A NUMISMATIC NATIVITY – Coins at the Time of Jesus’s Birth (with not a foil-wrapped chocolate to be found)

A NUMISMATIC NATIVITY – Coins at the Time of Jesus’s Birth (with not a foil-wrapped chocolate to be found)

by Rona Cox, Numismatist at Scottish Antiques


Even the most zealous of agnostics will, I’m sure you will agree, have to concede that there are numerous characters from the apocryphal ‘Christmas story’ who are based, wholly or in part, on real-life figures from antiquity. Although written records are often cited, their provenance can range from dubious at best to shameless fiction, and all points in between, but archaeological evidence provides tangible proof which can establish context – and coinage is yet more incontrovertible testimony to the lives of the people who populated these remote times, their status, their relatives, their deeds and their longevity.


Take, for example, the arch villain of ‘the greatest story ever told’ – King Herod. His reign is established as a matter of fact as having extended from 40BCE to 4BCE (ending with his death), and – given his pivotal part in the purported life of Jesus – this leads to the conclusion that the birth of the Messiah must have been between 6 and 4BCE (however jarring this may seem to be with the general perception of “year zero” in this context)


Herod was appointed by Augustus, Emperor of Rome, as a client-king of Judea in 40 BCE, and – even before his singular, most vilified act of wickedness, had established a name for himself as a brutal tyrant. He oversaw an era of lavish architectural excess, commissioning fortresses, ports, temples and tombs, though all largely as an exercise in self-aggrandisement rather than by way of any real desire to improve the lives of his subjects. Indeed, it was those same subjects who footed the bill for this feverish building boom – being expected to forfeit ever more punitive taxes, tolerate the forcible acquisition of land and furnish the provision of what was tantamount to forced labour in some instances. If ever a character was needed to fit the bill of the sadistic, avaricious King who instigated the census which required Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, then Herod was your man. That he is then purported to have gone on to order the ‘massacre of the innocents’ was the icing on the cake (or perhaps manna from heaven) for the scriptologists behind this most shamelessly overdramatic of stories.


However, it cannot be denied that Herod existed, built things like it was going out of fashion and extorted money from his people to underwrite his grandiose schemes. The coinage which he would have been able to collect during his reign would have been an eclectic mixture from any number of diffuse monetary systems extant in the region at that time, with the notional ‘national’ boundaries of the day having little or no relevance to the validity of a set of coins from one city state or wider dominion to the next. Roman, Judean, Phoenecian, Decapoline and Nabatean currency would have circulated freely across the various population centres surrounding the Dead Sea.


Herod had been issuing his own coinage since the early days of his reign, the basic unit of currency being the prutah (plural prutot), with the lowest denomination of copper coin being the one prutah piece, and the highest value being eight prutot; Herod sourced the metal for his coinage from the copper mines of Cyprus, under licence from Augustus. Most coins were made at Sabaste (now modern-day Nablus, thirty-five miles north of Jerusalem) with some also being struck in Jerusalem itself.


Our example is an eight prutot that was already circulating at the time of Jesus’s birth. It is 23.5mm in width and weighs 5.14g; unlike Roman coins, the weight was not standardised, and other examples of the same denomination weigh almost twice as much. Neither were the coins struck with any quantifiable mark of denomination, so numismatists have since developed a system of designating relative value by size. The obverse (the ‘heads’ side - although none had a bust or portrait) has an ornate helmet with a star above, flanked by palm leaves. The reverse (‘tails’ side) depicts a tripod on which is placed a ceremonial bowl, flanked by monograms. The legend around this motif reads - in Greek - BAΣIΛEΩΣ HPΩΔOY - ‘of King Herod’. Regardless of the pedantry relating to the pivotal years of Herod’s reign, were looking at something which is over two thousand years old – that’s pretty impressive.

See image 1 below, or click on the link to see the coin on the website: A copper 8 prutot issued by King Herod

Our next coin, another copper artefact, is from the neighbouring Nabatean Kingdom, which covered much of present-day Jordan and extended southwards to the Red Sea. It shows the portraits of King Aretas IV and one of his wives – either Huldu or Shaqilath, depending on whether it dates from the earlier or later part of his reign. The reverse shows a pair of cornucopias, the same motif signifying abundance or plenty as would have also appeared on some of Herod’s coins. The Nabateans were the were the builders and stewards of the city of Petra, known for its many extraordinary buildings, monuments and mausoleums which were hewn from the distinctive rose-pink sandstone prevalent across the site. These include the famous Al-Khazneh ruin, known as ‘the treasury’ and believed to be Aretas’ tomb. More notable still, it featured in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, not to mention one of Herge’s TinTin books, the Mortal Kombat video game, and a Sisters of Mercy video (Dominion).


Such renown may or may not be considered more worthy than the city’s long-standing historical fame, which was derived from its place at the epicentre of the thriving Middle Eastern trade in frankincense and myrrh – so it’s entirely likely that least two thirds of the Biblical triumvirate of west-bound Wise Men may well have done their last-minute Christmas shopping there…

See image 2 below, or click on the link to see the coin on the website: A coin from the Nabataean kingdom of Aretas I


Our final offertory offering was produced by the aforementioned Emperor Augustus, Gaius Octavius, at around the time of Jesus’s birth and – as with our other examples – may well have changed hands myriad times over many years in the biblical heartlands. The obverse of this silver denarius depicts the laureate head of Augustus, facing proudly to the right and adorned with the headgear signifying martial success. His reign was defined by notable victories, having forged the Empire itself from the Republic over which he first ruled, by way of his self-proclaimed Principate. The battles of Philippi, Naulochus and Actium will resonate with any student of classical warfare – all of which were won by forces loyal to Augustus. The reverse of his coin depicts two of his four adopted sons Gaius and Lucius, togate and holding spears and shields. They were groomed as his successors, but both died before assuming any semblance of power. 

See image 3 below, or click on the link to see the coin on the website: Silver denarius from the reign of Emperor Augustus

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