Part 2: The striking of coins in first-century Palestine

During the 1st century CE, the Romans ruled the world in which Christ lived. Following the death of Herod the Great (fig. 2) in the year 4 BCE, the kingdom was divided among his three sons: Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Philip. Herod's title of King of the Jews was not bestowed upon his sons, who received a lower rank. Herod Archelaus received the most significant inheritance, and with the endorsement of the Emperor Augustus, was named Ethnarch (ruler of the people) of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Jerusalem was his capital city, and he also inherited the city's established mint, which continued to strike coins similar in style and technique to those issued by his father, Herod.

The end of the Second Temple period was marked by a great deal of spiritual ferment. Relations between Herod Archelaus and the Jews deteriorated, and riots and murderous acts broke out. In response, Augustus sent Quirinius, the Syrian procurator, to depose Archelaus and impose order on Judea, before turning it into a Roman province. He also conducted a census for purposes of collecting taxes for the Roman treasury.

In 6 CE, a new administration run by Roman procurators was established in Judea. This administration continued uninterrupted until the Jewish War of 66 CE, aside from the short rule of Agrippa I (37-43 CE). Like his grandfather Herod, Agrippa was a king under the patronage of Rome. Unlike Herod, however, he saw himself as a Jewish king concerned with Jewish interests in Eretz Israel and in the Diaspora, and he tried to rule in accordance with the will of the Jewish people. The course of his reign is reflected in the coins he struck.

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Fig. 2: Prutah of King Agrippa I depicting three ears of corn and bearing the date "Year 6", 41-42 CE
Collection of the Kadman Numismatics Pavilion, K-5755
At first, Agrippa was granted only the territories previously held by Philip, and he minted his first coins from the capital Paneas. In 38 CE, after Caligula became the Roman emperor, Agrippa took over rule of the territories held by Antipas as well, and he apparently coined his next series of coins in 39 CE in Tiberias. In 41-42 CE, Caligula granted Agrippa authority over Jerusalem and Samaria, and he minted the famous prutahs of the "Year 6" in Jerusalem (fig. 2). Agrippa died suddenly in 43 CE, leaving his 16-year-old son, Agrippa 11, as heir to the throne. Though in the past, kings and emperors had ascended the throne at such a young age, in this case the Romans chose to grant control of Judea to Roman procurators. These Roman procurators, who ruled Judea from 6 CE until the Jewish war in 66 CE, with an interval during the reign of Agrippa 1; also assumed the right to mint coins.

The spirit of compromise between the Jewish people and the Roman administration prevailed during the period of the first procurators. Many people were still overcome with hatred for Herod and his dynasty and did not detect any deterioration in their conditions under the new regime. The role of the procurators was to supervise tax collection and judicial proceedings. To whatever extent possible, they avoided clashing with or antagonizing the local population. This sensitivity is also apparent in the coins they issued, which do not feature any portraits whatsoever and do not differ from issues struck by local authorities. Symbols for the coins were also selected from an assortment of topics that would not offend the religious sensitivities of the Jews, at least up until the rule of Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE).

During the reign of Pontius Pilate, relations between the Roman government and the Jews took a turn for the worse, and it was during this period that Christ was tried and crucified in Jerusalem. Pilate's activities, chronicled in many literary sources, provide insight into the personality of this complex figure as well as illuminate the nature of his coinage. The image that emerges from these sources reveals a mixture of good will and creative rule combined with continuous disputes, misunderstandings and a lack of perception regarding local sensibilities. Christian sources present Pilate as someone who sought to save Christ, as a righteous ruler who claimed innocence but was forced to give in to pressure exerted by the Jews. This position is contrasted by Jewish sources, such as Josephus Flavius, who present Pilate as a despotic ruler known for his cruelty and his ignorance of Jewish traditions and attitudes.

An example of the ambivalent attitude of Pilate's government toward the Jews can be seen in the large building and development projects instituted during his reign contrasted with actions taken against the Jewish religion. This ambivalence was also expressed in Pilate's coins: like his predecessors, he continued to mint prutahs without the portrait of the emperor, but he also minted coins bearing vessels used in pagan rites, such as the lituus (augural staff) and the simpulum (a ladle for libations). These patterns were insulting to the Jewish religion.

Diverse and complex events that occurred during the 1st century CE combined to bring about the Jewish War of 66 CE. Josephus places direct responsibility for the deteriorating conditions on the procurator Florus (64-66 CE), whose frequent provocation led to irate responses on the part of the Jewish people and weakened the moderate government. Coins were minted in Jerusalem immediately after the outbreak of hostilities. The striking of Jewish silver shekels was thus a declaration of war and of political sovereignty as well. During the five years of the war, silver shekels and halfshekels were struck (fig. 3). The coins bear the war years, from Year "1" to Year "5," but they do not bear the names of the leaders of the revolt. In addition, a variety of bronze coins were minted, the most prevalent being the prutah. These coins bore war slogans, such as "Freedom of Zion" and "Redemption of Zion."


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

Part 1: Monetary system during Temple times    ll    Part 3: The fall of Jerusalem and the Bar Cochba War

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