I recently came across an article by Antonine DeGuglielmo titled, “The Religious Life of the Jews in the Light of their Coins.” The article surveys recent studies in archeology and numismatology (the study of coins) to determine how ancient Jewish coins reflect the religious beliefs and practices of the Jews. As I read this article, two things in particular caught my attention.
First, DeGuglielmo begins by mentioning a limiting factor regarding the interpretation of coins. He states, “With coins, one deals with objects that are entirely official in character… [O]ne must bear in mind that in striking coins the authorities may have wished to spread their own views on a particular subject. Of their very nature coins represent an official attitude.” In other words, since the authorities were in control of producing the currency, they could promote whatever images or attitudes they desired. It would not be hard to imagine the authoritative leaders abusing this control to spread their own political agendas, such as the silver Roman denarius hailing Tiberius Caesar as the “son of the divine Augustus.”
Second, in light of the information above, it is noteworthy that many ancient Jewish coins depict religious images. For example, DeGuglielmo describes coins that portray the lulab and the ethrog, both of which belong to the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, in addition to the menorah. He goes on to describe several other motifs possibly present on Jewish currency: the Temple or a synagogue, the Ark of the Covenant, the table of shewbread and the screen of the tabernacle. The use of these liturgical images on the Jewish coins show us what the Jewish authorities considered important and the values they sought to promote among the common people. Instead of trying to build up their own political leaders, they used their currency to remind people about their liturgies and worship of God. (continue reading…)