Review: A Treasury of Jewish Coins

Ya’akov Meshorer. A Treasury of Jewish Coins. New York/Jerusalem: Amphora Books/Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2001. 356 pp., b/w illus., 80 b/w plates. Hb. ISBN 0-9654029-1-6/ISBN 965-217-189-1.

The title of this new volume by Y. Meshorer (hereafter M.) is very aptly named, for one can only marvel at the shining wealth of knowledge, acquired over a lifetime of fascination with and study of Jewish and related coinage, which it contains. A Treasury of Jewish Coins (hereafter TJC) is essentially an updated version of M.’s monumental Ancient Jewish Coins (hereafter AJC), published in 1982. Over the course of almost two decades since the appearance of AJC, there have been many notable advances in the understanding and interpretation of Jewish coinage, in many cases thanks to the work of archaeologists at sites throughout the Holy Land.

TJC maintains the same organization as AJC, with the major sections devoted to the small YHD issues of the Persian and Ptolemaic periods (pp. 1-21), the coinages of the Hasmonean (pp. 23-59) and Herodian (pp. 61-114) dynasties and the coins of the Jewish War (pp. 115-134) and the Bar Kokhba War (pp. 135-165). Shorter supplemental sections are incorporated at the end of the book to cover important coinages related to ancient Jewish coinage, but not actually issued by Jewish authorities. These include the coins produced by the Roman procurators of Judaea, issues of the Roman administration under Agrippa II, the coinage of Herod of Chalcis and Aristobulus of Lesser Armenia, the minimas of Caesarea and the Judaea Capta issues of Caesarea. In addition to the 80 plates, many with enlargements of the smaller pieces, used to illustrate the Jewish coins described in the text and catalog (pp. 197-267) numerous illustrations are provided through out the book as comparanda.

The section on the YHD coins is remarkable for the number of new and unusual types added to the series. Only 17 types were known at the time of AJC, but now M. presents us with a total of 35 different types, representing an impressive increase in knowledge over less than two decades. Besides the famous British Museum coin (no. 1), thought to depict the Jewish God in anthropomorphic form (a view strongly supported by M. on pp. 1-5), the stars of this chapter have to be the pair of obols (nos. 18-19) with eagle reverses that have obverses stamped with symbols to represent the relationship between Yahweh and his people. On one of these coins (no. 19) a shofar, an instrument for bringing prayer to God’s attention, is depicted, while on the other (no. 18) an ear, apparently that of God, is the main type. M. pays great attention to the iconography of the whole YHD series and elucidates many of the more obscure types with Biblical, Rabbinical and other ancient primary sources. Indeed, one of the general strengths of the book is the space given in each chapter to the discussion of iconography, some of which may be new to those unfamiliar with Jewish custom and ritual.

The Hasmonean chapter sees a major revision of M.’s views from those published in AJC. Thanks to new evidence provided by a hoard from the Galilee and finds from the excavations on Mt. Gerizim, the bronze coinage in the name of Yehohanan, which M. attributed to the Hasmonean High Priest, John Hyrcanus II, are now attributed to John Hyrcanus I (pp. 25-26). This development, however, causes a problem in that now Hyrcanus II has no coins that can be easily attributed to him. M.’s solution to this difficulty is to suggest that the Hebrew name of Hyrcanus II was not Yehohanan, but perhaps Yehonatan and that the cornucopiae/wreath coins bearing this name should actually be attributed to him rather than his father Alexander Jannaeus (pp. 26-27).

The discussion of Hasmonean iconography is basically the same as what appeared in AJC. M. continues to express the doubt that the type of wreath depicted on the cornucopiae/wreath bronzes (with the exception of those of Mattathias Antigonus) can be properly identified (p. 36). However, judging from the three-leaf arrangement with small berries associated with each set of leaves and the “joining link” at the top, it seems likely that the die engravers have imitated the laurel wreaths, commonly found on the reverses of late Seleucid tetradrachms, and which normally include a “joining link” of varying appearance (e.g. SNG Spaer nos. 1867, 2533, 2658, 2790).

In the commentary on the coins of Mattathias Antigonus, M. makes the interesting argument that the larger size and higher artistic quality of these issues, should be attributed to his need to advertise his legitimacy in the face of Herod’s Roman support (pp. 52-53), but the discussion of the audience(s) for Antigonus’ royal and priestly titles is somewhat confusing. M. suggests that it is unclear to whom Antigonus was appealing with his various coin legends, but surely the title of “High Priest” must have been aimed at a Jewish audience, and a highly educated one at that, since the inscriptions using this title are all written in paleo-Hebrew, a script generally though to have been unreadable except by “a small number of learned people (p. 48).” Since only a few Jews could even read the inscription it is doubtful that it would have had any impact on non-Jews who certainly could not read it. On the other hand, the Greek inscription would have been readable and understood by most literate individuals, both Jew and Gentile, in the first century B.C. Perhaps the Greek legend, as on the earlier coins of Alexander Jannaeus, was intended for general consumption, whereas paleo-Hebrew was used to impress the educated religious factions of the Pharisees and Sadducees, with whom Hasmonean kings often needed to build support.

One begins to wonder whether the view that few Jews in the first century B.C./A.D. could read paleo-Hebrew should not be revisited. It is difficult to believe that the paleo-Hebrew script used to express such slogans as “For the Freedom of Zion” and “For the Redemption of Israel” on the coins of the later Jewish War and the Bar Kokhba War were aimed only at the educated elite. How a mobilization of scholars would have helped the war effort in either conflict is hard to imagine. Perhaps more people could read paleo-Hebrew than current research suggests.

The Herodian chapter also covers much of the same ground as AJC, but here M. has refined his views on the dated bronze issues of Herod the Great and the controversial theory that from 19/18 B.C. to A.D. 65/66 Tyrian shekels were produced in Jerusalem in order to facilitate the payment of the Temple tax.

Although M.’s argument that Herod’s coins of Year 3 are based on an era counting from this tenure as tetrarch of Samaria in 42 B.C. is eloquent and extremely convincing, the summary treatment of the iconography of the large dated denomination (no. 44) is surprising. The obverse type of this issue is described on p. 64 as “an apex – ceremonial cap of the Roman augurs – between two palm branches,” without reference to the various conflicting views regarding the identification of the type. M. mentions the old and largely discredited view that the type represents a thymiaterion, but fails to discuss the more recent, and much more credible views that the coins depict either a military helmet (D. Hendin, Guide to Biblical Coins, 4th ed. (New York, 2001), pp. 161-162) or a Dioscurus pilos surmounted by a star and resting on a ritual couch (D. Jacobsen, “A New Interpretation of the Reverse of Herod’s Largest Coin,” ANSMN 31 (1986), pp. 150-165). The normal Roman apex, which can be clearly recognized on the famous elephant denarii of Julius Caesar (Cr. 443), is not surmounted by a star as on the issues of Herod the Great, but rather by a spike and a disk.

There is also some confusion about the round shield depicted on Herod’s half denomination. It can hardly represent Herod’s “esteem for the Roman army,” since the shield, with its crescent shaped edge design, is of distinctly Macedonian type. M. uses a Roman Republican denarius (Crawford no. 369) for comparison with the Herodian issue. Unfortunately he does not take into account the fact that the Roman coin was struck by a member of the Metellus family in commemoration of the Macedonian victory of Q. Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus in 148 B.C. (Crawford, vol. 2, p. 288). By the late first century B.C. the standard shield type of the Roman legionary was the oblong or rectangular scutum.

M.’s theory that Herod struck Tyrian tetradrachms in Jerusalem remains convincing on technical grounds and the evidence provided by Cassius Dio concerning the severe punishment meted out to Tyre by Augustus in 20 B.C. However, the argument that Josephus’ use of the Greek terminology for “coined money” to describe the wealth bequeathed by Herod to various cities, allies and relatives to be considered a translation of the Hebrew “kesef tebain,” that is, Tyrian shekels, seems hard to believe. The term “coined money” appears elsewhere in Greek literature, with no Tyrian connotations. Besides, there can be little doubt that Herod’s will was written in Greek, rather than Hebrew, otherwise it would have done him little good to make Augustus its executor. There is no evidence that Augustus could read Hebrew.

A number of exciting new discoveries are included in the Herodian chapter, such as the coin of Agrippa I bearing a portrait of Caligula’s wife, Caesonia, and the enthroned image of Drusilla (no. 119) and a coin with the portraits of Agrippa I and his wife, Cypros (no. 118). An issue with the youthful portrait of Agrippa II (no. 123) has also now been reattributed to the reign of Agrippa I. New finds show that 4 different bronze denominations were struck for each of the five years in which Herod Antipas issued coins at Tiberias (p. 84)

The sections dealing with the Jewish War and the Bar Kokhba War are especially detailed in their discussion of the iconography of the various Temple utensils and religious symbols (particularly those related to Sukkot) that appear on the coins. The use of rabbinical sources, which may not be easily available to many numismatists, is particularly helpful in elucidating the types. In some cases these sources also assist in the identification of important figures, such as Eleazar the Priest, who is named on the coins issued in the first year of the Bar Kokhba War (p. 142-143).

Special attention is paid to coin finds and hoards from the two wars in an attempt to understand the historical events. A list of major silver hoards from the Jewish War are included on p. 133. The Bar Kokhba find spots show that although the aim of the Jewish rebels was to reclaim Jerusalem, the Holy City remained out of their reach. Likewise, the absence of coin finds in the north and the coastal cities shows that these regions were also outside the control of Bar Kokhba’s men.

TJC is a worthy successor to AJC, bringing together in one place the sum of our current knowledge concerning Jewish numismatics. Through great love and concern for his subject, Y. Meshorer has amassed a great store of wealth in this Treasury. The present reviewer, no doubt along with many others, is grateful that he takes such obvious delight in sharing his treasure with all of those who care to read his text and enjoy the images in the plates.

—Oliver D. Hoover