Monday, March 14, 2016

Finding Bar Kokhba Coins in Kentucky (or NOT)

In the last few weeks, I have been preparing a gift of my personal coin collection to the American Numismatic Society. Among the coins was a fascinating piece that is an exact twin to one of the most notorious incidences of numismatic fraud—either actual or accidental— that has occurred in the United States. This story continues to be circulated, and I receive questions about the Bar Kokhba coins found in Kentucky on a regular basis.
Here is the background….1952, Robert Cox, a hardware store operator from Clay City, Kentucky, found an exotic coin in a pen he was using for pigs just outside of town along Kentucky Highway 15.  The pig pen was part of a field that he had plowed the summer before. It was the first time older residents of the city could remember that this land had ever been turned over. He seemed an honorable man and had nothing to do with ancient coins, and it appears that Mr. Cox legitimately found the coin just where he said he found it.
            Clay city is about 40 miles east of Lexington, Kentucky. Equally fascinating is that two other Bar Kokhba coins were discovered in different Kentucky towns.
            The rest of the story involves a number of well known scholars who refused to believe other expert numismatists, and has such a long history that it is often repeated as a “true story” today.
It is related quite specifically by celebrated archaeologist Dr. Cyrus Gordon (who taught at Dropsie College, Brandeis University, and New York University) in his 1971 book Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America:
            “Other contacts with the Roman Mediterranean of the second century AD have meanwhile come to light in Kentucky, where inscribed Hebrew coins of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against Rome were dug up in Louisville, Hopkinsville, and Clay City. The assorted coins were found at different times and in widely separated areas: at Louisville in 1932, at Clay City in 1952, and Hopkinsville in 1967. These coins have been examined and identified by Professor Israel T. Naamani of the University of Louisville. There is no difficulty in identifying these Bar Kokhba coins. The Clay City coin was sent to the late Professor Ralph Marcus of the University of Chicago who had no trouble in reading “Simon”, Bar Kokhba’s personal name, on one side, and “Year 2 of the Freedom of Israel” on the other side.”

Copy of misleading page from Cyrus Gordon’s book Before Columbus, suggesting that these are genuine Bar Kokhba coins that had been found in Kentucky when in fact only fantasy replicas were found. Also note that Prof. Gordon incorrectly identifies a shekel of the Jewish War (first and second row left) as a Bar Kokhba coin! (photo from Not Kosher by David Hendin).

            Professor Gordon amazingly seems to have drawn his information from a number of articles in Kentucky newspapers, which reported on these rather astonishing discoveries.

Opening of article published in the Louisville, KY, Courier-Journal, July 12, 1953. It is quite simple for even a beginner to identify this as a “fantasy replica” of a Bar Kokhba coin (from NOT KOSHER by David Hendin).

In 1978 a University of Texas anthropologist named Jeremiah Epstein published a paper. In the course of his research he sent a photocopy of the Clay City coin to Prof. Ya’akov Meshorer, then curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
            One would think that the opinion about this coin by Ya’akov Meshorer, surely the world’s leading expert on ancient Jewish coins at the time) would end the discussion. And for Professor Epstein, it did. However, according to Epstein, his correspondence with Professor Naamani indicated that “Naamani continues to accept Marcus’s judgement.” In other words, he believed that Professor Marcus was correct and Professor Meshorer was incorrect.
            In comments on Epstein’s article, in the journal where it was published, Professor Warren L. Cook of the Castleton State College in Vermont wrote:  “Meshorer’s labeling a Kentucky Bar Kokhba coin a forgery on the basis of a photo-copied newspaper article illustration is unconvincing, yet Epstein is ready to condemn similar coins on such authority.”
            Almost 15 years ago Haim Gitler, current chief curator of archaeology and curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, and I both received communications from Dr. Fred Coy Jr., an economist at Ohio State University.
            Dr. Coy sent us photographs of the actual Clay City coin discovered in 1952 by Robert Cox.  He told us that a man named Ya’akov Meshorer had said it was fake back in 1978. But he wanted to check this information to make certain that Meshorer knew what he was talking about.

Coin exactly identical to the Clay City coin found by Robert Cox (“authenticated” by professors at the University of Louisville and the University of Chicago). It is part of the collection I will be donating to the American Numismatic Society later this year (photo: David Hendin).

            Gitler and I both immediately agreed with Meshorer and stated that this coin was a fake, not even a forgery, but a kind of a fantasy copy.
            Professor Coy, who is not a numismatist, kept asking me WHY this coin was not a genuine ancient coin.  I’m afraid that I did not have much patience, and I kept saying, “it is FAKE because it is NOT GENUINE.  It is NOT even close and therefore does not justify further discussion.” But he was insistent and went to other sources and concluded, finally, and correctly that the coin is not genuine because:
            èThere can be a cross or a rosette over the Temple on the obverse, but not a 6-pointed Star of David. The latter is strictly for the tourist trade.
            èThe shin and mem from the beginning of Simon’s name are entirely missing from the obverse side, even though the adjacent dots are present, indicating that the missing letters could not have been just worn off. This looks like someone copied from a worn coin that was missing these letters, but then added the dots to make the replica look more complete.
            èLikewise, a stroke is missing from the bet, and the het is made as if it were a B.
            èA tetradrachm of this type should be silver, but this coin is bronze.
            èThe lulav is badly made. Also, the etrog has been reduced to a mere blob to the right of the lulav.
            èThere is no sign of an obliterated Roman coin under the image, even though this should be evident.
            èHe forgot to mention that by no stretch of anyone’s imagination could this be an ancient coin!

An authentic sela or tetradrachm of Bar Kokhba struck in the second year of the revolt, 133/134 AD (photo:David Hendin)

            These observations are second nature to anybody who has ever seriously studied Bar Kokhba coins. But here I have discussed a parade of esteemed University Professors who have been bickering back and forth about this coin since it was discovered in 1952.  And we have also learned that the other two so-called Bar Kokhba coins from Kentucky are of the exact type as this one. A photograph accompanying this article depicts an exact duplicate of the coin found in Louisville in 1967.  The same Professor Israel T. Naamani of the University of Louisville examined this coin.  Astoundingly, he pronounced it similar to the Clay City coin, “But this one is much more genuine. The Jews were not strong after the rebellion; so what did they do? They took Roman coins and re-minted them. Underneath if you scratch them there are Roman inscriptions.” (Scratching a coin is certainly NOT the way to observe any overstruck coin….)
            He added that farmer Coy’s Clay City coin was a “Roman re-mint, but Bray’s was newly minted 1,832 years ago.”
            Oh, dear. Maybe college professors ought to be forced to get licenses before commenting on subjects about which they are completely in the dark.
            My research at the British Museum has uncovered a lead cast of this very type of Bar Kokhba fake, which was presented to The British Museum in 1922 by Spink and Sons as a replica.  Therefore, the original must be somewhat older than that.
            My best bet is that this was a souvenir given away by a Bible marketing company in the early 1900s and hundreds or even thousands were passed through the American South.  I have personally seen more than 50 of them.
            The stories around these coins represent wishful thinking by American Bible Belt scholars. Wouldn’t it just be so interesting if the people in the United States were directly descended from Jews who came to our shores not long after the time of Jesus….sigh.
            But it isn’t so and I am glad to report this story over and over to remind collectors that the authenticity of a coin that has not been found in a licensed archaeological excavation is only as good as the expert who is evaluating it!

            (This blog is adapted from my book NOT KOSHER, Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical Coins, New York, 2005.)

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Coin in the Fish’s Mouth

Jesus, as a practicing Jew, was aware of his annual financial obligation to the Jerusalem Temple. This annual tribute is nicely illustrated in the parable of the coin in the fish’s mouth.
Each year, Jewish officials requested that the annual Temple contribution at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, preceding Passover. On the fifteenth day of Adar, tables of the money changers were set up through the Holy Land to receive these contributions. Talmudic traditions mention various cities in Galilee where lists of those who had given were gathered and transferred to Jerusalem.
After 10 days, on the twenty-fifth of Adar, the money-changers terminated their local collections and continued their operations only in the immediate area of the Jerusalem Temple.
Virtually all Jews, including those who had expressed reservations about the current state of the Temple and its system of sacrifices, also sent their contributions to the Temple. Matthew 17:24-27 (NIV) tells the story of how Jesus and his disciples were solicited and gave their contribution to the collectors of the Temple tribute:

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
            This story of the coin in the fish’s mouth is never verified beyond this telling—in other words, we don’t know if this is a true story, partially true, based on a legend, or a parable intended to otherwise enlighten readers. If a coin really was found in a fish’s mouth, however, it seems clear from Matthew’s report that it would have been a shekel of Tyre since that was the singular coin accepted as payment of the annual half-shekel Temple tribute for both Jesus and for Peter the fisherman.

            Shekels and half-shekels of Tyre (together with fewer Seleucid tetradrachms and didrachms often struck in Tyre, Sidon, or Antioch) were certainly the most commonly circulated silver coins in the ancient Holy Land from the first century BC to the time of the Jewish War Against Rome, which ended in 70 AD.

Tyre shekel struck 103/102 BC at Tyre. The obverse depicts the god Melquart, a Tyrian version of Herakles, and the reverse depicts an eagle with a club to left, the club is a mintmark of Tyre. The reverse inscription, in Greek, contains the date, and proclaims, “[money of] Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable.” (photo courtesy

It is also known, as discussed above, that during this period, the Tyre silver shekels and half-shekels were the only coins accepted as payment of the annual tribute to the Jerusalem Temple of one half shekel per Jewish adult male.
Ya’akov Meshorer theorizes that there were two basic issues of Tyrian silver coins. The first issue was struck in Tyre from 126/5 BC until 19/18 BC and the second issue was struck in or near Jerusalem, from 18/17 BC until 79/60 AD. This is possible, though other numismatists have argued that the second issue, which is cruder in style and manufacture than the first, may not have been minted at Tyre, but was probably minted somewhere other than Jerusalem.

Tyre shekel minted during the life of Jesus, in 10/11 AD. Meshorer believed that the Tyre shekels and half-shekels minted after 18/17 BC were struck in Jerusalem. Others believe that the coins may not have been minted at Tyre, but were probably not struck in Jerusalem. (photo by David Hendin)

Whether struck in Tyre or farther south, it is clear that the silver coins of ancient Tyre were well known in the ancient world for their weight and quality of silver.  The Talmud makes it a point to explain that “Silver, whenever mentioned in the Pentateuch, is Tyrian silver.” (Tosephta Kethuboth 13,20)

            Because of this quotation, backed up by the obviously large quantity of the coins originally minted, it is quite clear that many New Testament stories, such as the coin in the fish’s mouth mentioned above, the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for his betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26: 14-15), and the large silver coins used to bribe the soldiers who had fled from their watch at the Holy Sepulcher on Easter morning (Matthew 28:11) each most likely involved the shekels and the half-shekels of Tyre.

Monday, February 22, 2016

St. Helena, the First Christian Pilgrim

On a visit to Rome, we sought out the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.  My American Express Guide to Rome (long out of print, but still handy) says it was “One of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome, it is said to have been built to house the precious relics of the True Cross brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.”

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (photo:

It is said that Helena founded the church on land where her private palace stood. Although it was on the edgte of the city, the relics of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that  Helena brought back from Jerusalem made Santa Croce in Gerusalemme a center for pilgrimage.  Most important were some pieces of Christ’s Cross (croce means “cross”) and part of Pontius Pilate’s inscription, called the Titulus Crucis, proclaiming “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews,” written in Latin, Hebrew and Greek. There is little doubt that this wooden plaque is very old, but numerous tests performed over the years have never established its authenticity absolutely. Nevertheless, even to a non-Christian observer, it is quite moving to view these relics.

 Remaining fragment of the plaque that was supposedly attached to the cross of Jesus, which is said to have been brought to Rome by Helena, mother of Constantine I, and placed in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (photo: photo:

            When we entered the church, only a few days after Easter, we seemed to be the only visitors.  We walked up to the altar and around the chapel. We did not see any relics, so we made our way into the smaller side rooms and found them in a small room behind the main altar.  Here we saw St. Helena’s relics: three pieces of wood set in a larger cross; they are said to be actual pieces of the True Cross.  Two thorns, said to be from Jesus’ crown of thorns are mounted and stand alongside it, as does a piece of a bronze nail, said to be from the crucifixion itself.  And finally, we saw the piece of wood that is said to be from the sign Pontius Pilate was said to have erected over Jesus while he was crucified.
            Whether or not they are authentic relics, I cannot say.  But seeing them was a fascinating experience.
            It led me to recall the importance of Helena, later revered as St. Helena, to the ancient land of Israel. Hers is a real “rags to riches” story. We believe Helena was born in about 249 AD in the town of Drepanum in Bythnia, which Constantine later renamed Helenopolis. St. Ambrose referred to her as an inn-keeper, others say she was a simple bar maid in her father’s tavern. Eventually she attracted the attention of a Roman soldier, Constantius Chlorus and she became either his longtime mistress, or his wife. In either case there is no doubt that together they bore a son, Constantine.

Constantius I Chlorus follis (307/310-337), father of Constantine I, first husband of Helena (photo:

            In 292, when Constantius became Caesar of Spain, Gaul and Britain, he dumped Helena and married Theodora, the daughter of Maximian, his patron.

Theodora, died before 337 AD, follies (photo:

Meanwhile, Helena’s son Constantine became a soldier, and spent a lot of time at Diocletian’s court.  When Constantine persuaded the Roman legions in Britain to proclaim him Caesar in 306, he immediately called for his mother and installed her in his court with the appropriate honors befitting the mother of the Emperor.

Constantine I bronze struck at Constantinople. The reverse depicts a labarum crowned by a Christogram, piercing a serpent, with the legend SPES PVBLIC (hope for the public). Constantine saw the Christogram in a vision and also began to wear it on his helmet and shield (photo:

            In 312, the most significant event of Constantine’s reign occurred. While preparing for a battle with the army of his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, he saw a cross in the sky with the inscription IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (“In this sign you will conquer”).  He immediately ordered his troops to paint the monogram of Jesus, the labarum, on their shields and this extra strength enabled their victory and gave Constantine control of the West as well as the East, whereupon Constantine vowed to make the Roman Empire a Christian nation.

Vetranio bronze (c. 350 AD) struck under Constantius II (337 – 361 AD) as Siscia. The reverse legend is HOC SIGNO VICTORERIS (In this sign, you will conquer). The scene and legend on this coin provide a re-enactment of Constantine I’s victory at the Milvian Bridge. (photo: cngcoins.com_

            In 324 AD Constantine named Helena as “Augusta,” a title that was established by Augustus for Livia, but certainly not granted every empress, much less every royal mother.

Helena as Augusta 324-328/30, bronze follis (photo:

            In 325 AD, the Council of Nicea met and Constantine declared Christianity to be the nation’s official religion. Incidentally, it is not clear whether Constantine himself actually ever became a Christian.  His mother, Helena, was not only converted but was so excited by her spiritual experience that it enticed her to make a pilgrimage, circa 326 AD to Judea, where she could visit all of the sites that were important in the life of Jesus. She was in her late 70s at the time she embarked. Helena’s pilgrimage was the prototype for the travels of virtually every Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land for some 1,700 years, right up to today.
            Until Helena’s visit, nobody outside of the Christians in the Holy Land had paid much attention to the sites there.  In Helena’s day the Jews maintained important academies at Tiberius, Sepphoris, and Lydda (Lod).  Led by Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Nassi the Jewish scholars were in the final stages of developing the Talmud itself.  When I was the numismatist at the Joint Sepphoris Expedition in 1985 and 1986, led by Duke’s Eric and Carol Meyers and Hebrew University’s Ehud Netzer, we discovered some remarkable mosaic floors—and many more were subsequently discovered at Sepphoris—which indicated that the city was extremely wealthy at the time Helena arrived in the country. In fact, we dated some of these mosaics by small groups of Constantinian coins lying on top of and just under them.
            While there is no doubt that the local traditions held some, or perhaps many of the sites Helena visited as holy shrines, it did not hurt that the mother of the Emperor of Christian Rome further declared the sites to be true.
            And indeed, Helena was said to have:
            --Proclaimed the actual path Jesus took on his way to the cross, the Via Dolorosa, and declared the precise spots of all of the fourteen Stations of the Cross;

Fifth Station of the Cross (top) and the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. (photos: David Hendin)

            --Found at least several pieces of the true cross itself;
            --Identified the spot near the Sea of Galilee where the miracle of fish and loaves occurred;
            --Confirmed the place where Jesus stood when he gave his Sermon on the Mount;
            --Marked the place of the Annunciation, where Mary learned that she would give birth to Jesus;
            --And she also identified places where Joseph’s carpentry shop stood, where Jesus was born, the field in which the shepherds saw the Bethlehem Star, and the inn of the Good Samaritan.
            The story of Helena’s pilgrimage is certainly not fantasy.  In his Life of Constantine (c. 340 AD), Eusebius wrote (only about ten years after her death) that Helena lavished good deeds on the Holy Land, and “Although well advanced in years, she came, fired by youthful fervor, in order to know this land” and she “explored it with remarkable discernment …And by her endless admiration for the footsteps of the Savior…she granted those who came after her the fruits of her piety. Afterward she built two houses of prayer to the God she revered, one in the Grotto of the Nativity (this is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) and the other on the Mount of the Ascension (this is the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives).”  Helena also is said to have identified the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried, and ordered the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be built there.

            It is a matter of some interest that while Helena’s important pilgrimage is well documented, not a single numismatic memento of these events was issued. So the coins of Helena can only offer us a glimpse of the appearance of this important woman of antiquity.

Friday, February 12, 2016

War of Quietus--Another Jewish Revolt

There was a significant “Third Revolt” of the Jews during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98-117 AD).  This war took place between the Jewish War (First Revolt—66-70 AD) and the Bar Kokhba War (Second Revolt—132-135 AD).
            It was called “the war of Quietus” and took place between the years 115 and 117 AD.  It was fought in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, but apparently not in Judaea.
            More accurately, the “war of Quietus” was a series of revolts.  These revolts were likely the direct results of both the aftermath of the reign of Domitian (who was especially hard on Christians and Jews) as well as attacks under Trajan’s rule on both Christian and Jewish leaders.

We do not know a great deal about the “war of Quietus,” and one reason is that there is not any known numismatic material that references this war.  By comparison, the numismatic evidence from the First Revolt consists of both the coins of the Jews of the period, as well as the JUDAEA CAPTA coins of the Flavians, which reflect a great deal on their view of Rome’s victory. 
            Bar Kokhba’s coins are likewise very important to our knowledge of the so-called Second Revolt.  Indeed, the first name of Bar Kokhba, “Simon” was known ONLY from his coins until forty years ago—1960 to be exact—when the Bar Kokhba letters, discovered in caves near the Dead Sea, were discovered and translated.

Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)

            After Domitian’s harsh rule, his successor, Nerva, was less abusive to his subjects.
            There is no doubt that at this time in history there was quite a lot of animosity against the Jews.  If you don’t believe it, read the very anti-Jewish first-century historian Tacitus, who in small part stated: “The other practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness.”
            Early in the second century, under Trajan’s rule, the head of the Judaeo-Christian Church, Simeon, son of Cleophas, was executed by the Roman governor of Judaea.
Furthermore, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, a leading gentile Christian, was sent to Rome and executed about the year 110.  Grant describes him as “the first significant Christian churchman.”  (At this point in the history of Christianity there were both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  Originally Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, thus the earliest Christians needed first to be Jews.  Later, as Paul spread the gospel throughout the world, he preached that non-Jews could convert directly to Christianity without becoming Jewish first.)
The reasons for these executions are not clear, but they are probably part of a religious persecution by Rome that also underscored the Jewish unrest.
In 110, Trajan moved against Parthia, thus ending a 50-year peace that Nero had established.  The Parthians had been weakened by the new and powerful Kushan kingdom in eastern Iran.  A few years later, Trajan also annexed Armenia, and moved his armies into upper Mesopotamia and Adiabene.  Adiabene is a country of special interest, since its ruling dynasty (led by Queen Helena) had voluntary converted to Judaism in the first century.  (Helena’s tomb stands today in East Jerusalem, it is known as the “Tomb of the Kings…a blog on Queen Helena of Adiabene at a later date.)
During these various military operations, a large number of Jewish communities came under Trajan’s control.
The first uprising came in Cyrenaica, where a Jewish king named Lukuas (also called Andrew) violently attacked the local Greek governments and Roman provincial authorities—all of whom had been weakened in favor of Trajan’s Parthian campaigns.   Cassius Dio painted a grim picture of Jewish atrocities, culminating with the Jews forcing the Romans and Greeks to fight with wild animals, or as gladiators in the arena.  This sounds almost as if the Jews were exacting revenge for similar fates suffered by so many Jewish captives in Rome some 45 years earlier after the First Revolt.
The outbreak had meanwhile spread to Cyprus, and Eusebius, the “father of church history” reports its capital Salamis was laid waste by them.  There is no information about how the Cyprus revolt was ended, but we know of the consequence, Cassius Dio reports that from that time forward Jews were not allowed to appear on the island, under penalty of death.  Violent fighting also followed in Egypt and the synagogue of Alexandria, said to be a marvel of Egyptian architecture, was destroyed.  To quell these Jewish outbreaks, Trajan’s first move was to call in a general named Martius Turbo.  By repeated onslaughts against the Jews he overcame the rebellions in Cyprus, Egypt, and Cyrenaica.
To oppose the Jews closer to his own army, in the district of the Euphrates, Trajan turned to his favorite general, Lucius Quietus, a Moorish prince, known for his unpleasant disposition.
Emil Shurer writes in The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ that “with barbarous cruelty Quietus executed his commission and laid waste to the mostly Jewish towns of Nisibis and Edessa. Thousands of Jews were put to death. Thus was order restored, and Quietus, in recognition of his services, was appointed governor of Palestine.”
Even though accounts of the “war of Quietus” are skimpy, some sources say that as many as half a million casualties occurred amongst the foes.
Apparently as a reward for his good work, in about 117 AD Trajan sent Quietus to Judaea as governor of Palestine with unlimited power.  This seems to indicate that there was also a certain level of Jewish rebellion in Palestine.  However, the main Jewish insurrections at this time were clearly outside of Judaea.  On the other hand, it is quite probable that the Jewish restiveness in Judaea at the time was the precursor to the Bar Kokhba War which erupted only 14 years later in 131/132 AD.
Possibly partly because of the Jewish uprisings, Trajan was finally unsuccessful in his Parthian campaign and he eventually had to give up on his grandiose plan to turn Parthia into a Roman province.  At this time Trajan became very sick.  He was taken to Antioch, and died a few months later in Cilicia.  His wife, Plotina, told the army that before his death Trajan had named Hadrian as his adopted son and successor.
When Hadrian became emperor, he removed Quietus from this post, probably because the Moorish General had favored Trajan’s expansionism, which was not Hadrian’s style.  Quietus was executed in Rome the following year, accused of participating in a conspiracy against the emperor.
I discussed the “war of Quietus” with Rabbi Benjamin Yablok, a numismatist and Talmudic scholar.  He pointed out that the “war of Quietus” had at least one interesting, long lasting effect on Jewish tradition.  Based on writings in the Talmud, Rabbi Yablok explains, when Jewish women were married they would wear golden tiaras or crowns to the ceremony.  But, “in commemoration of the misfortunes caused by Lucius Quietus, the Rabbinical sages decreed that brides should no longer wear crowns.”  Jewish women have not worn golden marriage crowns since that time.

There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115-117 AD.  However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period.  The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Herod I’s Tangled Family Tree

Herod the Great’s family tree is long and winding, frequently doubling back into itself. Through his own marriages and the marriages (and intermarriages) of his descendants, Herod’s family was linked to many families of other near Eastern client kings of Rome. These connections supplement our view of the Herodian family, and explain how families of these client kings of Rome were often inter-connected.

Coin of Herod I, probably struck 37 BC

            Herod I himself (40 BC – 4 BC) had at least ten wives who bore him 14 children, 9 sons and 5 daughters. I certainly don’t have the time to introduce you to each of them and their descendants, but just to catch a glimpse of some of the “A list” members of the Herodian Dynasty. The Roman numerals used to identify many of the people involved often vary from reference to reference. For continuity, therefore, I am using the excellent book HEROD: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans by Peter Richardson as our primary source.
            First among royal connections was Herod’s own marriage to Mariamne the Hasmonean in 37 BC. Mariamne was the granddaughter of both Hasmonean (Maccabean) Kings John Hyrcanus II (d. 31 BC) and Judah Aristobulus II (d.49 BC). (Her parents were first cousins—Alexandra was daughter of John Hyrcanus II and Alexander II was son of Hyrcanus’ brother Aristobulus II.)
            Herod no doubt believed that this marriage would solidify his position as King of the Jews, since the Hasmonean dynasty that ruled before him was, for the most part, quite popular. By all accounts, Herod deeply loved Mariamne. Sadly, however, his paranoia (possibly somewhat justified) caused him to murder not only Mariamne (in 29 BC), but eventually also (in 7 BC) the two sons they had together, Herod Alexander II (born 36 [?] BC) and Herod Aristobulus I (born 35 [?] BC).
            Even though they died before their 30th birthdays, both of these sons of Herod and Mariamne had quite interesting of descendants.
            Herod Alexander II married Glaphyra, daughter of Archelaus, King of Cappadocia. (After Alexander’s death, and a second marriage to Juba II, King of Mauretania (25 BC – 23 AD), Glaphyra later married her first husband’s half brother Herod Archelaus (4 BC – 6 AD), ethnarch of Judaea, after he was banished to Gaul by Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD).

Juba II, King of Mauretania (photo
The son of Alexander and Glaphyra became Tigranes V, king of Armenia, who ruled for a very short time around 6 AD. According to Y.T. Nercessian, “Augustus sent Tigranes V to Armenia. He was distantly related to the Armenian Artaxiads. He was the grandson of Herod the Great of Judaea, son of Alexander and Glaphyra… His reign was short-lived and Queen Erato was placed on the throne.”  Tigranes V died in 36 AD.

Tigranes V of Armenia (photo:

            Tigranes V and Erato marked the end of the line for Artaxiad royal line, and shortly the Parthians moved into power. Nero, however, was having a difficult time controlling the Parthians. By around 60 C.E. the military/political situation with Parthia was not tenable for Rome, and Nero installed a new ruler, a pro-Roman, anti-Parthian puppet, supported by Roman troops. He was another Tigranes (VI), a usurper who was barely (if at all) related to the original Armenian royal family. As nephew of the above-mentioned Tigranes V, and a great-grandson of Herod I and Mariamne, he kept things in the family for his brief reign.

Tigranes VI of Armenia (photo:

            A son of Tigranes the usurper, Alexander VI, became King of Cetis in Cilicia, and married Iotape III, daughter of Antiochus, King of Commagene (38 – 72 AD). 

Antiochus IV King of Commagene, his daughter Iotape married a son of the Herodian Tigranes VI (photo:

            Tracing the lineage of Aristobulus I, Herod’s other son with Mariamne, is equally confusing and just as interesting. In 17 B.C.E. Aristobulus I married his first cousin Berenike I, the daughter of Herod I’s sister Salome I. This union resulted in three sons and two daughters. Here we will follow the sons.
One became Herod IV King of Chalcis (d. 48 C.E.), who first married Mariamne V, his first cousin, and later married Berenike III, his niece and the sister of Agrippa II. The son of Herod IV of Chalcis and Mariamne V was another Aristobulus, King of Armenia Minor. He was the second husband of Salome III, who exotic dance had previously enhanced her brother-in-law Herod Antipas. As Matthew reports (14:8-9), Herod was so entranced he offered Salome the reward of her choice. Then,

                Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the 
            Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he 
            ordered that her request be granted.

Aristobulus King of Armenia Minor, and his wife Salome III (photo:

A second son was Aristobulus II, who married another Iotape, daughter of Sampisgeramos, King of Emisa.
            The third son of Aristobulus I and Berenike I was Agrippa I (37-44 AD), who incorporated Judaea into his territory for the second half of his reign. Agrippa I followed family tradition and married his first cousin Kypros III, another grand-daughter of Herod the Great.

Agrippa I portrait, on the reverse is his wife Kypros III

            Among the children of Agrippa I were Drusilla, Berenike III, and Agrippa II.

Drusilla, shown on a coin struck Agrippa I, however this Drusilla is NOT the daughter of Agrippa I, but the "daughter of Augustus" who at this time was Caligula. (photo:

Coin of Agrippa II with the portrait of Vespasian.
Drusilla first married King Aziz of Emisa and later married Marcus Antoninus Felix, procurator of Judaea (54 – 59 AD) under Claudius.

Coin of Antoninus Felix, Procurator of Judaea under Claudius.

Agrippa II became the last Herodian King in the ancient land of Israel and ruled from 56 to around 95 AD. Although he never actually ruled over Jerusalem, he maintained a palace there, and wielded quite some influence with many Jews. Claudius assigned him guardianship of the High Priest’s robes in Jerusalem. Agrippa II made impassioned pleas to the Jews to give in to Roman rule instead of fighting the Jewish War (66 – 70 AD). During much of this time his sister, Berenike III, stood by his side.
It was often speculated that Berenike III stayed by her brother not only by day, but also by night, in an incestuous relationship. Aside from that it is mentioned above that Berenike’s second husband was her uncle Herod King of Chalkis.
Herod King of Chalkis, second husband to Berenike (photo:

Her third husband was Polemo II, King of Pontus (38 – 63/4 AD). And finally she nearly became the wife of the Roman Emperor Titus (79 -81 AD), with whom she had a long, well publicized relationship as his mistress. Titus went so far as to bring Berenike III to Rome and install her in his palace, in anticipation of a royal marriage. But the Roman Senate, still wary of women of the East after their experience with Mark Antony’s Cleopatra III, prevailed, and Titus ended his relationship with her.

Polemo II drachm showing Nero on its reverse (photo:

Titus Judaea Capta sestertius

Coin of Agrippa II struck in 78/79 AD said to celebrate his voyage to Rome with sister Berenice, who anticipated marriage to Titus

We can round out this summary of Herod’s descendants with a quick look at the three sons who actually inherited his kingdom after fierce contestations of their father’s will. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee (4 BC – 40 AD), first married a daughter of Aretas IV (her name is not known to history). His second wife was Herodias, daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus I. This was also Herodias’s second marriage, since she had previously been married to another of her uncles.
 Antipas (above) married a daughter of Aretas IV of Nabataea (below)

Herod Philip II (4 BC – 34 AD), son of Herod the Great and Cleopatra of Jerusalem, became tetrarch of the northeastern section of his father’s kingdom (4 BC – 34 AD). He was the first husband of the notorious Salome III, his niece. When he died (as discussed above), Salome married her second cousin, Aristobulus IV, king of Armenia Minor.

Herod Philip II (a rare portrait coin) was first husband of Salome II, his niece (shown earlier)

Herod Archelaus, ethnarch of Judaea (4 BC – 6 AD), first married one of his niece’s Mariamne IV. After divorcing her he married Glaphyra, the wife of his half-brother Alexander, who had been murdered by his father Herod the Great in 7 BC.

Herod Archelaus’ first wife was his niece Mariamne IV.

© 2016 by David Hendin


Friday, December 18, 2015

The Poor Widow's Mite

Every year at Christmas time, folks have questions about the “poor widow’s mites” made famous by the story in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4.
And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites (λεπτόν), which make a farthing (κοδράντης). And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had…
            The word “mite” first appears in the books of Mark and Luke in the 1525 first publication of Tyndale’s New Testament, where it was likely intended as a shortened version of the word “minute” (as in very small) and not as the name of a denomination. As the late Fr. A. Spijkerman has noted, the word lepton “implies very small coins…even we may say...the smallest coin being in circulation in Palestine at the time concerned.”
It is not surprising that scholars who did early English translations of the Bible had a tendency to “reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English money,” according to Oliver Hoover, who discussed this in detail in the ANS Magazine, 2006, 2, and points out that neither the original Greek text of the New Testament nor the Latin Vulgate Bible, mention the “mite.” Instead the Greek or Latin words used in that version are either lepta or minuta respectively.
            The word “mite” was most widely disbursed by the King James Version, printed in 1611, after work by 47 scholars that lasted nearly seven years. “Not only would this translation become one of the most popular English versions of the Bible ever published, but the artistry of its language ensured that it would also become one of the greatest single influences on the development of English literature well into the twentieth century,” Hoover said.
            The translators wished their work to “speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.” For this reason, the King James Bible and some earlier English translations are of “some interest to numismatists, given their tendency to reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth and seventeenth-century English money. Thus, in a small way, the King James Version serves as a document for the circulating coinage of early modern Great Britain,” Hoover wrote.
            However, there was no mite coin known to exist in British coinage of this period. “In fact, the mite (meaning “small cut piece” in Old Dutch) was only created as a circulating coin of Flanders in the fourteenth century. Initially, the mite was a small billon [very low quality silver] coin...but by the sixteenth century it had become copper,” he explained.
            One might guess, therefore, that this denomination was imported and used in Britain at the time, but “there is little evidence to support this possibility,” Hoover wrote. Even though the Dutch mite did not circulate in Britain, and no British mites existed, the mite was mentioned in sixteenth-century arithmetic books as a fraction of a farthing, varying from one-third to one-sixteenth.
            It seems quite “likely that the mite has entered into the King James Version…as a result of a translational quandary created by the original…”
            In these early versions, Mark gives the value of two lepta as a kodrantes or quadrans. But Hoover pinpoints the crunch: while “any Latin grammarian would have known that a quadrans was a bronze coin worth one-fourth of a Roman as, making its English translation as farthing (one-fourth of a penny) almost unavoidable. Unfortunately, in the English coinage system there were no denominations smaller than a farthing, creating the problem of how to deal with Mark’s lepta/minuta.”
            Thus there was no British parallel for any coin smaller than a farthing, and there is a good chance that the arithmetic term mite was thus brought into play. Hoover also speculates, however, that possibly William Tyndale’s pre-King James translation might “have been a little influenced by the contemporary Flemish monetary system when he chose his words. After all, Tyndale is known to have had good Flemish connections, and he composed and printed his translation of the New Testament while in the nearby German cities of Hamburg, Cologne, and Worms. In 1534, Antwerp became his home and a base for shipping his contraband translations into Tudor England, until he was finally arrested and executed for heresy in 1536. Thus, Tyndale is likely to have been conversant with the Flemish currency system, in which there were twenty-four mites to the penning.”
Later, during the seventeenth century British money had not been decimalized and was organized according the pound/shilling/pence system. There were 240 pence (pennies) to the pound. There were smaller denominations than the penny, such as the farthing, which was one-quarter of a penny. There was an even smaller coin, worth a half-farthing, and it was called a mite. Hence, the smallest coin in circulation in early first century Jerusalem, became known worldwide and probably for all time as the mite.
            It is logical that people who are interested in the stories of the Bible would want to know more about these coins and exactly which ones could be associated with the stories.
            Frederick Madden, in 1864, wrote that “The mite…was the smallest coin current in Palestine in the time of our Lord.”
            In 1914, Rogers wrote that “it is natural to conclude that the coins being cast into the treasury were strictly Jewish coins….the choice of strictly Jewish copper is accordingly limited to the coins of the Hasmonean or the Herodian families….and with some degree of certainty it may be said that the popular coins for this purpose were the small copper of Alexander Jannaeus and his successors…”
Whatever its origin, the poor widow’s mite has become one of the most frequently referenced and most popular ancient biblical coins.
Here are two things we know about the widow’s mite story, as related by both Mark and Luke:
            -- It is certainly a story about charity and goodwill, rather than a story about money. The poor woman gave all she had to the treasury of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, while, relatively speaking, many rich people gave little of themselves.
            -- The amount of money the widow threw into the Temple treasury was two coins of the smallest size in existence in Jerusalem at that time. There is no doubt that the small prutah (Guide to Biblical Coins (GBC) Nos. 1152, 1153) or half-prutah (GBC Nos. 1134, 1138, 1147, 1185-87), coins of the Maccabean kings and Herod the Great, fit that description. The most common among them, easily by a factor of more than 1000 to 1, is the small prutah that was most likely struck by the Hasmonean successors of King Alexander Jannaeus (103 – 76 BC), which have been documented to range in weight from 0.20 to 1.70 grams, with an average of 0.81 grams.
            The massive issue of these tiny bronze coins in this poor land filled a market need. Some versions of these coins may have been first struck very late in Jannaeus’ reign and likely continued to be minted periodically until as last as 50-45 BC. These coins were all decorated on one side with an anchor and on the other side a crude star.
            Herod I (40 – 37 BC) also minted very similar looking coins but much more scarce coins, possibly quite early in his reign, which technically began on the ground in Judea around 37 BC, these coins range in weight from 0.49 grams to 1.78 grams with an average of 0.94 grams. Herod’s coins are decorated on one side with an anchor and on the other side a crude inscription.
            The similarities of the Herodian to the Hasmonean in both design and method and general appearance coins suggest that the latter were crudely copied from the earlier ones, and archaeological finds suggest that their circulation overlapped.

PHOTO: Similarities between Hasmonean small prutot (GBC 1153, top 2 rows) and the slightly later Herodian small prutot (GBC 1173 – 1177 bottom 2 rows). Photo Copyright © 2010 by David Hendin

Both the Hasmoneans and Herod I also issued relatively small numbers of a few coin types which were clearly meant to be half denomination prutot.
The best current evidence suggests that during the first century, the Judean shekel was made up of 256 prutot. Consider that there are 100 cents to the dollar; hence this was very small change indeed. In those days one pomegranate cost only a prutah and in those days many pomegranates grew wild and could be plucked off trees in many areas (as they can today in Israel) for free.
            Archaeological evidence proves that even though these small coins were struck in the first century BC, they continued to circulate well into the first century AD when Jesus lived, and even for as long as the fourth century AD. This has been shown by archaeological excavations in Israel. At the Joint Sepphoris excavation in 1985, we found the small prutot of Jannaeus in the same areas as fourth-century Roman bronze coins. These were useful pieces of small change, at a time and place that small change was not easy to find (many late Roman and Byzantine small bronze coins were chopped in halves and quarters to accommodate the market need).
            Another aspect of the story of the poor widow’s mite remains relevant today: Many people of great means contribute little to charitable causes, while less wealthy individuals contribute a great deal relative to their ability. This is a topic fit for everyone to ponder.

Copyright © by David Hendin
(Adapted from Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th Edition)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tributes to Legends

With Shraga Qedar in 1982, photo: Don Simon

Watching the world change as time passes is an interesting process, and I am especially sensitive about it whenever I write an obituary about one of my longtime friends and colleagues. All kinds of stories from the old days are brought to the top of the memory heap. Most recently I wrote a tribute and obituary about Shraga Qedar, my friend of 40 years for CoinsWeekly ( I have previously written obituaries for two other friends and mentors, Prof. Ya’akov Meshorer and Prof. Dan Barag, legendary teachers, authors, archaeologists, and numismatists.
Back in 1993 I wrote about two other friends from Jerusalem who died within a few months of each other. They were especially interesting because of the key roles they played in the Dead Sea Scrolls drama; they brought the scrolls to light in the first place.
In 1946, a 13-year-old boy of the Ta’amira Bedouin tribe was hiking with older friends in the cliffs on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Some say they were shepherds minding goats. Others observe that the Ta’amira Bedouins have dealt in antiquities for 150 years and they simply may have been combing those historically rich hills for artifacts to sell.
While throwing stones into a cave, the boys heard pottery break. They investigated and found several tall pottery jars containing leather and parchment scrolls. They took the scroll pieces to Jerusalem antiquities dealers, who chased the boys out of their shops. One exclaimed: “Those are old pieces of leather, not antiques. Sell them to a shoemaker.”
The boys took his advice. A shoemaker in Bethlehem named Kando also displayed oil lamps and small antiquities in his window. Kando recognized potential in the scroll fragments and bought them, although at that time the oldest known written manuscripts dated back only a few hundred years.
Eventually, Kando sold some of the scrolls to Samuel, the Syrian Metropolitan at the Monastery of St. Mark in Old Jerusalem. Samuel later advertised his scrolls in the Wall Street Journal.
Kando sold other scrolls to Professor E. L. Sukenik, chief archaeologist of Hebrew University. (Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin, later also acquired the scrolls the Syrian Metropolitan had advertised in the Journal, for the State of Israel.)
When the 13-year old Bedouin boy who helped find the Dead Sea Scrolls grew up, he adopted a new name, in the Arab custom, after his first son was born. Abu Ali al Taweel was well known by Israeli antiquities enthusiasts. General Moshe Dayan wrote that he often bought antiquities from Abu Ali, who also once saved the famous general’s life.
Here’s how Gen. Dayan told the story in his book Living with the Bible:

With Abu Ali al Taweel and Don Simon about 1984

“I do not think anyone has ever succeeded in duping Abu Ali by trying to sell him a fake antique or a counterfeit coin. Whenever I bought anything from him, I could always be sure that it was authentic.
“One day I received a message from him telling me that he had a beautiful earthenware censer that he was sure would interest me. We arranged to meet in Jerusalem and there I saw it.... I bought it and asked where it had been discovered. Abu Ali said it was found in a cave south of Bethlehem. I asked him to take me there. I wished to see what kind of cave it was, whether a burial cave, a dwelling, or one used for pagan rites.
“He promised to do so and we fixed a date. But shortly before we were due to meet, he informed me that he was very busy and asked for a postponement. He postponed the next meeting too on some pretext or other. I refrained from interrogating too closely one so much smarter than I, and I just went on waiting. The hoped-for day finally arrived and we set out for the cave.
“We passed Bethlehem, and about half way along the road to Hebron we turned off westward along a dirt track in the direction of the foothills.... [I saw what] had once been a burial cave. The remains of skeletons were still there. But in the course of time it had been used as a sheepfold and as shelter for shepherds in heavy rains....
“Now that my curiosity about the cave had been satisfied, I asked Abu Ali why he had kept postponing our visit. ‘Oh, Wazir,’ he replied, ‘this cave was being used at the time by a band of PLO saboteurs. It was they who began digging in their spare time and they who unearthed the ancient vessels and put them on the market. How, then, could I bring you here, you who are minister of defense? I had to wait until they moved elsewhere. Imagine what would have happened if I had brought you while they were still here. Either they would have opened fire on you, in which case your soldiers would have shot me; or you would have shot them, in which case their comrades would have suspected me of betraying them and delivering them into your hands, and then they would have murdered me and my children.’”
Abu Ali died in Bethlehem in 1993 at age 60. He had been ill with cancer for some time. I had often met with Abu Ali over the previous 20 years. For a while he owned a little nut and sweet shop near Manger Square in Bethlehem. Over six-feet tall, with a strong, handsome face always framed by a white kafeyah, the traditional Bedouin headdress, Abu Ali cut a colorful figure. When I visited Abu Ali, he sometimes showed me coins or antiquities. Over the years, via friends as interpreters, he told me many stories, including the one of how he and his friends found and sold the Dead Sea Scrolls to Kando.
(Nevertheless, after an early version of this story was published, another friend, Jerusalem lawyer Arnold Spaer, now deceased, wrote me a letter and said that Abu Ali was NOT one of the boys who discovered the scrolls. However….Abu Ali told me this story at least TWICE translated by Israeli friends fluent in Arabic…and furthermore his son Samir Kando referred to this more than once. I am not sure why Spaer—who was Abu Ali’s lawyer—took this position, but I wanted readers to have all the info.)

Khalil Iskander Kando at his shop in Jerusalem's St. George Hotel

It was only about three weeks before Abu Ali died that Khalil Iskander Kando, age 83, also of Bethlehem, died. Kando had been an officially licensed antiquities dealer for decades and operated a small shop in East Jerusalem, in a room above his gift shop, adjoining the St. George Hotel in East Jerusalem.
Kando, called Abu Anton, wore a burgundy fez and traditional white robes each time I saw him. A tall man with larger-than-life features, he took delight in showing me interesting coins and ancient artifacts. Kando never wanted to talk about the scrolls. Yet in a nook off the stairway to his tiny, second-floor antiquity shop stood one of the very jars in which they were found. No matter how often I asked, he would never pose next to it for a photograph.
Once in the 1970s, I sat across from Abu Anton, looking at ancient coins. He was cleaning one in a jar of dilute sulfuric acid he kept on his desk for that purpose. As we talked, he took a dental bridge out of his mouth and dipped it into the acid. Next he brushed it with the toothbrush he had been using to clean coins. Kando shook off the dental work and returned it to his mouth, resumed talking and never even puckered.
Abu Ali, the finder of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Abu Anton, their first buyer, were both publicity-shy. Both were tarnished during the 1950s when, reportedly, some scrolls were deliberately cut up and sold in pieces to extract higher prices from the market. And stories linger that some pieces of scrolls may still remain in private hands in Bethlehem today.
Yet the two men had honorable reputations. Ya’akov Meshorer, chief curator of archaeology at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, told me that “From 1967, when we had dealings with him, Kando was always generous with the Museum.”
When I telephoned my friend Samir Kando in Bethlehem to express condolences on his father’s death, he said, “Aye, David, we are only guests in this life. But what we touch may live forever.”

Copyright 2015 by David Hendin