Christianity and the Coins of Eretz Israel is the new exhibit at the Kadman Numismatics Pavilion in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. This exhibit traces the story of Christianity in Eretz Israel from a perspective very few people are aware of — coins. The coins on display, used by the Jews and the Christians in their daily activities, date from the time of Christ and reflect the origins Christianity and the stories of the New Testament. The exhibition also includes pottery lamps, glass jugs, weights, stamps and other items used during the early Christian and Crusader periods. The coins reflect the development of Christianity from the faith of a small and persecuted cult to one of the West's most important and influential religions.

Part 1: Monetary system during Temple times

Both Jewish and Christian sources indicate that numerous moneychangers connected with the money changing needs of the pilgrims gathered in the area of the Temple (fig. 1): "And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves" (Mark 11:15). We can suppose that these moneychangers operated among the pilgrims who visited the Temple, particularly during the three joyous festivals (Tabernacles, Passover, Pentecost) in order to change the money for the annual half shekel tribute to the Temple.

Click to view enlarged

Fig. 1* Copy of a Roman bronze contorniate depicting three people standing by a table and changing money, 4th century CE.
Yaakov Meshorer Collection, Jerusalem
This contribution was already customary in the time of the prophet Nehemiah, when the Jewish people had assumed responsibility for funding the ongoing operation of the Temple through, among other things, a fixed annual tribute of a half shekel which, according to Jewish law, each adult male was obliged to pay. By sending additional contributions and gifts to the Temple, Diaspora Jews expressed their religious devotion and their strong connection to Jerusalem and to the Temple.

Hoards of shekels from the Jewish War together with Tyrian shekels have been uncovered at archaeological excavations in various places in Eretz Israel, particularly in Jerusalem and its surroundings. It is thus reasonable to assume that these coins were the acceptable currency for important payments during that period.

The monetary system of Eretz Israel at the time used two methods, one based on silver coins and the other on bronze coins, which could be exchanged for one another. In order to change silver coins into bronze coins or vice versa, a money changing method was employed. This method, which survived in several places in the world until the 19th century, was based on an appraisal of the value of the transaction at the time of its implementation, as if dealing with merchandise rather than money.

In addition to the coins used by the Jews, particularly the shekels of the Jewish War and the Tyrian shekels (fig. 1), Hellenistic and Roman coins were also in circulation during this period. The highest denomination coins, including the gold aureus or the silver tetradrachm, the shekel and the denarius, were used for paying taxes.

Three types of bronze coins are mentioned in the New Testament: assarion (As) (Matthew 10:29), quadrans (Matthew 5:26) and lepton (Mark 12:42). The As and the Quadrans (a fourth of an As) were struck in Rome and used all over the Empire. The lepton (in Greek, AEIITOY: small) was the smallest denomination from the Hellenistic monetary system that had not yet become invalid. The same names were used for similar coins that were struck in the provinces. The quadrans was the smallest denomination among the Roman coins. In Judea, the prutah was minted as the coin with the smallest denomination. The prutah was equal in weight to the Roman quadrans, but we do not know its exact value, since this value changed from time to time.

In everyday life, the prutah was generally used to make payments. Prutahs were struck mainly by rulers and various Jewish government authorities and by the Roman procurators who ruled Judea. Later, bronze coins minted in the cities of Eretz Israel and Transjordan came into use, as did coins brought from adjacent areas, such as Phoenicia, Syria and Egypt.


Part 2: The striking of coins in first-century Palestine    ll    Part 3: The fall of Jerusalem and the Bar Cochba War

From: Christianity on Coins of the Holy Land, Exhibition Catalog, Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, 2000.

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