Commentary Magazine


Ancient Israel's Coins

To the Editor:

It is not easy to assess the technical evidence for reattributing the ambiguously inscribed coins of ancient Israel, so that we must give credit to Stanley Edgar Hyman for at least trying, in his review of The History of Coins and Symbols in Ancient Israel by Wolf Wirgin and myself (January). . . . Mr. Wirgin’s main contention was that the 50 excellent types of coins conventionally ascribed to the Bar Kochba period must be reattributed. Bar Kochba was not in the coin minting business; he had a sizable war on his hands. As for the dating of these coins, there is considerable disagreement among numismatists themselves. What Mr. Wirgin has done is to bring matters to a head, drawing support from twenty years of research in the field and his private collection—one of the most important of its kind in the world.

Mr. Hyman’s wit . . . often leads him exuberantly astray. There is no argument by Mr. Wirgin that the Jews under Herod manufactured counterfeits of Roman coins. Perhaps Mr. Hyman believes along with some numismatists that all coins which they assign to Bar Kochba were struck over Roman coins. One must grasp the difference between coins struck on virgin flans and those overstruck on non-Jewish coins. This technical point—and several others—was not made clear in the review.

In talking about the migration of symbols in the ancient world and those symbols which are found on the old Hebrew coins, I referred also to mythology. Mr. Hyman comments-that “Mandel . . . seems to think that Amalthea was Dionysus’ mother.” My original statement reads: “Amalthea was also the name of Bacchus’ parent. . . .” If I am wrong in believing this about Bacchus (or Dionysus), then I am in distinguished company indeed. Milton in his Paradise Lost (4:275) says: “That Nyseian isle. . . . Hid Amalthea, and her florid son,/Young Bacchus from his stepdame Rhea’s eye.” Possibly Mr. Hyman has confused Amalthea with Rhea. The noted mythology-scholar Charles Mills Gayley quite explicitly states: “The name Amalthea is given also to the mother of Bacchus.” As for the web of mythology surrounding the Titans of Greek mythology, I used one strand of post-Homeric commentary which claims that man is descended from the Titans. When the Titans—and not the Bacchantes who are unleashed on me by Mr. Hyman—killed Dionysus, their original sin and guilt was passed on to man. This condensed reference, however, is tangential to my main subject, namely the specific symbols on ancient Jewish coins. There “it would seem impossible to dismiss his evidence,” says Mr. Hyman. The presentation of that evidence, after all, was my primary objective.

The passage I quoted from Plutarch’s second-hand account that describes Jews as worshiping Dionysus may strike Mr. Hyman as “terribly funny.” If anything, this kind of distortion of Jewish ceremonies by outside observers is terribly tragic. Throughout history such misrepresentations have caused Jews incalculable harm. . . .

Viewing the Bible as a prime historical source—in addition to its ethical teachings—has yielded significant results as proven time and time again by such archeologists as Nelson Glueck. I don’t understand Mr. Hyman’s objection to the use of the Bible to show, for example, that the palm tree symbol found its way into ancient Israel as early as King Solomon’s reign when Hiram of Tyre was commissioned to do carvings on the Temple. This Tyrean symbol was adopted for coin use by later minters. In our own time, Israel has again used this symbol, an age-old motif, to commemorate a heroic past. The original meaning of the symbol of course is lost, but the historical pattern is repeated. . . .

Siegfried Mandel
East Meadow, New York

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