by Ronn Berrol

In the ancient world the use of imagery on coinage was quite ubiquitous.  An incredibly diverse variety of images can be found on early Greek coinage.  Initially the Greek custom was to place images of local deities, mythological hero’s (as well as these hero’s attributes), and even visual puns on the names of the Greek Cities (such as a rose for the city of Rhodes (1)).  Later, as the city-states were replaced by the kingdoms of the Hellenistic period, ruler portraits came to dominate the obverse of coins.  Despite the fact that most coinage in the Hellenistic age had images of local rulers, ancient Jewish coinage is known for its paucity of portraiture on coins.  This is particularly evident on the coinage of the Hasmoneans. The reasons for the Jewish aversion to placing certain images on coins is directly related to religious restrictions recorded in the Torah.  The religious prohibition in Deuteronomy (4:16-19, 5:8) and Exodus (20:3-4,23) clearly state that the making of graven images is forbidden.  According to Deuteronomy graven images are considered anything in the shape of a man or woman, any animal, bird, reptile or fish.  One of the fascinating aspects of Jewish history and art is why in certain eras this prohibition was enforced more stringently and in other eras more loosely.  An interesting paradox of the Hasmonean period is the widespread use and tolerance of the silver shekel of Tyre for payment of the annual temple tax.

The shekel of Tyre (figure 1) is an impressive coin, weighing 14gms and consisting of almost pure silver (92-96%).  The obverse shows a bust of Melqart, with a laureate head.  The reverse demonstrates an eagle standing on a prow.  Clearly both sides of this important coin have graven images as defined by the Torah.

Recently David Hendin discussed the complex issue of allowing payment of the Temple Tax with the shekel of Tyre, despite visible graven images noted on both sides of this famous coin.  I refer all readers to the February 2002 edition of the Celator, Tyre Coins and Graven Images. .  As has been adequately documented by others, the use of graven images on Jewish coins, buildings and artwork has a rather inconsistent history.  As Hendin says in his article, Numismatic Expressions of Jewish Sovereignty (2), “The Persian and Samarian coins struck in the fourth century B.C.E. in ancient Judaea and Samaria virtually all portray various graven images.  And, there are other uses of graven images in Jewish art beginning almost immediately after the rule of the Hasmoneans, through Talmudic times, and right up to the present day Jewish State.”  The question is, why did this change in the Hasmonean period, and why was an allowance apparently made for the use of the shekels of Tyre?  In fact, the Jews were practically commanded to use only this form of payment for the temple tax. (Tosefta, Ketubbot 13,20).

Prior to the Maccabean (the Maccabees are also known as the Hasmoneans) revolt in 167 B.C.E., there was significant evidence of Jewish Hellenization within Judaea and the temple cult.  Although we traditionally think of Antiochus IV (175-164 B.C.E.) as being the sole culprit for the Hasmonean Revolt, the truth is that there was a significant push for Hellenizing Judaea from within.  Various political parties with different agendas were striving to control Judaea.  Lee I. Levine writes, “The Macabees revolted in response to the persecutions imposed by the king and, according to Bickerman and others at least, the instigation of radical Jewish Hellenizers.” (3).  Among, the Hasmoneans there was a very real perception that Judaism was being threatened by a shift towards paganism.  What the Maccabean revolt represented was a move towards a more fundamentalist approach to Judaism.  For a brief period of time, under Simon Maccabee, the Hasmoneans and the more pious factions appeared to be united in their goals of religious and political autonomy.  However, once the Jews regained Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E., the Maccabees began to slowly relax their fundamentalist leanings.  This was the beginning of a slowly evolving split with their religious populace allies.  The Hasmoneans very rapidly began to develop a more tolerant view of Hellenism as it applied directly to affairs of state (4).  Once the Temple had been regained and rededicated the war against the Seleucids changed from a battle against religious persecution to one of establishing an autonomous state in the full Hellenistic sense. Martin Hengel indicates, “After the Maccabean revolution, the apostasy to paganism was no more a danger in Jewish Palestine; political-religious identity had become stronger in spite of the steady new progress of “Hellenization” (5).  The history of Hasmonean rule became an attempt to build a Hellenistic state based on a Jewish national theocracy.

Under John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.E.) the Hasmonean leadership increasingly consolidated their power.  This consolidation led to a distancing from the pious factions and the original aims of the Maccabean movement.  Here we begin to see Hyrcanus align himself with the more aristocratic and Hellenized Sadducees and away from the Pharisees who wanted a more strict interpretation of the Torah.  The Sadducees were much more amenable to religious compromise (6).

It should be noted that there is a precedent for the use of figurative art in the Hasmonean period.  The tomb of Jason in Jerusalem is from the time of the Hasmoneans (7).  Jason may have been from a priestly family and was most likely aligned with the Sadducees.  On his tomb are figurative displays of merchant vessels, warships, a gazelle, and a menorah.  Of further note, Jason’s tomb has inscriptions in both Aramaic and Greek.  Clearly there were certain allowances concerning “graven images”.

It is now generally accepted that the requirement of the temple tax of one-half silver shekel for all men over the age of 20 was strictly enforced only from the advent of Hasmonean rule.  This enforcement required the use of silver coinage.  Although the Hasmoneans began the minting of autonomous coins, their lack of silver resources made the minting of silver coinage impractical.  The institution of the temple tax was meant to be an economic stimulus to the temple cult; re-minting silver coins donated to the Temple was a costly and impractical solution.

From around 200 B.C.E. the local economy of Judaea became linked to that of the Seleucid Empire.  Seleucid silver coinage became dominant in the region.  We can only speculate as to what prompted the Jews to begin using Tyrian shekels for payment of the temple tax rather than the local circulating Seleucid coinage.  The Jews had just fought a long, drawn out war for independence with the Seleucids.  The memory of the oppressive Seleucid regime might have made the use of Seleucid silver distasteful to the Jews.  This is especially significant since the reverse of many Seleucid tetradrachms had images of Zeus on the reverse (It should be remembered that Antiochus IV had attempted to make the holy temple in Jerusalem a temple of the cult of Zeus).  In addition, the Seleucids were undergoing a series of dynastic wars following the death of Antiochus IV.  Seleucid coinage began to change very rapidly, with each dynast minting unique coinage.  Conveniently, Tyre in 126 B.C.E had just regained their autonomy from the Seleucid yoke as well.  They immediately began to mint their own high-grade silver coinage, the silver shekels of Tyre.  The Tyrians issued coins that were to be of a consistent weight, purity and iconography for approximately 106 years (from 19 B.C.E. to 65 C.E. there is a controversy as to who continued to issue the shekels of Tyre).  The consistency of these shekels of Tyre offered a great advantage as a coin for payment of the temple tax.  It also may have been more acceptable to use the coinage of Tyre because they had also recently won autonomy from the hated Seleucids.  There is strong evidence for local trade and commerce between Tyre and North Judaea, specifically the Galilee.  Joyce Raynor and Ya’akov Meshorer concluded that, “Of the Phoenician cities, Tyre continued to be the focus of economic activity and contact with the populace of Meiron (located in the upper Galilee)…..Tyrian Influence on the Upper Galilee was continuous and substantial”. (8).  Danny Syon provides impressive evidence for further economic ties between Tyre and Judaea.  Of 972 city coins found at Gamala, an exclusively Jewish city located in the Golan Heights, just over 74% of these coins were from Tyre (9).  Sean Freyne has made the argument that because the Tyrians were only trying to expand their commerce and not their culture and cultic religion to the Galilee, that the use of Tyrian shekels was more tolerable to the Hasmoneans (10).  These findings support a secular economic policy by the Hasmoneans.  What we cannot know is if economic concerns took precedence over religious concerns.

Although there is much vitriolic literature against the Greeks, the Hasmoneans were not above using innovations and tools of Hellenistic influence that advanced their needs.  The literature of Maccabees 2 is fiercely anti-Greek, lauding the rebellion of the Jews against Antiochus, yet it is written in Greek, not Aramaic.  The Hasmoneans set up their state along Hellenistic lines.  They had a Greek style army, with foreign pagan mercenaries included.  Tax collecting was modeled along the lines of the Greeks as well.  Eventually the Hasmonean Kings also adopted Greek names.  Even the Jewish festival of Hannukah has Hellenistic overtones.  Hannukah, which celebrates the Jewish victory over the Seleucids, was instituted by the Hasmoneans and was the first Jewish Holiday not sanctioned by the Torah.   The instituting of a holiday to commemorate a historical event was a Hellenistic custom (11). Elias Bickerman summarized this sentiment as follows; “Judah (Maccabee) imitated the practice of his enemies, but at the same time incorporated it into Judasim.”(12) It appears that what develops is an unofficial rule that Hellenistic culture is acceptable, but Hellenistic cults are not.  Thus, if something appeared to cross this line and border on adopting cultic practices then it could not be tolerated.  If the use of the Tyrian shekels was considered a part of the Hellenistic culture, and not of the cult of Mel kart, then we can understand how its usage was acceptable to a majority of Judaean society. 

A possible example of this unwritten rule concerns the golden eagle that Herod mounted on the great gate of the Holy Temple.  It’s presence caused much debate and turmoil in the city, and when it was rumored that King Herod was near death, a mob got together and cut it down. (War of the Jews 1:32:2) This eagle may have represented a threat to the Temple Cult, whereas the eagle on the reverse of the shekels of Tyre did not.  Goodenough (13) has made the case that eagles had Jewish connotations and were acceptable symbols to the Jews.  The fact that the eagle had religious significance to the Jews could have made the reverse on the shekel of Tyre, which similarly had an eagle displayed, a non-offensive symbol.  A.H.M. Jones (13) felt that the disturbance around the eagle on the holy gate was because Herod used the eagle in a Roman context and not a Jewish one.  Interestingly, the only graven image found on coins of Herod’s reign are that of an eagle found on the reverse of small bronze leptons (Figure 2).

As we alluded to at the beginning of this paper, Jewish attitudes towards graven images were much more liberal in the 4th century B.C.E.  A pertinent question is what changed the Jewish attitude towards graven images after this period and up to the advent of Hasmonean rule?  It was not until the conquests of Alexander the Great and his death that rulers began to regularly place their own images on their coins.   What develops quite rapidly is the concept of “Ruler Cults”.  These “Ruler Cults” were to be one of the most characteristic phenomena of the Hellenistic period (14).  Very quickly we see portraiture on coinage and deification going hand in hand.  Cults of Alexander, Ptolemy and Seleukos quickly sprung up.  With this background in mind it becomes easier to understand why the Hasmoneans begin to shun the use of portraiture and graven images upon their own autonomous coinage, especially as it applies to the deutoronometric prohibition of graven images.  The placement of Hasmonean likenesses on coins was too great a compromise of religious principles.  That was a line that the Pharisees and general populace could not endure.  However, the fact that the shekels of Tyre were minted by Tyrians and not Jews probably conferred a level of acceptance on their use despite the noted graven images.

Hasmoneans coinage did borrow many conventions from the Hellenistic societies that they bordered.  The epigraphy from Hasmonean coinage is strikingly similar to that noted on contemporary Hellenistic coinage.  Monograms of the Hasmonean coinage begin to call the Hasmonean leaders king.  These monograms are written in both Aramaic and Greek.  Clearly this did not cross the boundary of cult verses culture mentioned above.  However, the Hasmonean kings would not cross the line of placing their own images on coins.  The local Greek dynast routinely placed their likeness on imperial coinage.  The same dynast consistently developed ruler cults in which these kings were considered “gods incarnate”.  Nowhere is this more vividly demonstrated then in the case of Antiochus IV who went by the moniker, Antiochus “ Epiphanes”, or “god manifest”.  The message was clear, these kings were attempting to appear to the people as deities.  The Hasmoneans were willing to incorporate similar titles and motifs, such as the anchor symbols, cornucopiae, and even diadems but placing their images on coinage was so closely identified with ruler cults, that this clearly crossed the line of cult verses culture.  The inscriptions on the shekels of Tyre show a distancing from these ruler cults.  Rather than having the name of a dynast on the shekel, it reads, “of Tyre the holy and city of refuge”.

Looking at the obverse of the shekels of Tyre, one sees the powerful bust of Melqart.  It is difficult to conceive of the local Jewish population readily accepting this graven image on coinage used for holy purposes.  However, there is a fascinating, yet far-reaching, link between the Jews and Melqart.  As the Phoenicians became more Hellenize, Melqart became equated with Heracles.  Josephus provides in his Antiquities a genealogy of the Forefathers of the Jewish people.  His discussion states that Heracles married one of the granddaughter’s of the Patriarch Abraham. From this lineage the barbarous people called the Sophacians were derived (15).  Josephus and other Jewish writers had an agenda for creating legends such as these.  The manipulating of Greek stories and myths was done to create a shared sense of national cultural identity.  By showing that the Greek traditions and Hero’s were dependent on the characters of the Torah, these Jewish writers attempted to demonstrate the superiority of the doctrines of the Torah over Hellenistic traditions.  Despite the above-mentioned story linking Heracles to the Jewish people, we have evidence that the Jews did not fully accept Heracles and the Hellenistic traditional surrounding him.  In Maccabees 2:4:18-20, we see Jason the high priest sending 300 silver drachms to Tyre for a sacrifice to Heracles.  The Jewish ambassadors who were sent to represent Jason did not agree with the use of these funds and convinced the Tyrians to use the money for building triremes.  It appears that using this money for a sacrifice to Heracles was too close to crossing the boundary of cult verses culture mentioned above.  While the more pious Jews would not be swayed to accept Melqart’s graven image on coins, stories such as Josephus’s might have allowed less religious Jews to more readily accept Melqart’s image on the shekel of Tyre.

There is a sense that the religious and political tension between the more orthodox Phariseenic sect and the Hellenizing Hasmonean leadership was a constant balancing act.  When Jonathan the Maccabee became High Priest control of this important office became an inherited position for the Hasmoneans.  This office conferred enormous religious power upon the Hasmoneans.  The High Priesthood held significant psychological influence on the people and brought the Hasmoneans control of the Temple and its vast economic treasures.  The Priesthood also gave them a say in official interpretations of the Torah (16).  Eventually though, toward the end of Jannaesus’s reign, the Pharisees began to win over the people.  Phariseenic influence was on the rise and the Hasmoneans were forced to make concessions to them.  Late in the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, under Phariseenic pressure the royal diadem seen on certain Hasmonean coinage was removed (14).  Apparently the Pharisees disapproved of the use of the title of King along side the title of High Priest used by Jannaeus on his coinage.  The use of Aramaic on Hasmonean coinage was probably another concession to the Pharisees as well (18).

The Jews of Judaea were not the only ones affected by the temple tax.  Jews from the diaspora made annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem and sent significant monetary contributions to the Temple.  Many communities collected the annual half-shekel tax from all eligible males and then sent the funds along to the temple in Jerusalem.  These communities were routinely exposed to Hellenistic influences and were much less strict in their upholding Mosaic law.  It would have been very common for the Jews in these dispersed communities to routinely use coinage with graven images for almost all financial transactions of daily life.  They would have had no problem paying their temple tax with shekels of Tyre.  Eventually these Jewish diaspora communities established a permanent presence in Jerusalem (19).  These permanent communities and the constant stream of pilgrims no doubt influenced Jewish life in Judaea.  These influences were resisted by the more religious Jews of Jerusalem, but never the less infiltrated Jewish society at all levels (20).

In 37 B.C.E. the Hasmonean dynasty ended with the defeat of Mattathias Antigonus.  In the months before the defeat of Antigonus, at the hands of Herod and his Roman allies, he minted a most unusual coin that appears to have broken prohibitions forbidding the representation of certain sacred temple objects.  The coin in question (Figure 3) has a seven-branched menorah on the obverse and a showbread table on the reverse.  The prohibition referred to above comes not from the Torah, but rather from the Talmud.  “A man may not make a house after the design of the Temple, a courtyard after the design of the Temple court, a table after the design of the table (the showbread-table), or a candelabrum (menorah) after the design of the Candelabrum.  He may, however, make one with five, six of eight, but with seven he may not make it even though it be of other metals” (Babylon Talmud, Avodah Zarah 43).   The Talmud was compiled from 200-500 C.E., so we cannot accurately determine when this prohibition was issued. However, the fact that the coins of the First Jewish Revolt and the Bar-Kokhba Revolt shun these images argues for the fact that this prohibition was recognized long before the compilation of the Talmud.  The use of the menorah and showbread table on Antigonus’s coinage must have been quite provocative.

Slowly a further testing of the boundaries of tolerance concerning images on coinage began.  In 1-2 C.E.,  Philip the son of Herod places his image on coinage, but these were coins meant for the gentile populations under his domain.  Agrippa I also placed his image on some of his coinage.  Although both of these rulers felt confident enough to place their portrait on coinage, neither attempted this in areas of heavily Jewish populated territory.  In 87/88 C.E. Agrippa II minted the only known Jewish coin with a truly pagan figure.  The coin (Figure 4) shows on its reverse the God Pan.  This coin was probably minted in the city of Paneas whose chief deity was Pan (21).  Coinage of Agrippa II are also known to have images of Tyche, Nike and Moneta on the reverse flans.

In 66 C.E. the First Jewish Revolt against Rome began.  This heralded another period of increased religious fervor, with a temporary uniting of various Jewish factions.  The coinage of this period adheres much more strictly to the prohibitions against graven images.  This era bears coinage with truly unique Jewish images and epigraphy with similarly unique Zionist slogans.  There is no trace of compromising religious restrictions as seen on the coinage of the Hasmoneans.  The Bar-Kokhba Revolt would yield further coins with unique Jewish religious and political ideological references and imagery.  Soon after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt we see a rapid increase in the use of graven images in Jewish architecture and art.  The emerging acceptance of figurative art is exemplified by a story concerning Rabbi Gamaliel II.  Around 100-120 C.E, Gamaliel was seen bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite in Acco.  When his students questioned him about his visiting a Roman bath with a statue of Aphrodite, he answered, “. that which they refer to as a god is forbidden and that which is not referred to as a god is permitted.”  Gamaliel essentially tells his students that the intended purpose of the graven images should dictate their attitude towards such images. So, if the objects are intended for cult worship, they are to be avoided, otherwise they are permitted.  Thus we see a return towards more liberal interpretations of the prohibition against graven images.  This more liberal use of such imagery continues to this day.

This discussion has attempted to demonstrate that in the Hasmonean era the religious prohibition concerning graven images was a complex issue with many subtleties of application.  These subtleties allowed for the usage of coins such as the shekel of Tyre with minimal protest.  The shekels were a practical coin that allowed the Hasmoneans to collect precious resources of silver.  This silver was a great boom to the temple cult.  The fact that the Hasmoneans did not have to mint their own silver coinage allowed this precious silver to be used to maximize the economic power of the temple and the Priests.  Still, there is difficulty in satisfactorily explaining how the image of Melqart, a graven image, could be acceptable to the local Jewish population.  We might hypothesize that the good relations with Tyre, the fact that the Tyrians had gained autonomy from the hated Seleucids, and the fact that the Tyrians did not try to import their own religious ideals, made the shekel of Tyre palatable to the Jews.  The answer may also lie in simple economics rather than religious piety.  Before the Hasmonean dynasty, during the early second temple period, the traditional temple tax had been one-third of a Persian siglos (22) (Nehemiah 10:33-34).  Under the Hasmoneans the tax was increased to one-half a shekel.  With the siglos weighing 5.8gms grams and the shekel weighing 14 grams, we see an immediate economic impact.  In one fell-swoop the tax was increased from 1.93 grams to 7 grams, a 363% increase in income for the Temple and the Hasmoneans who controlled the temple cult.  Finally, we must remember that the Hasmoneans did control the High Priesthood, the ultimate authority of the Temple.  The Hasmoneans brought a secular attitude to the Jewish theocratic state.  When the Jews gained full autonomy from the Seleucids, the Hasmoneans needed an immediate source of funds to continue the maintenance of the newly independent Temple.  It was under this secular influenced authority that the shekels of Tyre began to be used for payment of the temple tax.  By the time that the Pharisees regained significant religious authority under Alexandra Salome (76-67 B.C.E.) the shekel of Tyre had already been in use for 50 years and was readily accepted by everyone.

Finally, I would like to briefly mention how this entire discussion applies to a current controversy in Jewish numismatics.  A popular theory advocated by Meshorer is that the minting of Tyrian shekels was transferred to Jerusalem around 19 B.C.E (23)**.  Meshorer indicates that Herod built a mint in Jerusalem for just such a purpose.  We know that Herod took great pains not to offend the religious sensibilities of the Jews, hoping this would help win their acceptance.  We have already seen that aside from the use of the eagle mentioned above, Herod scrupulously avoided all use of graven images on his coins.  The logical question is why didn’t Herod change the graven images on the shekels of Tyre once he got control of the minting of these coins?  There is ample evidence that other client kings minted their own quasi-autonomous silver coinage, such as the kingdoms of Pontus, Mauretania, and Nabataea (24).  Most numismatists agree that the only reason for the continued minting of the shekels of Tyre at this time was to full fill the Jewish religious requirement for payment of the temple tax.  It is beyond the scope of this paper to begin to answer this question.  However, the fact that the question is raised points to the subtle nuances of the use of graven images in general.

The Hasmonean era became a progressive attempt by the Hasmonean leadership to straddle the needs of a Jewish religious state and their own desires to be seen as kings in the Hellenistic sense.  Much of the Hasmonean period was a balancing between incorporating Hellenistic culture while excluding the cults.  The use of the shekel of Tyre for payment of the temple tax is a singular example of this dualism.  While this discussion cannot fully explain how the shekels of Tyre could be used so openly without infringing on the prohibition against the use of graven images, I hope that I have shown in greater detail the complexity of this paradox.


1) Sayles, Ancient Coin Collecting II, pg 89

2) Hendin, Numismatic Expressions of Jewish Sovereignty: The Unusual Iconography of Coinage

            Of the Hasmonean Dynasty, www.Amphoracoins.com/article/article1.htm, 2000

3) Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence?, pg 39-40

4) Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, pg 253

5) Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism Revisited, Hellenism in the Land of Israel, pg 24

6) Schafer, The History of the Jews in Antiquity, pg 69

7) Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence?, pg 41

8) J.Raynor and Meshorer, The Coins of Meiron, pg 88

9) Syon, The Coins From Gamala, INJ Vol. 12 (1992-93), pgs 34-55

10) Sean Freyene, Galileans, Phoenicians and Itrueans, Hellenism in the Land of Israel, pg 205

11) Numismatic Legacy of the Jews, pg18

12) Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees: The Historical Foundations of

            Postbiblical Judaism, pg 121.

13) Both Jones and Goodenough are referenced by Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, pg 68

14) Green, Alexander to Actium, Pg 57

15) Josephus, The Antiquity of The Jews, 1:15:238-241

16) Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, pg 260

17) Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coinage, pg 47

18) Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coinage, pg 41

19) Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence?, pg54,55

20) Green, Alexander to Actium, pg 501

21) Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, pg113

22) Schafer, The History of the Jews in Antiquity, pg 67

23) Meshorer. A Treasury of Jewish Coins, pg 77-78

24) Sear, Greek Imperial Coins, pg 534, 559, 591

**For a rebuttal of Meshorer’s theory, see Brooks Levy, Tyrian Shekels and the First Jewish War, Proceedings of the XIth International Numismatic Congress, 1991, pgs 2267-274


Figure (1) courtesy of www.Wildwinds.com

Figure (2) Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, pg 322, Plate 46, #66, @2001 By Yad Ben-Zvi Press, Jerusalem, and Amphora Books, Nyack, NY

Figure (3) Hendin, Guide to Biblical Coins, 4th Edition, pg 155, #485@1996,2001 By David Hendin, Amphora Books, Nyack, NY

Figure (4) The Abraham Bromberg Collection of Jewish Coins, Part II, pg 22, #361, @1992 Superior-Leu

Digital photography provided by Edwin Ramos at Cavestudios