodian dynast Agrippa II. Although he reigned from ca. 48/9 to ca. 94/5 C.E. (the date of his latest coins) and struck a few issues under Nero, most of his coins belong to the period of the Flavian emperors Vespasian (r. 69–79 C.E.), Titus (r. 79–81 C.E.), and Domitian (r. 81–96 C.E.). The main mint was Caesarea Paneas. His coinage was strongly influenced by Roman imagery, bearing portraits of the emperors and figures of victory. One series has Latin inscriptions and seems consciously to imitate regular imperial asses of Domitian; it even includes the letters SC (senatus consulto, “by decree of the senate”), a formula found on regular imperial bronze coinages.

The aftermath of the Jewish war saw the issue of anonymous coinages of imperial type, which, unlike those of the prefects and procurators, bore imperial portraits. The first series explicitly refers to the defeat of the Jewish rebels and parallels the well-known series of coins minted at Rome with the inscription Judaea capta; hence, this series is known as the “Judaea capta” coinage (although the inscriptions on these coins are written in Greek). They portray Vespasian and his son Titus. Those with images of Vespasian are rare, and the focus was clearly on Titus, who had commanded the war in its later stages. The mint for the “Judaea capta” coinage is uncertain (Caesarea Maritima is favored, but it is not certain whether this is correct). Associated with this coinage was an issue of base tetradrachms (about 50 percent fine) that also have a strong focus on Titus more than Vespasian and, most remarkable of all, an issue of gold aurei. The purpose of the gold coinage is not entirely certain, but there are parallel issues of aurei and even denarii at Antioch and Alexandria at more or less the same time. These issues tend to suggest that by this point denarii were circulating in the region; perhaps the production of the aurei marks the date of the introduction of regular Roman precious metal coinage.

Another group of coins commonly associated with the “Judaea capta” coinage, though without any explicit reference to the war and later in date, belongs to the reign of Domitian. It is highly likely that these coins, which bear typically imperial types, were produced at Caesarea Maritima.

The “Judaea capta” and associated coins mark the end of the tradition of anonymous bronze imperial issues in Judea. The series ends in ca. 92–93 C.E., close to the date of Agrippa II’s final issues. Agrippa II was the last Herodian dynast, and with him, royal coinage also comes to an end. Thereafter the bulk of the bronze coinage in circulation consisted of civic coins, issued by individual cities in the region. These had existed alongside the other types of coins. A number of cities in the region produced coins, among them Gaza, Ashkelon, Neapolis, and Caesarea Maritima. It is difficult to generalize about the designs found on these civic coinages, which were often specific to the issuing city. The designs may be understood as self-expressions of communal identity by the citizens of the issuing cities. These civic coinages were of bronze (except for the shekels and half-shekels of Tyre), and most of them did not circulate widely. They were probably intended as small change for the issuing city and in some cases may have been freely interchangeable with the coins of neighboring cities but no more. Not all cities issued coins, and few of them did so regularly; thus, it must have been relatively commonplace for the citizens of one city to make do with the coinages produced by neighboring cities.

The denominations are uncertain; a common unit of account in the eastern Roman Empire was the assarion, which is the issar (plural issarim) in rabbinic texts. This denomination also occurs in the New Testament (Matt 10:29, Luke 12:6). It is assumed that the civic bronze coins were commonly denominated in terms of assaria, but whether they are multiples and how many assaria particular sizes of coins represent are topics on which few scholars can agree.

The Second Jewish War saw the creation of yet another independent coinage that avoided graven images and employed the archaic Paleo-Hebrew script, produced by the rebels as a statement of sovereignty. The denominations included shekels (mostly produced by overstriking Roman imperial tetradrachms of varying fineness) and drachms (overstriking a variety of Roman denarii and provincial drachms). The tetradrachms were minted in a period when no regular Syrian silver coinage was being produced (the last tetradrachms had been struck early in the reign of Hadrian [r. 117–138 C.E.], and no further tetradrachms were produced until the reign of Marcus Aurelius [r. 161–180 C.E.]); in “renewing” the tetradrachm coinage, the rebels were doing what no others had done for at least a decade. Some of the designs link this rebellion with the earlier one of 66–70 C.E., but there are also new designs, including the representation of a structure that probably represents the Temple at Jerusalem. Unlike coins of the First Jewish War, which made no reference to any individuals, some of the coins bear inscriptions naming “Shimon, nasi of Israel” (a reference to the Jewish leader Bar Kokhba) and “Eleazar the Priest” (known only from the coins).

The coinage of the Second Jewish War is the last of specifically Jewish type. Thereafter the coinage produced in the region consisted of civic bronze coinages, which continued to be produced by the cities down to the joint reigns of the emperors Valerian and Gallienus (r. 253–260 C.E.). Local and regional coinages then ceased, and the issues in circulation in the latter part of the third century C.E. and beyond were regular imperial coinages of the kind that enjoyed wide circulation throughout the Roman Empire.



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Kevin Butcher