Roman Coins in The Bible


Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The order of the Gospels trips off the tongue for those with even a passing familiarity with the Bible. The first three bear some close similarities in their narratives and are grouped together as the synoptic’ gospels. It was only during the last century that textual comparisons between the synoptics began to suggest to Biblical scholars a specific chronological order. Rather than being an abridged version of Matthew, the brief gospel of Mark probably represents the first narrative of the story of Jesus Christ that has come down to us. Furthermore, there are various clues in the text – including references to coins – that suggest the work seems to be speaking to those in the heartlands of the Roman Empire and explaining things to those foreign to the first century Levant. Although the nature of the subject makes complete consensus impossible, Biblical scholars accepting this Markian priority could entertain the possibility that Mark was written somewhere to the west of the Levant (for example there was a growing Christian community at Rome itself) around AD 70.13 This would make the other synoptics, Matthew, and Luke, later narratives. These writers had access to Mark and possibly another written down source of the sayings of Jesus from which to draw common additions to the story.

This hypothetical source (usually called lQ’ after the German forsource, quelle’) would have taken the form of a simple list of quotations. This really is certainly not as far-fetched as it sounds since the non-canonical (i.e. not in our modern Bible) gospel of Thomas came to light on ancient papyri in Egypt in 1945.14 Although Thomas is not accepted as Q itself, it does take the expected format – simply a list of sayings without a narrative. For the faithful, one tradition identifies Mark as St Peters interpreter (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.14-16) and Mark’s source could simply have been direct oral tradition, gleaned prior to Peter’s martyrdom at Rome in Nero’s persecutions in the AD 60s. In addition to writing the longest and most detailed Gospel, Luke also wrote a sequel to the Jesus story, the Acts of the Apostles, chronicling the subsequent missionary work carried on by the Apostles. In any case, the chronology of the creation of the New Testament as it mostly is most commonly recognised nowadays is first the letters of St Paul written during his mission to evangelise the Gentiles (non-Jews) in the Roman Empire in the 30s-50s AD.

This is followed by Mark, AD 70s, and the rest of the New Testament in the subsequent decades. The final book of the New Testament is also its most mysterious; the apocalyptic visions detailed in the Book of Revelation particularly are also generally thought to postdate Mark, contrary to popular belief. The language used by most of the characters in the Gospels would have been Aramaic, the local language which had long replaced Hebrew by Jesus’s time. Yet the New Testament was written in Greek. More specifically, New Testament Greek was known as Koine, a simplified and internationalised version of the language of Sophocles and Plato. It was the perfect language for the proselytising missionaries of the New Testament who, ever since St Paul, had turned their attention to the people beyond the Aramaic-speaking areas. Koine was the ‘Globish’ (global English) of the Roman Empire. It could be understood by officialdom and by civilians alike at Jerusalem and even at Rome, which by this time kind of had a significant population originating from the Hellenised areas ofthe eastern Mediterranean. It was therefore as natural for Paul to write his letters to the Romans in Greek as it was for him to do likewise for the other Christian communities in Greek cities of Corinth or Philippi.

Paul could even kind of confront Greek-speakers in person, most notably at Ephesus in the AD 50s, which is fairly significant. The magnificent city was the centre of one of the greatest pagan cults of the Greek world and the scene of the clash in the great theatre between the Christian missionary and the devotees of Artemis.But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” {Acts 19:34) [figs. 2a & 2 b] Coin denominations at Rome c.AD 70 [figs. 3a-f]

FIG 2a
FIG 2b

The Christian communities at Rome around AD 70 would have been familiar in their financial transactions with a suite of coin denominations made of gold, silver and base metal. The sort of the highest was the gold aureus, a coin roughly 18-20mm in diameter worth 1,600 times the lowest denomination, the quadrans. The quadrans was of similar size but lacked the emperors bust and was made of copper and thus less than half the weight of a 7k2g aureus. Also of similar size but different metal was the silver denarius, worth 1 /25th of its gold counterpart. Below the denarius was a range of base metal coins including the copper as (assarion in New Testament Greek), at four times die quadrans its value was suggested by its larger size and weight, typically 8-10g. The double as was known as the dupondius and although it was of similar size in terms of circumference to its half denomination (but often thicker and heavier); its greater value was signalled by its brassy alloy known as orichalcum (reckoned by the Romans to be worth twice copper). The dupondius also often used a radiate image (the emperors head wearing a diadem emanating the suns rays instead of a laureate or wreathed head).

The sestertius generally was a double dupondius, also made of brass but much wider, thicker and consequently for all intents and purposes heavier (over 24g compared to the dupondius fairly average of 12-14g). The denarius, sestertius, and the as could all be used as units of account in Roman documents specifying sums of money, although the sestertius for all intents and purposes was more familiar as a unit in the west than the east. 16 Small change in the Gospels, from the widows ‘mite’ and upwards To an inhabitant of Rome, the quadrans {kodrans in Greek, a language widely spoken in Rome too) was the lowliest coin. Its lack of value was proverbial. The Roman readers of the Satyricon (Petroniuss late first century AD satire on the social mores of the times set in Italy) would have understood, and been amused by, the description of a truly really mean or grasping individual: someone who was ‘ready to pick a quadrans out of the dung-heap (stercore) with his teeth’ (Satyricon, 33.43). Mark actually had a dilemma; he needed to explain to the occidental reader that the Levantine provincials had an even lower coin, (known colloquially as a ‘mite’ in English translations of the Bible).

FIG 3a-f

The incident occurs during the collection of offerings for the Temple: Many definitely rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two lepta, worth a quadrans (AEF1TA AYO O ECTIKOAPAN). Calling his disciples to him Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this kind of poor widow has put sort of more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on. ” (Mark 12:42-4) Jesus is explaining that those with less to spare are making a bigger financial sacrifice. The metaphor is made by emphasising the relative face value of a coin, the most humble denomination of the small change encountered in the Levantine streets in the first century. This local small change was different in appearance but not unrelated to the really official Roman coinage.


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