Using coins to study the context of ancient history

My new book Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame debuted in March 2022 at the ANA National Money Show in Colorado Springs.

Kenneth Bressett’s newest book, Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame, debuted at the American Numismatic Association’s National Money Show in Colorado Springs, March 10, 2022. Now the 224-page hardcover volume is available from bookstores and hobby shops nationwide, and online. Here, Bressett discusses the book and his interest in numismatics as a sub-discipline of archaeology.

Numismatics is a study of currency that includes coins, tokens, paper money, and various other related objects. It is a subject that is of interest to coin collectors, researchers, students, and merchants, but in its purest form is a sub-discipline of archeology similar to the investigation of materials related to commerce, including such things as pottery, jewelry, beads , metals, and barter items used by past civilizations. Studying these items has become a new source of interest and information for coin collectors who want to better understand how their treasured specimens relate to the economy and historical context of many diverse nations.

The instructive aspects of numismatics have intrigued me since 1937, when I first became aware of its potential as a teaching tool for a better understanding of world history, art, and geography. Throughout the years I have researched and studied coins and trade items from various regions and time periods to provide evidence of their relation to historical events. A favorite area of ​​examination has been linking ancient coinages to the people and events recorded in the Bible. In this endeavor, it is frequently possible to identify specific coins that are mentioned in Bible passages and better understand the meaning of those passages and their connections to actual usage of ancient forms of currency.

A Hebrew scroll found in the caves of Qumran, Israel, near the Dead Sea. (Image courtesy of Bakusova, Shutterstock.) Hover to zoom.

Traditional Biblical archeology generally involves the study and history of Jewish and Christian peoples as recorded in the Old and New Testament and related contemporary references, such as the works of historian Flavius ​​Josephus and the Dead Sea scrolls. Classical archeology includes a broader consideration of the ancient world, including the Mediterranean cultures of Greece, Rome, the Mycenaeans, and Minoans. Together, they explore the ever-fascinating world of antiquity.

Silver tetradrachms, also called shekels, were the only foreign coins authorized for use by the Jews during Jesus’s lifetime. This silver shekel of Tyre, dated year 28 (=98 BC), was used in circulation for decades.

The use of barter and trade items, as well as coins, after the eighth century BC was common to many cultures, and examples of such items still exist in museums and collections to confirm, and sometimes better explain the authenticity of ancient history. Few resources are more detailed than the accounts found in sacred writings, and thus studying the Bible accounts of coins and money is a rewarding source of information and enjoyment for many coin enthusiasts. Most collectors refer to this special interest as “Coins of the Bible,” or sometimes, “Money of the Bible.”

A typical example of how the study of coins can aid in establishing the validity of their use in ancient times can be found in the account of the coin found in the fish’s mouth (Matthew 17:24-27). This is the story of how Jesus told his disciple Peter to cast a line into the water and retrieve a fish that would contain a coin sufficient in value to pay the required temple tax for both of them.

The customary tax was used for temple repairs and other religious purposes, and it was required to be paid by all Jews wherever they lived throughout the ancient world. The annual tax was one-half shekel for every man over the age of 20 (Exodus 30:13–15).

The exact value, timing, and place of this event establishes precisely the kind of coin that must have been involved. By Jewish convention, it distinctly had to be a tetradrachm, called a shekel, from the neighboring city of Tire. Such coins are still extant today and are regularly seen in museum exhibits, collections, and the coin trade.

In Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame, in my discussion of this and similar events, there is no attempt to confirm or dispute any of the religious writings or teachings recorded in Bible passages. For many readers, these are a matter of faith or interpretation. Evidence can be provided by coins and other artifacts to establish certain facts, but these are not especially helpful for confirming traditional stories, parables, or beliefs that have been passed down through generations of faithful believers, until being recorded by people learned sometimes centuries after the actual events. Knowing that genuine artifacts still exist provides a gateway to strengthening one’s faith and provides a tangible connection to the past that can only be experienced through studying or actually seeing some of these interesting items. They are the closest thing to “time travel” that one can ever experience.

One particular cup that I find fascinating is of a style that would have been familiar to all of the 12 apostles sharing the meal. The one shown in this picture, or something very similar, would much more likely have been used than any of the elegant chalices made of gold, silver, or glass that are so often imagined.

When my family was young, in the early 1960s, I sought to demonstrate the use of ancient artifacts by showing how people lived in biblical times. A favorite discussion centered on the traditional Seder meal, and the similar Last Supper of Jesus. That always brought up the subject of the elusive Holy Grail, and its meaning. To establish that ordinary drinking cups and plates were used then as now, I showed my children examples of terracotta pieces that were used by common people at that time and place.

Stories about the cup are omnipresent, as are numerous assertions about which is the original. Logically, the claims cannot all be true. Yet, it is possible to imagine the Grail based on the types of pottery and drinking vessels common at that precise time, place, and culture, giving us a fuller understanding of what everyday life was like centuries in the past.

A portrait plaque of my Whitman Publishing predecessor, RS Yeoman, in the “ancient coins” section of my home library.

There is no lack of information about such things. Learning about the past and people who lived centuries ago gives us a closer appreciation of how their efforts have impacted our lives. Hopefully, Bible Lore’s brief glimpse of my personal interest in numismatics and archeology will inspire you to dig deeper into the things you find of interest in world history, the daily lives of people past, and the Bible.

Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame.

By Kenneth Bressett; foreword by David Hendin.

ISBN 0794849768. Hardcover, 6 x 9 inches, 224 pages, full color.

Retail $24.95US

About Whitman Publishing

Whitman Publishing is the world’s leading producer of numismatic reference books, supplies, and products to display and store coins and paper money. The company’s high-quality books educate readers in the rich, colorful history of American and world coinage and currency, and teach how to build great collections. Archival-quality Whitman folders, albums, cases, and other holders keep collectibles safe and allow them to be shown off to friends and family.

Whitman Publishing is the Official Supplier of the American Numismatic Association. As a benefit of membership in the ANA, members can borrow Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame (and other Whitman books) for free from the Association’s Dwight N. Manley Numismatic Library, and also receive 10% off all Whitman purchases. Details are on the website of the ANA.

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