Review: Die Münzen der Hasmonäer

Siegfried Ostermann. Die Münzen der Hasmonäer. Ein kritischer Bericht zur Systematik und Chronologie. Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus 55. Fribourg: Academic Press / Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005. 89 pp., 15 figs., many tables. ISBN 3-7278-1499-3 (Fribourg) / 3-525-53956-8 (Göttingen). €19.

A little book, written in German, filled up with numeric tables and some beautiful drawings of bronze coins, but without any plates or photographs: Does it have anything to tell the non-German reader? Actually, not much, for it does not claim to provide new results. However, after having read it, I had some insights worth communicating.

Unlike the silver coinages of both the Jewish Wars, the bronze coinage of the Hasmonaean rulers is plain, sometimes ugly, and always difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, the numismatic research in that field has been intensive in the last fifty years, because besides the books of the Maccabees and Flavius Josephus’ writings, Hasmonaean coinage is one of the most important sources on Hellenistic Palestine. The main problem is how to correlate the rulers’ Hebrew names found on the coins with the rulers’ Greek names, used by Flavius Josephus. The books of the Maccabees are not of much help when dealing with the uprising against the Seleucids, for Simon Maccabeus does not seem to have issued coins, although a decree by Antiochus VII Sidetes ceded the right to coin to him (1 Macc. 15.6).

There are just three fixpoints: The bilingual coinages of (a) Jehonatan/Alexander Jannaeus and (b) Mattatiah/Antigonus; and (c) the sample of coins of Jehochanan found on Mount Garizim near Samaria, which can be dated to the late second century BC by the Seleucid coins found with it. For that reason, numismatists agree today Jehochanan is John Hyrcan I, and thus the first Hasmonaean ruler to issue coins.

Besides these issues, there are coins of rulers named Jonatan and Jehuda, whose identities are a matter of a long debate. Furthermore, there are some coins of Jehonatan without a Greek legend, and still worse: their Hebrew legends differ from those of the bilingual coins as to their titles. Therefore, it is questionable whether all coins of Jehonatan were issued by Alexander Jannaeus or whether there was a second Hasmonaean ruler named Jehonatan in Hebrew.

Over the last forty years, the late Meshorer was the most prominent researcher in ancient Jewish numismatics and in Hasmonaean coinage in particular. His well-known monographs and catalogues are the main reference works for any numismatist dealing with Hasmonaean coins. However, Meshorer never tried to give a pure typological nomenclature of the issues; he numbered them according to his actual opinion as to their chronology and attribution. Since he changed his mind several times, he left four or five systems of numbering. To archaeologists and theologians who are unfamiliar with the minutiae of numismatic research, these systems are bewildering, particularly since Meshorer used to alter not only the chronological arrangement but also his numbering method—from Hebrew to Latin letters, from single to double letters, from putting the cipher after the letter(s) to putting it first, and so on. It is easy to understand how a non-numismatist can lose all enthusiasm for Hasmonaean coinage by following the trail of a certain type through Meshorer’s books. It comes as no surprise that the clearly arranged list of these coin types given by David Hendin in his Guide to Biblical Coins appeals to collectors much more than Meshorer’s works.

Thus this little German book is a child of despair, written by an outsider who needs more clarity and, more important, knows that others need it, too. A theologian, the author Siegfried Ostermann is attached to the department of biblical studies at Fribourg University, Switzerland. In working on a study of Hasmonaean coin types and their meanings, he became familiar with numismatic problems. His aim is to give a summary of the chronological theories proposed by Meshorer and his critics (mainly Uriel Rappaport, Dan Barag, and Shraga Qedar), and—more important to those who do not read German—a concordance of all the systems of numbering, which can be found on pages 72-89. There is also an useful overview of the typological alterations in Meshorer’s books (on page 51), and a table showing the subsequent changes of attribution (starting on page 52). All of this is well arranged and easy to handle. Those who read German will find the text to be a tidy introduction to Hasmonaean numismatics, especially as it is supplemented with tables and exact drawings of specimens in the Fribourg University Collection.

There are two additions from Ostermann’s own desk that should be mentioned. First, he deals briefly with the Jaffa Hoard IGCH 1611 (note 34 on page 11), which has earlier been claimed crucial for the dating of the first Hasmonaean issues. Ostermann draws our attention to coin 851. On this coin, he says, the ruler’s name is off flan, but the last preserved line could be read chever (community), a term occurring not only in the legends of Jehonatan (Alexander Jannaeus), who issued the other 850 specimens of the hoard, but of Jehochanan and Jehuda, too. It is obvious that only a die study will settle this matter.

Secondly, Ostermann gives his own list of the Hasmonaean coin types (pages 55-59). Strangely enough, he makes the same mistake that he notes Meshorer has made. Again the coin types are counted but not named. “Ostermann R” belongs to Alexander Jannaeus, “Ostermann S” to Jonatan—one cannot see at first if these types were issued by the same ruler or not. Still worse, Ostermann switches horses midstream, counting using letters rather than numbers to sequence the coins of Mattatiah from no. 36 onward, as the alphabet does not have enough letters for all the coin types recorded. It would have been so very easy to draw a typology by giving a letter to each ruler (that is, to their Hebrew names) and a number to each of his coin types. The numismatic debate can easily deal with terms like A 2.3 and C 3.4, even if it turns out that ruler A is later than ruler C. Furthermore, a typology can be supplemented with new, future types, whereas a numbering system is closed forever; a new type calls for a new system.

Ostermann’s book is a good companion to all who do not deal with coins every day. The numismatists, however, must elaborate produce a better nomenclature soon.

—Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert