The Year A.D. 69

31 05 2008

In the first century, each year holds it own interest and special fascination, but 69 CE is of special interest because it is often designated as the year of the four emperors.  A recent book on the topic is by Gwyn Morgan, 69 A.D.:  The Year of the Four Emperors (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2006).  Morgan writes a running commentary on the gaining (and in three cases losing) the purple as represented by Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian.  He utilizes five sources Tacitus, Suetonius (Roman), Plutarch, Dio Cassius (Greek), and Josephus (Judean).  He especially focuses on Tacitus’ accounts (Josephus is cited the least). 

I am always interested in how a scholar utilizes numismatics in reconstructions and interprets the past.  Morgan downplays almost all numismatic evidence.  As he notes, ‘The most eye-catching artifacts to have come down to us, . . . the coins struck by the emperors, remain our least helpful guides to specific events despite all the work devoted to them by numismatists” (p. 3).  While coins may not on every occasion give reference to specific events, they do give an overall sense of the propaganda that emperors attempted to distribute to the general public.  Morgan is very dismissive of the propaganda element saying, “. . . the minting authority was conveying some kind of general message, and apparently the consumer was supposed to swallow this message without demur, but that is about all we can say” (p.3).  He is selling short what we can say and reasonably know about the messages imperial coinage conveyed. 

Morgan, whose interest is focused on the literary documentation, illustrates his lack of numismatic insight when he does on the rare occasion make mention of numismatic references.  For example, he writes, “The question is for whom the message on the denarii was meant.  Silver coinage was hardly seen by the common people. Mostly it ended up in the hands of the soldiery and the of the upper classes” (p. 97).  This assertion seems easily refuted.  When troops did have silver, they did spend it, and it did make its way into circulation among the non-elites.  Also here is just one easily found example of where non-elites possess denarii.  In the Gospel of Matthew 20:1-15 is the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard.”  In this well known parable, day laborers, probably dispossessed landless peasants, are hired to work in a vineyard.  This group would be on one of the lowest levels of non-elites; without land, they are nobodies and very vulnerable.  Yet each laborer in the parable at the end of day will possess a denarius. 

Even though Morgan has little use for numismatics, his book is a fine survey of the events of this crucial year in the first century.  It is worth the read for orienting a reader to the dynamics within the context of the Empire.  If one especially likes British linguistic eccentricities, which I do, this book is also interesting since Morgan frequently throws in Britishism, such as “lickspittle.”  Try to find a way this week to work this word into your conversation.


Cappadocia and the NT World

21 05 2008

It has been awhile since I noted a numismatic point of interest related to the New Testament.  The coin below is one that stimulated my thinking along several different trajectories related to first century and the New Testament. 

This coin is a silver drachm.  The obverse is the laurate head of Vespasian (69-79 CE) and the reverse depicts Mount Argaeus.  On the summit of the mountain is Helios with a radiate crown; he is standing left and holding a globe in the right hand and a sceptre in the left.  (There are two scratches in the field on the reverse). The coin was minted in the Roman province of Cappadocia at Caesarea around 75-76 CE. 

Cappadocia (earlier called Mazaka and today known as Kayseri) is mentioned twice in the NT, Acts 2:9 and 1 Peter 1:1.  The iconography of the coin provides a subtle look into the NT world.  Especially for Judeans living in the Diaspora, the portrait of the emperor Vespasian would certainly bring to mind the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem that occurred only a few years earlier.  In fact a specific legion that had participated in the Jewish War was relocated for punishment to the province of Cappadocia.  Josephus records this account in The Jewish War, 7:3, “Recollecting too that the twelfth legion [the Fulminata] had under the command of Cestius succumbed to the Jews, he [Titus] banished them from Syria altogether–for they had previously been quartered at Raphanaeae–and sent them to the district call Melitene, beside the Euphrates, on the confines of Armenia and Cappadocia.”   

It has been suggested that bulk of imperial coinage circulating in Asia Minor was supplied from the time of Tiberius to the time of Gordian III by the mint at Caesarea.  The importance of this fact is that the coins and their accompanying images would have easily circulated in the first century through many of the cities in which the early Jesus movement was being established.  Some of these cities would certainly have included the seven cities noted in the Apocalypse. 

The most prominent image on the reverse is perhaps the god Helios (Sol) standing on Mount Argaeus with a radiate crown and holding a globe and sceptre (E. A. Sydenham, The Coinage of Caesarea in Cappadocia [London, 1933], 10).  The description of the Son of Man in Revelation 1:12-16 includes a figure that might call to mind Helios, “and his face like the sun shines in its power” (16b).  As is typical many commentaries go to literary sources to find the background or allusion to this image.  David Aune is typical, Revelation, WBC, vol. 1, page 99; e.g., Dan 10:6.  But the combination of the rest of the features of the Son of Man, i.e., bronze feet, and the seven stars in his hand, might also call to mind this statue on Mount Argaeus.  (Mount Argaeus is often portrayed with a star a top it). One might also consider that Mount Argaeus was the highest mountain in Asia Minor and was covered by snow year round.  The image of snow is also associated with the Son of Man. 

Some have suggest that the figure is not a representation of Helios but the Genius or Spirit of Argaeus (Peter Lewis and Ron Bolden, The Pocket Guide to Saint Paul: Coins Encountered by the Apostle on His Travels [Wakefield, 2002], 67).  It could be that the Romans were attempting to bring about a synthesis of Jupiter, Helios and Argaeus via the image of the radiated statue on the mountain.  Whatever the exact identity of the figure on Mt. Argaeus, the Son of Man would certainly stand in antithesis to this image.

Table of Contents for Journals

3 05 2008

One of my most pleasant memories while working on my PhD at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, (1984-1987) was taking one or two days a month and spending the entire day simply reading a variety of journals.  I would go to the second floor of the James P. Boyce Library and start with A and work my way to Z.  I picked up journals and read articles I never would have encountered in my particular discipline of NT.  To sample the variety of articles on that second floor was to know what it was to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  Now, at least partially, this same experience is available online.  It is found in the database “Table of Contents for Journals” at the Boyce Library.  I have also provided a link in my website.  One can only hope for the day, which hopefully is not far off, when not just the “Table of Content” but every article can be easily and quickly accessed.