Reign and Religion in Palestine: The Use of Sacred Iconography in Jewish Coinage
By Anne Lykke
(Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015), xii+278 pp., 228 b/w illus., approx. $92 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Oliver D. Hoover
The subject of Anne Lykke’s new book has been dear to the heart of this reviewer for many years and, indeed, covers one of the first numi-matic topics that I addressed. I therefore greatly anticipated the appearance of this book, which is based on the author’s 2012 University of Vienna Ph.D. dissertation. The book is divided into seven chapters surveying the use of numismatic iconography in Palestine during the Persian period (the Yehud coinage) under the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties and during the two Jewish Revolts against Roman rule. An eighth chapter offers Lykke’s conclusions, while an illustrated catalog of 228 coins supports her discussion.
Throughout the book, the author convincingly argues that true Jewish sacred iconography appears only on coins issued in times of major crisis, including during the conflict between Herod the Great and the last Hasmonean king, Antigonus Mattathias (39–37 B.C.); the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66–73) and the Bar-Kokhba War (A.D. 132–135). Otherwise, the Jewish coinages of the Persian, Hasmonean and Herodian periods generally allude to Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple cult only in vague, allegorical terms (i.e., the lily and the cornucopia), if at all. The majority of the numismatic iconography was appropriated from contemporary pagan Greek and Roman images. The degree of offense to Jewish religious scruples could vary greatly, ranging from the innocuous (e.g., the double cornucopia, military helmet, etc.) to the outright blasphemous (e.g., temples of the imperial cult, ruler portraits, etc.), depending on the target audience. Innocuous images were employed in Jerusalem and aimed at the Jewish audience, while images of stronger pagan flavor were employed in the Herodian tetrarchies outside of Judea proper with much larger non-Jewish populations.
A recurring theme throughout the book is the idea that paleo-Hebrew script in coin legends served more as a religious symbol than as a real means of written communication with the coin-user. This view is predicated on the widely held belief that by the fourth century B.C., paleo-Hebrew had ceased to be a script familiar to most Jews—having been replaced by Aramaic script—and hence was largely unreadable to the general public. However, if few coin users could read the legends, we wonder what point there was in employing legends that were so laden with meaning. For example, if paleo-Hebrew script was virtually unreadable, there would have been no way to distinguish Hasmonean coins of John Hyrcanus I from those of Judas Aristobulus or to know that the Jewish hever (council) was involved in their production. Likewise, if most of the populace could not read the paleo-Hebrew legends on the coins issued during the First Revolt, how could they have recognized the attempt to mimic the Greek legends of the Tyrian half-shekel (the traditional coin required to pay the Temple tax)? There also can have been little purpose in proclaiming the “Freedom of Israel” on the coins of the Bar-Kokhba War if the script made such stirring words unreadable. While we do not doubt that Lykke is right to see a religious symbolic aspect in the use of paleo-Hebrew script, it seems problematic to discount its use for written communication.
While Lykke provides an up-to-date survey of ancient numismatic iconography and raises a number of new questions and ideas, her writing is marred in instances by poor sentence structure and typographical errors.
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