Review: The Pocket Guide to Saint Paul

Peter Lewis and Ron Bolden. The Pocket Guide to Saint Paul: Coins Encountered by the Apostle on his Travels. Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2002. Pb., 202 pp., b/w illus., 4 color pls., 24 maps. ISBN 1-86254-562-6. AU $29.95.

Peter Lewis and Ron Bolden (L. and B. hereafter) have taken the suggestion of forming an ancient coin collection based on the travels of St. Paul, recommended in D. Hendin, Guide to Biblical Coins 4th ed. (2001), pp. 434-437, and attempted to build an interesting and informative book around the topic. The authors can be proud of their success at creating a highly readable account of Paul’s missionary journeys and contemporary coinages, which will be appreciated by anyone with an interest in Biblical numismatics and early Christian history.

The book is divided into 33 chapters, each of which deals with a city, or group of cities, that Paul inhabited or visited during his lifetime (AD 5-62). The first two chapters deal with Paul’s childhood homes in Tarsus and Jerusalem while the remainder follow the chronology of his missionary journeys as recounted in the New Testament book of The Acts of the Apostles. Within each chapter L. and B. adopt a manner similar to that of the ancient geographers and travel writers Strabo and Pausanias for the presentation of the cities, providing a smorgasbord of historical, archaeological, and mythological information before discussing the local coinage and the specific details of Paul’s ministry. In addition to mining the ancient sources for background, the authors also make use of modern tour guides, including the popular Lonely Planet series, in order to give some indication of what the modern traveler might find when visiting the lands once evangelized by Paul.

An ingenious feature of the book is the way that L. and B. have chosen to treat the Provincial coins that Paul may have seen and used on his travels. Not only are all of the coins well illustrated and thoroughly described, with frequent detailed analysis of the types and historical commentary, but often they also serve as springboards for discussion of Pauline theology. For example, the titles, “Lover of his People” and “King of Kings,” which appear on the first century coinages of Nabataean and Parthian kings, respectively, are connected to similar epithets used by Paul to describe Jesus. Likewise, the Panathenaic prize amphora depicted below the owl on some Provincial coins of Athens are a springboard to discuss Paul’s metaphor of Christians as athletes training for a victory over death (1 Cor. 9:24-25), while the shields found on bronzes of the Macedonian Koinon provide the opportunity to comment upon Paul’s description of the Armor of God (1 Thess. 5:8) and the Shield of Faith (Eph. 6:16). Although it is highly doubtful that the coins ever directly prompted Paul in the development of his Christian theology, as the authors would like to suggest, the linkage between images and terminology in the Apostle’s writings and those found on contemporary coinage is very interesting, serving to illustrate the profound influence exerted on Paul by his cultural and historical milieu. To the present reviewer’s knowledge, The Pocket Guide represents the first time that coins and the ideas that their types convey have been added to the list of Hellenistic influences on Paul’s theology.

Unfortunately, while L. and B. were well advised to follow their interest in exploring the travels of Paul and the coinage that he may have seen on his journeys, they and their readers could have benefited greatly if they had sought additional academic guidance. The Pocket Guide is an entertaining and occasionally thought provoking book to read if it is taken as a work of popular numismatic literature, however, it suffers greatly if we try to hold it up to its pretensions as a scholarly work.

As with many recent popularly produced numismatic works (e.g., see ANS Magazine 2 [2002], p. 52) there is a surprising reliance on out of date references, which have often been superseded by more recent work. For example, the authors’ understanding of the production and meaning of local coinage in the Provinces appears to be based on outmoded and largely abandoned theories. We are told that Caligula himself chose Ilium to mint RPC 2312, depicting Roma and the Senate, because of the Roman claim of descent from the Trojan hero, Aeneas (p. 105). Likewise, Athens is said to have had a special exemption from placing the head of the Emperor on its coinage (p. 126).

The latter remark follows the late 19th/early 20th century belief that some Greek cities in the Roman period had so-called quasi- or pseudo-autonomous status, signaled by the right to leave the Imperial portrait off the local coinage. However, recent study has shown that quasi-autonomy is in most cases a red herring and the presence or absence of the Imperial portrait is no secure indicator of special rights (see K. Butcher, Roman Provincial Coins: An Introduction to the Greek Imperials [1988], pp. 29-31). Further research also tends to suggest that the reverse type featuring Roma and the Senate was not dictated by the Emperor, but rather devised by the Ilians, perhaps in an attempt to express their loyalty and ingratiate themselves with the Roman government. Roma and the Senate appeared separately on contemporary coins of Ephesus, Cercina, Alexandria, Magnesia ad Sipylum, Pergamum, Thessalonica, Italica, Cnossus, Smyrna, Lampsacus, Miletus, and Aezani, yet none of these cities were closely connected with the Roman foundation myth. The problem with out of date sources also comes through in some of the mythological discussion, where, for example, we hear of Apollo reflecting the “brightest side of the Grecian mind” (p. 107) and Athena as an earth goddess (p. 128). Both of these examples are indicative of old Romantic and elemental approaches to Greek mythology that are now largely abandoned by classicists.

The vast majority of the coins mentioned in the book are illustrated with excellent images, primarily reproduced from the photographs in RPC, and discussed with clarity, thus making The Pocket Guide to Saint Paul an excellent resource for those interested in following the course of Paul’s travels through the coinage. Unfortunately, in many cases, when the authors attempt to step beyond their source material and promote their own new interpretations they are prone to assumption and flights of fancy. Throughout, we hear of coins that Paul must have seen and thought about, although the truth is that we cannot say for sure, based on the literary evidence, how much Paul concerned himself with coins at all. He is rarely mentioned dealing with matters of money in either The Acts of the Apostles or The Acts of SS. Paul and Thecla. There are certainly no grounds to support the authors’ radical and somewhat disturbing views concerning the Claudian bronzes produced at Ephesus. On p.154 we are told that, “It is important for numismatists to recognize which coins Paul probably touched because anything that touched Paul’s skin has miraculous healing powers…Of course the more worn the specimen the more likely it is to have come in contact with Paul.” The latter statement fails from a logical perspective, since wear on a coin simply indicates that it was handled over a period of time and does nothing to tell us the identities of the handlers. However, the preceding statement is of more serious concern because it gives special status, and therefore possible inflated market value, to Claudian bronzes without any reasonable justification. Since there is no way to know from the account in The Acts of the Apostles, or any other literary or archaeological source, whether Paul ever actually touched any coins issued under Claudius during his stay at Ephesus, it seems irresponsible to suggest that such coins (and especially those in poor condition) might really be Pauline relics with possible miraculous powers.

This extreme view that Claudian bronzes of Ephesus are likely to have been touched by Paul is indicative of the authors’ constant desire to directly connect particular coins with Paul or other New Testament figures. To this end they cannot resist restating L.’s controversial theory concerning the true identity of the Tribute Penny mentioned at Mark 12:15-17, although the problem has more to do with the ministry of Jesus than the missionary work of Paul. They suggest that this famous coin was not a denarius of Tiberius (RIC I, 30) or Augustus (RIC I, 207), as is normally assumed, but rather an extremely rare Syrian tetradrachm of Tiberius (RPC 4161). This view is certainly plausible, as Syrian tetradrachms circulated much more widely in first century Judaea than Roman denarii, but plausibility does not constitute proof. The argument is supported by the claim that denarii did not circulate in Judaea because they apparently did not circulate in neigboring Syria (p. 18). However, the occasional finds in Jerusalem and the 164 denarii (including many examples of RIC I, 207) in the Mount Carmel Hoard of 1966, mentioned on pp. 18 and 20, indicate that Roman Imperial silver was not as completely excluded from Judaea as the authors would like to believe. Thus it was probably a little premature to label fig. 9, depicting RPC 4161, as “the actual Tribute Penny.” Instead, it might have been more prudent for L. and B. to advance RPC 4161 as another likely candidate for the title of Tribute Penny, since the Syrian tetradrachm has just as reasonable and tenuous a claim as the Roman denarii.

As much as we would like to be able to know the Tribute Penny’s true identity, the fact is that it is not at all possible to be certain about exactly which coin the Pharisees and Herodians presented to Jesus in the famous episode of Mark’s Gospel. Without knowing what they had in their purses that day in Jerusalem we are only left with educated guesswork concerning the coin involved in the story. Chance and the marketplace could have put either of the denarii candidates, just as easily as a Tiberian tetradrachm, or some other silver coin naming the Emperor, into the hands of Jesus’ interlocutors. Because a complete description of the Tribute Penny’s types was superfluous to Mark’s purpose in writing, it seems unlikely that it will ever be possible to be certain which of the several candidates should be considered “the actual Tribute Penny.”

Despite its various problems, The Pocket Guide to Saint Paul is a well-written and illustrated guide to the coinage that circulated in the Greek East around the time of Paul’s missionary travels that helps to reveal the Apostle and his thought as products of the world in which he lived. Those with an interest in Biblical history and numismatics will certainly enjoy following Paul through the pages of this book and being introduced to the coins of the 1st century AD. The authors should certainly be commended for the willingness of their spirit to persevere in presenting the journey of Paul through the lens of numismatics. The present reviewer only wishes that the flesh of some of the arguments were not so weak.

—Oliver D. Hoover