All posts by David Hendin

FINDING BAR KOKHBA COINS IN KENTUCKY (or NOT)

In the last few weeks, I have been preparing a gift of my personal coin collection to the American Numismatic Society. Among the coins was a fascinating piece that is an exact twin to one of the most notorious incidences of numismatic fraud—either actual or accidental— that has occurred in the United States. This story continues to be circulated, and I receive questions about the Bar Kokhba coins found in Kentucky on a regular basis.

Here is the background: In 1952, Robert Cox, a hardware store operator from Clay City, Kentucky, found an exotic coin in a pen he was using for pigs just outside of town along Kentucky Highway 15. The pig pen was part of a field that he had plowed the summer before. It was the first time older residents of the city could remember that this land had ever been turned over. He seemed an honorable man and had nothing to do with ancient coins, and it appears that Mr. Cox legitimately found the coin just where he said he found it.

Clay City is about 40 miles east of Lexington, Kentucky. Equally fascinating is that two other Bar Kokhba coins were discovered in different Kentucky towns.

The rest of the story involves a number of well known scholars who refused to believe other expert numismatists, and has such a long history that it is often repeated as a “true story” today.

It is related quite specifically by celebrated archaeologist Dr. Cyrus Gordon (who taught at Dropsie College, Brandeis University, and New York University) in his 1971 book Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America:

“Other contacts with the Roman Mediterranean of the second century AD have meanwhile come to light in Kentucky, where inscribed Hebrew coins of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against Rome were dug up in Louisville, Hopkinsville, and Clay City. The assorted coins were found at different times and in widely separated areas: at Louisville in 1932, at Clay City in 1952, and Hopkinsville in 1967. These coins have been examined and identified by Professor Israel T. Naamani of the University of Louisville. There is no difficulty in identifying these Bar Kokhba coins. The Clay City coin was sent to the late Professor Ralph Marcus of the University of Chicago who had no trouble in reading “Simon”, Bar Kokhba’s personal name, on one side, and “Year 2 of the Freedom of Israel” on the other side.”

Copy of misleading page from Cyrus Gordon’s book Before Columbus, suggesting that these are genuine Bar Kokhba coins that had been found in Kentucky when in fact only fantasy replicas were found. Also note that Prof. Gordon incorrectly identifies a shekel of the Jewish War (first and second row left) as a Bar Kokhba coin! (photo from Not Kosher by David Hendin).
Copy of misleading page from Cyrus Gordon’s book Before Columbus, suggesting that these are genuine Bar Kokhba coins that had been found in Kentucky when in fact only fantasy replicas were found. Also note that Prof. Gordon incorrectly identifies a shekel of the Jewish War (first and second row left) as a Bar Kokhba coin! (photo from Not Kosher by David Hendin).

Professor Gordon amazingly seems to have drawn his information from a number of articles in Kentucky newspapers, which reported on these rather astonishing discoveries.

Opening of article published in the Louisville, KY, Courier-Journal, July 12, 1953. It is quite simple for even a beginner to identify this as a “fantasy replica” of a Bar Kokhba coin (from NOT KOSHER by David Hendin).
Opening of article published in the Louisville, KY, Courier-Journal, July 12, 1953. It is quite simple for even a beginner to identify this as a “fantasy replica” of a Bar Kokhba coin (from NOT KOSHER by David Hendin).

In 1978 a University of Texas anthropologist named Jeremiah Epstein published a paper. In the course of his research he sent a photocopy of the Clay City coin to Prof. Ya’akov Meshorer, then curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

One would think that the opinion about this coin by Ya’akov Meshorer, surely the world’s leading expert on ancient Jewish coins at the time) would end the discussion. And for Professor Epstein, it did. However, according to Epstein, his correspondence with Professor Naamani indicated that “Naamani continues to accept Marcus’s judgement.” In other words, he believed that Professor Marcus was correct and Professor Meshorer was incorrect.

In comments on Epstein’s article, in the journal where it was published, Professor Warren L. Cook of the Castleton State College in Vermont wrote: “Meshorer’s labeling a Kentucky Bar Kokhba coin a forgery on the basis of a photo-copied newspaper article illustration is unconvincing, yet Epstein is ready to condemn similar coins on such authority.”

Almost 15 years ago Haim Gitler, current chief curator of archaeology and curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, and I both received communications from Dr. Fred Coy Jr., an economist at Ohio State University.

Dr. Coy sent us photographs of the actual Clay City coin discovered in 1952 by Robert Cox. He told us that a man named Ya’akov Meshorer had said it was fake back in 1978. But he wanted to check this information to make certain that Meshorer knew what he was talking about.

Coin exactly identical to the Clay City coin found by Robert Cox (“authenticated” by professors at the University of Louisville and the University of Chicago). It is part of the collection I will be donating to the American Numismatic Society later this year (photo: David Hendin).
Coin exactly identical to the Clay City coin found by Robert Cox (“authenticated” by professors at the University of Louisville and the University of Chicago). It is part of the collection I will be donating to the American Numismatic Society later this year (photo: David Hendin).

Gitler and I both immediately agreed with Meshorer and stated that this coin was a fake, not even a forgery, but a kind of a fantasy copy.

Professor Coy, who is not a numismatist, kept asking me WHY this coin was not a genuine ancient coin. I’m afraid that I did not have much patience, and I kept saying, “it is FAKE because it is NOT GENUINE. It is NOT even close and therefore does not justify further discussion.” But he was insistent and went to other sources and concluded, finally, and correctly that the coin is not genuine because:

  • There can be a cross or a rosette over the Temple on the obverse, but not a 6-pointed Star of David. The latter is strictly for the tourist trade.
  • The shin and mem from the beginning of Simon’s name are entirely missing from the obverse side, even though the adjacent dots are present, indicating that the missing letters could not have been just worn off. This looks like someone copied from a worn coin that was missing these letters, but then added the dots to make the replica look more complete.
  • Likewise, a stroke is missing from the bet, and the het is made as if it were a B.
  • A tetradrachm of this type should be silver, but this coin is bronze.
  • The lulav is badly made. Also, the etrog has been reduced to a mere blob to the right of the lulav.
  • There is no sign of an obliterated Roman coin under the image, even though this should be evident.
  • He forgot to mention that by no stretch of anyone’s imagination could this be an ancient coin!
An authentic sela or tetradrachm of Bar Kokhba struck in the second year of the revolt, 133/134 AD.
An authentic sela or tetradrachm of Bar Kokhba struck in the second year of the revolt, 133/134 AD.

These observations are second nature to anybody who has ever seriously studied Bar Kokhba coins. But here I have discussed a parade of esteemed University Professors who have been bickering back and forth about this coin since it was discovered in 1952. And we have also learned that the other two so-called Bar Kokhba coins from Kentucky are of the exact type as this one. A photograph accompanying this article depicts an exact duplicate of the coin found in Louisville in 1967. The same Professor Israel T. Naamani of the University of Louisville examined this coin. Astoundingly, he pronounced it similar to the Clay City coin, “But this one is much more genuine. The Jews were not strong after the rebellion; so what did they do? They took Roman coins and re-minted them. Underneath if you scratch them there are Roman inscriptions.” (Scratching a coin is certainly NOT the way to observe any overstruck coin….)

He added that farmer Coy’s Clay City coin was a “Roman re-mint, but Bray’s was newly minted 1,832 years ago.”

Oh, dear. Maybe college professors ought to be forced to get licenses before commenting on subjects about which they are completely in the dark.

My research at the British Museum has uncovered a lead cast of this very type of Bar Kokhba fake, which was presented to The British Museum in 1922 by Spink and Sons as a replica. Therefore, the original must be somewhat older than that.

My best bet is that this was a souvenir given away by a Bible marketing company in the early 1900s and hundreds or even thousands were passed through the American South. I have personally seen more than 50 of them.

The stories around these coins represent wishful thinking by American Bible Belt scholars. Wouldn’t it just be so interesting if the people in the United States were directly descended from Jews who came to our shores not long after the time of Jesus….sigh.

But it isn’t so and I am glad to report this story over and over to remind collectors that the authenticity of a coin that has not been found in a licensed archaeological excavation is only as good as the expert who is evaluating it!

(This blog is adapted from my book NOT KOSHER, Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical Coins, New York, 2005.)

The Coin in the Fish’s Mouth

Jesus, as a practicing Jew, was aware of his annual financial obligation to the Jerusalem Temple. This annual tribute is nicely illustrated in the parable of the coin in the fish’s mouth.

Each year, Jewish officials requested that the annual Temple contribution at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, preceding Passover. On the fifteenth day of Adar, tables of the money changers were set up through the Holy Land to receive these contributions. Talmudic traditions mention various cities in Galilee where lists of those who had given were gathered and transferred to Jerusalem.

After 10 days, on the twenty-fifth of Adar, the money-changers terminated their local collections and continued their operations only in the immediate area of the Jerusalem Temple.

Virtually all Jews, including those who had expressed reservations about the current state of the Temple and its system of sacrifices, also sent their contributions to the Temple. Matthew 17:24-27 (NIV) tells the story of how Jesus and his disciples were solicited and gave their contribution to the collectors of the Temple tribute:

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

26 “From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

This story of the coin in the fish’s mouth is never verified beyond this telling—in other words, we don’t know if this is a true story, partially true, based on a legend, or a parable intended to otherwise enlighten readers. If a coin really was found in a fish’s mouth, however, it seems clear from Matthew’s report that it would have been a shekel of Tyre since that was the singular coin accepted as payment of the annual half-shekel Temple tribute for both Jesus and for Peter the fisherman.

Shekels and half-shekels of Tyre (together with fewer Seleucid tetradrachms and didrachms often struck in Tyre, Sidon, or Antioch) were certainly the most commonly circulated silver coins in the ancient Holy Land from the first century BC to the time of the Jewish War Against Rome, which ended in 70 AD.

Tyre shekel struck 103/102 BC at Tyre. The obverse depicts the god Melquart, a Tyrian version of Herakles, and the reverse depicts an eagle with a club to left, the club is a mintmark of Tyre. The reverse inscription, in Greek, contains the date, and proclaims, “[money of] Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable.” (photo courtesy cngcoins.com)
Tyre shekel struck 103/102 BC at Tyre. The obverse depicts the god Melquart, a Tyrian version of Herakles, and the reverse depicts an eagle with a club to left, the club is a mintmark of Tyre. The reverse inscription, in Greek, contains the date, and proclaims, “[money of] Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable.” (photo courtesy cngcoins.com)

It is also known, as discussed above, that during this period, the Tyre silver shekels and half-shekels were the only coins accepted as payment of the annual tribute to the Jerusalem Temple of one half shekel per Jewish adult male.

Ya’akov Meshorer theorizes that there were two basic issues of Tyrian silver coins. The first issue was struck in Tyre from 126/5 BC until 19/18 BC and the second issue was struck in or near Jerusalem, from 18/17 BC until 79/60 AD. This is possible, though other numismatists have argued that the second issue, which is cruder in style and manufacture than the first, may not have been minted at Tyre, but was probably minted somewhere other than Jerusalem.

tyre shekel 126 10 11 ad
Tyre shekel minted during the life of Jesus, in 10/11 AD. Meshorer believed that the Tyre shekels and half-shekels minted after 18/17 BC were struck in Jerusalem. Others believe that the coins may not have been minted at Tyre, but were probably not struck in Jerusalem. (photo by David Hendin)

tyre shekel

Whether struck in Tyre or farther south, it is clear that the silver coins of ancient Tyre were well known in the ancient world for their weight and quality of silver. The Talmud makes it a point to explain that “Silver, whenever mentioned in the Pentateuch, is Tyrian silver.” (Tosephta Kethuboth 13,20)

Because of this quotation, backed up by the obviously large quantity of the coins originally minted, it is quite clear that many New Testament stories, such as the coin in the fish’s mouth mentioned above, the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for his betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26: 14-15), and the large silver coins used to bribe the soldiers who had fled from their watch at the Holy Sepulcher on Easter morning (Matthew 28:11) each most likely involved the shekels and the half-shekels of Tyre.

St. Helena, the First Christian Pilgrim

church santa croce de gerusalemme
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

On a visit to Rome, we sought out the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. My American Express Guide to Rome (long out of print, but still handy) says it was “One of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome, it is said to have been built to house the precious relics of the True Cross brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.”

It is said that Helena founded the church on land where her private palace stood. Although it was on the edgte of the city, the relics of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that Helena brought back from Jerusalem made Santa Croce in Gerusalemme a center for pilgrimage. Most important were some pieces of Christ’s Cross (croce means “cross”) and part of Pontius Pilate’s inscription, called the Titulus Crucis, proclaiming “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews,” written in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. There is little doubt that this wooden plaque is very old, but numerous tests performed over the years have never established its authenticity absolutely. Nevertheless, even to a non-Christian observer, it is quite moving to view these relics.

titulus_teca
Remaining fragment of the plaque that was supposedly attached to the cross of Jesus, which is said to have been brought to Rome by Helena, mother of Constantine I, and placed in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (photo: photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

When we entered the church, only a few days after Easter, we seemed to be the only visitors. We walked up to the altar and around the chapel. We did not see any relics, so we made our way into the smaller side rooms and found them in a small room behind the main altar. Here we saw St. Helena’s relics: three pieces of wood set in a larger cross; they are said to be actual pieces of the True Cross. Two thorns, said to be from Jesus’ crown of thorns are mounted and stand alongside it, as does a piece of a bronze nail, said to be from the crucifixion itself. And finally, we saw the piece of wood that is said to be from the sign Pontius Pilate was said to have erected over Jesus while he was crucified.

Whether or not they are authentic relics, I cannot say. But seeing them was a fascinating experience.

It led me to recall the importance of Helena, later revered as St. Helena, to the ancient land of Israel. Hers is a real “rags to riches” story. We believe Helena was born in about 249 AD in the town of Drepanum in Bythnia, which Constantine later renamed Helenopolis. St. Ambrose referred to her as an inn-keeper, others say she was a simple bar maid in her father’s tavern. Eventually she attracted the attention of a Roman soldier, Constantius Chlorus and she became either his longtime mistress, or his wife. In either case there is no doubt that together they bore a son, Constantine.

constantius i chlorus as caesar
Constantius I Chlorus follis (307/310–337), father of Constantine I, first husband of Helena (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 292, when Constantius became Caesar of Spain, Gaul, and Britain, he dumped Helena and married Theodora, the daughter of Maximian, his patron.

Theodora, died before 337 AD, follies (photo: cngcoins.com)
Theodora, died before 337 AD, follies (photo: cngcoins.com)

Meanwhile, Helena’s son Constantine became a soldier, and spent a lot of time at Diocletian’s court. When Constantine persuaded the Roman legions in Britain to proclaim him Caesar in 306, he immediately called for his mother and installed her in his court with the appropriate honors befitting the mother of the Emperor.

Constantine I bronze struck at Constantinople. The reverse depicts a labarum crowned by a Christogram, piercing a serpent, with the legend SPES PVBLIC (hope for the public). Constantine saw the Christogram in a vision and also began to wear it on his helmet and shield (photo: cngcoins.com)
Constantine I bronze struck at Constantinople. The reverse depicts a labarum crowned by a Christogram, piercing a serpent, with the legend SPES PVBLIC (hope for the public). Constantine saw the Christogram in a vision and also began to wear it on his helmet and shield (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 312, the most significant event of Constantine’s reign occurred. While preparing for a battle with the army of his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, he saw a cross in the sky with the inscription IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (“In this sign you will conquer”). He immediately ordered his troops to paint the monogram of Jesus, the labarum, on their shields and this extra strength enabled their victory and gave Constantine control of the West as well as the East, whereupon Constantine vowed to make the Roman Empire a Christian nation.

Vetranio bronze (c. 350 AD) struck under Constantius II (337 – 361 AD) as Siscia. The reverse legend is HOC SIGNO VICTORERIS (In this sign, you will conquer). The scene and legend on this coin provide a re-enactment of Constantine I’s victory at the Milvian Bridge. (photo: cngcoins.com_
Vetranio bronze (c. 350 AD) struck under Constantius II (337–361 AD) as Siscia. The reverse legend is HOC SIGNO VICTORERIS (In this sign, you will conquer). The scene and legend on this coin provide a re-enactment of Constantine I’s victory at the Milvian Bridge. (photo: cngcoins.com_

In 324 AD Constantine named Helena as “Augusta,” a title that was established by Augustus for Livia, but certainly not granted every empress, much less every royal mother.

Helena as Augusta 324-328/30, bronze follis (photo: cngcoins.com)
Helena as Augusta 324–328/30, bronze follis (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 325 AD, the Council of Nicea met and Constantine declared Christianity to be the nation’s official religion. Incidentally, it is not clear whether Constantine himself actually ever became a Christian. His mother, Helena, was not only converted but was so excited by her spiritual experience that it enticed her to make a pilgrimage, circa 326 AD to Judea, where she could visit all of the sites that were important in the life of Jesus. She was in her late 70s at the time she embarked. Helena’s pilgrimage was the prototype for the travels of virtually every Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land for some 1,700 years, right up to today.

Until Helena’s visit, nobody outside of the Christians in the Holy Land had paid much attention to the sites there. In Helena’s day the Jews maintained important academies at Tiberius, Sepphoris, and Lydda (Lod). Led by Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Nassi the Jewish scholars were in the final stages of developing the Talmud itself. When I was the numismatist at the Joint Sepphoris Expedition in 1985 and 1986, led by Duke’s Eric and Carol Meyers and Hebrew University’s Ehud Netzer, we discovered some remarkable mosaic floors—and many more were subsequently discovered at Sepphoris—which indicated that the city was extremely wealthy at the time Helena arrived in the country. In fact, we dated some of these mosaics by small groups of Constantinian coins lying on top of and just under them.

While there is no doubt that the local traditions held some, or perhaps many of the sites Helena visited as holy shrines, it did not hurt that the mother of the Emperor of Christian Rome further declared the sites to be true.

And indeed, Helena was said to have:

—Proclaimed the actual path Jesus took on his way to the cross, the Via Dolorosa, and declared the precise spots of all of the fourteen Stations of the Cross;

Fifth Station of the Cross (left) and the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. (photos: David Hendin)
Fifth Station of the Cross (above) and the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem (below). (photos: David Hendin)

via dolorosa dh

—Found at least several pieces of the true cross itself;

—Identified the spot near the Sea of Galilee where the miracle of fish and loaves occurred;

—Confirmed the place where Jesus stood when he gave his Sermon on the Mount;

—Marked the place of the Annunciation, where Mary learned that she would give birth to Jesus;

—And she also identified places where Joseph’s carpentry shop stood, where Jesus was born, the field in which the shepherds saw the Bethlehem Star, and the inn of the Good Samaritan.

The story of Helena’s pilgrimage is certainly not fantasy. In his Life of Constantine (c. 340 AD), Eusebius wrote (only about ten years after her death) that Helena lavished good deeds on the Holy Land, and “Although well advanced in years, she came, fired by youthful fervor, in order to know this land” and she “explored it with remarkable discernment…And by her endless admiration for the footsteps of the Savior…she granted those who came after her the fruits of her piety. Afterward she built two houses of prayer to the God she revered, one in the Grotto of the Nativity (this is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) and the other on the Mount of the Ascension (this is the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives).” Helena also is said to have identified the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried, and ordered the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be built there.

It is a matter of some interest that while Helena’s important pilgrimage is well documented, not a single numismatic memento of these events was issued. So the coins of Helena can only offer us a glimpse of the appearance of this important woman of antiquity.

War Of Queitus

There was a significant “Third Revolt” of the Jews during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98–117 AD). This war took place between the Jewish War (First Revolt: 66–70 AD) and the Bar Kokhba War (Second Revolt: 132–135 AD).

It was called “the war of Quietus” and took place between the years 115 and 117 AD. It was fought in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, but apparently not in Judaea.

More accurately, the “war of Quietus” was a series of revolts. These revolts were likely the direct results of both the aftermath of the reign of Domitian (who was especially hard on Christians and Jews) as well as attacks under Trajan’s rule on both Christian and Jewish leaders.

We do not know a great deal about the “war of Quietus,” and one reason is that there is not any known numismatic material that references this war. By comparison, the numismatic evidence from the First Revolt consists of both the coins of the Jews of the period, as well as the JUDAEA CAPTA coins of the Flavians, which reflect a great deal on their view of Rome’s victory.

Bar Kokhba’s coins are likewise very important to our knowledge of the so-called Second Revolt. Indeed, the first name of Bar Kokhba, “Simon” was known ONLY from his coins until 40 years ago—1960 to be exact—when the Bar Kokhba letters, discovered in caves near the Dead Sea, were discovered and translated.

Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)
Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)

After Domitian’s harsh rule, his successor, Nerva, was less abusive to his subjects.

There is no doubt that at this time in history there was quite a lot of animosity against the Jews. If you don’t believe it, read the very anti-Jewish first-century historian Tacitus, who in small part stated: “The other practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness.”

Early in the second century, under Trajan’s rule, the head of the Judaeo-Christian Church, Simeon, son of Cleophas, was executed by the Roman governor of Judaea.

Furthermore, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, a leading gentile Christian, was sent to Rome and executed about the year 110. Grant describes him as “the first significant Christian churchman.” (At this point in the history of Christianity there were both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Originally Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, thus the earliest Christians needed first to be Jews. Later, as Paul spread the gospel throughout the world, he preached that non-Jews could convert directly to Christianity without becoming Jewish first.)

The reasons for these executions are not clear, but they are probably part of a religious persecution by Rome that also underscored the Jewish unrest.

In 110, Trajan moved against Parthia, thus ending a 50-year peace that Nero had established. The Parthians had been weakened by the new and powerful Kushan kingdom in eastern Iran. A few years later, Trajan also annexed Armenia, and moved his armies into upper Mesopotamia and Adiabene. Adiabene is a country of special interest, since its ruling dynasty (led by Queen Helena) had voluntary converted to Judaism in the first century. (Helena’s tomb stands today in East Jerusalem, it is known as the “Tomb of the Kings.)

During these various military operations, a large number of Jewish communities came under Trajan’s control.

The first uprising came in Cyrenaica, where a Jewish king named Lukuas (also called Andrew) violently attacked the local Greek governments and Roman provincial authorities—all of whom had been weakened in favor of Trajan’s Parthian campaigns.   Cassius Dio painted a grim picture of Jewish atrocities, culminating with the Jews forcing the Romans and Greeks to fight with wild animals, or as gladiators in the arena. This sounds almost as if the Jews were exacting revenge for similar fates suffered by so many Jewish captives in Rome some 45 years earlier after the First Revolt.

The outbreak had meanwhile spread to Cyprus, and Eusebius, the “father of church history” reports its capital Salamis was laid waste by them. There is no information about how the Cyprus revolt was ended, but we know of the consequence, Cassius Dio reports that from that time forward Jews were not allowed to appear on the island, under penalty of death. Violent fighting also followed in Egypt and the synagogue of Alexandria, said to be a marvel of Egyptian architecture, was destroyed. To quell these Jewish outbreaks, Trajan’s first move was to call in a general named Martius Turbo. By repeated onslaughts against the Jews he overcame the rebellions in Cyprus, Egypt, and Cyrenaica.

To oppose the Jews closer to his own army, in the district of the Euphrates, Trajan turned to his favorite general, Lucius Quietus, a Moorish prince, known for his unpleasant disposition.

Emil Shurer writes in The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ that “with barbarous cruelty Quietus executed his commission and laid waste to the mostly Jewish towns of Nisibis and Edessa. Thousands of Jews were put to death. Thus was order restored, and Quietus, in recognition of his services, was appointed governor of Palestine.”

Even though accounts of the “war of Quietus” are skimpy, some sources say that as many as half a million casualties occurred amongst the foes.

Apparently as a reward for his good work, in about 117 AD Trajan sent Quietus to Judaea as governor of Palestine with unlimited power. This seems to indicate that there was also a certain level of Jewish rebellion in Palestine. However, the main Jewish insurrections at this time were clearly outside of Judaea. On the other hand, it is quite probable that the Jewish restiveness in Judaea at the time was the precursor to the Bar Kokhba War which erupted only 14 years later in 131/132 AD.

Possibly partly because of the Jewish uprisings, Trajan was finally unsuccessful in his Parthian campaign and he eventually had to give up on his grandiose plan to turn Parthia into a Roman province. At this time Trajan became very sick. He was taken to Antioch, and died a few months later in Cilicia. His wife, Plotina, told the army that before his death Trajan had named Hadrian as his adopted son and successor.

When Hadrian became emperor, he removed Quietus from this post, probably because the Moorish General had favored Trajan’s expansionism, which was not Hadrian’s style. Quietus was executed in Rome the following year, accused of participating in a conspiracy against the emperor.

I discussed the “war of Quietus” with Rabbi Benjamin Yablok, a numismatist and Talmudic scholar. He pointed out that the “war of Quietus” had at least one interesting, long-lasting effect on Jewish tradition. Based on writings in the Talmud, Rabbi Yablok explains, when Jewish women were married they would wear golden tiaras or crowns to the ceremony. But, “in commemoration of the misfortunes caused by Lucius Quietus, the Rabbinical sages decreed that brides should no longer wear crowns.” Jewish women have not worn golden marriage crowns since that time.

There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115-117 AD. However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period. The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy cngcoins.com)
There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115–117 AD. However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period. The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy cngcoins.com)

by David Hendin, ANS Adjunct Curator

The Poor Widow’s Mite

Every year at Christmas time, I seem to see mentions of the “poor widow’s mites” made famous by the story in Mark 12:41-44 (and also in Luke 21:1-4):

And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites (λεπτόν), which make a farthing (κοδράντης). And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had…

Tyndale Bible at the Bodleian Library, Oxford
Tyndale Bible at the Bodleian Library, Oxford

The word “mite” first appears in the books of Mark and Luke in the 1525 publication of Tyndale’s New Testament, where it was likely intended as a shortened version of the word “minute” and not as the name of a denomination. As the late Fr. Augustus Spijkerman has noted, the word lepton “implies very small coins…even we may say…the smallest coin being in circulation in Palestine at the time concerned.”

Oliver Hoover has noted that it is not surprising that scholars who made the early English translations of the Bible had a tendency to “reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English money.” Hoover, who discussed this in detail for an article in the ANS Magazine, points out that neither the original Greek text of the New Testament nor the Latin Vulgate Bible mention the “mite.” Instead the Greek or Latin words used in that version are, respetively, lepta or minuta.

Title Page of King James Bible (1611)
Title Page of King James Bible (1611)

The word “mite” was most widely disbursed by the authoritative King James version, which was printed in 1611 after work by dozens of scholars over nearly seven years. It became the most popular English version of the Bible ever published and it was noted for its scholarly translations and the artistry of its language, which influenced the course of English literature. In the preamble, the translators expressed the hope that the work would “speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.” In his article, Hoover observes that early English translations of biblical texts are of “some interest to numismatists, given their tendency to reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth and seventeenth-century English money.” In numismatic terms, the King James Bible can often tell us as much about the the circulating coinage of early modern Great Britain as it does that of the ancient world. However, there was no mite coin known to exist in British coinage of this period.

Hoover notes that the mite (meaning “small cut piece” in Old Dutch) only began circulating Flanders in the early fourteenth century. The early example below is billon, but by the sixteenth century, it was being minted in copper.

ANS, 0000.999.7906
ANS, 0000.999.7906

One might guess, therefore, that this denomination was imported and used in Britain at the time, but there is little evidence to support that possibility. Even though the Dutch mite did not circulate in Britain, and no British mites existed per se, it was mentioned in contemporary arithmetic books as a fraction of a farthing, varying from one-third to one-sixteenth.

Given all this, Hoover concludes that it seems likely that the mite entered into the King James Version “as a result of a translational quandary created by the original.” In the early English translations, the Gospel of Mark gives the value of two lepta as a kodrantes or quadrans. The crux of the matter for Hoover is that “any Latin grammarian would have known that a quadrans was a bronze coin worth one-fourth of a Roman as, making its English translation as farthing (one-fourth of a penny) almost unavoidable. Unfortunately, in the English coinage system there were no denominations smaller than a farthing, creating the problem of how to deal with Mark’s lepta/minuta.” With no British parallel for any coin smaller than a farthing, there is a good chance that the arithmetic term mite was brought into play.

Hoover also speculates, however, that Tyndale’s earlier translation might have been a little influenced by the contemporary Flemish monetary system. He continues:

After all, Tyndale is known to have had good Flemish connections, and he composed and printed his translation of the New Testament while in the nearby German cities of Hamburg, Cologne, and Worms. In 1534, Antwerp became his home and a base for shipping his contraband translations into Tudor England, until he was finally arrested and executed for heresy in 1536. Thus, Tyndale is likely to have been conversant with the Flemish currency system, in which there were twenty-four mites to the penning.

Whatever the case, British money was organized according the £sd or pound-shilling-pence system. There were 12 shillings in a pound and 20 pence (pennies) to the shilling, so a pound was 240 pence. There were smaller denominations than the penny, such as the farthing, which was one-quarter of a penny. There was an even smaller coin, worth a half-farthing (1/8 penny), that, borrowing the Flemish term, came to be known as a mite. It was for this reason that the smallest coin in circulation in early first century Jerusalem became known worldwide and probably for all time as the mite.

It is only natural that people who are interested in the stories of the Bible would want to know more about these coins and exactly which ones could be associated with the stories. In his History of Jewish Coinage and of Money in the Old and New Testament, Frederick Madden uncritically stated that the mite “was the smallest coin current in Palestine in the time of our Lord.” In a Handy Guide to Jewish Coins (1914), Edgar Rogers wrote of the story that it was natural to assume that the coins cast into the treasury were strictly Jewish and suggests that “with some degree of certainty it may be said that the popular coins for this purpose were the small copper of Alexander Jannaeus and his successors.” Whatever its origin and identity, the poor widow’s mite has become one of the most frequently referenced and most popular ancient biblical coins.

Here are two things we know about the widow’s mite story, as related by both Mark and Luke:

  • It is certainly a story about charity and goodwill, rather than a story about money. The poor woman gave all she had to the treasury of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, while, relatively speaking, many rich people gave little of themselves.
  • The amount of money the widow threw into the Temple treasury was two coins of the smallest size in existence in Jerusalem at that time. There is no doubt that the small prutah (Guide to Biblical Coins Nos. 1152, 1153) or half-prutah (GBC Nos. 1134, 1138, 1147, 1185-87) coins of the Maccabean kings and Herod the Great, fit that description. The most common, easily by a factor of more than 1000 to 1, is the small prutah. It would have most likely been struck by the Hasmonean successors of King Alexander Jannaeus (103 – 76 BC), which have been documented to range in weight from 0.20 to 1.70 grams, with an average of 0.81 grams.

The massive issue of these tiny bronze coins in this poor land filled a market need. Some versions of these coins may have been first struck very late in Jannaeus’ reign and likely continued to be minted periodically until as last as 50-45 BC. These coins were all decorated on one side with an anchor and on the other side a crude star.

ANS, 1944.100.62695
ANS, 1944.100.62695

Herod the Great also minted very similar looking but much more scarce coins, possibly quite early in his reign, which technically began on the ground in Judea around 37 BC. These coins range in weight from 0.49 grams to 1.78 grams with an average of 0.94 grams. Herod’s coins are decorated on one side with an anchor and on the other side with crude inscription.

ANS
ANS

The similarities of the Herodian to the Hasmonean in both design and general appearance coins suggest that the latter were crudely copied from the earlier ones, and archaeological finds suggest that their circulation overlapped. The illustration below shows the similarities between Hasmonean small prutot (GBC 1153, top 2 rows) and the slightly later Herodian small prutot (GBC 1173 – 1177 bottom 2 rows).

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7.5a
© David Hendin

Both the Hasmoneans and Herod I also issued relatively small numbers of a few coin types which were clearly meant to be half denomination prutot. The best current evidence suggests that during the first century, the Judean shekel was made up of 256 prutot. Consider that there are 100 cents to the dollar and this was very small change indeed.

Archaeological evidence proves that even though these small coins were struck in the first century BC, prutot continued to circulate well into the first century AD when Jesus lived, and even as long as the fourth century AD. At the joint Sepphoris excavation in 1985, we found the small prutot of Jannaeus in the same areas as fourth-century Roman bronze coins. They were useful pieces of small change at a time and place that small change was not easy to find. Many late Roman and Byzantine small bronze coins were chopped in halves and quarters to accommodate the needs of the market.

One final aspect of the story of the poor widow’s mite remains relevant today. Many people of great means contribute little to charitable causes, while less wealthy individuals contribute a great deal relative to their ability. This is a topic fit for everyone to ponder.

David Hendin

Persian Silver of Judah

Hendin-1050
Hendin-1050

The first coins with Hebrew inscriptions were struck during the period when the Achaemenid or Persian Empire ruled ancient Judah. It seems likely that the earliest of those coins were struck at the Philistian mint of Gaza between 539 and 333 BCE. Later, only small denominations were struck in Judah, quite likely in or very near to Jerusalem. These are part of what is known as “Yehud” coinage because most of them were inscribed with the paleo-Hebrew legend YHD, although some carry the name Hezekiah and one very rare variety has the name of a priest named Yochanan.

It was quite a feat for coins to be minted at all in this area, which was rather out of the way in that time, and had no great technological capabilities. The mints in ancient Judah most likely resembled small blacksmith or jewelry shops, but must have been in the precinct of a fort or a palace because of the need for security in the transport and storage of uncoined silver. The early coins minted in Judah were patterned after Athenian coins and struck some time before 333 BCE when Alexander the Great brought an end to the First Persian Empire.

The denominations of the coins are uncertain. However, this group seems to be related to the known weight of the Judean shekel, which was 11.4 grams around 800 BCE during the Iron Age. The two denominations of the earliest small silver coins struck in Judah weigh around half a gram or a quarter of a gram. These weights correspond to approximately 1/24th and 1/48th of the known weight of the shekel. Archaeologists believe that there were 24 gerahs in each shekel at the time, although Exodus 30:13 informs us that “the shekel is twenty gerahs.” This discrepancy may be due to a slightly different division of the shekel in this earlier period.

Half a gram is very light and small for a coin. Manufacture of such tiny objects presented challenges because the small size of the dies that were created to strike these coins made them very fragile. The diminutive dies were subject to heavy wear and susceptible to breakage. Numismatists today can track the wearing and breaking of the dies if they can identify a sufficient number of specimens.

ANS, 1999.32.45
ANS, 1999.32.45

The most common of the early Yehud coins is a type with an obverse portrait of Athena and the reverse portrait of an owl, just like the classic Athenian tetradrachm. But instead of the AΘE ethnic inscription for Athens, the coin carries the paleo-Hebrew script YHD. The coin measures about 8 mm in diameter and weighs just half a gram, and most extant specimens, as with the example above, are in rough shape. It is estimated that this type represents a full 15% of the Yehud coins in existence.

 

Credit: Don Simon
Credit: Don Simon

While I am on the subject of ancient Jewish coins, I would be remiss not to note the passing of Israeli numismatist Shraga Qedar, whom many in the ANS community knew well. Sadly he died last month, and my tribute to him can be found here.

David Hendin