Silver shekel coins

The silver shekel and half shekel are significant coins for both Jews and Christians as they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew word shekel refers to weight (a shekel is 11 grams or .35 troy ounces) or currency, in fact, it has the same root as the Hebrew to weigh, שקל. In practice, the weight fluctuated between 9 and 17 grams depending on the issuing government, location and time period.

Tyrian shekel

Obverse: Melkart/BaalHerakles. Reverse: Eagle on a ship’s rudder, Greek inscription “Tyre the Holy and Inviolable”

Although independent during the Hasmonean period (from 167 BCE), the Jews had no silver coins of their own and from circa 126 BCE – 66 CE relied on coins issued by the Phoenician city of Tyre. These coins, produced in large quantities, became the standard silver coinage in the areas of Phoenicia and Judaea, replacing the coins of Alexander the Great. The obverse features the representation of Melkart (Baal), the chief diety of the Phoenicians. The reverse shows an Egyptian-style eagle with its right claw resting on a ship’s rudder (referring to Tyre’s port), a club (Melkart is associated with Hercules), the Greek inscription “Tyre the Holy and Inviolable” and a date. The number on the coin is a Greek letter that is added to 126 BCE, Tyre’s independence from Syria, to give the date.

All  Judaean taxes were specified in shekels, for example, the annual Temple Tax for males over 20 was a half shekel. The Jewish leadership decided that the Tyrian coins were plentiful and of good silver quality, and so they prescribed that the various Judaean taxes would be accepted only in Tyrian coins even though the images on the coins went against the prohibitions of the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on earth below, or in the waters under the earth.

In the New Testament there is the story of how Jesus and Peter paid the Temple Tax (of a ½ shekel) using a shekel coin. “Go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money. That take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Matthew 17:27). When “Jesus went into the temple of God, and … overthrew the tables of the moneychangers” (Matthew 21:12), he was angry with those who exchanged the local currency for silver Tyrian shekels at exorbitant rates. When Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to the soldiers “they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver” (Matthew 26:15).

The mint in Tyre produced Tyrian Shekels and half shekels, of 95% silver purity, between the years 127 BCE and 19 BCE when Rome closed the mint in Tyre (this according to scholar and numismatic expert Yaakov Meshorer). Rome began to import an inferior silver coinage from the Far East consisting of 80% pure silver – because of this the coins did not have enough silver to make them a half shekel (of weight) so they were not useable to fulfill the commandment.

The Rabbis appealed to the Emperor for permission to produce a ceremonial coin of sufficient purity to fulfil their religious obligations. They received special dispensation on condition that they continue with the motif of the Tyrian Shekel, so as not to arouse objections within the Roman Empire that the Jews were granted “autonomy” to mint their own coins. These coins were inscribed with the letters KP to the right of the eagle, are dated 18 BCE – 66 CE and were minted in Jerusalem.

Coin issued by Jewish rebels in 68 CE Obverse: Chalice “Shekel, Israel. Year 3”. Reverse: 3 pomegranates “Jerusalem the Holy”

With the beginning of the First Revolt against Rome in 66 CE, the Jews began to mint their own silver coins for the first time to demonstrate sovereignty over their own country. These coins had Jewish symbols, chalice that was the measure of the omer and three pomegranate buds (one of 7 species) and Paleo-Hebrew text, struck over the Tyrian shekels from the Temple. With the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE the minting of these coins was discontinued.

Coin issued by Jewish rebels in 135CE Obverse: Star above facade of Temple showing Ark of Covenant “Shimon”. Reverse: Lulav/palm branch & etrog “For freedom of Jerusalem”

During the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE) against Rome, the last Jewish coins in antiquity wer issued. On the obverse, the name Shimon in Paleo-Hebrew, the first name of Shimon Ben Kosiba, the leader of the revolt; the star above the image of the Temple refers to the name given to him by Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kochba, son of a star. The silver coins were overstruck on the Roman provincial tetradrachms (mainly from Antioch).

Since 1980, the shekel has been the currency of the modern state of Israel, first the Israeli shekel which due to high inflation in the 1980s was devalued at a ratio of 1000:1 to become in 1986 a New Israeli Shekel (US $1=~3.5₪) in use to this day.

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4 thoughts on “Silver shekel coins

  1. Melanie Zerrudo

    Why do some of the silver shekel coins from Bar Kochba revolt have a wavy line over the Temple and others a star?
    Bar Kochba shekel

    1. Shmuel Browns Post author

      The two coins are very similar, silver shekels overstruck on Roman tetradrachms, among the most religiously significant coins issued by Jews, because “the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple is depicted, with the Ark of the Covenant”. Note the Ark was not in the Second Temple – according to Prof. Dan Barag (d. 2009) and others, it is the Shewbread Table.
      The name “Shim’on” (referring to the leader of the Revolt, Shim’on (Simon) Bar Koseba) appears on both coins in paleo-Hebrew split between שׁמ on the right and ֵעון on left of Temple. The star appeared above the Temple on many coins, in reference to Bar Kochba’s nickname “Son of the Star”; perhaps the wavy line represents the entablature. On the reverse the image and text are the same, lulav/palm branch and etrog/citron with “לחרות ירושלם/to the freedom of Jerusalem”.

  2. Outremer

    Shmuel: Thanks for a most interesting post!

    I have long been fascinated by the seeming “disconnect” of the Tyrian-style coins, bearing not just images but indeed the head of a pagan god, being specified as the prescribed Temple tax — by the Jewish Temple authorities themselves. This, at a time when we believe pious, observant Jews were otherwise scrupulously against images — witness Josephus’ story of the Jewish delegation sent to Caesarea to protest Pilate’s display of imperial shields in Jerusalem.

    Perhaps it is not too harsh to say that the requirement of the Tyrian coin was mercenary on the face of it — it represented a known standard, i.e. guaranteed value. What I did not know till now, however, was that the Temple authorities were actually minting these coins themselves, in Jerusalem, beginning in 18 BCE. This means they not only specified the coinage and sold the money-changing concessions (to the highest bidder, no doubt) but also held complete control over the supply. It makes them all the more complicit, it seems to me, among the “den of robbers” Jesus railed against — the whole for-profit, “business” aspect of the Temple system.

    TOM POWERS / Waynesville, NC USA


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