Ancient coins are among the strongest proofs of Judaism’s ties to Israel
By D. BERNARD HOENIG
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.