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.

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