Many people study Roman coins, but how were they actually used?
For the student of Roman coins by far and away the best source of information is the Bible, or more specifically, the Gospels. The classical Roman writers were all far too highbrow to deal with anything as mundane as money – apart from Petronius whose vivid account of the upstart freedman, the nouveau riche Trimalcio makes him very money conscious. But Christ was fascinated by money – the Jews were on the fringes of the great new market economy of the Greco-Roman world and Christ was half the time fascinated by it – the parable of the Talents – and half the time he was overthrowing the tables of the money changers in the temple.
In acknowledgement of this, the British Museum has set up a small exhibition on Coins and the Bible as a follow-up to their exhibition on Coins and Shakespeare. I went to a lecture by Richard Abdy, Curator of Roman coins, and I picked up a very interesting tit bit about the Gospel’s use of coins. One of the most famous examples of Christ’s use of coins is in his answer to the Pharisees who sought to entrap him by asking whether it is lawful to give tribute to Caesar. Christ in reply says, show me a penny and he then says whose is this image and superscription. They reply, : Caesar’s. He then makes the classic reply: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.
There is only one problem to this story that the word used was ‘denarius’, and thus the first coin that every American coin collector wants to collect is a denarius of Tiberius, showing the Emperor’s head. Yet the denarius did not circulate in Judea at the time of Tiberius, indeed it was very rare. The usual medium for the temple tax in Jerusalem was the Tyrian Shekel, the coins of Tyre, and these were the coins used to pay the temple tax in Jerusalem. These however bore the likeness of Melqart or Baal. Something therefore has gone wrong with the Gospel account: any ideas?
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