Coins of the realm

Ancient coins are among the strongest proofs of Judaism’s ties to Israel

Bernhard Hoenig311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bernhard Hoenig311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The ancient Jewish coin has become a powerful weapon in the “war of words” being waged against radical Islamists seeking to break or at least deny Israel’s 3,000-year-old bond with Jerusalem. Found in desert caves and drainage ditches, buried under mounds of rubble, recovered from the bottom of the sea or sealed in centuries-old clay jars, these tiny discs of gold, silver and bronze have unequivocally confirmed classical religious and historical texts.
Of course, for all believers in the Bible no corroboration of Judaism’s ties to Jerusalem is necessary. What is recorded in the Torah and classical Judaism has always sufficed.
Nevertheless, even the devoutly faithful acknowledge today’s urgent need for “hard evidence” to expose the frauds being perpetrated against Israel.
Directing the insidious Arab propaganda campaign is the Muslim Wakf – the Islamic Religious Trust graciously allowed by Israel after the Six Day War to continue its custodianship of the Temple Mount complex. Since then, the Wakf has betrayed that trust, arrogantly dismissing all laws, agreements and the goodwill shown to it by Israel.
Employing disinformation and revisionism reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s “Big Lie,” the Wakf has seduced a gullible world into believing that perhaps the Jewish People really have no connection to Jerusalem. In addition, with the backing of the Palestinian Authority, the Wakf has systematically destroyed numerous ancient Jewish sites above and beneath the Temple Mount. As a result, thousands of antiquities from the First and Second Temple eras have been forever lost.
As scientists and educators, biblical archeologists have always distanced themselves from political polemics.
But they, too, have come to recognize their important role in combating the perfidious Muslim declarations. Indeed, nothing has counteracted that perfidy more than discoveries of biblical sites, centuries-old structures, pottery, coins, glass and scrolls.
But it is the ancient Jewish coin in particular that has distinguished itself in the ongoing battle – more, perhaps, than all other archeological finds.
Although not dated according to any calendar year, many such coins carry dates relating to specific eras.
Names and titles of rulers are frequently shown together with symbols and inscriptions supporting biblical and talmudic texts. For example, coins from Bar-Kochba’s revolt against Rome between 132 and 136 CE register the dates of the war (“Year 1”, Year 2”, etc.) next to ancient Hebrew script: “For the Freedom of Israel.” Some are inscribed with the great warrior’s first name – “Shimon.”
On a small bronze prutah – one of the first Jewish coins ever minted – the words “King Alexander, Year 25” is engraved, referring to the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai. The date reflects the 25th year of Alexander’s reign (corresponding to 78 BCE).
Even non-Jewish coinage has challenged madcap fabrications such as those uttered by Palestinian Authority’s Chief Justice Sheik Taysir Tamimi: “No Jewish Temples ever existed, and references to Jerusalem in Jewish, Byzantine and Roman writings were all forgeries.”
Neutralizing such baseless statements is the notorious Judea Capta coin struck in 70 CE by Rome to “celebrate” its conquest of Judea.
A variety of gold, silver and bronze editions, minted for 26 consecutive years thereafter, bear profiles of Emperor Vespasian or his sons Titus and Domitian. On the reverse side, a bound “Weeping Woman of Judea” is depicted sitting mournfully under the watchful eye of a Roman soldier or beneath a war trophy. Around the woman are the words “Judea Capta“ or “Judea Devicta” (Judea has been conquered or Judea has been defeated).
Ironically, that very coin – despised by the Jewish people – is now redeeming itself as bona fide proof of Jerusalem’s Jewish past, albeit in the context of tragedy and conquest.
Although not openly declaring “archeological war” on the Muslim Wakf, the State of Israel’s Antiquities Authority (IAA) has been at the forefront, opposing the Muslim propaganda. Quietly and professionally, the Authority has safeguarded Judaism’s religious and historical past through its own finds or in conjunction with major universities, museums and other groups.
Last November the IAA, together with the East Jerusalem Development Company (a governmental firm that maintains tourist sites in Israel), offered the public a first glimpse of ancient coinage uncovered from numerous archeological expeditions. The exhibition, held at the Davidson Center in the Jerusalem Archeological Garden at the foot of the Temple Mount, was funded by the William Davidson and Estanne Fawer Foundations. The curator of the exhibit is the IAA’s Gabriela Bijovsky.
Upon announcing the display, the Authority proudly declared that “The coins... are a living, tangible testimony of Jerusalem’s rich history... as well as those... from Persia, via North Africa and as far as France – a fact that attests to the centrality of Jerusalem for all the people who visited it thousands of years ago.”
Included in the Davidson Exhibition are numerous bronze coins from the 103-year rule of the Hasmoneans between 140 and 37 BCE. Well-preserved coins from the reigns of Hasmonean kings Alexander Jannaeus, John Hyrcanus I and II, Aristoblus and Mattathias Antigonus are prominently displayed.
“These coins were found in Jerusalem in great quantities,” stated Dr. Donald Ariel, head of the Authority’s Coin Department, “and even (their) flan moulds were found here – so these coins were definitely minted in the city.”
Attesting to the usefulness of coinage in verifying recorded Jewish history, Dr. Ariel further explained, “The ancient coins of the Jewish rulers who followed the Hasmoneans – i.e., the Herodians and the rebels of the First Jewish revolt – were all found in the city in huge numbers.”
The most heart-rending part of the exhibition was a presentation called “A Burning Testimony.” It consisted of small and medium-sized bronze pieces recovered by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar in 1975 at the Temple Mount’s Southern Wall.
Unearthed from layers of earth going back to the Second Temple, these old coins poignantly represent the final chapter in the five-year War of the Jews against Rome. In 66 CE, Judea’s rebel leadership ordered the striking of uniquely Jewish coinage from melted-down Roman coins and shekels of Tyre (Phoenicia).
It was the first time since the Hasmonean era that the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) had its own money.
Each coin was engraved with distinctly Judaic designs. Pictured were pomegranates representing the priesthood; lulavim and etrogim symbolizing the freedom and religious joy that are so much a part of the Jewish holiday of Succot (Tabernacles); and Temple vessels declaring that Judaism was flourishing in all of Judea.
The new coinage consisted of silver half and full shekels for all five years of the war; bronze prutahs in the second and third years; and bronze eighth, quarter and half shekels of Year Four.
The issuance of the coinage was an audacious Jewish act. The Roman Empire was livid because minting money was one of the most defining acts of an emerging nation’s independence.
Oddly enough, what attracted so many people to the special display of bronze coinage was their extremely poor condition – something normally spurned by collectors, who desire specimens of the highest quality. Most of the coins were burnt, scorched and scarred.
Some were so charred that their legends and designs were illegible.
They were the survivors of the great tragedy that befell the Jewish people in the year 70 with the destruction of the Holy Temple.
Many of the prutah coins in the exhibit were dated Shnat Arba, meaning “Year Four” (the last full year of the war against Rome).
Following the date were the words L’Geulat Tzion (“For the Redemption of Zion”). What is most telling about that inscription is that in the prior two years, each coin in the bronze series bore the legend L’Cherut Tzion, meaning “For the Freedom of Zion” – a proud l’chaim-like salute to a free and independent Jerusalem. The change in language from “freedom” to “redemption” was Judea’s sigh of surrender, the people’s acceptance that the end was near. The new inscription was a prayer that one day Jerusalem would again be redeemed.
Peering at those blackened coins, one could almost hear the screams of the men, women and children being slaughtered by the Roman legionnaires or the weeping of the captives being paraded before the burning Temple.
In another arena, a daring group known as The Temple Mount Sifting Project (also known as the Temple Mount Antiquities Salvage Operation) has been aggressively beating the Islamic Wakf at its own game. The project was founded in 1994 by Zachi Zweig, a Bar-Ilan University student (now a prominent Israeli archeologist).
Together with friends, Zweig relentlessly challenged the Wakf’s illegal excavations and construction above and beneath the Temple Compound.
Convinced that the Wakf’s goal was to cold-heartedly obliterate all evidence of Jewish history, Zweig monitored the Arabs’ dumping into the Kidron Valley of more than 13,000 tons of debris removed from beneath the Temple Mount. Much of that rubble came from the new subterranean mosque known as Al Marwani, said to accommodate 10,000 worshipers.
With the help of the Israel National Parks Authority and the IAA, he had the same dirt and rocks trucked to the Emek Tzurim National Park at the foot of Mount Scopus, where meticulous sifting procedures were conducted.
Since 2004, more than 60,000 volunteers of all ages, religions and nationalities have participated in the sifting project, much like the traditional children’s activity of sifting sand for “buried treasure.”
The Temple Mount Sifting Project is conducted today by Zweig and his former professor, world-renowned Dr. Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University’s Institute of Archaeology. Barkay is famous for his 1979 discovery near Jerusalem of the oldest known amulet (600 BCE) bearing the Bible’s priestly benediction.
The project has uncovered more than 4,000 Judean, Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins (plus countless other artifacts such as potsherds, flint tools, weapons, glass, jewelry, talismans, seals and inscribed stones). While most of the coinage has not yet been catalogued, one coin in particular was hailed as the group’s most sensational discovery. A rare half shekel from the beginning of the Judean uprising against Rome (66 CE) was discovered in December 2008 by 14-year-old volunteer Omri Ya’ari. The news reverberated around the world. The Wakf’s malicious attempts to destroy any Jewish link to Jerusalem had obviously backfired.
The obverse side of the coin depicts a branch with three blossoming pomegranates. Encircling the design, in ancient Paleo-Hebrew script, was the stirring legend Yerushalayim Hakedosha (“Jerusalem the Holy”). A chalice is pictured on the reverse with the letter Aleph (representing “Year One” of the revolt).
Inside the rim, the words Chatzi Shekel Yisrael – “Half Shekel of Israel” – describe the coin’s denomination.
Considered to be among the world’s most beautiful ancient coins, each half shekel contains approximately seven grams of pure silver, in compliance with biblical law.
Immediately after the discovery, Barkay explained that “This is the first time a coin minted at the Temple Mount itself has been found, and therein lies its immense importance because similar coins have been found in the past in the Jerusalem area... as well as at Masada... but they are extremely rare in Jerusalem.”
Equally fascinating was that only a few months earlier, archeologist Zweig reported that a Greek-Syrian coin directly related to the Hanukka story had been found through the sifting process. It was a bronze piece bearing the portrait of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It was his tyrannical rule over the Jewish people that prompted the fight for religious freedom in 167 , led by Mattathias the priest and his sons Judah, Simon and Jonathan – the Maccabees.
“The Antiochus coin found by our volunteers,” said Zweig, “is not actually a rare coin (we now have seven of them). But the significance... is that they are the first found in the Temple Mount itself.”
One can only imagine the excitement of the volunteers when that encrusted coin was removed from the Temple Mount rubble. In that split second, they experienced the incomparable sensation of touching history. Suddenly the story of Hanukka, the Maccabean victory and the rededication of the Temple came alive for them.
Perhaps the real meaning behind the discovery was that all that remained of the tyrannical rule of Antiochus, who had desecrated the Beit Hamikdash and tried to dislodge the Jewish nation from Jerusalem, was a small, tarnished bronze coin buried beneath the Temple Mount.
Just as Antiochus failed, so too will the Muslim Wakf.