Rare Coins: The Tyre Shekels' Connection To History
Written by Mike Fuljenz
Imagine for a moment you were holding in your hand an authentic silver coin made more than 2000 years ago that might have been one of the 30 pieces Judas received to betray Jesus. If you were, would you feel a sense of history? Would your mind wander to thoughts of how things were during those times? Would you truly sense the importance of such a moment of historical importance? What if the coin you were holding truly was one of the thirty pieces of silver Judas received to betray Jesus? How would you feel?
Of all the figures in Christian history, Judas Iscariot is perhaps the most vilified. His very name is synonymous with being the worst kind of traitor. Yet, there is no denying that he played one of the most crucial roles in all of history. He betrayed Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver and set in motion the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Historical Origins of Tyre Shekels
In Jesus’ time, the most universally recognized circulated coin was the Greek silver tetradrachm, which literally means “four drachms” (pronounced DRAMS) For almost 200 years, the historic coin was minted in Tyre by the Phoenecians. From 126 B.C. until 70 A.D., the silver tetradrachm became the universal currency accepted throughout the Roman Empire. In currency terms, the silver tetradrachm is the equivalent of the American dollar in today’s global economy. In value terms, one of these coins roughly equaled a week’s wages for a skilled laborer in those days.
The Jewish moneychangers of the time called them “shekels.” The temple in Jerusalem accepted only the Tyre shekels as currency. Although it has never been definitively proven, it is a virtual certainty that Judas received Tyre shekels for his traitorous complicity. At the time, thirty shekels equaled over half a year’s wages for skilled laborers. Viewed another way, thirty shekels purchased a slave.
Tyre Shekel Production Facts
In the historical period during which Tyre shekels were produced, due to primitive minting procedures, no two coins are exactly alike. Each coin was individually hand-stamped by the coiner who was solely responsible for taking an individual coin through each and every stage of production. Individual Tyre shekel coins contain about 14 to 14.5 grams of mostly 95% pure silver. Because each coin was individually hammered and hand-stamped, coin sizes and weights vary, but in general they usually measure from 20 to 28 mm in diameter.
After first heating and melting the silver, the coiner would then hammer the raw silver into a flat planchet. Afterwards, the planchet was then heated to almost red-hot temperature to prepare it for striking. Using bronze dies, the coiner then struck the top punch with a mallet to imprint the coin’s obverse and reverse images. The Tyre shekel’s obverse features a laureate head of a beardless Melqarth facing right with a lion’s skin knotted around his neck. Melqarth was an iconic figure personifying Tyre’s prevailing local religion. The coin’s reverse features an eagle standing on the beak of a ship carrying a single palm frond under wing. A club, which is the Tyre mintmark, fills the left field along with the date. The Greek legend adorning the coin translates as “Of Tyre, the holy and inviolable.”
Thirty Shekels: The Price of Betrayal
Today, Biblical scholars are suggesting an alternative view to Judas as avaricious traitor. While Biblical scripture portrays Judas as being favorably inclined towards money, the new view of Judas suggests he may have had grander motives than just doing it for the money. There is no doubt Judas had big ambitions for himself and for Jesus. He believed that Jesus should lead a rebellion to overthrow Rome. When victorious, Judas assumed Jesus would appoint him to an important position in the new government. Since he was already treasurer among the disciples, perhaps Judas even imagined Jesus would appoint him as chief overseer of the new empire’s treasury!
However, in the hours before his betrayal, Judas began to sense his plans may not come to pass. In the home of Simon the leper, where the disciples were staying in Bethany, Mary produced an alabaster vial filled with expensive perfume and began to lavish it upon Jesus as he reclined at the table. Some of the disciples, including Judas, became indignant at what they perceived as a waste of resources.
The monetary value of the perfume was equivalent to about a year’s salary for a skilled laborer. So, the disciples suggested the perfume be sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus admonished them for their suggestion, saying that Mary was anointing him for his burial and that her tender act would be spoken of in memory of her for all time to come “wherever the gospel is preached”.
Rare Coins: A Connection To History
To keep themselves connected to this momentous time in history, many collectors own Tyre shekels. We know of many collectors who carry Tyre shekels in their wallets for just this reason. Of course, it would be virtually impossible to prove any of these shekels were one of the Judas coins. But, they could be. Certainly, others who lived and worked in the world Judas knew will have touched these coins and this direct connection to ancient history is a key fascination in owning rare coins.
When holding a Tyre shekel in hand, one can’t help musing on where the coin has traveled over time. Whose hands has it passed through? For what purposes has it been employed? It is easy to imagine Julius Caesar tossing one of these coins to the victorious legionnaires in Gaul as a reward. Or perhaps, one could imagine Cleopatra making a gift of a specific coin to a favored servant. It is even possible, Judas received it for his historic betrayal. While there is no way to definitively prove any of these possibilities, to many collectors, it is comforting to know they cannot be disproved either. As the Roman Empire was in its ascendancy, the Tyre shekel was used for all of these purposes and more, so who’s to say.
The Rarity of Tyre Shekels
Current estimates indicate that less than 1% of the total Tyre shekels minted over time have ever been recovered. This is another key attraction for collectors of Tyre shekels, because coming across even one, much less a small cache, is such a rare experience. One numismatist we know acquired a private collection that included around 160 Tyre shekels. He described the experience as feeling “electric” to be in the presence of coins that had traveled through history for more or less 2,000 years. He told us of the moment he first saw them. His mind raced as he imagined histories for these numismatic survivors. Inevitably, he wondered if any had been among the thirty pieces Judas accepted from the chief priests. It was a heady experience that energized him for a good while.
Holding coins of such ancient origin and potential historical significance is quite simply a thrilling experience for any collector. For the vast majority of collectors, seeing even one of these coins and holding it in one’s hands is truly a rare experience. Owning even one Tyre shekel places a collector among a very elite group, and after all, that is one of the main reasons collectors collect. While there are certainly other coins that hold significant historical importance, few can match the thrill of the Tyre shekels.
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Birth of Julius Caesar, first emperor of Rome
Roman legions destroy Spartacus’ slave rebellion
Julius Caesar invades Gaul
Julius Caesar invades Britain
Cleopatra rules Egypt and the Nile
Julius Caesar elected dictator for life & assassinated
Herod the Great made king of Judea by Romans
Octavian defeats Antony & Cleopatra gains rule of Roman Empire
Cleopatra & Marc Antony commit suicide
Octavian named Caesar Augustus by Roman Senate
Jesus Christ born
Tiberius succeeds Caesar Augustus as Roman emperor
Pontius Pilate appointed governor
Jesus Christ begins ministry
Herod Agrippa appointed king of Judea
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Emperor Claudius poisoned by wife, succeeded by Nero
Fire destroys much of Rome
Painting on Canvas discovered
Romans Destroy Jerusalem