Silver coins found near Temple Mount prove Jewish history of Israel

“This is the third coin of this type found in excavations in Jerusalem, and one of the few ever found in archeological excavations,” said the researchers.

Half-shekel coin from the third year of the Great Revolt. (photo credit: Tal Rogovski)
Half-shekel coin from the third year of the Great Revolt.
(photo credit: Tal Rogovski)

A rare, half-shekel coin from the Great Revolt from 66 CE to 70 CE during the Second Temple period has been discovered in Jerusalem’s Ophel excavations south of the Temple Mount. 

Only a few days ago, a wooden box containing 15 silver coins that serve as proof of the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees – which was found recently during an excavation in the Negev Desert – was announced. 

The Ophel – or citadel – is the still-extant Herodian, cased-in Temple Mount bordered to the south by a saddle, followed by the ridge known as the southeastern hill that stretches down to the King’s Garden and the lower Siloam Pool. Two kings of Judah, Yotam and Manasseh, are described in the Book of 2 Chronicles to have massively strengthened the Ophel fortifications and was either very close to or identical with the “stronghold of Zion” conquered and reused by King David. 

In the destruction layer, dozens of Jewish coins were found from the period of the Great Revolt, most of them made of bronze. They also included a particularly rare and unusual find – a silver coin in a half-shekel denomination originating from 69/70 CE.

Dig and discovery

 A wooden box containing 15 silver coins from the Maccabean period was discovered in the Judean Desert earlier this year, and will be put on display in the Hasmonean Museum in Modi'in, December 13, 2022. (credit: SHAI HALEVI / ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY) A wooden box containing 15 silver coins from the Maccabean period was discovered in the Judean Desert earlier this year, and will be put on display in the Hasmonean Museum in Modi'in, December 13, 2022. (credit: SHAI HALEVI / ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

The dig was carried out by a team from the Hebrew University (HU), led by Prof. Uzi Leibner of the Institute of Archaeology, in partnership with Armstrong College in Edmond, Oklahoma, and with the support of the East Jerusalem Development Company, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. 

The rare silver coin was cleaned at the conservation lab of the Institute of Archaeology and identified by Dr. Yoav Farhi, the team’s numismatic expert and curator of the Kadman Numismatic Pavilion at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. Silver coins from the Great Revolt were the first and the last in ancient times to bear the title “shekel,” the archaeologist said. “The next time this name was used was in 1980, on Israeli shekel coins produced by the Bank of Israel.”

“This is the third coin of this type found in excavations in Jerusalem, and one of the few ever found in archeological excavations,” said the researchers.

During the Great Revolt against Rome, the Jews in Jerusalem minted bronze and silver coins. Most of the silver coins featured a goblet on one side, with ancient Hebrew script above it noting the year of the Revolt. Depending on its denomination, the coins also included an inscription around the border noting either, “Israel Shekel,” “Half-Shekel” or “Quarter-Shekel.” The other side of these coins showcased a branch with three pomegranates, surrounded by an inscription in ancient Hebrew script, “Holy Jerusalem.”

The production of silver coins

Throughout the Roman era, the authority to produce silver coins was reserved solely for the emperor. During the Revolt, the minting of coins, especially those made of silver, was a political statement and an expression of national liberation from Roman rule by the Jewish rebels. In fact, throughout the Roman period leading up to the Revolt, no silver coins were minted by Jews, not even during the rule of King Herod the Great.

According to the researchers, half-shekel coins with an average weight of seven grams were also used to pay the “half-shekel” tax to the Temple, contributed annually by every Jewish adult male to help cover the costs of worship.

“Until the revolt, it was customary to pay the half-shekel tax using good-quality silver coins minted in Tyre in Lebanon, known as Tyrean shekels or Tyrean half-shekels,” said Farhi. These coins held the image of Herakles-Melqart, the principal deity of Tyre, and on the reverse, they featured an eagle surrounded by a Greek inscription, “Tyre the holy and City of refuge.” The silver coins produced by the rebels were intended to also serve as a replacement for the Tyrean coins, by using more appropriate inscriptions and replacing images forbidden by the Second Commandment with symbols.