Roman coins and the Imperial Cult

Coins were important in the time of Jesus, and were more significant than their face value. On one occasion the Pharisees plotted against Jesus in an attempt to entangle Him in His words. They sent some of their disciples to Jesus to ask, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Tiberius in the Louvre. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Bust of Tiberius in the Louvre.

When Jesus asked them to show him the coin used for the tax they brought Him a denarius. The denarius of that time would likely be one minted by the Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37). Jesus asked, “Whose likeness [eikon] and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Jesus responded, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Read the full account in Matthew 22:15-22).

The photo below shows a Denarius with the image of the Emperor Tiberius. The inscription on the obverse (heads) reads “TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AUGUSTVS” (Tiberius, Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus).

Denarius minted by Emperor Tiberias.

Denarius minted by Emperor Tiberius.

David Hendin (Guide to Biblical Coins, 1st. ed, 170-171) describes the reverse (tails) of the coin: “Female figure sits on a plain chair to right, she holds olive branch in her left hand and long sceptre in her right.” The inscription PONTIF MAXIM means High Priest, which Hendin says is “another of the emperor’s titles and later a title of the Bishop of Rome.”

This coin clearly demonstrates the Emperors’ claim to being the son of the divine Augustus, and to being High Priest in the Imperial Cult.

Florence Aiken Banks says,

It is not surprising that this Tiberius denarius–popularly known as the “tribute penny”–is of all coins the one most in demand by collectors who cherish their New Testaments. (Coins of Bible Days, 99)

In the next post I plan to discuss Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, and what we can learn about the Imperial Cult from his coins and the inscription bearing his name at Caesarea Maritima.

Special Note About Coin Images. For many years I have included several links to coin and coin collectors under the Bible Places page at the Biblical Studies Info Page. I have found that these web sites come and go. If I use the image of a coin that rightfully belongs to another photographer I will be pleased to give credit if you will point me to the site.

One response to “Roman coins and the Imperial Cult

  1. A great way to get images of ancient coins is online auctions. The two best I have found are http://cngcoins.com/ and http://www.hjbltd.com/ I have collected hundreds of high-resolution images of fine coins from the biblical era at these sites. Both companies have been happy to give me permission to use and publish their images as long as I give them credit. I include treatment of coins in a book entitled APOCALYPSE AND ALLEGIANCE. See http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Allegiance-Politics-Devotion-Revelation/dp/1587432617/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424266636&sr=8-1&keywords=apocalypse+and+allegiance

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