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Graven Images and the Coins of Ancient Tyre

By David Hendin for CoinWeek …..
Silver shekels and half-shekels of Tyre were used by Jews in ancient Jerusalem to pay the annual Temple tribute of half a shekel per year per male adult.

When the First and Second Temples stood in Jerusalem, local Jews, as well as Jews from around the ancient world, made pilgrimages to the Temple during the three pilgrimage festivals. In Hebrew, these are called shalosh regalim [שלוש רגלים] for three festivals (the Hebrew word regalim also means “legs”, as in a walking holiday). The three are still celebrated today, sans pilgrimage: Passover, Shavout (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles).

God directed Moses (Exodus 30: 13-16) to collect a half-shekel tax, the shekel being 20 gerah of the shekel of the sanctuary, at the time of each census. During the time of Moses there were no coins, so we understand this to mean the weight of half a shekel, according to the standards set by the sanctuary. Subsequently, it is suggested that the half-shekel was paid annually (II Kings 12 5-17 and Nehemiah 10:32-33). In the Book of Nehemiah, it was referred to as a “third-shekel” but scholars generally believe that this was either an error of transcription or a reference to Persian weight standards, commonly used in coins of the day. The Temple tax is also mentioned in Matthew 17:24-27 when Peter was confronted by the religious leaders collecting it.

Coins were introduced in ancient Judea and Samaria in the fifth to fourth centuries BCE. However, they did not become objects of common use until a century or more later, as coins gradually replaced the process of balance-scale weighing of pieces of silver in marketplaces.

Tyre shekels and half-shekels (also called tetradrachms and didrachms) were first struck as autonomous silver coins after Tyre was freed from Seleucid domination and were dated from 126/5 BCE until at least 66/67 CE. At 14 grams, the Tyre shekels were based on a lighter standard than the earlier Seleucid tetradrachms of around 17 grams. Archaeological evidence suggests that they were the most commonly circulated silver coins in Judea and Samaria from the time of John Hyrcanus I (134-104 BCE) to the Jewish War (69/70 CE—Tyre shekels struck after 66/67 CE are extremely rare and the reading of their crude dates is uncertain and somewhat problematic).

The reverse design of the Tyre shekels and half-shekels was patterned after the Seleucid royal coins (of the same weight standard) showing an eagle standing to the left, wings closed. The legend on the Tyre coins, however, no longer included the name of the Seleucid king. The royal name and title were replaced with the name and titles of the city, “of Tyre the holy and city of refuge” and a date. The bust of Herakles-Melqarth, Tyre’s chief god, replaced the Seleucid king on the obverse.

In the Rabbinical writings, the Tyre shekels and half-shekels are mentioned as the coins of choice for payments to the Temple, which included the annual half-shekel tribute, individual contributions and vows, the redemption price of the first-born, and the purchase of sacrificial offerings (as discussed in Mishnah Shekalim 2,4).

Tyrian shekels and half-shekels were so commonly used in Judea in the first century that the Tosefta, another compilation of oral law from the time of the Mishnah, says that “Silver, whenever mentioned in the Pentateuch, is Tyrian silver. What is Tyrian silver? It is a Jerusalemite” (Tosefta Ketubbot 13,20).

Photo 1: Tyre shekel, early style (25.5mm, 14.22 g, 1h), dated CY 109 = 18/17 BCE, which depicts a monogram of the letters HPΔ on reverse, which may refer to Herod I. (Photo courtesy Classical Numismatic Group cngcoins.com.)
Photo 2. Tyre shekel, late style (25mm, 14.07 g, 12h), dated CY 51 = 76/75 CE. (Photo courtesy Classical Numismatic Group cngcoins.com.)

There were two distinct series of Tyre shekels and half-shekels. The first group was minted in Tyre from 126/5 BCE until 19/18 BCE (Photos 1 and 2). The second group was also likely minted at Tyre from 18/17 BCE up until the Jewish War (Photos 3 and 4), and carry the Greek letters KP, not fully understood, to the right of the eagle.

Photo 3. Tyre half-shekel, early style (7.12 g, 12h), dated CY 159 = 133/134 CE. (Photo courtesy Classical Numismatic Group cngcoins.com.)
Photo 4. Tyre half-shekel, late style (20mm, 6.78 g, 1h), dated CY 190 = 64/65 CE. (Photo courtesy Classical Numismatic Group cngcoins.com.)

The coins of the earlier group are generally of beautiful artistic style, large, and usually contain most or all of the reverse inscription. This earlier issue also tends to have a slightly concave shape. The coins of the latter group are smaller, thicker, and flat. This later issue is also cruder and less artistic. Critically, however, the weights and purity of silver for both groups are quite consistent; nearly pure silver and 14 grams to a shekel.

In his classic book A Treasury of Jewish Coins, Ya’akov Meshorer hypothesized that the later, cruder Tyre issue is, in fact, “Herod’s silver coin” and was struck in Jerusalem. Today almost no scholars agree with Meshorer’s conclusion. Rather the current prevailing theory is that both series were struck in Tyre, but some of the latter group may have actually been commissioned by Herod I for delivery to Jerusalem and use in the Temple. Those coins may be marked with a monogram or ligature of Herod’s name.

Tyre shekels and half-shekels struck after about 30 BCE were almost certainly issued, at least in part, to help the Jews satisfy their needs to pay dues to the Jerusalem Temple in appropriate coinage. This approach is supported by a number of monograms and control marks from the Tyre shekels struck between the mid-30s and mid-teens BCE can be translated to the letters HPΔ (Photo 1). The letters are used in the years 19 and 18 BCE, and a symbol that may represent the Phoenician H (het) is used from 14 to 11 BCE. Princeton University’s Brooks Levy, a Tyre shekel expert, wrote that “None of these marks appear anywhere else in the series. All could stand for the name Herod (Herodes).” Since these monograms all appeared on the Tyre silver coins during Herod I’s reign, he may well have specifically ordered silver coins from the Tyre mint for commerce in Jerusalem.

One of the most common questions I have been asked over the years is why the Tyre shekels were chosen to be used for such holy use in the Temple. The issue that confuses people the most has to do with the graven image of the Tyrian god Melqarth (a local adaptation of Herakles) on the obverse, which surely represents a pagan deity, abhorrent to the Jews.

There is no precise answer to this question, which, of course, is common for many questions relating to archaeology and anthropology. Thus we see a lot of educated (and uneducated) guessing. When that happens, many people are comfortable accepting an “authority” who says, “That’s the way it is because I said so!” On the other hand, if the experts are generally conservative and say “our theory suggests…,” many people are not comfortable and the door is left open to all kinds of stories. The “right now” answer is often satisfying in its potential inaccuracy. But in reality, we simply do not know everything we would like to know from 2,000 years ago.

In the case of the graven image of a heathen god that appears on Tyre shekels and half-shekels, however, we have some excellent clues.

The Pentateuchal code sternly forbids the making of any graven image of man or beast and is repeated (Deuteronomy 5:8) and expanded upon: “…lest ye deal corruptly, and make you a graven image, even the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the heaven, the likeness of anything that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:16-18).

But this prohibition seems to be aimed directly at the manufacturing of such images for the purpose of worship. While that reservation is hinted at (see Deut. 4:19 and Exodus 20:19-21), it is not spelled out in the Biblical text. Thus it is the interpretation of these passages at any given time that has allowed Jewish culture ambiguously to run the gamut from outright prohibition of figurative art of any kind to completely ignoring the prohibitions.

Meshorer also points out in Treasury:

“It is known that a coin does not become defiled (“unclean,” Mishnah, Kelim 12, 6), and the pagan symbols on it are obviously invalid… emphasis was placed on the purity and weight of the silver, while no importance was attached to the coin’s appearance…”

Even though coins are among objects that do not become unclean, among all of the Jewish rulers of ancient Israel and vicinity who struck coins, only the later Herodians, who ruled primarily non-Jewish populations and had become extremely Romanized, actually used their own images on coins. Thus coins might indeed not be “unclean”, as the Talmud states, but at least to the ancient Jewish kings, discretion regarding the graven image issue was important enough for them to refrain from putting their own faces on coins (for a more complete discussion of this issue, read my article “Numismatic Expressions of Jewish Sovereignty: The Unusual Iconography of Coinage of the Hasmonean Dynasty“).

Some years ago I discussed this issue with the late Israeli scholar Dan Barag, Hebrew University Professor of Archaeology and Numismatics. Barag noted that the question of “graven images” in this context was not easily answered.

“In general,” he said, “silver coins were simply used. Almost all ancient silver coins that circulated in Judea had heads. You must note that the image on a coin is very two- dimensional. One could not suspect that a person would actually bow down to a coin. These are very practical considerations. Using money with these graven images, even in the context of dues for the Temple, could not have been considered an idolatrous threat.”

Author with Rabbi Abraham Twerski, MD, around 1990. Twerski, a Hassidic scholar, points out that that the practical nature of using contemporary money that carries graven images has not been a problem for Jewish people throughout history. Photo by Donald R. Simon.

I also discussed this with a non-numismatist, my late friend Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski (he died in Israel last month of COVID at age 90), a Hassidic (and medical) scholar, who also pointed out that the practical nature of using contemporary money has not been a problem for Jewish people throughout history (Photo 5). Even today one can go to places where Orthodox Jews conduct a lot of business–say 47th St. at the heart of the diamond district in New York City. You will see the regular use of good old U.S. money, with graven images of Ben Franklin and all those former presidents. Even during the Holocaust, there was not a problem for Jews to use the currency of the land in which they lived (when they were allowed to spend it by the anti-Semitic authorities).

And of course, if you travel to Israel these days, check out the local banknotes–they depict, via graven image photographs, a series of contemporary Israeli men and women! When you put all this information together, the bottom line is this: money seems to be immune from the Pentateuchal codes regarding graven images and it is just as true today as it was more than 2,000 years ago.

© 2021 by David Hendin

Parts of some CoinWeek articles may be adapted from my previous articles or my Guide to Biblical Coins.

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David Hendin is First Vice President and an Adjunct Curator at the American Numismatic Society (ANS). Send him your questions at [email protected] and he will try to answer questions of general interest in this space in the future.


David Hendin
David Hendin
David Hendin is First Vice President and an Adjunct Curator at the American Numismatic Society (ANS). Send him your questions at [email protected].

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  1. Flat pictures are not graven images according to Jewish law. Moreover, once a gentile declares something not to be an idol it is no longer considered to be an idol. In any case, no one ever considered Franklin et. al. to be idols.


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