The Tribute Penny

Biblical coins are a popular segment in the ancient coin hobby. For many this proves to be a gateway into the wider world of ancient numismatics but most find just owning a coin mentioned in the bible, or even one merely contemporary, an end in itself as a way to connect with that distant but meaningful past. Among these classes may be counted the so-called "Widow's Mites" and the easily available Constantinian bronzes that form the bulk of what we sell right here on DOC. Another class of coins draws attention for being controversial. Among the many, many issues yet unresolved by ancient numismatists it is perhaps a little ironic that an ordinary and easily available coin should prove the most divisive.

All the controversy is due to a rather numismatically ambiguous passage in the bible. As written in the King James version, Matthew 22:17-21 reads:

Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.

Right away those with even passing familiarity with the coinage of Jesus's time will point out that the penny must be an anachronism since that invention was yet several centuries into the future. But this is a minor quibble. The KJV translators were deliberately remaking the ancient language of the bible into a tongue familiar to a largely illiterate audience. The more correct translation of the Greek δηνάριον (denarion) or the Latin Vulgate's denarium would have yielded an incomprehensible technicism not in keeping with the mission. Understanding therefore that the word actually used refers to a denarius goes a long way in clarifying which coin was meant. However, whether Jesus literally specified a denarius, rather than "coin" or some less specific term is much less certain. True, this Gospel is generally regarded as having been authored during the reign of Domitian, when the coinage was indistinguishable from that of a half century before, but this is too simplistic a solution as it sidesteps the metaphor with an unnecessarily restrictive interpretation - to say nothing of the reliability of the oral hand-me-downs that recorded the incident in question prior to being committed to the written word.

The coin most people today associate with the term 'tribute penny' and sole design of the denarius for the reign of Tiberius, 14-37 CE

The coin most people today associate with the term 'tribute penny' and sole design of the denarius for the reign of Tiberius, 14-37 CE

The first point that conspires against an easy interpretation is that even a strictly fundamentalist reading in this instance will find mention of the coin is only incidental to the meaning of Jesus's lesson. His detractors had come before him hoping to show him up as a hypocrite for preaching to them about the one true God while at the same time he handles money inscribed with the name and image of a man many regarded as a living god. To them he rebukes by pointing out that the earthly and divine domains are separate so paying the taxman carries no moral implications.

Still, the issue is far from settled. If we assume that Jesus literally meant a denarius we would not be unsafe in making the further assumption that the denarius might well have been that of Tiberius which is known to have circulated in the region by the bucketfuls. But it would positively, certifiably not have been the only type available; in fact, the Tiberius denarius would have been a relatively new entry in a crowded field of other silver pieces bearing various portraits right alongside a milieu of local and foreign coinage. This is in very large part due to Jerusalem's fortunate geographical position which served as a nexus serving tradesmen from all corners of the known world.

Judaic law was very strict in proscribing any artistry that captured the likeness of any living being to whom man could fall victim to the sin of idolatry. The term extended the definition to include representations of animals lest admiration for the skill of the artist become dangerously similar to the adulation due the Lord God. But this was a self-imposed restriction that applied only to the industry of the observant Jew; dealing with the rest of the world happened on another, altogether much more pragmatic plane. Jesus, as all other Jews, was perfectly capable of dealing with the dichotomy.

Additionally, note that marrying tribute and penny into a phrase is a modern construct. Jews were required to pay annual taxes, the euphemistic 'tribute', irrespective of their profession. Even remote, sheep-herding communities with little chance of coming across foreign money were not spared the bill. The Roman agents were happy to receive local coin or in-kind payments wherever Rome-minted silver was scarce. Above all others, this is the reason there could not have been a singular type of coin reserved for tributary purposes.

The Holy Land was then as now a crossroads of global trade awash in the products of many different civilizations. In the end, Caesar was just as practical as Jesus and made few bones about the small details so long as the bottom line was met.

Common coins of the time of Jesus in the Holy Land: a Roman legionary denarius (left), a Parthian drachm (center) and a Pontius Pilate prutah (right)

Common coins of the time of Jesus in the Holy Land: a Roman legionary denarius (left), a Parthian drachm (center) and a Pontius Pilate prutah (right)