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Oct 22

The Coins of King Herod the Great

Posted by: Steve Marr

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        The Bible and history paint a picture of King Herod as a great builder as well as a royal with spasms of paranoia.  While his building projects still bring thousands to see their ruins, Herod continues to be best known as the ruling pontificate of Judea who ordered the murder  of innocent children when the Magi did not return to tell him where Jesus was born.

      But Herod is more than the villain in our Christmas story.  Coins commissioned by Herod himself contribute more detail to this multi-layered man.


            Ironically, the Roman Senate conveyed the title on Herod, “King of the Jews,” although some historians believe the correct title was “King of Judea.” While Herod was not born a Jew, he converted to Judaism as a matter of convenience. Nothing demonstrated this more than the coins he minted during his rule.

            In the time of Herod’s governorship, only Roman authority could strike coins of gold and silver. Smaller bronze coins were made independently and placed into circulation by local governments. While an official exchange rate allowed these coins to be used instead of the silver ones, the value was not the same. Similar to our paper money today, the government imparted worth by decree rather than intrinsic value. This generated profit for Herod, money he likely used to fund his lifestyle and massive public works projects.

            While Herod made profit by producing these small coins, he also found another way to increase his profit by minting smaller than standard coins and pocketing the difference. As Amos records about another time, Herod was “skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales.” (Amos 8:5)

            Early Jewish leaders would have opposed any coinage with an engraved image. For the most part, Herod honored this tradition, likely because he didn’t want to stir up unnecessary opposition. Thus, the majority of coins he authorized conveyed no offensive symbols by using ships, anchors, wheat, barley leaves or a cornucopia.

            However, one of the earliest coins displays a diadem. It was likely placed on the coins as a symbol to affirm Herod’s kingship. This symbol suggested Herod’s large ego that degenerated into his perceived fear that family members were his rivals and should be executed.  It easily follows that news of a baby born to be king would push him to order the death of all babies born in the same time period.

            Later, Herod became less interested in appeasing Jewish religious sensitivities and issued the first coin by a Jewish ruler with a graven image.  Historical accounts, confirmed by the Jewish historian Josephus, indicated that he erected an eagle over the Jewish temple as a symbol of Jewish submission to Rome. Historical accounts report that it was so offensive to Jewish people that they destroyed it.

            This act of insubordination fueled Herod’s anger so much that he placed an eagle on some of his later bronze coins. Imagine the revulsion of the Jewish people who were required to handle a coin with a symbol in violation of religious law, a symbol that pointed toward Roman power. As the Lord commanded, "You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (Exodus 20:4)  Herod broke God’s law but had no tolerance for the Jews who rebelled against his manmade authority.

            Coins tell many stories.  The coins of Herod leave a trail that gives us insight into his personality and governorship. He was a cheat and a thief. He abused his power and minted coins that impoverished his people but made him rich. He was an egomaniac who did not take his Jewish conversion seriously.  He paraded his overactive ego as a crown on a coin.  Furthermore, he incensed his Jewish subjects with an eagle-imprinted coin that demonstrated his desire to please Rome rather than serve the Jewish population he governed. 

            Who knew there could be such history in coins?  In spite of all the building Herod did, it is his coins that remind us how a man can sell his soul with a coin. 

Below diadem on right side, a Ceremonial table represented on the right

Below coin with anchor and cornucopia

 Below Herod coin with eagle right side 



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