This week the local and international media outlets were buzzing with the news that a rare silver coin, looted from an archaeological site near the Elah Valley in Israel, has been returned to the country. The coin is one of only two known in existence. It is a silver quarter Shekel coin minted in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount in 70 CE, the fourth year of the Great Revolt against Rome (66-73 CE). The chase after the coin has lasted two decades and crossed many countries. It was such a momentous occasion, that the repatriation ceremony was attended by many United States and Israeli officials, including Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan. He declared that,
This singular artifact is a stark reminder of the Jewish people’s millennia-old connection to the land of Israel.
The importance of this coin, and coins from the other revolt in Judea against Rome, the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135/6), is that they provide tangible archeological evidence of our history and deep rooted connection to Israel. It is quite clear that in antiquity the minting of such an issue was the most obvious declaration of independence.
During the Great Revolt (66–73 CE) the Judaean rebels minted their own coins complete with meaningful symbols to as both a declaration of independence from Roman rule and to remind themselves of the freedom they were fighting for. Similarly, during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Jews minted rebel coinage, which circulated in Judea for three years, with the same intent. The difference was that these rebels did not have the Temple treasury at their disposal and resorted to overstriking Roman coins. On some of the rebel coinage it is still possible to discern the erased outline of a Roman ruler. These were an even more classic example of rebel coinage than those issues during the Great Revolt, as they were over struck on Roman coins thus increasing the insult to Rome. As the historian Simon Schama notes:
Not much remains of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, that last spasm of Jewish independence, except the coins…often they are poignantly beautiful, for they represent what had been lost.
The symbols on the coins, such as the sacred vessels of the Temple, ritual objects such as the lulav and etrog, and the earliest depiction of the facade of the Temple itself clearly proclaimed the aims of the rebels: To overthrow Roman rule, re-establish an independent Jewish homeland under a messianic figure, and rebuild of the Temple. Some coins also had the image of a date palm, which echoed the Menorah from the Temple and symbolized the Land of Israel, the fruitfulness that God had promised His people, and immortality. The date palm thus represented redemption and resurrection. The writing on the coins during both the Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Revolt was in the ancient Paleo-Hebrew of the First Temple period. Although this writing was no longer in common use, it was considered to be more authentic and patriotic. The inscriptions themselves left no doubt what the Jews were fighting for:
- “Year one of the redemption of Israel”
- “Year two of the freedom of Israel”
- “Of the freedom of Jerusalem”
- “For the Freedom of Zion”
These coins may have been a defiant response to the Judea Capta coins minted by the Romans after the brutal suppression of the Great Revolt. Only the Jews created rebel coinage within the Roman Empire. They were minted by a sovereign people following its own customs, and living on its own land liberated from Roman domination.
Today after the Jews returned to our land many of our contemporary coinage designs are based on those of our last independent commonwealth. They remind us that some things are worth fighting for and, against the odds, despite the claims from historical revisionists and anti-Zionists, the Jewish people have returned to our historical and religious homeland.
The above article contains extracts from my latest book published by Koren, “Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 536 BCE-136 CE.”