The silver tetradrachm (shekel) struck by the mint at Tyre features prominently in several pivotal events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth as documented in the New Testament. It is likely to be the coin that Jesus told his disciple Simon Peter that he would find miraculously in the mouth of a fish. It was probably one of the coins that tumbled to the ground when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple courtyard. And perhaps most significant of all, it is believed to be the coin that Judas Iscariot received thirty of in exchange for betraying his master to the authorities.
By the time the ancient Phoenician port city of Tyre was conquered by the Macedonian King Alexander III “the Great” in 332 BC, it had already acquired a reputation within the region for the quality of its silver coinage. Coins continued to be struck there under the authority of the Greek kings, and when the Romans arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean, they permitted the mint to strike an ‘independent’ silver coinage from about 125 BC comprising silver tetradrachms (shekels) weighing about 14 grams, and didrachms (half shekels) weighing about 7 grams.
With only minor exceptions, the design of the coin remained constant for nearly two centuries. It was modelled on the tetradrachm struck by their last Greek king, Demetrius II, who was executed near Tyre in 125 BC. His portrait on the coin was replaced with the Tyre god Melkart, son of Baal. The reverse depicts an eagle with a palm branch over its shoulder and perched on the bow of a ship. The inscription can be translated, ‘Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable’ together with the date of issue, which allows them to be dated accurately.
Despite depicting the head of a pagan god and a graven image, both of which were deeply objectionable to neighbouring Jews, the silver coin struck at Tyre became the only currency accepted by the Jewish religious authorities to pay the annual temple tax. This is because it was struck in the purest silver available in the region (about 95%) making it significantly more valuable than the Roman silver coins imported from the Far East that contained only about 80% silver.
The temple tax was introduced by Moses the lawgiver, who instructed every adult male over the age of twenty to make the annual contribution of half a shekel. This was about two days wages for a skilled labourer, and the tax was to be used for the building and upkeep of the temple.
“The rich are not to give more than a half shekel, and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives.” (Exodus 30:15 – NIV)
The modest sum enabled Jews of all economic levels to take part in the building of the temple, and when the construction was completed, the tax continued to be collected from every household to pay for the running costs of the temple.
In 18 BC, the letters’ KPA’ or ‘KP’ were added to the reverse of the coin, which has led some scholars to believe that the coin’s production moved from Tyre to a location in or close to Jerusalem itself. Given their reliance on the coin for the temple tax, if Tyre did stop producing the coins, the Jewish religious leaders would most likely have requested permission from the authorities to carry on making them in or near Jerusalem. The Romans prohibited the minting of local currency in Judea but may have been prepared to make an exception to keep the peace as long as they continued to use the same design. It has been suggested that the new letters may have been an acrostic that stood for “By Authority of the Roman Constitution”.
If true, then we have the astonishing spectacle of Jewish religious leaders seeking permission to strike a coin that they considered blasphemous, bearing a design that was expressly prohibited by the Ten Commandments. They would compel devout Jews to use this coin to pay their annual contribution for the upkeep of God’s Holy temple. One can only imagine what Moses would have made of that!
One Tyre shekel would pay the temple tax for two men, which is illustrated in Jesus’ exchange with his disciple, Simon Peter. When a tax collector challenged the disciple to say whether his master paid the temple tax, Simon Peter affirmed that he did. After pointing out that the sons of rulers are exempt from the taxation demanded by their fathers, Jesus gave him an unusual task to demonstrate both his miraculous power and his humility;
“But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matthew 17:24-27 NIV).
The coin that the disciple found in the mouth of a fish was most likely a Tyre shekel, as only this would have been sufficient to pay the temple tax for both men.
For Israelites, the design of the Tyre shekel violated the first two of the Ten Commandments given to them by Moses, which forbade the use of foreign deities and graven images. Consequently, no self-respecting Jew would use this coin in their day-to-day transactions, particularly one which described a foreign city as holy. Nonetheless, since this was the only currency accepted by the Jewish religious leaders for the annual temple tax, it meant that the temple vault would have been filled with silver coins depicting a foreign god!
To pay the temple tax, devout Jews were compelled to exchange their regular currency for the ‘blasphemous’ silver coinage of Tyre. To facilitate this, a thriving market of money changers set up shop in the temple courtyards and charged hefty commissions for their services. Since Jews wishing to pay the temple tax had no alternative but to pay their inflated rates to obtain Tyre shekels and half shekels, this also violated Moses’ instruction that no individual should pay more or less than half a shekel.
This was the scene that greeted Jesus when he arrived at the temple shortly after making a triumphant arrival in Jerusalem in circa AD 30.
“Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers … And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'” (Matthew 21:12-13 NIIV)
Jesus’ outrage at finding money changers profiteering from the temple tax, together with his authoritative teaching and miraculous healings, alarmed the religious leaders who felt threatened by his popularity. As they began plotting how to have Jesus arrested and put to death, one of his disciples came to them with an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26:14-16 NIV)
Since shekels from Tyre were the only currency accepted at the Jerusalem Temple, these were likely to be the coins that Judas received for betraying his master. Within hours of betraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas realised the enormity of what he had done and, filled with remorse, tried to return the thirty silver coins to the chief priests, claiming that he had betrayed innocent blood. Now that they had their prize, the chief priests were indifferent to his anguish and told him that this was his responsibility. The New Testament informs us that Judas threw the shekels into the temple, went away and hanged himself.
Judas’ suicide presented the religious leaders with the dilemma of what to do with the coins;
“The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” (Matthew 27:6-8 NIV)
Given the prominent role that the Tyre shekel played in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it is hardly a surprise that the coin is highly desirable today. It is certainly a strange feeling to hold one in your hands and ponder that this is a design that Jesus and his followers would have known well.
Production of the Tyre shekel appears to have come to an end in about AD 66, possibly as a result of the outbreak of the first Jewish revolt which began that year. By that time, Rome had begun producing silver coinage with a significantly improved purity in neighbouring Syria.
Devout Jews continue to pay the temple tax to this day. Today, the sum is translated into local currency and donated to the needy.