I am always interested in how NT background works utilize numismatic evidence. Frequently the material culture represented by numismatics is given only a few pages; these pages are typically devoted to the various denominations in circulation and where coin references are found in the NT. Most information is minimal. A case in point is found in James S. Jeffers’ book The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 1999). This book has many good qualities, but the information related to ancient numismatics is wrong several times within the short coinage section (pp. 149-154). Here are a few examples. On page 149 Jeffers writes, “He [Herod the Great] was the first Jewish ruler to use the Greek language on his coins, instead of Hebrew, and the first to put a date on his coins.” Actually the first Jewish ruler to use Greek on his coins was Alexander Jannaeus (Yehonatan) 103-76 BCE. See the reverse and observe of the coin below.
This is a bronze prutah. On the obverse is an anchor with the Greek inscription “of King Alexander.”
On the reverse is a star with eight rays surrounded by a stylized diadem. The Hebrew inscription reads “Yehonatan the King.”
This bilingual coin is a perfect example of the hellenistic influence in Judea. Perhaps there are examples today of coinage in which two languages are present. In a very concrete way, the coins of Jannaeus demonstrate how cultures clash and synthesize.
Here is another wrong statement from Jeffers: “But his son Herod Philip, ruling the largely Gentile area of Ituraea and Trachonitis, put on his coins the image of the emperor on one side and the Jewish temple on the other” (p. 150). It is true that Herod Philip did utilize the portrait of Roman emperors on his coins (specifically Augustus and Tiberius). This acknowledgement and nod to the imperial family makes good sense for a patron-client society in which Philip is clearly a client beholding to imperial largess. What may be most remarkable is that Herod Philip is the first Judean to place his image on a coin. The last part of Jeffers statement is incorrect. Philip did not place the “Jewish temple” on his coinage. Rather, Philip placed a Roman temple on his coins. It was a temple that he had constructed in the capital city (and mint city) of Caesarea Philippi (Panias). The coin below is bronze and has a portrait of Tiberius on the obverse and the Roman temple on the reverse. The lettering between the temple columns indicate that this coin was minted around 33/34 CE
Coins can serve a much more important function in NT background studies than just how much they were worth and what they could buy. When approached from the four core social institutions of kinship, politics, religion, and economics, they help provide a window into the ideological perspective of at least some of individuals populating the ancient world and the pages of the Bible.