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The earliest clear evidence for the use of coins in exchange for goods and services dates to the sixth century BCE

Roman Sestertius coin depicting the emperor Vespasian

The word “money” appears nearly two hundred times in English translations of the Bible, but it does not mean the same thing for each of the biblical authors, who wrote in different times and places. The Hebrew word most often translated as “money,” keseph, means “silver” and does not always refer to coins as opposed to just the metal itself (e.g., when money is described as being weighed in Gen 43:21, 2Kgs 12:11, and Jer 32:10). Very few unambiguous references to coins appear, and they are mostly in the New Testament (e.g., when Jesus refers to a coin with the emperor’s portrait on it in Mark 12:14-17 and Matt 22:19-21). Ancient terms translated as “money” in the Bible can denote metal fragments or coins that functioned as a means of exchange, means of payment, store of value, or unit of account. When coins are specifically intended, it is important to remember that these were stamped with political and religious words and images.

Did money even exist in biblical times?

While forms of money existed in the Levant throughout the first millennium BCE, coinage was not originally one of these forms. Before coinage, systems of weights and measures were used to establish the value of goods exchanged. For the exchange of metals, standardized units of weight were used to determine value. An official stone or metal weight (or weights) would be placed on one side of a scale to measure the precious metal that served as money on the other side. If the stone was overweight, it could be shaved down; if under, lead could be inserted into drilled holes. A widely attested weight unit is the bronze talent, about as much as a man could carry, which Exod 38:25-26 equates with 3000 shekels. The Hebrew word shekel, from the verbal root meaning “to weigh,” originally referred to a unit of weight but later became the name of a coin denomination.

Silver and gold, which were more portable than bronze because smaller amounts of them were considered more valuable, became increasingly common as money during Iron Age II (900–586 BCE). In some cases, silver and gold would be kept as fragments (or “ingots”); in others, as jewelry (Gen 24:22; Exod 32:2). The value of these pieces would be measured on a scale against officially regulated stones (Gen 23:16). This controlled exchange of metal currency was a precursor to the circulation of coinage, but it also continued in use alongside coins. Biblical texts often warn against the injustice of fraudulent weights, measures, and scales (Lev 19:36; Deut 25:13-16; Amos 8:5; Prov 11:1). Payment “in kind” also persisted alongside coinage throughout the biblical periods—for instance, paying tithes and land taxes with a portion of agricultural yields.

An example of a biblical reference to money in the form of precious metals valued by weight is found in Zech 11:12-14. As part of this prophetic condemnation of religious and political authorities, an unnamed individual becomes the shepherd of a doomed flock. As payment for his work, “they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver,” which the Lord tells him to donate to the temple. Because the wages are “weighed out,” this passage likely refers to silver valued by weight rather than standardized coins. The author of the Gospel of Matthew alludes to this passage while describing Judas receiving thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus; however, he does not mention “weighing” and almost certainly has coins in mind (Matt 26:15; Matt 27:3).

Around 600–550 BCE, the Lydian kingdom (western Turkey) minted the first coins known in the Mediterranean; these were made of a gold-silver alloy, disk-shaped, and stamped with images. The use of coins, which proved convenient for compensating military and civic services, quickly spread across the Aegean and then throughout the Persian Empire following its annexation of Lydia in 546 BCE.    

Greek silver coins started to circulate in the Levant between the sixth and early-fifth century BCE, but they were not the norm and were often treated as bullion (metal valued by weight). By the mid-fifth century, however, the peoples of the Levant were minting their own coins, adapting foreign models. For example, Yehud (Judah) minted coins with the Aramaic inscription “Yehud” in Paleo-Hebrew script (an early form of Hebrew letters related to the Phoenician alphabet). Some of Yehud’s coins included names of the Persian governors. Two coins are particularly noteworthy because they exhibit foreign influences: one whose reverse depicts the “Athenian” owl along with the words “Yohanan the priest”—a high priest of the fourth century; and one (possibly Samarian) that depicts Yahweh on a winged wheel much like images of the Persian god Ahuramazda.

Why are images on coins important?

Coinage served the interests of rulers by facilitating the exchange of commodities across the regions they controlled. But coins also provided rulers with a platform for conveying religious and cultural commitments. For instance, Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors routinely included their likenesses on coins stylized as deities. On the other hand, the Hasmoneans, Herod the Great, Archelaus, and Antipas respected the Jewish prohibition of figural images (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8) by avoiding depictions of their own portraits on coins, opting instead for military and agricultural symbols. Our earliest known image of a menorah is from a coin of the last Hasmonean king, Mattathias Antigonus (40–37 BCE).

Jesus’s teaching about paying taxes to Caesar uses the fact that the emperor’s portrait was on the coin to make his argument (Mark 12:14-17; Matt 22:19-21); this demonstrates that at least some people recognized that images on coins also conveyed political power.

One episode in the gospels portrays Jesus disrupting the activities of the money changes at the Temple Mount (Mark 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-17; John 2:12-22). The money changers that Jesus confronted would have been exacting administrative fees for exchanging pilgrims’ local currency into the coins that were the correct value for paying the temple tax. At the time, Herod sponsored a mint in Tyre, so Tyrian coinage was widespread in Judea. It is likely that Tyrian half-shekels would therefore have been the preferred currency for paying the temple tax. Some scholars have even argued that Jesus’s activity was actually a protest against using Tyrian shekels and half-shekels, since they name Tyre as a “holy city” and portrayed the Syrian god Melqart (Herakles). In Matt 17:24-27, however, Jesus might actually endorse using a Tyrian full shekel to pay taxes for two people simultaneously, the reason being that it would have helped avoid surcharges accrued by paying in smaller denominations.

The images on coins also illuminate the conflict between Jews and Rome, showing that coinage could be used to support subjugation or resistance. Following the First Jewish Revolt, the Romans minted Judaea capta (“Judaea captured”) coins that depicted captive Judeans beside a palm tree, which represented Judaea. During the First and Second Jewish Revolts, however, the Jewish rebels struck their own coins calling for the freedom of Zion, and, in the case of the Second Jewish Revolt, depicting the temple that the Romans destroyed.

When the word “money” appears in the Bible, then, it is important to ask whether this refers to metal fragments or coins. If it refers to coins, who minted them and what political messages were they trying to communicate?

  • Keddie-Anthony

    A former SBL Regional Scholar, Anthony Keddie is the author of Revelations of Ideology: Apocalyptic Class Politics in Early Roman Palestine (Brill, 2018) and Class and Power in Roman Palestine: The Socioeconomic Setting of Judaism and Christian Origins (Cambridge, 2019), as well as the coauthor of Jewish Fictional Letters from Hellenistic Egypt: The Epistle of Aristeas and Related Literature (SBL Press, 2018).