Coins in the Bible

Whether you take the Bible as word from God or as an incredible piece of writing; it’s undeniable that it is a fantastic reference point fir history and gives us an unparalleled look into the past. One thing we can closely exam are the coins in the Bible. A number of coins are mentioned in the Bible, and they have proved very popular among coin collectors. Specific coins mentioned in the Bible include the widow’s mite, the tribute penny and the thirty pieces of silver.

 

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The Widow’s Mite by James Tissot

Widow’s Mite

The Lesson of the widow’s mite is presented in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4, in which Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel of Mark specifies that two mites (Greek lepta) are together worth a quadrans, the smallest Roman coin. A lepton was the smallest and least valuable coin in circulation in Judea, worth about six minutes of an average daily wage.

Mark 12:41-44 (NAB) reads:

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.

The traditional interpretation of this story tends to view it as contrasting the conduct of the scribes with that of the widow, and encouraging generous giving; often compared with 2 Corinthians 9:7, “…for God loves a cheerful giver.”

However, in the passage immediately prior to Jesus taking a seat opposite the Temple treasury, he is portrayed as condemning religious leaders who feign piety, accept honor from people, and steal from widows:

Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.

The same religious leaders who would reduce widows to poverty also encourage them to make pious donations beyond their means. In some peoples opinion, rather than commending the widow’s generosity, Jesus is condemning both the social system that renders her poor, and “…the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.” It is also to be noted that if Jesus’ statement was to be seen as an endorsement of the widow’s action, it bears none of the usual comments, such as “Go, and do likewise.”

Widowsmite

Mite minted by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judaea, 103 – 76 B.C.

Tribute Penny

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The Tribute Money by Titian 

One of the next most popular coins is the tribute penny. The tribute penny was the coin that was shown to Jesus when he made his famous speech “Render unto Caesar…” The phrase comes from the King James Version of the gospel account: Jesus is asked, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” (Mark 12:14) and he replies, “bring me a penny, that I may see it” (Mark 12:15).

The Greek text uses the word dēnarion, and it is usually thought that the coin was a Roman denarius with the head of Tiberius. It is this coin that is sold and collected as the “tribute penny,” and the Gospel story is an important factor in making this coin attractive to collectors. The inscription on the coin reads Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus, claiming that Augustus was a god. The reverse shows a seated female, usually identified as Livia depicted as Pax.

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Denarius of the Emperor Tiberius

However, it has been suggested that denarii were not in common circulation in Judaea during Jesus’ lifetime and that the coin may have instead been an Antiochan tetradrachm bearing the head of Tiberius, with Augustus on the reverse. Another suggestion often made is the denarius of Augustus with Gaius and Lucius on the reverse, while coins of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Germanicus are all considered possibilities

 

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Judas receiving thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, by Mattia Preti, c. 1640

Thirty Pieces of Silver

Lastly, an often cited coins are the thirty pieces of silver, which famously, was the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, according to an account in the Gospel of Matthew 26:15. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas Iscariot was a disciple of Jesus. Before the Last Supper, Judas went to the chief priests and agreed to hand over Jesus in exchange for 30 silver coins. Jesus was then arrested in Gethsemane, where Judas revealed Jesus’ identity to the soldiers by giving him a kiss.

According to Chapter 27 of Matthew’s gospel, Judas was filled with remorse and returned the money to the chief priests before hanging himself. The chief priests decided that they could not put it into the temple treasury as it was considered blood money, and so with it they bought the Potter’s Field. A different account of the death of Judas is given in Acts of Apostles; it describes Judas as using the money he had been rewarded with – no sum is specified – to buy the Potter’s field, and then falling there, dying of the resulting intestinal injuries.

The word used in Matthew 26:15 for the coins simply means “silver coins,” and scholars disagree on the type of coins that would have been used. Donald Wiseman suggests two possibilities. They could have been tetradrachms of Tyre, usually referred to as Tyrian shekels (14 grams of 94% silver), or staters from Antioch (15 grams of 75% silver), which bore the head of Augustus.

Alternatively, they could have been Ptolemaic tetradrachms (13.5 ± 1 g of 25% silver). There are 31.1035 grams per troy ounce. At spot valuation of $17.06/oz (the closing price on Monday, December 12, 2016), 30 “pieces of silver” would be worth between $185 and $216 in present-day value (USD).

The Tyrian shekel weighed four Athenian drachmas, about 14 grams, more than earlier 11-gram Israeli shekels, but was regarded as the equivalent for religious duties at that time. Because Roman coinage was only 80% silver, the purer (94% or more) Tyrian shekels were required to pay the temple tax in Jerusalem. The money changers referenced in the New Testament Gospels (Matt. 21:12 and parallels) exchanged Tyrian shekels for common Roman currency.

The 5th century BC Athenian tetradrachm (“four drachmae”) coin was perhaps the most widely used coin in the Greek world before the time of Alexander the Great (along with the Corinthian stater). It featured the helmeted profile bust of Athena on the obverse (front) and an owl on the reverse (back). In daily use they were called γλαῦκες glaukes (owls). The reverse is featured on the national side of the modern Greek 1 euro coin. Drachmae were minted on different weight standards at different Greek mints. The standard that came to be most commonly used was the Athenian or Attic one, which weighed a little over 4.3 grams. A drachma was approximately a day’s pay for a skilled laborer. So 30 pieces of silver (30 tetradrachm), at four drachmas each, would roughly be comparable to four months’ (120 days) wages.

 

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An Antiochan tetradrachm

There are several other mentions of coins in the Bible but this is a snapshot of some of the most important and widely discussed instances of coinage in the Bible. It’s incredible to think that some of these exact coins can be found in coin collections and museums across the world today.

 

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