Thursday, June 01, 2006

Shekels from Heaven

More that a week ago while I was walking down Grant Street, I saw a coin on the sidewalk and picked it up. It had Greek lettering on it but I didn't think much of it as the last Greek coin I had picked up off the ground turned out to be plated metal with a hole in it as part of cheap jewelry. I put it in my waist pack and forgot about it.

Today, I was looking for the tweezers for my mini Swiss Army knife in my belt pouch and came across the coin again. This time, I paid a little more attention.

On one side is a portrait in the Roman style and on the reverse is a bird of some sort and the Greek lettering. The minting is a bit off of center so it is clearly not a modern coin. It's about the size of a quarter but twice as heavy.

The weight got me to thinking it might be silver. Now I was really interested. I started an internet search and very quickly found what I was looking for.

It is a silver shekel issued by the Phoenician city of Tyre (c. 126 BCE - 66 CE). The face side features a representation of Melkart, the chief deity of the Phoenicians. The reverse shows an Egyptian-style eagle with its right claw resting on a ship's rudder (referring to Tyre's port), a club (Melkart is associated with Hercules), and the Greek inscription ΚΑΙΑΣΥΛΟΥ ΤΥΡΟΥΙΕΡΑΣ ("Tyre the Holy and Inviolable") and a date. These coins, produced in large quantities, became the standard silver coinage in the Phoenician-Judaean area, replacing the coins of Alexander the Great.

Because all the Roman coins had gods on them and the Romans required the payment of taxes, the Jews were in a bit of a fix because they weren't permitted to use them because of the First Commandment about not having other gods, graven images and all that. The Jewish leaders decided that this particular coin, with a minor god (at least by Roman standards) on the face, was the least offensive and thus was the only coin that would be authorized for tax payments. It didn't hurt that it was also a well minted coin with a consistent weight of silver for accounting purposes. And because they were common coins at the time, when a coin is mentioned in the Bible's New Testament it was likely this coin. This was the coin spilled to the floor when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychanger's in the temple. This was the coin that Jesus had Peter pull from the fish's mouth to pay the temple tax. This was the coin that Judas was paid with for his betrayal.

My Internet search was unable to figure out more precisely how old the coin is. The date, located behind the eagle, consists of the number of years since the acknowledgment of Tyre's independence by Syria (126 BCE). For example, the Greek ΡΛ would represent 130 years or 3-4 CE. On my coin, I can't identify the single date character. There is an obsolete letter Qoppa which has a version that looks a little like the symbol on the coin. If so, Qoppa's numerical representation of 90 would make the coin's minting date about 36 BCE. I'm just guessing, though. It'd probably take a pro to tell for sure.

In any case, I may have found found an over 2,000 year old coin just walking down a Pittsburgh street. According to the websites I looked at, it could easily be worth hundreds of dollars. It could also just as easily be a replica coin worth nothing.

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