The earliest evidence of Jewish monetary history are the so-called Yehud coins minted under Persian sovereignty, dating to the early 4th century BCE. The name is a modern term and refers to the three paleo-Hebrew letters Y H D (reading Yehud) found on the coins. Until the destruction of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and during the time of the Babylonian exile, Hebrew had been the primary language, but as early as the late-8th century, its use was largely confined to this area. In the period of exile, Aramaic was introduced into Judah, and towards the end of the 4th century BCE, Aramaic had all but displaced Hebrew there, not only as a spoken language but also as an administrative one. The then already uncommon paleo-Hebrew script was used on the coins to emphasize the national and religious identity of the issuing authority (Fig. B.). The silver pieces, often only a few millimeters in size, are today quite rare. Nevertheless, in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, a large number of different types circulated in the Jewish province of Judah.
The weight standard according to which the coins were issued is unclear. The view that they followed the Greek Attic standard was long prevalent. Recent research, however, assumes that the Yehud coins were based on the Jewish shekel (approx. 11.4 grams). The weight of one Yehud coin corresponded with the so-called gerah (1/24 shekels, 0.48 grams). The coins were possibly used to pay the annual poll tax to the temple in Jerusalem, which was measured with a half-shekel of silver (= 12 gerah).
In biblical literary sources and epigraphic testimonies, the payment of the poll tax can be traced until the destruction of the temple in the First Jewish War against Rome in the year 70 CE (Matthew 17:24). In Judah, the poll tax was probably institutionalized by Ezra (Ezra 7) during the late 5th or early 4th century BCE, in the course of the introduction of a new set of regulations under the Persian king Artaxerxes II (404-359 BCE). The biblical texts document that priests and other temple servants were exempt from paying this tax (Ezra 7:24), a privilege that was later renewed under the Seleucid rulers Antiochus III (223-187 BCE) (Josephus, AJ 12.142-4) and Antiochus VII (138-129 BCE) (1 Maccabees 15:5-6).
The Persian Period Coinage of Judah
The oldest known coin that can be associated with the province of Judah was only recently discovered (No.1B). It probably originated from a Philistine mint, such as Gaza or Ashkelon, which may have minted coins for Judah before the minting of coinage was introduced there. The unique representation of a gorgon Medusa on the obverse clearly shows Greek influence. The animal group on the reverse is a common motif, which can also be found in the Persian coinage of Asia Minor and in the coinage of the Philistian cities on the southern coast of Palestine. Also here, the three Aramaic letters Y (yod) H (he) D (dalet) refer to the province of Judah.
The Yehud coins that were minted in Judah used – as already mentioned – the paleo-Hebrew script. The iconography followed widespread Mediterranean types (No.2A and No.4A), such as the Athenian owls (No.9B) or the Persian “archer” with the representation of the Great King (No.12B). Similar images can be observed on the coins of the period from other mints in Palestine. The popular Athenian owls were also imitated in Samaria (No.10A) and Gaza (No.11A). The prohibition of images “Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth” (Deuteronomy 5:8) apparently played no role for the choice of the images for the earliest Jewish coins.
In time, the imagery of the Yehud coins also came to include local elements. Thus, in an imitation following the model of Athenian coins, the olive branch and owl, referring to the city goddess Athena, were replaced by a lily representing Jerusalem or Judah (No.3B). Some of the coin types mentioned the names of individuals of Jewish descent: Yoḥanan (No.5B) or Yeḥizkiyah (No.7B). Some of these names have been identified with individuals who are also known from literary sources. In addition to the names, titles are partially specified: they provide information about the minting authorities, as ha-Kohen (the priest) (No.5B) or ha-Pechah (the governor) (No.6B).
Archaeological findings also show that coins and so-called “hack silver” were used simultaneously in Palestine over a long period. The speed with which the locally produced coinage came to prevail in Judah is difficult to determine. It may very well have been a gradual process in which the earliest Judean coins were produced in a Philistine mint before the minting of coins was actually implemented in Judah. A hoard from Samaria illustrates another aspect of the early Jewish monetary history (Fig. C.): in addition to the minted coins, so-called “hack silver” was also in circulation: that is, damaged jewelry or other silver objects, as well as chopped coins, which apparently served as a means of payment. To determine its value, the silver had to be weighed.
H. Gitler, A Hacksilber and Cut Athenian Tetradrachm Hoard from the Environs of Samaria: Late Fourth Century BCE, INR 1 (2006), 5-14.
H. Gitler, The Earliest Coin of Judah, INR 6 (2011), 21-33.
D. Hendin, Guide to Biblical Coins, Fifth Edition, New York 2010.
A. Lykke, ‘Proto-jüdische Münzprägung in Palästina. Zu den Namen und Identitäten der münzprägenden Autoritäten’, Schild von Steier 23 (2010), 74-86.
Y. Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coinage. From the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba (Jerusalem 2001).
Y. Meshorer/S. Qedar, Samarian Coinage (Jerusalem 1999).