ancient coinsSitting on my office shelf above my desk is a little box containing two small, ancient bronze prutah coins I purchased while traveling in Israel. Both coins circulated widely in Judea between the first centuries BCE and CE. The first bears the image of what is either an eight-spoke wheel or the sun, and was minted under the reign of Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus sometime between 103 and 76 BCE. It is the coin most frequently associated with Jesus’s lesson of the “widow’s mite” in Mark 12:38–44.

The second is a tribute coin that was struck under the authority of Antonius Felix, the Roman procurator of Judea from 52–58 CE. Felix is mentioned throughout Acts 24, and served as arbiter when the apostle Paul was famously put on trial at Caesarea Maritima.

I think about these coins often. There they are, carefully boxed in a plastic display case, perched on a shelf in Kansas City, two thousand years and halfway around the world from their point of origin. Handled by thousands of people buying and selling before being lost to antiquity, rediscovered by collectors, and sold (not for the last time, I’m sure) in an antique shop near Old City Jerusalem.

Indeed, physical currency is one of the few symbols that ubiquitously transcend time, distance, and culture. Even if one is unsure of specific monetary denominations, just about everybody can recognize what a coin is—which makes it all the more bewildering that greater interest has not been shown to the appearance (or implication) of currency in the New Testament. While some scholars have taken it upon themselves to offer historical and contextual considerations of New Testament passages in which coins are referenced,[1] the vast well offered by NT numismatics remains largely untapped.

A good (and popular) test case for numismatic interpretation might be the “mark of the beast” passage in the Apocalypse of John. In his cleverly titled article, “The Empire Strikes Back: The Mark of the Beast in Revelation,” David May suggests that the so-called “mark of the beast” mentioned in Rev. 13:16–18 is actually a reference to the countermarking of imperial coins during the period between the reigns of Tiberius and Vespasian (14–79 CE). As a side note, May says that this does not necessitate an early date for the writing of Revelation, since countermarked coins would have remained in circulation for decades after they were struck.[2] Particularly during times of civil war and internal struggles for power throughout the Empire, would-be emperors occasionally counter-struck imperial coinage as a legitimization of their authority and as a power play among the people who used Roman currency on a daily basis. Vespasian, who rose to imperial power in 69 CE, had coins counter-struck in Ephesus bearing the image of a ram (the astrological Capricorn, a prophesied symbol of one who would save and restore Rome), and was the only imperial contender to utilize the image of an animal (i.e., “beast”) on his coinage.[3]

Scholars like May, J. Nelson Kraybill (see Kraybill’s excellent book on Revelation, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation), and others also cite Rev. 13:17 (“no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark…”) as further evidence supporting their theory, though for others such as David Aune (Revelation 6–16, Word Biblical Commentary), the specific mention of the mark’s placement on the recipient’s right hand or forehead is enough to discredit this numismatic reading. However, May’s interpretation does seem to fit with John’s generally anti-imperial agenda, and glimpses how the consideration of coins might further benefit the field of NT interpretation.

In the first century (and possibly still today?), coins weren’t just a means for daily commerce; they were widely circulated tools of propaganda intended to spread the gospel of the Roman Empire, and offered a rhetoric of their own that should be considered when reading New Testament accounts of both economic and political transactions.

[1] See Richard E. Oster, “Numismatic Windows into the Social World of Early Christianity: A Methodological Inquiry,” JBL 101 (1982), 195–223, as well as Oster, “‘Show Me a Denarius’: Symbolism of Roman Coinage and Christian Beliefs,” Restoration Quarterly 28, no 2 (1985–1986), 107–15. See also below.

[2] David M. May, “The Empire Strikes Back: The Mark of the Beast in Revelation,” Review & Expositor 106 (Winter 2009), 87. See also May, “Interpreting Revelation with Roman Coins,” Review & Expositor 106 (Summer 2009), 445–65.

[3] David M. May, “The Empire Strikes Back,” 92.