Treasures in Clay Jars

A coin hoard stored in a clay jar at the Aydın Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

Earlier this year a well-known New Testament scholar visited Antalya, Turkey. The two of us spoke to a group of pastors and their spouses from international churches in Europe and the Middle East. During one session my friend spoke about a familiar text written by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The Greek word for clay is ostrakinos, from which the archaeological term “ostraca”—pottery sherds—is derived. He argued that the references to light in verses 4 and 6 strongly suggest that clay lamps were the ceramic objects in Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage. So Paul developed his analogy about the fragility of the human body from the clay lamps used in antiquity to provide light. Such lamps are discovered regularly at archaeological excavations. My friend’s idea seemed plausible, but because Paul used the general word vessel (skeuos) and not the specific word for lamp (lychnos), I was not totally sold on this interpretation.
On the post-conference tour we joined a group traveling to Cyprus. There we visited the Cyprus National Museum in Nicosia, which houses a small but rich collection of artifacts. One display in particular jumped out at me—a clay pot lying on its side with a bunch of coins spilling out of its mouth. The description said it was a coin hoard found nearby dating from the first century C.E. The topic of coin hoards caught my interest, and I discovered that archaeologists and treasure hunters working in the Greco-Roman world have found thousands of such hoards. The size of these hoards ranges from fifty to fifty thousand coins. The coins were buried in clay jars for safe keeping, often in times of warfare or instability. Coins were also hoarded for ritual purposes as votive offerings. The phenomenon was so well known that Jesus told a parable about a man who found such a hoard and sold all his possessions to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). The Greek word for “treasure” (thesaurus) used by Jesus is the same word that Paul used in 2 Corinthians 4:7. So they seem to be talking about the same thing!

Several coin hoards have been discovered at recent Israeli excavations. Read The Ophel Treasure, Fatimid Treasure Discovered at Crusader-Era Apollonia-Arsuf and Bountiful Hoard Discovered Near Kiryat Gat. Interested in ancient coins? Learn about a recent numismatics conference in a post by Mark Wilson.

Coin hoards can be seen in many archaeological museums in Turkey. One of the most famous—the Elmalı Hoard—is now on display in the Antalya Archaeological Museum. In 1984 three Turks with a metal detector discovered a clay jar buried in a muddy field. The jar contained some 1900 silver coins struck by the Attica-Delos League. The hoard included fourteen rare, medallion-sized decadrahmi produced by Athens to celebrate its victory over the Persians. The hoard was smuggled illegally out of Turkey and sold to collectors, much of it going to the wealthy American businessman William I. Koch. After a decade-long lawsuit initiated by the Turkish government, Koch returned 1,661 coins to Turkey in 1999. While visiting the new archaeological museum at Aydın (ancient Tralles) recently, I saw two coin hoards on display. The hoards were found at excavations nearby and consisted of Hellenistic bronze coins (4th century B.C.E) and silver Roman coinage (40–270 C.E.). The clay jars that contained these hoards were well-preserved and displayed next to the coins (see one in photo).
The ubiquity of hoards in antiquity, both in time and region, suggests that the phenomenon was so well known that Paul could reasonably use it as an analogy. However, these treasures—the coin hoards mentioned in 2 Corinthians 4:7—were never placed in clay lamps but rather in clay jars.

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

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.


More from Mark Wilson in Bible History Daily

Destroying a Temple
Money Talks through Ancient Coins
Of Pirates and Virgins: Greek and Turkish Scholars Colloquiating
Pella: A Window on Survival
Antipatris: Another Pauline Site Off My Bucket List
Who Governed the Roman Province of Lycia-Pamphylia?



15 Responses

  1. Tyler Decker says:

    This is a late post as I’m trying to see why it mentions jars of clay at all when the greek translation is earthen vessels. Why would Paul mention jars of clay at all when he knew his treasure was in heaven?And he had no need to speak in parables because his work was merely evangical and apostalictic. I honestly think the idea of putting in clay pots or clay vessels was added after the dead sea scrolls were found in clay jars because when it was translated from hebrew to greek it was translated as earthen vessels. Meaning our body and relating to none other than our body. As far as I can see the clay jars came in as a comparison to help understand the translation. Most notable case the New Living Translation. And then other translations kept it because it was easy to understand like the ESV and the NIV but it was never translated as anything other than earthen vessels in the Greek translation which came from the hebrew translation. Now maybe it said clay in Aramaic, I don’t know, but to link any understanding other than that the knowledge has been manifested in our earthly bodies through the rebirth and indwelling of the spirit is ridiculous because it already mentions treasure before it says jars of clay which were used to store treasure and inanimate material could never be likened to anything that deals with the spirit which is where the knowledge rests, in the spirit of our minds. Also Paul goes on to describe his sufferings and how his reward is the eternal kingdom of God and that’s where he’ll be given rest. And he makes note of only things pertaining to the body like being perplexed, crushed. The outer man wasting away but the inner man being renewed. I think it is an extremely poor translation considering it only relates to the word treasure and not our bodies which is what the whole point is about. Unless you wanna say all things will return back to God which they will but still that isn’t the gentle approach to preaching because to say it like that to the Christians at Corinth would make them lose all hope and they would cease to mature and grow in grace. I would suggest the NASB translation which is the most accurate translation as far as new age doctrine if you’re choosing to go off of that crap. By the way in no way did the conversation about maybe it was clay lamps instead of clay jars lead you in anyway to grow in grace but merely speculate what Paul was saying and whatever you chose clay lamps or clay jars neither would have been accurate to the teaching whereas you would say in your heart and in your mind “Paul meant our body” which as I pointed out is how it’s originally translated.

  2. The Gospel of Love | Twirling Jen says:

    […] coins in clay jars and there have been many archeological discoveries of clay jars with coins. (Mark Wilson). Humans store their treasure in clay jars. God’s stores treasure in humans. The amazing things […]

  3. Charles says:

    Hi, I may be late in commenting on this article as I only have seen it now. I was going through the book of 2 Corinthians and this verse made me think a bit due to what I have read concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls being contained in jars of clay. Could this be a possible understanding of 2 Cor 4:7?

  4. Mark Wilson says:

    Jean, I’m hope this illustration will be useful for your teaching.

  5. Jean Maurice says:

    Thanks for this article, it indeed give us a lot of light on the various illustrations used. In my teachings I seldom use examples of what we see and hear. I doubt that would make much sense to readers in hundreds of years !

  6. links to the land | preachersmith says:

    […] Clay pots: Treasures in Clay Jars […]

  7. Mark Wilson says:

    Thanks for the useful example of the piggybank as a modern-day analogy in your reply to Elizabeth.

  8. Mark Wilson says:

    Thanks for pointing out that a coin hoard has been found in lamps, albeit late.. I will look up the AUSS article. In my research I was unable to find any such examples in a Greco-Roman context.

  9. Mark Wilson says:

    I am shockingly disappointed at your inability to read and understand a blog post. BHS is an archaeological publication, not a theological one. I well know the context of the Pauline text and teach it to my students in our divinity school classes. Understanding the historical context of such texts can help us as modern readers to bewtter understand the imagery that biblical authors are using to make their theological points. And BTW, I have been a believer for 39 years.
    Mark Wilson

  10. Dave says:

    To Robert and Elizabeth, I believe the point is to understand the analogy that was being promulgated, it is likely that a 1st century reference was used. If I told you a story and I said it was like “coins in a lamp”, you might think a bit and make the connection to some sort of hoard. But wouldn’t it seem more likely that a storyteller would say, “like coins in a piggybank”. OK! Now that’s a reference that moves the story line forward.

    I enjoy reading the past not so much for accurate tales, but for an insight into the life and blood and thinking of a past generation.

  11. Betty Murphy says:

    What difference does it make, jar or lamp? Can’t both possibilities be encompassed?

  12. Ibach says:

    At Heshbon, in Jordan (35 miles east of Jerusalem), a hoard of 66 bronze and silver Mamluk coins was found in an oil lamp. Of course this was from a much later time period than the New Testament, but it doesn’t seem improbable that coins could have been kept in a lamp in the time of Paul. See Andrews University Seminary Studies XI:1 (January 1973), p. 77, and Plate XIV:A

  13. Allan Rchardson says:

    Yes, the scripture was referring to the human body as a “clay vessel” holding the treasure of the Holy Spirit, but the clay jars containing coin hoards were a metaphor that would have been understood by contemporary readers. There is nothing wrong with trying to figure out how those contemporary readers would have visualized the metaphor. After all, St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity, but that does not mean shamrocks cannot be studied botanically also.

  14. Al says:

    Bob, your reply is both inaccurate and insulting. I think you will find that Mark is very well versed in Scripture and doesn’t really need the help of a clergyman (like me) for his writings. He often teaches at a well respected seminary.

    What this brief article is about is the illustration that Paul is using, not the point Paul is trying to make with that illustration. Please read more carefully before you start throwing stones.

  15. Bob Thomas says:

    Regarding your article on II Corinthians 4:7 and clay jars, I am shockingly disappointed in your basic understanding of that scripture, which was apparently lifted out of context and contrived to be some technical issue of history. If you start reading at verse 1, it will be easy to see that verse 7 is referring to our flesh, which is a common illustration used in other scriptures to denote our body’s weakness and origins in the dust of the earth. When becoming a believer in Jesus Christ, God’s Spirit comes into our bodies and His light & life & love exists underneath our “earthen vessels” of clay. This “treasure” of God’s Spirit contained within us believers is by His power/doing, and not by our earthly flesh (which is weak like a clay jar).
    Perhaps your organization should enlist the aid of a clergyman so your articles don’t continue to read like a purely scientific pursuit of Biblical history by unbelievers lacking spiritual maturity.

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