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
Did you know…?
- “Money” in English Bibles can refer to metal fragments or coins.
- Precious metals were exchanged as money before coinage.
- Coinage first emerged in the sixth century BCE.
- Coins were engraved with images that conveyed cultural, religious, and political messages.
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
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 (
An example of a biblical reference to money in the form of precious metals valued by weight is found in
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 (
Jesus’s teaching about paying taxes to Caesar uses the fact that the emperor’s portrait was on the coin to make his argument (
One episode in the gospels portrays Jesus disrupting the activities of the money changes at the Temple Mount (
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?