Money Talks through Ancient Coins

Dr. Mark Wilson is the director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey, and is the host for BAS’s tours of Turkey, including Abraham’s Country and the Ancient Civilizations of Turkey. Read more about the author of this Bible History Daily guest contribution below.  


The First International Congress on Anatolian Monetary History and Numismatics.

Usually I have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to attend a conference. But recently, one was held near my office here in Antalya, Turkey, at the Ramada Plaza Hotel. Sponsored by the local Research Institute on Mediterranean Civilizations, it was titled the “First International Congress on Anatolian Monetary History and Numismatics.”
Numismatics is a unique scholarly discipline that spans archaeology, ancient history and epigraphy. It seems the axiom “money talks” is true. Much information can come from an ancient coin: the name of a king or emperor as well as his regnal titles, the names of governors or elite citizens and a city’s symbols, local gods and goddess and foundation myths. Coins are also one of the primary means of dating archaeological remains. Sealed in a stratum, they can provide conclusive evidence for the date of that level.
I was eager to learn about new discoveries and developments in the field. One of the speakers was the French authority Michel Amandry, whose work on Roman imperial coinage I had consulted during my doctoral research. In Biblical studies the field of numismatics helps to illustrate the influence of Roman imperialism. Even Jesus discussed coinage on one occasion with the Pharisees and Herodians. He asked whose image and inscription (Greek: epigraphē) was on the denarius, and they replied that it was Caesar’s (Mark 12:16).
But which Caesar was it? Numismatics has provided us with an answer. One of the congress’s speakers was Kevin Butcher, an authority on Roman Syria, who has discussed the “Jesus coin” in a vodcast. He explains why the image on the coin could only be that of Augustus, contrary to some popular opinions. His research has shown that denarii of Tiberius, the emperor who lived during the time of Jesus, never circulated in Judea.

A denarius from the reign of Augustus. Eretz Museum, Tel Aviv.

Something that struck me during the congress was the presentation of unprovenanced coinage sold at auctions. Various galleries and images connected to coin dealers were cited. I asked two of the numismatists at the congress about this. Readers of BHD know, some archaeological publications refuse to cite or publish unprovenanced material.* Both scholars told me that to ignore such coins would be to severely limit our understanding of ancient mints and coinage types. And they also believed that ignoring illegally excavated coins would not stem the flood of unprovenanced coinage entering the market.

Related content in the BAS Library: “The Holy Land in Coins” by Yaakov Meshorer.
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In Turkey it is illegal for anyone except registered collectors to possess ancient coins. These collectors must maintain a detailed inventory that is reviewed regularly by a local museum. Because of Turkey’s numerous ancient sites, old Greek and Roman coins are frequently found, and many are collected clandestinely or sold on the antiquities market, from where they are shipped overseas. Turkish museums try to purchase ancient coins, particularly hoards, when they are found. Since most local museums display coins from the area, they usually have funds to purchase these coins. But the prices paid on the illegal market are often higher, especially when the coins are made of precious metals.
A final bonus at the congress was to see my friend, Inci Turkoğlu, give an outstanding presentation on the coins of Chalcedon, an ancient city located on the Asian side of the Bosporus in Istanbul. Numismatics is one portion of her doctoral dissertation being written on Constantinople’s sister city and the site of the Fourth Ecumenical Church Council in 451 CE. I walked away from the congress with a fresh appreciation for this specialized discipline and grateful for the contribution of these numismatists who helped me better understand the ancient world.



* Hershel Shanks, “What to Do with Unprovenanced Artifacts—Publish or Perish?” Full article available for free in Bible History Daily as it appears in the March/April 2013 issue of BAR.

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson is the director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey, and is the host for BAS’s tours of Turkey, including Abraham’s Country and the Ancient Civilizations of Turkey. Mark received his doctorate in Biblical Studies from the University of South Africa (Pretoria), where he serves as a Research Fellow in the Department of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology. He is currently Visiting Professor of Early Christianity at Regent University and leads field studies in Turkey for several universities and seminaries. He is the author of Charts on the Book of Revelation, the revising editor of The Cities of St. Paul, editor of Constantinople and the Scenery of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor and the author of “The Book of Revelation” in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Professor Wilson also served as a consultant for “The First Christians” in the History Channel’s “Lost Worlds” series.
Explore Abraham’s Country and the ancient civilizations of Turkey with Mark Wilson and the Biblical Archaeology Society in September 2013.

4 Responses

  1. Robert D. Leonard Jr. says:

    Regarding Kevin Butcher’s presentation, while he is correct that denarii of Tiberius are rarely found in Israel, they are not completely absent. (However, the Caius and Lucius denarius of Augustus is more plentiful.) The “Tribute Penny” denarius is one of the most common of all ancient coins, and this incident ocurred about 15 years into the reign of Tiberius, so I do not believe that a denarius of Tiberius can be absolutely ruled out.

    Dr. Butcher also states that Jesus “held” the denarius. This is going beyond the text; Jesus merely asked to be “shown” the denarius. Because it was not “God’s,” he may have refused to touch it.

    Finally, this anecdote can hardly be made up, because it illustrates how Jesus avoided a dilemma: if He said that tribute should NOT be paid to the Romans, He was a rebel and would be arrested as a traitor; but if He said that tribute SHOULD be paid to the Romans, He weakened his claim to be the Messiah and stood to lose the support of the Zealots. By pointing out that Roman taxes had to be paid in Roman coins, he satisfied both sides.

  2. Allan Richardson says:

    Another reason that tax collectors were despised was that the Romans were not concerned with whether each individual paid the correct tax according to predetermined rules or laws. They just decided to tax each province a set amount (not necessarily on a regular schedule or by census, although the census gave them an idea how much they could PRACTICALLY expect to collect), and put the tax collector position up for bids. Much like our secondary bill collection agencies today, the highest bidder paid the Romans (through higher levels of collectors who were probably doing the same thing) what they had bid, and could keep whatever they collected; furthermore, they could name any tax they wanted from each individual, and Roman power backed them up. Just as a bill collector can buy up a $1000 debt from the original creditor for $500 and TRY to collect $2000 from the debtor (but even $600 gives them a profit).

    The Temple money changers and livestock merchants might not have angered Jesus if they had been performing the service honestly (in similar situations today, SALARIED EMPLOYEES with no skin in the game would be hired to do this, making fraud less likely), but in fact they grossly overcharged the people for (1) Judean coins, image-free, to pay the Temple tax, and (2) animals to be sacrificed, since traveling pilgrims usually had no farms at home to raise animals, and would have been inconvenienced by bringing the animals with them.

    The other point Jesus made was that while worshiping this way was a sign of virtue when done with a pure heart (as an example, the sacrifice Joseph and Mary presented as thanks for a healthy son, according to Luke), the “system” had turned into a means of SHAMING the truly poor and stealing from them, when the only requirement God had imposed was that of living with a pure heart. In other words, if you were excluded from physical worship IN the Temple, due to poverty or other reasons, God understands and will accept honest prayers WITHOUT going through the priests and Temple. Everyone who was blind, disabled, or had leprosy was excluded from the Temple, but Jesus reached out to them. The destruction of the Temple could be viewed theologically (both times) as God teaching this lesson by depriving ALL of His chosen people of the “equipment” for worship to teach them humility. Ever since losing the Second Temple, the Jews have emphasized prayer and worship anywhere one happens to live, along with social justice (and in contrast to the scene Jesus witnessed, will not even HANDLE money on the Sabbath, which is why synagogues are supported by dues collected on BUSINESS DAYS).

  3. Kurt says:

    Life in Bible Times—Money

    “He sat down with the treasury chests in view and began observing how the crowd was dropping money into the treasury chests; and many rich people were dropping in many coins. Now a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins, which have very little value.”—MARK 12:41, 42.

    THE Bible often mentions money. As seen in the Gospel accounts, for instance, Jesus used different types of coins to teach vital principles. He drew a lesson from the widow’s donation of “two small coins,” referred to in the above quotation. On another occasion, he pointed to a type of coin known as a denarius to help his followers discern how they should view governmental authority.*—Matthew 22:17-21.
    Why was money invented? How was it made in Bible times? How was it used? And what do we learn from the Bible about how we should view it?
    From Bartering to Precious Metals
    Before money was invented, people traded, using the barter system. They exchanged goods and services of equal value. But bartering could be inconvenient. For the system to work, each party had to desire the goods that the other was offering. In addition, traders had to carry or care for cumbersome trade items, such as animals or bags of grain.
    Traders eventually saw the need for a more convenient commodity that could be used to buy and sell goods. The solution was to use precious metals, such as gold, silver, and copper. In the accompanying picture, you see a merchant using precious metals in the form of jewelry and ingots to buy some goods or services. Those metals were carefully weighed on sensitive scales before an exchange of goods took place. For example, when Abraham bought a burial site for his beloved wife, Sarah, he weighed out the required amount of silver.—Genesis 23:14-16.
    At the time that Jehovah gave Israel the written Law, greedy merchants used faulty scales or inaccurate weights to cheat customers. Dishonesty is detestable to Jehovah God, so he told the Israelite merchants: “You should prove to have accurate scales, accurate weights.” (Leviticus 19:36; Proverbs 11:1) Today, those who sell goods do well to remember that Jehovah’s feelings about greed and dishonesty have not changed.—Malachi 3:6; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.
    How Coins Were First Made
    The first coins were likely minted in Lydia (modern-day Turkey), sometime before 700 B.C.E. Metalworkers in various countries were soon mass-producing coins, and people throughout the lands mentioned in the Bible began using them.
    How were the coins made? A worker would remove molten metal from a furnace (1) and pour it into hollow casts, producing blank discs known as flans (2). He would then insert the flans between metal dies that were engraved with symbols or pictures (3). Next came the hammer strike that imprinted the image onto the flan (4). The speed of the process often resulted in coins that were struck with the image off-center. Workers would sort the coins, weigh them to make sure that they were of a consistent value and, if needed, trim off any excess metal (5).
    Money Changers, Tax Collectors, and Bankers
    In the first century C.E., coins from various countries made their way into Palestine. For example, travelers to the temple in Jerusalem brought foreign coins with them. However, those caring for the temple would accept the temple tax only if it was paid with certain types of coins. Money changers set up their trade in the temple and often charged exorbitant fees to exchange foreign coins for acceptable currency. Jesus condemned those greedy men. Why? Because they were turning Jehovah’s house into “a house of merchandise” and “a cave of robbers.”—John 2:13-16; Matthew 21:12, 13.
    Inhabitants of Palestine also had to pay various secular taxes. One was the “head tax” that Jesus’ opposers questioned him about. (Matthew 22:17) Other taxes included a toll tax and taxes on imported and exported goods. Government tax collectors in Palestine had a reputation for dishonesty, and the people despised them. (Mark 2:16) The tax collectors would amass personal fortunes by overcharging taxpayers and then keeping the excess. However, some tax collectors, such as Zacchaeus, responded to Jesus’ message and abandoned their dishonest practices. (Luke 19:1-10) Today, any who want to follow Christ must also be honest in all things, including their business dealings.—Hebrews 13:18.
    Another group who handled money were the bankers. In addition to exchanging foreign currency, they devised savings systems, made loans, and paid out interest to those who invested with the bank. Jesus referred to these bankers in an illustration about slaves who were given various amounts of money with which to do business.—Matthew 25:26, 27.
    The Proper View of Money
    In most lands today, people must earn money to buy what they need. The statement that God inspired King Solomon to write centuries ago is still true: “Money is for a protection.” But Solomon also stated that wisdom is worth more than money because it “preserves alive its owners.” (Ecclesiastes 7:12) Such wisdom is found in the Bible.
    Jesus helped his followers to gain a balanced view of money when he said: “Even when a person has an abundance his life does not result from the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15) Like Jesus’ first-century disciples, we display wisdom when we handle money responsibly and honestly and avoid developing a love for it.—1 Timothy 6:9, 10.

    Facts About Coins
    ● One of the smallest coins in circulation in first-century Palestine was the copper lepton, also known as a mite. A laborer would earn two lepta in just 15 minutes. It was likely two lepta that the widow dropped into the temple treasury chest.—Mark 12:42.
    ● The silver drachma was a Greek coin that took almost a full day’s labor to earn. (Luke 15:8, 9) Two drachmas was the amount all Jewish men paid yearly as a temple tax.—Matthew 17:24.
    ● The silver denarius was a Roman coin that bore the image of Caesar, so it was ideally suited to serve as “the tribute” coin exacted from every adult Jewish male during the Roman occupation. (Romans 13:7) An employer would pay a laborer one denarius for a 12-hour workday.—Matthew 20:2-14.
    ● A pure silver shekel made in the city of Tyre circulated in Palestine during the time Jesus was on earth. The 30 “silver pieces” that the chief priests paid to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Jesus may have been Tyrian shekels.—Matthew 26:14-16.

  4. Carlos Allende says:

    What was the value of a silver coin in the roman era?

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