THE COINS OF THE BIBLE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Florence Banks in her book Coins Of Bible Days says that the handling of ancient coins does with time what radio and TV do with space. There are hundreds of miles between us and California, but TV eliminates those miles, and puts people there in our presence here. So Bible days are hundreds of years back, and a great gap separates us from the people who lived then. But to see and touch the bits of silver, bronze, and gold that those people used, as we use dimes and dollars, brings them nearer. She writes, "When we hold in our palms the one thing we can hold which we have a reasonable right to believe could have been in the hand of Nicodemus when he bought the hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes for Jesus' burial; in the hand of Martha when she went to market; in the hand of Mary of Bethany when she bought her precious alabaster box of spikenard, or in the money bag of Judas when he purchased food for the disciples, we feel a closer acquaintance with those personages of the Bible than we had ever dreamed we could."
Money in those days was not called in when it got old like it is today. There were no banks, and so people hoarded money and hid it in caves and wells, and buried it in the ground. That is why archaeologists are able to find so much of that ancient money. When Jesus told the parable of the treasure buried in the field He was not dreaming up a hypothetical situation. He was speaking of a common practice of His day. Many coins are also found in ancient ships that have sunk, and so the result is there are actually more coins available from the ancient world of Greece and Rome than there are from the 18th century in the United States. There are enough of the coins of Bible times available so you can own one for just a few dollars.
The study of coins can make history come alive. The symbolism has much meaning, for coins often had the image of some deity on them. This led to people using them as magic and good luck charms. Some use to put coins under their pillow to cure headaches because the god on the coin was a god of healing. Jewish coins, however, did not follow the imagery of other people, for God commanded them not to make images. Of great interest to coin collectors, however, is a coin that was made by the people in Gaza, the Philistine City in about 400 B. C. It has a helmeted head of an unknown male god on one side, and on the other is a bearded figure of a man seated in a winged wheel and holding a hawk on his hand. Three Phoenician letters are also shown which are transliterated as YHD or YHW. Kenneth Jacob in his book Coins And Christianity says that this coin may be the only known example of the God of the Israelites being depicted on a coin. The Jews did not make the coin, but it was made by the people who made coins to appeal to a number of different cults by using their deities. This was their method of trying to open up trade. The wings and the wheels fit the vision of Ezekiel. This unique coin is in the British Museum.
The Jews learned the value of coins from others. For centuries they used precious metals as money according to weight. The first rich man mentioned in the Bible was Abraham. He lived in the 19th century B. C. Gen. 13:2 says, "Now Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold." In Gen. 23 we have an account of a real estate transaction. Abraham bought a piece of property from the Hittites for a burying place. When agreement had been reached Abraham weighed out, "Four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants." This was equal to about $220.00 in our money in the 1960's. Today we could hand over $220.00 and a man could slip it into his billfold and go about his business feeling no burden. In that day you had to have bags to carry your metal weights to measure, and then a beast of burden to carry away your profits.
Through most of the Old Testament the weight system was used. This became so inconvenient that men had to devise an easier way of transferring wealth. That is why coins became such a helpful invention. Not all have caught on to this convenient idea even in modern times. If you go to the small island of Yap in the Pacific, you will find that they still use huge stones up to 50 pounds for their money. They have holes in them so a pole can be put through, and two men can carry it. It is the largest and heaviest currency in the world. In their primitive society it is no problem, but you can't even imagine what an intolerable nuisance it would be in our society. There are also people in the Pacific who use bird feathers for money, and so the heaviest and the lightest money in the world is used by primitive peoples in the Pacific.
The Jewish people were more primitive than others peoples when it came to matters of science, culture, and business. The first coins were made in about 700 B. C. in Lydia, which is now the coast of Turkey. Gold was so plentiful there that the river was said to be flowing with golden sand. Croesus, who reigned from 560 to 546 B. C. was world famous for his extreme wealth. He was the first to make coins of pure gold. Some of them have survived to this day. Deluded by his wealth he believed he was invincible, and decided to take on Cyrus the king of Persia. In two years he was defeated, and his fabulous fortune and mint were taken by Cyrus. The Persians had no coins, but Cyrus liked the idea and made his own coins.
He then went on to conquer Babylon where the Jews were in captivity. This is where the Jews first came into contact with the idea of coins. When Cyrus sent them back to Jerusalem, they took with them vast quantities of these Persian coins called drachmas. This is the first coin mentioned in the Bible in Ezra 2:68. In Neh. 7:70-72 we also read of the thousands of drachmas given to help build up the wall. From this time on gifts to the temple are no longer in weights of gold and silver, but in gold and silver coins.
Jewish coinage then began after the captivity, and, therefore, at the end of recorded Old Testament history. This means we must study the intertestimental period to learn of Jewish coinage. This is of interest, but of even more interest is the study of coins in the New Testament. We actually have coins in collections which were made by Herod the Great, and his son Archelaus, who is also mentioned in the New Testament. Also we have them by Herod Antipas who had John the Baptist beheaded; Herod Agrippa who had Peter imprisoned, and Pontius Pilate. Collectors are eager to find his coins marked the 16th year of Tiberius, for that was the year of the crucifixion. It is a coin with a vessel on one side and three ears of barley on the other.
The coin most in demand by collectors is that piece of money Jesus held in His hand called the tribute penny. The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in a political blunder by asking Him if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Jesus in Matt. 22:19 asked them to show whose likeness and inscription was on the coin. When they said Caesar's, he responded, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." This coin that Jesus looked at was a silver coin with Tiberius Caesar on one side and this inscription-Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus. On the other side is a female seated with a spear in her right hand, and an olive branch in her left. She represented Rome, and the inscription Pontifex Maximus meant chief priests or Pontiff.
It is of interest to note the symbolism of war and peace which we still use on our coins, but also to note the difference. On this coin that Jesus held the symbol of war is in the right hand showing a preference to war. On American coins the eagle holds both the arrows of war and the olive branch of peace, but it is the peace symbol that is in the right talon showing a preference for peace. There can be no doubt that this slight reverse in symbolism is due to the influence of Christ in our culture and heritage. You could take a 50 cent piece or dollar bill and ask somebody why the arrows are in the left talon, and explain that in the time of Christ they were in the right, but He has made a difference. A coin is a basis for a witness to Christ. He is the author of peace, and you can speak of peace that He can give to those who will put their trust in Him.
The same Roman denarius was the coin that Jesus used in His story of the Good Samaritan. In Luke 10:35 after he took the injured man to an inn we read, "And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the inn-keeper, saying, take care of him and whatever more you spend I will repay you when I come back." A denarius was equal to about 20 cents, so he gave him an equivalent of 40 cents. That would not go far in a Holiday Inn, but it was considerable money in that day. In fact, it was equal to the average man's wage for two days. In Matt. 20 Jesus tells another parable of laborers in the vineyard. They agreed to labor for a denarius a day. This means the Good Samaritan gave the inn keeper two days of salary.
In Mark 12:41-44 Jesus sits and watches people in their giving. He sees the widow give her mites. These mites were copper coins which together equaled the smallest of the Roman coins. In our day they would be a half a penny each. The RSV says instead of a farthing, a penny. Here was giving on a level that is the least possible unless she would give only one mite. Yet Jesus praises her, for relative to her wealth she gave more than a millionaire who would give half a million, for he would still have half a million left. She gave her all, and in so doing she pleased Christ, and made the little coin called the mite, or lepton, famous for all history. This provides a real stewardship lesson, and gives even our penny a place of potential in the service of Christ. Littleness of value can be multiplied if given to Christ. The poet put it-
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean,
And the beauteous land.
Little seeds of mercy,
Sown by youthful hands,
Grow to bless the nations
Far in heathen lands.
Never underestimate the power of small giving which is sacrificial giving.
We don't have time to look at every coin in the Bible, but we want to look at a few interesting facts about the role of coins following the New Testament. The Romans made a big thing of their destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. They minted 15 varieties of coins to celebrate this event. Vespasian struck one of silver which can be seen on display in Philadelphia. On one side is himself, and on the other is a female captive with her hands bound standing before a palm tree. The words on it are Judea vanquished.
When Constantine, the Roman Emperor, became a Christian in 312 A. D., he began a process of Christianizing coins. It was slow at first, and there were just hints of Christian symbolism mixed with pagan symbols. After a century the cross was a frequently used symbol on coins. In 450 A. D. the emperor Marcian struck a coin with he and his wife joining hands in marriage with the figure of Christ standing between them. This was the beginning of many coins on which Christ appeared.
In the East in the 6th century some silver coins had the cross and the inscription-the light of the world. Justinian II had his coins with himself and the inscription-the servant of Christ. On the other side was a portrait of Christ and the inscription-Jesus Christ-King of Kings. Sometimes Jesus was portrayed with a long beard, and other times with a short beard, but the cross is almost always present to make clear who it is. In the 10th century a series of bronze coins had Christ on them, and in the 12th century Christ is shown crowning the emperor.
In England coins with the cross were common, and also the holy dove. In France in the 10th century there is coin of a bird with a twig in its beak representing the dove of Noah. Some coins also had the Lamb of God. Many Bible characters and scenes were put on coins, and it became a custom to associate Christianity and coin symbols. So much was this the case that when a new silver florin was made in 1849 with reference to God omitted, a cry went up from the people against what they called the godless florin. The outcry was so great that the coins were promptly withdrawn, and a new coin made that had reference to God. The value of knowing this history is that it gives the Christian another open door to use a common interest, which is money, to witness for Jesus.