Ancient Coin Speaks to Rich History of Hanukkah

December 24th, 2016 by


Scazon via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

Archaeologists have discovered, in the remains of Jerusalem’s Tower of David, an ancient bronze coin commissioned by the Greek tyrant of the Hanukkah story.

The medieval citadel, near the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, became home to conservation efforts many decades ago. Exhaustive surveys and thorough excavations, however, did not force this historic site to relinquish all of its secrets. There is still so much to be discovered here. Chief conservation officer Orna Cohen proved this when she discovered the bronze penny (known as a prutah) that attests to the site’s rich history.

Shimmering in the light, among the stones of the Hasmonean-era city wall, the object caught Cohen’s eye. It was gently retrieved, dutifully examined. It was more than 2,000 years old.

Now, the Tower of David Museum was unable to pinpoint the coin’s exact date of issue, but theories abound that it may have been minted between 172 and 168 BCE—during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.


Tower of David

Eilat Lieber, chief curator at the Tower of David Museum, said the piece “offers additional evidence that backs up historical accounts and upholds what took place here.”

King Antiochus IV, son of King Antiochus III the Great, succeeded his brother Seleucus IV to gain control of the Seleucid empire in 175 BCE. He was given the nickname Epiphanes, or God on Earth, but this was more an indication of his immense power and unmitigated wrath, rather than any suggestion of benevolence or compassion.

He issued a decree demanding of the Jewish peoples that they renounce their faith in Yahweh. The Greek gods, he pronounced, were the only true gods. He learned, though, that it would take more than the pronouncements of a mere mortal, no matter his military might, to separate men from belief. The Jewish people did not give in and so Antiochus called for the destruction of all religious dissenters.

An army of men riding on elephants stormed Jerusalem. Thousands of the Jewish people were massacred. An altar to the Greek god Zeus was erected in The Second Temple, a site of Jewish worship.

The Miracle of Hanukkah

The Jewish Priest Mattathias ben Johanan, having witnessed the callous violence inflicted on his people, declared loudly that would no longer stand for the indignation, for the King’s refusal to acknowledge their humanity. He took action. With the help of his five sons, he amassed a militia.  Together, they went to war with a tyrant.

Priest Mattathias would not reap the fruits of his labor. He died in 165 BCE. But one of his sons would take up the mantle and see things through to their conclusion. That man was Judah Maccabee. Within two years the militia, with Maccabe’s guerilla stratagem, had sanitized Jerusalem against the plague of Antiochus IV.


Judah Maccabee

In the wake of their incredible victory, Judah and his followers took to restoring the Second Temple. The work was completed on the 25th of Kislev, which on the Hebrew calendar is the third month of the Jewish civil year, the ninth month of its religious year, and coincides with our November and December.

A menorah was lit in celebration and despite having only enough oil to survive one day, the flame would burn for eight days and eight nights.

The bronze coin discovered by archaeologists does bear, on its obverse, the image of King Antiochus IV. (The reverse features an image of a goddess, a scarf wrapped around her neck, and a torch in hand.) This piece, though, is not a testament to his legacy, but remnant of the tyrannical regime that collapsed under the weight of its subjects. It is a testament to the strength of those subjects, the trophy snatched from an enemy camp, a memorial to their struggle.

The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah begins on the evening of December 24th, and continues until January 1st of 2017. Officials at the Tower of David Museum are still “surprised by the timing” of this discovery.


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2 thoughts on “Ancient Coin Speaks to Rich History of Hanukkah

  1. Thomas Dikel

    Thank you for this article, and the article on the Gold Roman coin found in Jerusalem. It is nice to see these kinds of stories from a group with “no dog in the race” of MidEast Politics. There is a credence and credibility that groups directly involved might not have. Thank you again, and also for me, I learned something about coins and their collection that I would have never known. All the best.

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