Interview: Dr. Yoav Farhi on the Rare 2,000-Year-Old Silver Half-Shekel Coin Discovered in Jerusalem

The half-shekel coin of the third year of the Great Revolt
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
From the January-February 2023 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

In December, Prof. Uzi Leibner from Hebrew University announced the discovery of an exceptionally rare half-shekel silver coin. Discovered during the 2022 Ophel excavation, which was sponsored by the Armstrong Institute of Biblical Archaeology, this remarkable coin was minted in the third year of the Great Revolt.

Dr. Yoav Farhi
Tal Rogovski

The coin was analyzed by numismatics expert Dr. Yoav Farhi, the coin specialist on the excavation team and curator of the Kadman Numismatic Pavilion at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. Dr. Farhi visited the institute to discuss the coin, as well as the subject of ancient coinage, with Let the Stones Speak assistant managing editor Brent Nagtegaal. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Nagtegaal: Thanks for visiting us today. Let’s begin with this extremely rare silver coin. What can you tell us about the coin and its significance?

Yoav Farhi: As you know, we have many coins found in the excavation. But this one is really unique and rare. Most coins found in excavations are bronze, but this one is silver. It’s a half-shekel silver coin that was minted during the third year of the Great Revolt, which lasted between 66 and 70 c.e. Very few silver coins of the revolt period have been found by archaeologists in excavations. This specific coin was made in the third year of the revolt. We have only three coins like this found in Jerusalem, out of tens of thousands, so this is really rare in Jerusalem.

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BN: Most revolt coins are made from bronze. But this one is silver. Why the difference?

YF: OK, so let’s go back a little bit. First, understand that the coins minted by the rebels in Jerusalem between 66 to 70—five years of coins—actually replaced other coins used by Jews before the revolt. Many of these were silver coins, and it is also part of a series. During the revolt, they had the quarter shekel, the half shekel and one shekel.

BN: Is this metric related to the weight itself or its value?

YF: It’s the denomination of the coin. It’s the weight, but also the name of the coin; it’s also written on the coin. This by itself is something very rare. Most ancient coins do not bear their denomination. Here we have a half-shekel silver coin: a Jewish coin written in the ancient Hebrew script from the third year of the revolt. This half-shekel coin contains about 7 grams of silver. The full shekel had about 14 grams. These coins were minted very intentionally. The idea was to replace the Tyrian silver coins from Tyre in Lebanon—“Phoenicia” back then—that were used to pay the half-shekel tribute to the temple by every Jewish man.

BN: Did they pay this half shekel once a year or every time they visited Jerusalem?

YF: Once a year you had to contribute this money for the operation of the temple. From the second century b.c.e. up to the revolt, Tyrian coins were used by Jews for the temple tax because they were very high in silver—very pure.

The problem many Jews had with the Tyrian coins is that they had the face of the Tyrian god Melqart/Heracles. And on the back, there was an eagle. Both symbols are problematic for the Jews. So the Jews, who the Romans did not allow to mint their own silver coins, used the revolt as an opportunity to replace the Tyrian coins.

Coins are very symbolic. Striking a new coin was not unimportant; it provided the Jews an opportunity to develop their own national symbol. With this coin, it not only showed the Romans, “We can strike silver coins without your permission,” it also replaced the somewhat offensive coins that were used for the temple tax.

As you can see on the coin that we have found, there are no faces, and there are no gods. On one side, you have temple utensils—a goblet or chalice. And on the other, you have a branch with three pomegranates. These symbols are all related to the temple. The inscriptions here are in the ancient Hebrew script; the writing on the Tyrian coins was Greek. Of course, these coins were used for currency other than just the temple service. But remember, this was during a war. This wasn’t the time for people to buy land or homes; it’s just not the time. These silver coins were not usually used for regular transactions; it’s not like you buy bread with a silver coin. It’s for expensive transactions. But their main use was for the temple.

BN: And we believe that these coins were minted in Jerusalem?

YF: Yes, in Jerusalem.

BN: Have we found the mint?

YF: No. Unfortunately, not only here, but worldwide, we have almost no mints found in history. When we consider a mint in this period, it’s not like today, where we have a big building with the title “Mint” on it. At this time, the mint was more like two guys with a hammer, chisel and some other tools. They would prepare the flans, and possibly also the dies, and then strike the coins. Maybe we will be lucky enough to find the original mint. But so far, we don’t have it.

BN: You mentioned the writing on these coins and that it was ancient Hebrew. The third year has a certain inscription—what was that?

YF: Actually, all these series of half shekels and shekels have the same legends, except with one difference: the date. On one side the inscription reads, Yerushalayim hakdoshah, which means “holy Jerusalem” or “Jerusalem the holy.” And on the other side, it reads either shekel Israel, which is “shekel of Israel,” or hatsi hashekel, which is “half shekel.” And then there is the chalice in the center of the coin. Above the chalice are two letters—again two ancient Hebrew letters, not the date in numbers—and it’s written shin gimel, which means shanah gimel: “Year Three.”

BN: Right, the third letter of the alphabet.

YF: Yes, the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And this is the only thing that changed between those coins. So on the coins of “year A,” Year One, you’ll have the aleph, and on the coins of Year Two you’ll have the bet. Then you have the gimel, you have the dalet, and you have the heh for the fifth year. So this is the only thing that changed between the coins. But the inscriptions—Yerushalayim hakdoshah (“Jerusalem the holy”) and hatsi hashekel (“half shekel”) or the shekel—those are the standard. Although it depends on the denomination, of course.

BN: Let’s discuss ancient coins more generally. You are a numismatist; you love to study coins. Can you tell us a little about the important purpose or significance of coins in archaeology?

YF: What is so amazing, in my opinion, when you’re dealing with coins, is that you have so much information on such a tiny object. Sometimes the coins are really, really small. Here we speak about a coin which is about 20 millimeters in diameter. Some coins are 5 millimeters, or 7 millimeters—really tiny. And you have a whole world of symbols, of inscriptions, of imaginations on the coin. For archaeologists, finding a coin in excavation can be significant for several reasons. First, it helps us date the layer we’re excavating. If we find the coins that are typical to the revolt, we know we are in a layer related to the revolt. And above it, we will have coins dealing with the later Roman period, or the Byzantine, Islamic periods, etc. So coins help us date the layer we are excavating.

Second, coins give us information about different aspects of what those people back then wanted to tell others. Anciently, it wasn’t like it is today, where you have all kinds of media to communicate with—we have the Internet, Facebook, newspapers. Back then, the main source of media was the coin. You minted your message to others on your coins. This coin then changed hands. It moved from one to another, from one place to another, and it transported the message.

When I study a coin and read the inscription, I’m trying to go back to those people, trying to understand what they wanted to say. I’m trying to look at the world through their eyes, and through the symbols that they put on the coin, and the inscriptions that they put on the coin. This is also why coins are important. They not only give us a date, they tell us about the people who lived and about their ideas, their wishes, how they saw the world, and how they saw the situation at the time the coin was minted.

BN: Right, and that’s what makes this revolt coin so special. It’s a message from the Jewish people in Judea from 2,000 years ago.

YF: Exactly. When they say Yerushalayim hakdoshah, “Jerusalem the holy,” this is what they want to say: “holy Jerusalem.” This is what they had in their heads while they were fighting the Romans for their independence.

BN: What a special discovery. Well, thank you for taking some time with us. We appreciated your part in analyzing the coins from the Ophel excavations and bringing to light this silver half shekel.

YF: Thank you very much, and we hope to have more coins next season.

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