Ancient Jewish Coins at the Ashmolean Museum: The Tyrian Shekel

Friday, 10 February, 2017 - 5:46 am

Tyrian Shekel1.jpgOne of the most precious items in the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford is an ancient silver Shekel of Tyre from the Second Temple period dated 64/3 BC, weighing 14.14g. On the obverse there is Laureate head or Heracles-Melqart wearing lion-skin around the neck and on the reverse there is an eagle standing with its foot on the beak of a ship. Over the eagle’s shoulder there is a plam-branch and to the left an upright club. The inscription on the coin states: ΤΥΡΟΥ ΙΕΡΑΣ (“of Tyre the Holy”), year 63. The comment by the Ashmolean museum related to the coin is[1]: Jewish temple tax paid with iconic coinage?


This essay will aim to give a context to this ancient coin and how temple tax custom was practiced over the period when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. The custom of giving a Shekel to the Jerusalem Temple dates back to the Biblical law in the book of Exodus that refers to the half Shekel contribution that was designated for the purpose of the daily sacrifices (Karban Tamid and Musaf)[2]. The commandment of the half Shekel is found in the book of Exodus[3]:


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the Lord, as expiation for your persons.


A tax for the upkeep and the offerings in the Temple is mentioned in II Chronicles during the reign of king of Judah, Joash (836-796 BC)[4]:


And the king ordered, and they made one chest, and they placed it in the gate of the House of the Lord, to the outside. And they announced in Judah and in Jerusalem to bring to the Lord the tax of Moses the servant of God upon Israel in the desert. And all the officers and all the people rejoiced, and they brought and cast into the chest until they were finished. Now it came to pass at the time that the chest was brought to the appointment of the king by the hand of the Levites, and when they saw that there was much money, the king's scribe and the appointee of the head priest would come, empty the chest, carry it and return it to its place. So they did day by day, and they gathered money in abundance. And the king and Jehoiada gave it to the foremen of the work of the service of the House of the Lord, and hired [stone]cutters and craftsmen to renew the House of the Lord, and also for craftsmen of iron and copper to strengthen the House of the Lord. The workmen did their work, and the work was improved by them, and they set up the House of God on its base, and they strengthened it. And when they finished, they brought before the king and Jehoiada the rest of the money, and he made it into vessels for the House of the Lord, service vessels, and pestles and spoons and gold and silver vessels, and they would constantly offer up burnt offerings in the House of the Lord, all the days of Jehoiada.


Similarly, in II Chronicles it refers to a Temple tax for the upkeep of the Temple during the reign of a later king of Judah, Josiah (c. 649–609 BCE)[5]:


And in the eighteenth year of king Josiah’s reign, after the purging of the land and the Temple, he sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah and Maaseiah, the ruler of the city, and Joah the son of Joahaz the recorder to strengthen the House of the Lord his God. And they came to Hilkiah the High Priest and gave the silver that was brought to the House of God, which the Levites who guarded the threshold had gathered from the hands of Manasseh and Ephraim and from all the remnant of Israel and from all Judah and Benjamin, and they returned to Jerusalem. They gave it into the hands of the foremen of the work, who were appointed in the House of the Lord, and they gave it [to] the workers who were working in the House of the Lord, to mend and repair the House. And they gave it to the carpenters and to the builders to buy hewn stones and wood for the couplings, and to make beams for the houses that the kings of Judah had destroyed. And the men did the work faithfully, and over them were appointed Jahath and Obadiah the Levites of the sons of Merari, and Zechariah and Meshullam of the sons of the Kehathites to direct, and the Levites, all who were expert with musical instruments. And over the porters and the overseers over all those who did the work, for every work, and of the Levites, scribes and officers and gate sentries. And when they took out the silver that was brought into the House of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found the Scroll of the Law of the Lord by the hand of Moses.


Following the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile and the building of Second Temple in Jerusalem, Nehemiah established the Temple tax as a permanent institution based on the original half Shekel, as mentioned in Exodus, for the purpose of the daily sacrifices[6]:


And we set upon ourselves the commandments to give a third of a shekel a year for the service of the Temple of our God. For the bread of the arrangement and the daily meal offering and for the daily burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the New Moons, the appointed seasons, and for the holy offerings and for the sin offerings to atone for Israel, and all the work of the Temple of our God.


The half Shekel Temple tax was a universal obligation. Jews who resided in Israel and also the Diaspora paid the half Shekel tax[7]. It had to be a single payment in the form of a single coin that had the value of half a Shekel. One was not permitted to give the amount in installments or a collection of coins that cumulatively had a value of half a Shekel. Thus, there were moneychangers situated in the Temple for the purpose of changing money for a half Shekel coin that was paid to the Temple[8].


The tax continued up until the destruction of the Temple when it was abolished[9]. The reason for this is since the imposition of the half Shekel tax was primarily for the purpose of the daily sacrifices. Once this was abolished with the destruction of the Temple there was no longer a need for the half Shekel tax[10].


Continuation of the Temple Tax after the destruction of the Temple


After Titus, son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, conquered Judaea and destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, in the first revolt, a tax was re-imposed by Vespasian on the Jews to replace the Temple tax. The payments were sent to the Roman Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, also known as the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, in Rome. Josephus refers to this in the ‘Jewish War’[11]:


He also laid a tribute upon the Jews wheresoever they were, and directed everyone of them to bring two drachmas every year into the Capitol, as they used to pay the same to the temple in Jerusalem. And this was the state of the Jewish affairs at this time.


The fiscus iudacius (Jewish tax) continued through the reign of Vespasian’s two sons, Titus and Domitian, as well as Domitian’s son, Nerva, who ruled between 96-98 AD, though Nerva moderated the tax. In fact the tax continued until the 3rd century, abolished under Julian the Apostate who ruled from 361 to 363 AD. An indication of the malicious use of the Jewish tax and its moderation under Nerva can be found on a coin at the Ashmolean Museum. The coin is dated 96 AD. The material is brass and weight 18.33g.  On the obverse there is a laureate head of Nerva. On the reverse there is a palm-tree with the inscription FISCI IVDAICI CALVMNIA SVBLATA, which means: false accusations regarding the fiscus iudacius (Jewish tax) have ended. Molly Whittaker translates it as: abolition of malicious prosecution in connection with the Jewish tax[12]. In addition, there is S C on either side of the palm tree, indicating that the coin was struck by the decree of the Senate[13].

An earlier coin of this period relating to the Jews post destruction of the Temple can be found in a commemorative coin that was specially minted to celebrate the triumph of Rome over Judea. This symbolic coin can be found in the Ashmolean Museum. The coin is struck by Vespasian in the mint of Rome and dated AD 71. Its material is brass, weight 25.30g and denomination Sestertius
[14]. On the obverse is a laureate head of Vespasian and on the reverse there is a palm tree, to the left of which there is a bound male captive standing and to the right, Judaea appears to be seated in a gesture of morning. Both figures are surrounded by arms, with the inscription IVDAEA CAPTA (Iudaea taken) round the edge and S C below the palm tree, indicating that the coin was struck by the decree of the Senate[15]




The silver Shekel was a description of a value of a coin that was used for a number of payments mentioned in the Torah. This includes the laws of a rapist and a seducer who are both obligated to pay fifty pieces of silver[16], a slanderer pertaining to a girl’s virginity who must pay one hundred pieces of silver[17] and the thirty silver Shekels that must be paid for a slave killed by an ox[18]


There were two types of coinage in Judaea during and after the Second Temple period: provincial and Tyrian. The provincial Sela or Shekel had an eighth of the value of the pure silver Tyrian currency[19]. The Talmud states that any specified amount of silver mentioned in the Torah is in Tyrian currency[20]. The value of the Tyrian currency was as follows: A sela is four dinar, a dinar is six ma'ah, known as gerah in the time of Moses[21]. This would mean that a Tyrian Shekel was worth four dinar, while a provincial Shekel was worth half a dinar. The value of the half Shekel Temple tax was thus two dinar or twelve ma’ah. This was due to the fixing of the value of the Shekel to the sela coin that was prevalent that had an increased value by one fifth compared to the value of the Shekel according to the law of Moses (ten ma’ah).


As there was a need to give the half Shekel Temple tax in a single coin a surcharge was paid for the exchange. This was paid in the form of a payment called kolbon[22]. When two dinarim were given as a half shekel, the value of a kolbon was half a ma'ah - i.e., one twelfth of a dinar.


In conclusion, the Tyrian Shekel at the Ashmolean Museum would have been used as the official currency in Judaea for the payment of fines, dowries and also the half Shekel payment to the Temple. This Tyrian Shekel could therefore very possible have been used either as the coin for the Temple tax or to be exchanged for another coin. In any event, dated in 64 BC, it would have been the type of currency that would have been used for the Jerusalem Temple tax, in addition to many other official Biblically sanctioned uses.




[1] Reference: BMC Phoenica, p. 244, no. 150. Referenced in handout for presentation by Ashmolean Museum, February, 2017.

[2] Rashi commentary to Exodus 25:2; Rashi commentary to Talmud Shekalim 22a 

[3] 30:11-16

[4] 24:8-14

[5] 34:8-14

[6] 10:33-34

[7] Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Shekalim 1:8; Mishna end of Kiddushin.

[8] Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Shekalim 1:1, following understanding of Rav Kapach.

[9] Shekalim 22a; Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Shekalim 1:8

[10] Rashi commentary to Talmud Shekalim 22a

[11] Book 7, ch. 6, 218

[12] Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views, (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 105.

[13] Reference: RIC III p. 58, no. 58

[14] Literally meaning two and one half – in values of asses.

[15] Reference: RIC II2, p. 71, no. 159

[16] Deuteronomy 22:29; Exodus 22:16

[17] Deuteronomy 22:19

[18] Exodus 21:32

[19] Bava Kamma 36b Rashi

[20] Bava Kamma 36b

[21] Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Shekalim 1:3

[22] Mishnah Shekalim 1:6

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