The Early Stages of Study - Interpretations and Misinterpretations

The humanism of the Renaissance directed the interests of Christian scholarly circles toward ancient Jewish coins. Realizing that Europe owed its cultural development to, above all, the biblical and Greco- Roman traditions, scholars enthusiastically turned to the investigation of both these spheres. The numismatic discipline was still in its infancy, and any information on coins that could be found was gathered in an attempt to understand this new a complicated field of research. Not many authentic ancient Jewish coins were available in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, the European markets were flooded with fantasized Jewish coins. This resulted in the classification of both authentic and fraudulent coins under the same category.

A Scholar's Intuition

One of the earliest studies of ancient Jewish coins was that composed by Father Caspari Waseri at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The table of coins in his work includes, among other illustrations, a depiction of one authentic shekel (no. 1) - which Waseri probably copied from a book by Arias Montanus published in 1572 (see "The Age of Spirituality" Section) - and three additional coins (nos. 7- 9), whose existence Waseri erroneously inferred. The authentic shekel (no. 1), as it is of the first year of the Jewish War against Rome, bears the ancient Hebrew letter aleph, signifying "One," namely "Year One" (= 66 CE). Waseri, however, apparently assumed that the "One" referred to one whole shekel. He had probably read of the existence of the half shekel, but had never seen one, nor had he seen an illustration of one. He presumably also knew of similar coins bearing the letters beth (Two), gimmel (Three), and daleth (Four) - which refer to subsequent years of the Jewish War, though this was not known at the time. Waseri seems, therefore, to have inferred that coins with the letter beth represented the half shekel (no. 7) and that there were one-third shekel and one-quarter shekel coins represented by gimmel (no. 8) and daleth (no. 9) respectively.

Father Caspari Waseri,
Antiqvis Nvmis Hebraeorvm, Chaldaeorvm et Syrorvm: Qvorvm S. Biblia, Tigvri (Zurich), 1605
Courtesy of Shraga Qedar, Jerusalem

1 Shekel of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 66 CE
Obv.: Omer cup with legends "Shekel of Israel," "(Year) One"
Rev.: Pomegranates with legend "Jerusalem the Holy"
2 Fantasy coin of Jesus, bronze, 16th-19th century
Obv.: Bust of Jesus with legend "L(ord) Jesus" across field
Rev.: "Messiah-King has come in peace and Man-God, exalted, made living"
3 Rhodian coins, silver, 4th and 1st centuries BCE
Obv.: Head of Helios
Rev.: Rose and bud with legend "Rhodes"
For centuries, it was believe that the "thirty pieces of silver" for which Judas betrayed Jesus were coins of this type.
4 Judaea Capta coin, sestertius of Titus, bronze, 80-81 CE
Obv. Portrait of the emperor Titus
Rev. Palm tree flanked by captive Jew and mourning Jewess surrounded by legends "Judaea is Captive," and "By the decree of the Senate"
5 Sestertius of Nerva , bronze, 96 CE
Obv. Portrait of the emperor Nerva
Rev.: Palm tree (symbolizing Judaea) and legend "the severity of the fiscus Iudaicus (poll tax of a didrachm) removed"
6 Fantasy coin of King David, white metal alloy, 16th-17th century
Obv.: Gates of Jerusalem with legend "Jerusalem the Holy City"
Rev.: "King David and His Son King Solomon"
7 Half shekel of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 67 CE
Obv.: Omer cup surrounded by legends "Half Shekel," "Year Two"
Rev.: Pomegranates surrounded by legend "Jerusalem the Holy"
Waseri's illustration of the half shekel is pure invention. Nevertheless, his scholarly intuition led him to produce a coin that is remarkably similar to the actual half shekel. Unlike the genuine half shekels, the legends on the obverse of Waseri's coin read "Half Shekel of Israel" and "Two."
8 Shekel of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 68 CE
Obv.: Omer cup with legends "Shekel of Israel," "Year Three"
Rev.: Pomegranates surrounded by legend "Jerusalem the Holy"
Here, Waseri's instinct led him down the garden path, for he assumed that "Three" signified one-third shekel - a denomination that was never produced. His legends read "One-Third Shekel of Israel" and "Three."
9 Quarter shekel of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 66 CE (replica)
Obv.: Omer cup with legends "Quarter Shekel," "(Year) One"
Rev.: Pomegranates surrounded by legend "Jerusalem the Holy"
In this case, Waseri's intuition proved to be at least partially correct. Quarter shekels were indeed produced during the first and fourth years of the Jewish War against Rome. The quarter shekel of "(Year) One" is quite similar to Waseri's illustration. However, the designs on the unique quarter shekel of "(Year) Four" are totally different. The obverse depicts three palm branches and the reverse the letter daleth within a wreath. Waseri's legends read "Quarter Shekel of Israel" and "Four."
10 Coin of Suleiman the Magnificent (the Lawgiver), gold, 1520 CE (left)
Coin of Murad III, gold, 1574 CE (right)
Here, Waseri illustrated two Ottoman coins, showing one side of each. His illustration of the coin of Suleiman is fantasized, for no coin bearing the legend as he renders it exists. The illustration of the coin of Murad III is also imaginary. The date appearing in the illustration is = 1558 of the Hegira. Waseri intended to write = 1008, which is in any case an improbable date for this sultan, who died in 1003 H = 1595 CE.
11 Ephesian cistophori issued during the reign of Claudius, silver, 41-54 CE
The coin depicts the great temple of the Ephesian Artemis, once reckoned among the Seven Wonders of the World. Inside, a statue of the goddess can be seen. Waseri chose to depict this coin since it was issued in Ephesus, one of the cities visited by St. Paul. For the same reason, coins of this city are still sought by modern collectors of biblical coins. Waseri misunderstood the design within the temple and rendered the statue of Artemis as a kind of vessel.
12 Denarius of Tiberius,
silver, 26-37 CE
Obv.: Portrait of the emperor Tiberius, laureate
Rev.: Female figure, seated on chair, holding branch
The story of the tribute penny is, perhaps, the best-known New Testament reference to a coin: "Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? Bring me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar's. And Jesus, answering, said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:14-17). Since Tiberius reigned during the time of Jesus, it is logical to assume that Mark's reference is to a "penny" (= denarius) of Tiberius.

Nummi Abrahami - The "Coin" of Abraham

The Talmud and Midrash attribute the invention of coins to Abraham, Joshua, David, and Mordechai. In these sources, the coins of Abraham are described as depicting an old man and woman on one side, and a youth and maiden on the other. Centuries later, coins of Abraham were produced by forgers who derived their inspiration from the traditional Jewish texts. However, instead of bearing actual human images, the fantasized coins are inscribed with the phrases "old man" (identified as Abraham by the initial "A" [aleph]) and "old woman" (identified as Sarah by the initial "S" [shin]) on one side, and "youth" (identified as Isaac by the initial "I" [yud]) and "maiden" (identified as Rebecca by the initial "R" [reish]) on the other. An illustration of a so-called coin of Abraham is included in the book by Johann Philipp Odelem.

Click To Enlarge

Johann Philipp Odelem, De re monetali Ebræorvm sive vera sive ficta sive ad res eorvndem respiciente
Helmestad, 1699
Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

"Coin" of Abraham, white metal alloy, 16th-17th century

The Illustrative Coin

From the seventeenth century onward, ancient Jewish coins became popular decorative motifs, used to illustrate biblical dictionaries, maps of the Holy Land, plans of the Temple, and the like. The coins most frequently chosen for this purpose were the shekel and its fraudulent counterparts - the fantasy shekels. Most of the other illustrations depict imaginary, as opposed to authentic, coins. The illustrations were copied from contemporary books, in which real coins were still grouped with forgeries, for the early numismatists had not yet developed the skills necessary to distinguish between the two.

In the biblical dictionary from 1751 displayed here, the author copied the illustrations of the obverse of the shekels from Wasari's book. The central motif on the reverse of these coins, depicting the rod of Aaron as opposed to a pomegranate branch, is taken from the fantasy shekels (see showcase on Nahmanides and the "Fantasy Shekels").

Click To Enlarge

Augustin Calmets, Biblisches Wörterbuch, Liegnitz, 1751 Courtesy of Shraga Qedar, Jerusalem

Illustrations of Coins in Maps of the Holy Land

Beginning in the late fifteenth century, with the development of printing and the spread of education, many illustrated Bibles, religious and historical manuscripts, and later, even atlases were published. The Bible and other religious manuscripts were translated into most of the European languages and could be found in almost any home. Many of these documents contain maps and views of the Holy Land. The maps are not scientifically accurate and frequently reflect a merger of reality and imagination.

The creators of the maps of the Holy Land intended, above all, to depict biblical stories and events. With deliberate anachronism, they used contemporary knowledge of the topography of the land to illustrate the journeys of important personalities from Abraham through Jesus. The popularity of these maps and the ever-growing demand for them resulted in the production of numerous copies of the few originals.

Starting in the late sixteenth century, particularly in the Netherlands, the borders of maps were frequently adorned with representations of the Temple, the high priest, the Tabernacle, and the Temple appurtenances, such as the shewbread table and the seven-branched candelabrum. Along with these ornamental designs, we also find illustrations of ancient and fantasized coins, supposedly belonging to the periods depicted on the maps.

Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem

This map presents an imaginary bird's-eye-view of ancient Jerusalem with the Temple depicted as a monumental structure at its center. It was drawn by Fischers von Erlach, a renowned Austrian architect of the eighteenth century. In the upper left corner, a Bar Kokhba Revolt tetradrachm appears as a coin of King Solomon. The mistake in the identification of this coin is based on the erroneous reading of the legend on the left field beside the Temple façade. The letters shin and mem, standing for the first two letters of the name Shimon (Ben Kosiba = Simon Bar Kokhba), were thought to be the abbreviation of S[olomon] M[elech] (King Solomon).