‘Holy Jerusalem’: Rare 2,000-year-old half-shekel coin found in Judean desert

The rare coin dates back to the days of the first Jewish revolt against the Romans.

By Yori Yalon, Israel Hayom via JNS

A 2,000-year-old silver half-shekel bearing the Hebrew inscription “Holy Jerusalem” has been discovered in the Judean desert, the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed on Tuesday.

The rare coin, dated to 66/67 C.E., the days of the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, was discovered at the entrance to a cave near Ein Gedi. The find was part of a cave survey operation, now in its sixth year, that the IAA is managing in cooperation with the Israeli Heritage Ministry and an archaeology staff officer at the Civil Administration.

Recently, as part of the survey, IAA inspectors had reached a section of a cliff along one of the streams in the Ein Gedi area, and noticed the coin sticking out of the ground at the entrance to one of the cliffside caves.

Yaniv David Levy, a researcher in the IAA’s Coin Department, said, “You can see an inscription written in unvowelized Hebrew… on this coin from the first year of the rebellion. This may be proof of the process of formulating inscriptions… in later years of the rebellion, the inscription ‘Holy Jerusalem’ is written in plene spelling [in which letters normally omitted are present].”

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He noted also that the Ein Gedi coin features three pomegranates in the center of the coin, “a familiar symbol on the Israeli pound, used by the State of Israel until 1980.”

A goblet appears on the other side, and above it the Hebrew letter alef is inscribed, indicating the first year of the rebellion, as well as the inscription “Hatzi Shekel” [half shekel], indicating the value of the coin.

The goblet was a symbol typical of the coins used by the Jewish population in the late Second Temple period. These coins were minted in values ​​of “shekel” and “half shekel” during the first rebellion against the Romans, which took place in the Land of Israel from 66 to 70 C.E. This rebellion ended in the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, in accordance with the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not make for thee a graven image,” the Jews engraved symbols taken from the plant world on their coins, in addition to motifs inspired by religious objects. The pagan population, by contrast, portrayed on their coinage animals and the faces of their rulers.

Act of defiance

As an act of defiance, Jewish rebels minted their own silver and bronze coins, engraved with Jewish motifs and symbols. It is assumed that the coins were minted in Jerusalem—and possibly even in the temple complex itself. With these coins, the rebels chose to use the ancient Hebrew script that was common hundreds of years earlier—during the time of the First Temple—and not the Greek script which was used in the days of the Second Temple.

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“Coins from the first year of the revolt, such as this coin that was discovered in the Judean Desert, are rare,” said Levy. “During the time of the Second Temple, pilgrims used to pay a tax of half a shekel to the Temple. The accepted currency for paying this tax for almost 2,000 years was the Tyrian shekel. When the revolt broke out, the rebels issued, as mentioned, these replacement coins which bore the inscriptions ‘Israel shekel,’ ‘half shekel’ and ‘quarter shekel.’ It seems that the worship of the Temple continued even during the rebellion, and these coins were also used by the rebels for this purpose.”

Amir Ganor, director of the Theft Prevention Unit at the IAA, said: “Finding a silver half-shekel coin from the first year in an organized archaeological project is a rare event in Israel in general, and in the Judean Desert in particular.”

The discovery demonstrates the importance of surveying the entire Judean Desert “systematically and professionally,” he added. “Every … item discovered in the survey adds more information about the history of our nation and country.”

Had the survey had not been carried out, he continued, the coin could have fallen into the hands of antiquities thieves and been sold to the highest bidder

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“During the six years of this operation, we have documented over 800 caves and discovered thousands of valuable and important finds,” he said.

‘Direct and touching evidence’

Heritage Minister Rabbi Amihai Eliyahu said: “The exciting discovery brings further evidence of the deep and indisputable ties between the Jewish people and Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.”

IAA director Eli Escusido added: “The coin is direct and touching evidence of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans—a turbulent period in the life of our people from 2,000 years ago, during which extremism and discord divided the people and led to destruction.

“We have returned here after 2,000 years of yearning, and the city of Jerusalem is back to being our capital, but there is nothing new under the sun—the disputes have not ended. Finding this coin reminds us all of our past, and why we must strive for agreement.”