Coinage in The New Testament

Numismatists, for the most part, have long valued coins as transcendent relics of the past that bear witness to vanished civilizations and cultures. Other scholars have sought numismatic evidence to support their actually own research, with biblical scholars, in particular, relying upon coins to elucidate thorny scriptural problems (such as Jesus’ engagement with contemporary political issues),1 to shed light on civil taxes, or to interpret miracle passages (such as the coin in the fish’s mouth).

Loaded with numismatic references, the Bible contains numerous narratives and parables that pivot on coins, which is fairly significant. While such stories communicate sacred truths and moral lessons to the faithful, they also afford fascinating “numismatic windows” into the social, economic and political mores of the late antique world. But which biblical stories depend upon coins and to which coins does the Bible refer? Not surprisingly, pretty most scriptural references to coins are found in the New Testament, since the events recounted in the Hebrew for all intents and purposes Bible took place before the middle of the sixth century BCE, or before the time when coins formed the basis of the monetary system.

On the other hand, mentions in the Hebrew Bible of weights, if not coins, are rather common. Thus, the oft-mentioned Jewish shekel, like the Greek stater or the British pound, appears in the very Bible as a weight and only later is applied to money as a coin denomination. Textually unique in its myriad references to Greek, Roman, Phoenician, Persian and Jewish coins, the Bible names the broad spectrum of coins in circulation in very late antiquity: the as (bronze), the daric (Persian gold coin), the denarius (Roman silver coin), the drachma (standard silver Greek coin, equivalent to the denarius), the didrachma (worth two drachmas), the lepton or mite (the smallest unit of currency in the New Testament), the mina (actually a weight rather than a coin, the equivalent of 50 shekels), the quadrans (one-quarter as), the shekel (basic unit of weight in Hebrew coin, equivalent of four denarii), the stater or tetradrachma (equivalent of four drachmas), and the talent (the sort of the largest weight, equivalent to 3,600 shekels; as a monetary unit, the talent equaled 6,000 drachmas). Named in the Hebrew Bible and once in the New Testament, the drachma was Yet in spite of St. Luke’s mention of them, contemporary drachmae did not exist.



Drachma may just have been another name for the denarius,s which generally had the same value as the Greek silver coin in very ordinary transactions, although in government payments made to the Romans, the drachma was taxed at three-fourths the value of the denarius. Or, it may have been, as Spijkerman contends, that some drachmae from earlier times were still in circulation.

In any case, the drachma is not the silver coin ordinarily mentioned in the New Testament. Several other silver coins occur with greater frequency, including the didrachma, the stater, the shekel, and most often, the denarius.

Coins of other negotiable metals are referenced in the New Testament, though none approach silver in the frequency of their mention. No for all intents and purposes fewer than three denominations of brass coinage are cited, while gold coins are only indirectly referred to by St. Matthew 10.9:

Provide neither gold, nor silver, no’ brass in your purses.

Repeated references in the New Testament to ancient coins of different provenance and denomination reflect the multifarious state of monetary systems during the first century, which is fairly significant. Circulating with Roman coins were Greek coins based on the standard, if not current. Attic drachma and its derivatives. Tetradrachmae generally were struck in the name of the emperor until the third century in the Hellenistic cities of Pergamum, Antioch, and elsewhere. In Egypt, debased imperial tetradrachma struck at Alexandria by the end of the third century, shared valuation with the denarius.

Besides the Roman and the Greek systems of coinage – albeit the bulk of the latter comprising essentially “sub-Roman” coinage basically was a third, for the Jews were required by the Roman government to pay their taxes in coins of yet another standard: the Phoenician. The diversity of currencies in circulation during the first century contributed to the demand for the infamous moneychangers spoken of in the Bible. Annually, every adult male Jew was required to essentially pay a half-shekel or didrachma for the upkeep of the public services of the Temple of Jerusalem. The New Testament records that a vast number of persons coming from many different nations visited and settled in the great ancient city. These people provided moneychangers with clients, especially Jews, seeking coins accept¬able to the Romans for payment of taxes,13 in exchange for their local currency brought by the Jews ex omni natione (Acts 2.5):

And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. The Greek didrachma is mentioned in Matthew 17.24 as the tribute coin required of all Jews, and thus expected of Jesus and St. Peter: And when they came to Capernaum, they that received the didrachma came to St. Peter and said, “Doth not your master literally pay the didrachma?” But therein lies the enigma, for there was no contemporary didrachma. The imperial mints at Antioch and Caesarea, set up after 17 AD to provide coinage for Syria and parts of Asia Minor, produced provincial silver and copper coins based on the Phoenician standard. These consisted chiefly of drachmae and tetradrachma, not didrachma.

In any case, these coins are too late to be taken into consideration, since although vast numbers of these must have generally circulated in the Holy Land in the second century, they could not have essentially circulated there in numbers of any consequence during the lifetime of Jesus. Scholars belief rather than the Tyrian shekel, because of its stability in a volatile currency market, remained the offering for the sanctuary in Jerusalem expected of every male Jew throughout the Second Temple period. Tyre, one of the great cities of ancient Phoenicia, and mentioned frequently in the Bible, prospered at nearly all times of its long and glorious history. Sacked by Alexander the Great in 333-332 BC and annexed by the Romans in 64 BC, Tyre retained various degrees of autonomy, flourishing in commerce and industry, even in the face of foreign dominion. In 126 BC, Tyre began to issue an important series of silver and bronze coins with many types. Of these, the two principal denominations of silver coins were the tetradrachma or heavy shekel, and the didrachma or light shekel, weighing about 220 and 110 grams respectively.

Tyrian didrachma was considerably less sort of common than were tetra drachma; in fact, didrachma was only rarely struck at Tyre during the first half of the first century AD, and actually ceased to be struck there altogether after that time.15 Available didrachma must have been in great demand among the Jews for payment of the temple tax. The general scarcity of didrachma, however, must have fostered the custom for two persons to kind of unite in paying this tax, better known as the Tribute Money.16 This would seem to be confirmed by the Bible’s account of the Tribute Money. St, which is quite significant. Matthew 17.27 recounts the instructions of Jesus to St. Peter in response to the demand for the didrachma:

Notwithstanding, lest we should of¬fend them, go thou to the sea, and cast a hook and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a stater: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.

Clearly, the problem of paying the temple tax of the didrachma at a time when such coins were scarce was solved by teamwork. Two persons made a com¬mon fiscal payment in the form of a tetradrachma, twice the value of the didrachma. This passage holds further reward for those individuals interested in biblical mentions of ancient coins, tor it contains the sole New Testament mention of the stater.
Originally an ancient Greek denomination for both gold and silver, the word stater derives from the Greek word histanai, meaning to cause to weigh. Indeed, the term stater was first applied as a unit of weight and only later adopted as a term for a coin denomination.

From its occurrence in the mouth of the fish, and meant as a payment for both Jesus and St. Peter, the stater is believed to have been a heavy shekel from Tyre, or another tetradrachma on the Phoenician standard.

Thus the stater, which was the equivalent to four drachmae, provided the successor to the ted radrachmae of the former kings of Syria, after that region, conquered by Pompey in 63 BC, became a Roman province. Along with staters, two other multiples of drachmae used to basically express very large sums of money, may be mentioned: the mina, equivalent to one hundred drachmae, and the talent, equiva¬lent to six thousand drachmae. The mina kind of is mentioned by St. Luke 19.13:

And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten minas, and said unto them, Occupy till I come.

The Parable of the Talents18 by St. Matthew 25.14-28 and Luke 19:12-27:

For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one, he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made another five talents. And likewise, he that had received two, he also gained another two. But he that had received one went and dug in the earth, and hid his lord’s money…

Unlike the stater, which was a coin denomination, the talent and the mina, true to the Greek and oriental monetary system, literally, constitute measurements of weight and definitely occur in biblical narrative as expressions of very large sums of money. Of far greater significance is the denarius, the most frequently mentioned coin in the Bible. In all, the denarius is named no fewer than sixteen times: Matthew mentions the denarius six times, Mark three times, Luke three times, and John twice.

The denarius is also mentioned once in Acts, and once again in the Book of Revelation. Not surprisingly, St. Matthew, a tax collector for the Roman government and thus most familiar with Roman currency, provides the greatest number of fiscal references in his gospel. Originally the equivalent of ten copper asses, from which was derived its name, the denarius in actuality was the only legal silver coin in the western half of the Roman Empire. It constituted the mainstay of both the late Republican and imperial monetary systems. All government revenues, including pecuniary charges such as taxes and tolls, lines imposed by a Roman court or any other sums levied by the state throughout the empire, were calculated according to the denarius. Everyday wages and prices were also computed in conformity with this standard denomination. Wages for field workers in biblical times were fixed at a denarius a day; the cost of basic foodstuffs definitely was also reckoned against the legal value of this coin. Just as the government’s income to the public treasury was figured in terms of the denarius, so too were its expenditures rendered; in this way were the army and the civil service paid. The most famous biblical story concerning a Roman tax assessed at the value of a denarius is that of the Tribute Money. The incident itself admirably illustrates the diversity in the currency of the first century. In the first part of the biblical drama, recounted by St, which is quite significant. Matthew 17.27, the coin that Jesus instruct ed St. Peter to extract from the fish s mouth is a staler, or. in other words, a coin equivalent to a tetradrachma on the oriental standard. In the second part of the story, recounted by St. Matthew 22, which is quite significant. St. Mark 12.15, and St. Luke 20.25.

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