• Ward Sanford

Coins of the First Great Revolt 66-70 CE

A prutah (small bronze coin) struck the 2nd year (67-68 CE) of the First Great Revolt. The front (left image) has an amphora and says “Year Two” of independence from Rome in a paleo-Hebrew script, and the reverse has a grape vine and says “Freedom for Zion”. Specimen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Jerusalem.

Minting coins is the prerogative of a free nation. There is almost nothing more a newly independent country can do to declare its freedom to the world than to begin to mint its own coins. When the Jews drove Rome out of Jerusalem and Judea at the beginning of the First Great Revolt in 66 CE, that is exactly what they did. They minted different coins each of the years starting with year one (66-67 CE) through year four (69-70 CE). They minted both shekels in silver, and smaller coins—prutah—1/8th of a shekel—in bronze. The above image of a prutah is only about 1.8 mm (2/3rds of an inch) across. It is also known by some as the “widow’s mite” from the gospel story of a poor widow who put two small copper coins in the temple treasure—nearly all she had. Of course her prutah would have had Roman emblems, being minted during the Roman occupation.

When we were in Israel in 2019 I had the opportunity to purchase one of these coins. This can be challenging because authentic coins from that era can cost thousands of dollars in nice condition, but they are also easily counterfeited. Only experts can tell the difference. For this reason many people actually prefer to collect replicas because you can clearly see all the features while being able to afford to purchase a suite of them with a wide variety of features. While we were visiting the ruins of Caesarea we came upon the store of a reputable coin dealer where I purchased a genuine bronze prutah (in much less than nice condition) for under $100. See photo below.

A very worn bronze prutah from the First Great Revolt (67-68 CE) with a few of the features still identifiable. Compare with first photos. Can you find any of the same features? The top two images show the same coin with a brighter photographic lighting. The bottom two images are closer to their appearance in ambient light. The obverse of the coin is on the left, where the amphora is most visible. The reverse of the coin is on the right, where the square paleo-Hebrew “het” is most visible on the right side of the coin. On the top right one can also make out the bottom center of the leaf with radiating veins and its descending stem and the horizontal vine crossing it.

The reason I am fairly certain this coin is an original is because it is not in good condition. I have spenty many years buying and selling U.S. coins, and the condition of this coin would rank near the bottom. Forgers don’t bother to make worn down and corroded coins—it takes too much time and their cash return is small. Instead, they make nice looking counterfeits with a few blemishes to make them look handled. Given it didn’t take a lot of sophistication to strike the original with a hammer onto a blank piece of metal from an engraved die 2,000 years ago, you can imagine it would not be too hard to recreate that process today, especially if each strike of the hammer might bring $1000 on the market from an unsuspecting collector.

The following week I was in an antique store in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City whose owner was an expert and associated with a local University as well. It’s interesting to me that “antique” in America typically means over 100 years old, whereas in Israel it likely means over 1,000 years old. He had a lot of different kinds of items in his store. I asked him about coins from the First Great Revolt and he produced an entire tray of them. When I told him I had already purchased one he declared I had purchased a fake, without even seeing what I had purchased. This was based on his knowledge that the market was flooded with fake coins from that time period. I asked him how one could tell the difference and he said it was difficult and “only he (an expert) could do that”. I have found this attitude to be true of a lot of archaeologists, in that they demonstrate their expertise and knowledge by declaring thinks to be counterfeit, whereas they risk ridicule declaring something genuine that is later proven to be faked. So they err widely toward first calling almost everything a counterfeit at first. But the man did seem very knowledgable about a wide variety of antiques. In fact, I bought a Herodian oil lamp from him, which I will discuss next week.

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