Seven weights related to metal (thus creating "coins")
are mentioned in the Bible:
talent, mina, shekel, beka, gerah, pim, and kesitah. A scale of the
relationships between the first five weights mentioned can be established
on the basis of the Bible and
other sources; the absolute and relative value of the pim can be determined
from archaeological finds. The seventh weight, the kesitah (Genesis
33:19; Joshua 24:32; Job 42:11), seems to be an archaic
weight and the origin of its name and its metrological value are not
We can figure out the interrelationships of the three most important
weights, the talent, shekel, and gerah.
The talent (kikkar), was the largest unit of weight
in the Bible, and was already known by the same name in Ugaritic. In
Ugaritic it was pronounced kakaru, as has been shown from Akkadian documents
from Ugarit and Alalakh. The relation between the talent and the shekel
is defined in Exodus 38:2526.
The half shekel brought by 603,550 men amounted to 100 talents and 1,775
shekels. Thus a talent was 3,000 shekels. This system of dividing the
talent into 3,000 shekels differed from the Mesopotamian system which
divides the talent into 3,600 parts, and was the same as the Ugaritic
system where the talent was also divided into 3,000 shekels. From this
it follows that the biblical division is based upon an ancient Canaanite tradition.
The major weight of metal mentioned in the Bible is
the shekel, as its name, which means simply "weight," testifies.
Since the shekel was the definite weight, an expression such as "1,000
silver" (Genesis 20:16)
can be explained as 1,000 shekels of silver, and the name of the weight
is omitted since it is self-explanatory. Abbreviations like these are
also found in other Semitic languages. The fundamental nature of the
shekel can also be seen in the fact that all weights which the Bible
explains are explained only in terms of the shekel.
The shekel was used as a bartering material, not a
minted coin. Jeremiah bought a plot of land and weighed his payment
(silver) on scales (Jeremiah
Subdivisions of the shekel were the beka or half-shekel
(Genesis 24:22; Exodus
38:26) and the gerah, a 20th of the shekel (Exodus
30:13). The gerah is known in Akkadian as gir. The basic meaning
of the Akkadian word is a grain of carob seed.
The shekel, in turn, was a 50th part of the maneh,
and the maneh was a 60th part of the talent. The talent was, of course,
equal to 3,000 shekels. The maneh and the talent, however, were only
units of account and remained so during the Second Temple period when the shekel became a coin denomination. Scales and weights
of the shekel unit have been found in excavations as have gold, silver,
and bronze ingots.
1 talent=60 maneh=3,000 shekels
1 maneh=50 shekels=100 beka=1,000 gerahs
In short, all weights fit together nicely
.if we only knew how
much a shekel weighed
In excavations carried out in Palestine some of the weights which have been found have their weight marked on
them, but most are without any notation. The shape of the weights, for
the most part, is semicircular (dome-shaped). There are also some cast
metal weights that are rectangular and cube-shaped, and some that are
oval or in the shape of animals. Most of the weights found in Palestine are from the end of the period of the monarchy (the seventh to sixth
Very few weights and inscriptions with the word shekel written explicitly
have been found in strata from the Israelite period. A bronze weight
in the shape of a turtle was found in the coastal plain; on its reverse
side it bears the inscription "one-quarter shekel." And in
fact, a weight of this sort (one-quarter shekel) is mentioned in I Samuel
9:8. That quarter shekel weighed 2.63 grams. That would make the shekel
Another bronze weight from Samaria, also in the shape of a turtle,
bears the inscription "five", and this has been interpreted
to mean five gerahs. Since there are twenty gerahs in a shekel, that
would make that weight one-quarter of a shekel as well. Its weight is
2.49 grams, making a shekel 9.56 grams.
Another weight from Samaria is marked on one side "one-quarter
shekel," and its weight is 2.54 grams. That would make the shekel
In establishing the value of the shekel there is an
additional complication in that the Bible mentions at least three kinds
of shekels: in Genesis 23:16, a shekel of silver "at the going
merchant's rate [over la-socher]; in Exodus
30:13, "shekel by the sanctuary weight [ha-kodesh]"; and
in II Samuel 14:26, "shekels
by the king's stone [b'even ha-melech]," that is, shekels stamped
by the royal treasury as proof that they are perfect. It cannot be determined
whether these shekels were equivalent in value, but on the basis of
evidence from external sources, it appears that there were differences
The mina (Hebrew: Maneh) which designates a weight
of approximately 50 shekels, is found in the Bible primarily in the
late books (Ezekiel. 45:12; Ezra 2:69; Nehemiah.
7:70, 71). In the period preceding the destruction of the First
Temple, the mina is mentioned only once, in the verse about Solomon's
shields (I Kings 10:17). From
this it is reasonable to assume that in ancient times in Israel reckoning
was done in shekels and talents only, and the mina was not used except
in unusual situations. It appears that this practice too had its roots
in an ancient Canaanite tradition, for in Ugaritic writings many calculations
are found involving shekels and talents and very few involving the mina.
The value of the mina is defined in Ezekiel
45:12. From this verse it follows that the mina is equivalent to
60 shekels like the Akkadian man.
The beka is mentioned twice in the Bible (Gen.
24:22; Ex. 38:26) and
its value is explicitly determined as one-half a shekel. Its name is
derived from the root bq, "to break, to divide," and its basic
meaning is "a part."
In addition to being divided into the beka and gerah,
the shekel was also divided into a fourth and a third (I
Sam. 9:8; Neh. 10:33).
There is support for this division both inside and outside Palestine.
From Assyrian documents found at Calah it is evident that the shekel
was very often divided there into many more subunits, but there is no
proof that this was so in Israel as well.
Also mentioned in the Bible is the peres (Dan.
5:25, 28). The peres is also mentioned in the Mishnah (Pe'ah 8:5) and its value there is half a zuz.
Under Persian rule, some forms of Judean coins were minted, imitations of Athenian
coinage. These silver coins are rather rare, but at least six coin types
are known with the inscription Yehud (Aramaic: Judea). Some follow the
"head/owl" type, while others show a falcon, a fleur-de-lis,
a Janus head, a god seated on a winged chariot, and a bird of an unidentified
kind. It cannot be determined whether the Jewish high priest or the
local Persian governor was the issuing authority, but it's clear that
the community of Judea at that time had no problems placing images on
coins. In fact, one of the coins contains the Hebrew name Hezekiah (Yehezkiyyah).
With the rise of Alexander
the Great, the coins of the Greek world were briefly universalized. With the mounting tension between
the Selecuids and the Ptolemies, each Greek nation created its own coins.
Beginning in 137 BCE, the Hasmoneans minted their own coins, mostly the small bronze perutah or dilepton.
In accordance with the Second Commandment no likeness of living beings,
men or animals, are found on them. Most of the emblems, for example
the cornucopiasingle or doublethe wreath surrounding the
legend, the anchor, the flower, the star, and the helmet, were copied
from emblems found on the late issues of the Seleucid coinage. All Hasmonean
coins bear Hebrew legends, but those of Alexander Yannai and Mattathias
Antigonus also have legends in Greek.
The Hebrew legend, written in the old Hebrew script, almost always
appeared in the formula, "X, the high priest and the assembly of
the elders of the state of the Jews." The Hasmonean rulers were
thus styled on most coins as high priests. The only exception is Alexander
Yannai who eventually also styled himself king on some of his Hebrew
legends. On the Greek legends the Hasmonean rulers styled themselves
throughout as "king."
With one exception, all Hasmonean coins were undated, which presents
scholars with difficulties in arranging them chronologically, especially
as different rulers went by the same names. In spite of earlier opinions,
Simeon, the first independent Hasmonean ruler (142135 BCE), never
issued any coins. According to I Maccabees 15:29, Antiochus VII
granted Simeon the right to issue coinage, but it has been proved that
this grant was withdrawn before Simeon could make use of it. It has
been suggested that Simeon's son John
Hyrcanus I (135104 BCE) did not start issuing coins immediately
on succeeding his father, but only considerably later, probably in 110
BCE. This suggestion is based on the fact that cities in Phoenicia and
in Palestine received the right to coin their own money from the declining
Seleucid kingdom: Tyre in 126 BCE., Sidon in 110 BCE, and Ashkelon in
John Hyrcanus' coins were the main pattern for the whole series of
Hasmonean coins. One side depicted a wreath surrounding the legend,
"Johanan [Yehohanan] the high priest and the assembly of the elders
of the state of the Jews," while the reverse side showed a double
cornucopia with a pomegranate. All his coins were of the perutah denomination.
The coins of his successor, Aristobulus I (104103 BCE), were in
brass with the same denomination and type, but the name was replaced
by Judah (Yehudah).
At the beginning of his reign Alexander Yannai (10376 BCE) issued
coins of the same type as his predecessors, changing the name to Jonathan
(Yehonatan). Later, he issued another series of coins (in Hebrew and
Greek) on which he styled himself king. Their emblems were star, anchor,
both sometimes surrounded by a circle, and flower. A lepton or half-perutah
with a palm branch, and a flower also belonged to this "king"
series. One type of this series, the star/anchor surrounded by a circle,
was very frequent. This was the only coin type in the whole series of
Jewish coins which bears an Aramaic legend written in square Hebrew
letters and which has been dated. The Hebrew as well as the Greek date
25, which is the 25th year of reign of Alexander Yannai (78 BCE), were
recently discerned. As in the Greek legends and this Aramaic one as
well, his name is given as "Alexandros." Alexander Yannai
also apparently issued lead coins which belong to his "king"
series. It is believed that in his final issues he reverted to the early
Hasmonean coin type, styling himself again as high priest but altering
his Hebrew name from Yehonatan to Yonatan probably in order to avoid
the formula of the Tetragrammaton.
The bulk of the coins of John Hyrcanus II (67, 6340 BCE) were
in the same shape as those of John Hyrcanus I. There were, however,
varieties which were peculiar to his issues. Greek letters, single or
as monograms, eventually appeared on his coins. These letters probably
refered to the magistrates who were responsible for the mint.
Besides the regular coin type, Hyrcanus II also issued lepta or half
perutot of the same type as did his father Alexander Yannai, bearing
the palm-branch/flower. One larger trilepton shows a helmet and a double
cornucopia. On all his coins he styled himself high priest.
During the short reign of the last Hasmonean ruler, Antigonus Mattathias
(4037 BCE), a fundamental change occurred in the coin issue of
the Hasmoneans. His Hebrew name Mattityahu (Mattathias) is only given
on his perutah denomination. The pomegranate between the double cornucopia
is replaced by an ear of barley. He issued two larger denominations
which can be compared with the Seleucid chalcous and dichalcous. Antigonus
was the only Jewish ruler who depicted the holy vessels of the Temple
of Jerusalem on his coins, specifically, the table of shewbread and
the seven-branched lampstand. In his Hebrew legends he styled himself
"high priest" and in his Greek legends "king." His
Hebrew name is known to us only from his coins.
The coins of Herod
the Great (374 BCE), all of bronze as those of his successors,
can be divided into two groups: those which are dated and those which
are not. The dated coins all bear the same date, the year three. As
Herod no doubt reckoned his reign from his appointment as king of Judea
by the Romans in 40 BCE and
not from his actual accession three years later, the "year three"
is equal to 37 BCE. All legends on his coins were in Greek and no Hebrew
legends appear on the coins of the Herodian dynasty. The legends rendered
his name and title. The emblems on his coins were the tripod, thymiaterion,
caduceus, pomegranate, shield, helmet, aphlaston, palm branch, anchor,
double and single cornucopia, eagle, and galley. It may be concluded
from this selection of symbols that Herod the Great did not wish to
offend the religious feelings of his subjects. The denominations of
his coins were the chalcous and hemi-chalcous, the trilepton, and frequently
the dilepton or perutah.
The coins of Herod Archelaus (4 BCE6 CE) are undated and bear
mainly maritime emblems, such as the galley, prow, and anchor. Other
types are the double cornucopia, the helmet, bunch of grapes, and wreath
surrounding the legend. His main denomination was the perutah, but he
also issued a trilepton.
Herod Antipas (tetrarch of Galilee 4 BCE 39 CE) began to issue
coins only after he founded and settled his new capital Tiberias. All
his coins are dated. The earliest date is from the 24th year of his
reign (19/20 CE). On his coins he is called Herod, but they can easily
be distinguished as they bear his title "tetrarch." The emblems
on his coins are all of flora such as the reed, the palm branch, a bunch
of dates, and a palm tree. Though the emblems are the same on all denominations,
three denominations can be distinguished. Oner side showed a wreath
that surrounded the legend "Tiberias"; only the series of
the last year refered to Gaius Caligula.
As the territory of the tetrarch Herod Philip I (4 BCE.34 CE)
was predominantly non-Jewish, he allowed himself to strike coins with
a representation of the ruling Roman emperor and the pagan temple erected
by his father in his capital Panias. His coins were dated from the year
5 to the year 37 of his reign, though not all dates occur.
The most common coin struck by King Herod Agrippa I (3744 CE),
grandson of Herod the Great, was a perutah of the year 6 of his reign
(42/3 CE), depicting an umbrella-shaped royal canopy and three ears
of barley. This coin was obviously struck for Judea. For the other districts
of his kingdom he issued coins that would have offended Jewish religious
feelings as they carried his own portrait or that of the Roman emperor
and even gods or human beings in the Greco-Roman style of the period.
On one very rare coin two clasped hands are shown; the legend seems
to refer to an alliance between the Jewish people and the Roman senate.
All Agrippa's coins are dated, and in his non-Jewish series two different
groups of two denominations each can be discerned belonging to the reigns
of Caligula and Claudius respectively.
Herod of Chalcis (4148 CE), brother of Agrippa I, regularly put
his portrait on his coins, calling himself "friend of the emperor."
Some of his extremely rare coins bear the date "year 3," others
are undated; a system of three denominations can be observed in this
From the time of the son of Herod of Chalcis, Aristobulus of Chalcis
(5792 CE), only a few rare specimens have been preserved. They
bear his portrait and sometimes also that of his wife Salome. His coins
can be identified by their legends which mention him and his wife Salome
as king and queen.
Because of his long reign, the series of coins assigned to Herod Agrippa
II (c. 5093 CE) is the largest and most varied among the coin
series of the Herodians. Two types bear his likeness, and others issued
in the year 5 of Agrippa with the name of Nero have a legend surrounded
by a wreath. There are two coins which have a double date (the years
6 and 11) and which belong to the two different eras used on his coins.
These double dated coins bear "inoffensive" symbols such as
double cornucopias and a hand grasping various fruits. All his coins,
like those of his father Agrippa I, were of bronze and dated, making
it easy to arrange them in chronological order.
There are however some difficulties. The first is the parallel issue
of coins in the name of Vespasian and in the name of his sons Titus
and Domitian. It has been accepted that all his Greek coins belonged
to an era starting in the year 56 CE. The Latin series issued in the
name of Domitian belongs to an era starting in 61 CE. The bulk of his
coins were struck during the reign of the Flavian emperors, with Tyche,
the goddess of destiny, and the goddess of victory as emblems. A unique
specimen, with the victory inscription on a shield hanging on a palm-tree,
refers to the Roman victory in the Jewish War (6670 C.E.). Agrippa
thus put himself into the Roman camp against his own people. His coinage,
as described above, shows the most far-reaching deviation from Jewish
tradition among the ancient coinage issued by Jewish rulers.
By the time the Jewish War broke out, the Tyrian mint
had ceased to issue silver shekels, but shekels were needed by every
Jewish adult male for the payment of the annual Temple tax of a half-shekel
(Exodus 30:11ff.; II
Kings 12:5ff.). This reason and the resolve of the Jewish authorities
to demonstrate their sovereignty over their own country led to the decision
to strike the well-known "thick" shekels and half- and quarter-shekels
dated from the first to the fifth year of the era of the war. These
are the first silver coins Jews struck in antiquity. They are of an
extraordinarily good quality, artistically as well as technically. The
emblems are as simple as they are beautiful: a chalice with pearl rim
and three pomegranates. The legends which are, of course, only in Hebrew
and written in the old Hebrew script, read Yerushalayim ha-Kedoshah
("Jerusalem the Holy") and Shekel Yisrael ("Shekel of
Israel") with the abbreviated dates: shin alef, shin bet for sh[enat],
a[lef], "year one," sh[enat] b[et], "year two,"
etc.). Small bronze coins of the perutah denomination were struck during
the second and third year of the war, and three larger denominations
were issued during the fourth year, two of which indicate the denomination
as revi'a ("quarter") and chatzi ("half"). The emblems
of the bronze coins were the vine leaf, the amphora, the lulav, the
etrog, the palm tree, the fruit baskets, and the chalice.
During the Bar
Kochba War (133-135 CE) the last Jewish coin series in antiquity
was issued. Bar Kochba became the head of the Jewish community, and
the bulk of the coins issued bear the name Simeon and eventually his
title "prince of Israel." However, other coins exist from
that period which bear the name of "Eleazar the Priest" or
simply that of "Jerusalem" as the minting authority. The coins
were issued over a period of a little more than three years. The coins
of the first two years were dated, but the formula of the era changed
from "Year one of the redemption of Israel" to "Year
two of the freedom of Israel." During the third year and until
the end of the war, the coins issued were undated and bore the war slogan
"For the freedom of Jerusalem." These coin types, too, were
as numerous as they were beautiful, and artistically ranked first in
the series of Jewish coins. The coins were issued in silver and in bronze.
The entire issue was overstruck on coins then current in Palestine,
such as on the Roman provincial tetradrachms (mainly from Antiochia)
and on the Roman denarii or provincial drachma, as well as on local
bronze city coins mainly from Ashkelon and Gaza. Bar Kochba possibly obtained the gentile coins needed for
overstriking by means of a public loan for the national war effort.
There were two silver denominations, the tetradrachm or sela and the
denarius or zuz. The Temple front and a lulav and etrog appeared on
the tetradrachms, while a rather large number of emblems occurred on
the denarii, such as a wreath surrounding the legend, a bunch of grapes,
a juglet, a lyre, a kitara, a pair of trumpets, and a palm branch. These
emblems were used in many die combinations, thereby creating a large
number of coin types. The bronze coinage was divided into four denominations,
a system taken over from the city coinage then current in Palestine
and which was reused for the Bar Kochba issues.
In general, the Bar Kochba coinage was based on the tradition of the
coinage of the Jewish War, 6670. The amphora, vine leaf, and palm
tree occurred on the coins of that period, and the similarity of the
legends is all the more striking, with the name of Zion replaced by
the name Israel during the Bar Kochba War.
The vast majority of coins used during the Roman period were minted
by the Romans themselves. After the banishment of Herod Archelaus in
6 C.E., his territory (Judea and Samaria) came under direct Roman rule
administered by a procurator of equestrian rank. Some of these procurators
issued coins of the perutah denomination as follows: coin types with
a palm tree and an ear of barley; coin types with a wreath surrounding
legend, a double cornucopia, olive spray, three lilies, a vine leaf
or leaves, kantaros, amphora, and a palm branch; coin types with three
ears of barley, simpulum, lituus, and a wreath surrounding the date
of issue; and coin types with a wreath surrounding legend, two crossed
spears, a palm tree, and a palm branch. It is believed that these coins
were issued at Caesarea Maritima, the administrative center of the Romans
in Palestine. All coins bore the regal years of the respective Roman
emperors and can therefore be arranged in chronological order without
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Palestine became
a separate administrative unit called provincia Judaea. The Flavian
emperors appointed a legatus pro praetore as head of the local administration,
and he was also the commander of the military forces stationed in the
During the reigns of Vespasian (6979 C.E.) and Titus (7981
C.E.) the coins issued refer in their types and legends to the Roman
victory; the legends are the Greek equivalent to the well-known legend
Judaea Capta. Under Domitian (8196 C.E.) four series of coins
were issued, which do not refer to the victory over the Jews, but to
Domitian's victories in Germany and Britain. All but the last two coin
types of Domitian are undated and their chronological order was conjectural
Individual Roman-held cities also minted their own coins. City coins
issued under Roman rule customarily had the head of the emperor on one
side while the reverse bore images referring to the city, such as temples
built there, the gods worshiped by their inhabitants, and military garrisons
stationed in them. The legends frequently indicated the status of the
city within the Roman empire, such as colonia, autonomous, etc. The
archaeological finds suggest that the circulation of these coins was
not restricted to the city by which they were issued, but was countrywide.
In some cases (Ashkelon,
Gaza, Neapolis, Sepphoris,
and Tiberias) the money systems
consisted of three or more denominations. Their equivalency with the
Roman coin system cannot be ascertained. All these coins were of bronze.
The only city in Palestine that issued an autonomous silver coinage
was Ashkelon (between 51 and 30 BCE)coins bearing portraits of
Ptolemy XIV, Ptolemy XV, and Cleopatra VII. The city coinage came to
an end in about 260 C.E. when it became known that the value of the
metal was greater than their nominal value. It was then replaced by
debased Roman imperial coins.