The Symbol of Palms

16 03 2008

Since this is Palm Sunday, I thought it might be appropriate to illustrate via numismatics the powerful symbol of palms in the ancient world.

Of course Palm Sunday is a bit of a misnomer since the use of palms to greet Jesus is only specifically mentioned in the Gospel of John (12:12-19).  In Matt 21:1-9 the crowds greet Jesus with garments and “branches from the trees” (v. 8).  Mark’s account in 11:1-10 records also the reference to garments and adds “leafy branches which they had cut from the fields” (v. 8).  Luke, 19:28-40, omits any reference to branches and only notes the use of garments. 

The numismatic evidence points to the frequent use of a palm branch (lulav) (singular), palm branches (plural) or a palm tree as referencing  the land of Judea.  Interestingly, this symbol was used on coins minted by Romans (prefects and victorious Emperors), Judean client kings, and also Judean rebel leaders.  While these groups would hardly agree on any other issue, they all acknowledged the palm as a fixed symbol for the land and people of Judea.  Just a few numismatic examples of this symbol are below.


Bronze prutah, minted by Valerius Gratus (15-26 C.E.) under Tiberius


Bronze prutah, minted by Antonius Felix (52-59 C.E.) under Claudius


Bronze, full denomination, minted under Herod Antipas, (4 B.C.E to 40 C.E.)


Bronze, minted by Agrippa the II (55 to 95 C.E.) during the reign of Domitian


Silver denarius, minted under Titus (79-81 C.E.).  This coin is placed in the Judaea Capta series.  It illustrates Rome’s victory in the Judean War of 66-70 C.E.


Middle Bronze with the seven branched date palm.  Minted during the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135 C.E.)

While the palm was a dominant symbol for the land and people of Judea, it was also used in other contexts.  There are earlier usages of the palm during the time of the Roman Republic as illustrated below with a coin minted by the moneyer L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi.  The coin has a rider waving a palm branch while riding a horse.


The palm branch was also used later on Roman coins.  The coin below was minted by Constantine I (the Great).  On the reverse is a palm surrounded by legionary standards.


Frequently in Roman usage, the palm is associated with particular goddesses, especially victory, Nike.




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