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The Tribute Penny of the Bible

See genuine ancient Tribute Pennies for sale in the Forum Ancient Coins shop.

Jesus, referring to a denarius (translated as a "penny" in later English translations of the text, see below) asked, "Whose is this image and superscription?" When answered that the likeness was Caesar, He replied; ''Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:20-21).

The Greek text uses the word δηνάριον, a Roman denarius. A denarius, an about dime-sized silver coin, was the usual daily wage of a day laborer during Christ's time on earth. The word "peny" seems first to appear in the handwritten Wycliffe’s Bible translation of the New Testament texts in the 1480’s, followed thereafter by Tyndale's 1526 New Testament, which was the first printed English edition. The Tyndale transcription retained Wycliffe’s term, and later editions changed the spelling to "penny." At the time of translation, the penny was the current silver coin, also about dime-size and also equivalent to a day's pay, and was thus a natural translation of denarius. In fact, the old abbreviation for one English penny (or pence) was 1 d. (for 'denarius'). Later translations, including the King James Version, copied Tyndale closely, with only minor alterations. Owing to the religious tensions in England from the 17th century onward, there were no further 'official' translations until the Revised Version of 1881. By that time the English text had become effectively fossilized. To this day there remain many who vociferously insist that the King James is the only 'proper' Bible.

The King James Bible says, "Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it..."

Thus the denarius of the Romans became a "penny" in the English language Bible.

Pharisees were attempting to trap Jesus into saying Jews should not pay taxes (tribute) to Rome. So, the popular moniker for the coin type shown to Jesus is "The Tribute Penny."

The Tiberius Denarius - 'The Tribute Penny'

Since Tiberius was Caesar during Christ's time on earth, the denarius of Tiberius is most often identified as "The Tribute Penny."

The Tiberius PONTIF MAXIM type denarius, struck from c. 15 to 37 A.D. at the Lugdunum mint (Lyon, France today), is described as follows:

Obverse legend: TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS: Tiberius Caesar, divi Augustus Filius, Augustus - Tiberius Caesars, son of the Divine Augustus, Emperor.
Obverse type: laureate head of Tiberius right.

Reverse legend: PONTIF MAXIM: Pontifex Maximus - The High Priest (Chief Pontiff).
Reverse type: Female enthroned right, long scepter (or inverted spear) vertical behind in right, branch in right.

In Le monnayage de l'atelier de Lyon, Jean Baptist Giard identifies the seated female as Justitia (Justice). She is more commonly identified as Pax or Livia (Tiberius' mother). Jean Baptiste Giard divides Tiberius' PONTIF MAXIM coins (aurei and denarii), into six groups, based on what he believes is the evolution of style over time.1 To some extent the portraits also reflect Tiberius' aging over a period of about 22 years.

 
Group 1, c. 15 - 18 A.D.
Obverse: Tiberius is depicted as a young man. One of the ribbons of Tiberius' laurel wreath falls over his neck.
Reverse: Legs of the throne are plain, the throne is on a raised base represented by a second line above the exergual line, no footstool.
Aureus: Giard Lyon Group 1, 143; RIC I 25 (R2); BMCRE I 30; Calico 305d (S.1); Cohen 15; SRCV I 1760 - Rare
Denarius: Giard Lyon Group 1, 144; RIC I 26 (C); BMCRE I 34; RSC II 16; SRCV I 1763 - Common

 
Group 2, c. 15 - 18 A.D.
Obverse: Same as Group 1, except Tiberius appears older.
Reverse: Base under throne (sometimes represented by a triple line, two above the exergue line), Pax usually holds a reversed spear instead of a scepter, the legs of the throne are ornately decorated, no footstool.
Aureus: Giard Lyon, Group 2, 145; RIC I 27 (R2); BMCRE I 40; Calico 305a (S.3); Cohen 15; SRCV I 1760 - Rare
Denarius: Giard Lyon, Group 2, 146; RIC I 28 (S); BMCRE I 44; RSC II 16b; SRCV I 1763 - Scarce


Group 3, c. 18 A.D.
Obverse: Same as group 2.
Reverse: Base under the throne is diminished, the ornamentation on the legs of the throne is simplified from group 2, Pax's feet rest on a low footstool.
Aureus: Giard Lyon, Group 3, 147; RIC I 29 var (scepter instead of spear, single line under throne, R); BMCRE I 46 var (same); Calico 305a (S.3); Cohen 15; SRCV I 1760 - Rare
Denarius: Giard Lyon, Group 3, 148; RIC I 30 var (scepter instead of spear, single line under throne, C); BMCRE I 45; RSC II 16b; SRCV I 1763 - Rare (only about only 2% of Tiberius denarii are this type)


Group 4, c. 18 - 35 A.D.
Obverse: Same as group 2.
Reverse: No base under the throne (just the single exergual line), Pax usually holds scepter (or rarely a reversed spear), her feet rest on a low footstool.
Aureus: Giard Lyon, Group 4, 149; RIC I 29 (R); BMCRE I 46; Calico 305b (S.1); Cohen 15; SRCV I 1760 - Rare
Denarius: Giard Lyon, Group 4, 150; RIC I 30 (C); BMCRE I 48; RSC II 16a; SRCV I 1763 - Common (approximately half of all Tiberius denarii are this type)


Group 5, c. 36 - 37 A.D.
Obverse: The ribbons of Tiberius' laurel wreath fall in small undulations (waves) and do not fall over his neck. Tiberius appears older than on groups 2 - 4.
Reverse: Same as group 4 but always a scepter.
Aureus: Giard Lyon, Group 5, 151; RIC I 29 (R); BMCRE I 47; Calico 305c (S.3); Cohen 15; SRCV I 1760 - Rare
Denarius: Giard Lyon, Group 5, 152; RIC I 30 (C); BMCRE I 60; RSC II 16a; SRCV I 1763 - Common


Group 6, c. 36 - 37 A.D.
Obverse: The ribbons of Tiberius' laurel wreath fall more stiffly and usually do not fall over his neck. Tiberius' facial features are older and have become caricatures.
Reverse: Same as group 5.
Aureus: Giard Lyon, Group 6, 153; RIC I 29 (R); BMCRE I 47; Calico 305c (S.3); Cohen 15; SRCV I 1760 - Rare
Denarius: Giard Lyon, Group 6, 154; RIC I 30 (C); BMCRE I 60; RSC II 16a; SRCV I 1763 - Common

The Alternate Tribute Penny

Although Julius Caesar and Augustus were no longer Caesar at the time of Christ's discussion with the Pharisees, their denarii were still circulating. It is possible the Caesar on the coin was Julius Caesar or Augustus. Denarii of Augustus are sometimes described as 'The Alternate Tribute Penny'. He issued numerous types, a few photographs of which are shown below.

  

The type with Caius and Lucius on the reverse (on the left) is by far the most common Augustus denarius and is the only type usually labeled as an "Alternate Tribute Penny." The other denarii of Augustus, and denarii of Julius Caesar, are more highly desired by collectors, so a denarius of these types would likely not be advertised as a possible "Tribute Penny" in dealer listings.

The Gold Tribute Penny

The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas 100:1-4 (excluded from the New Testament) tells a slightly different version of the "Tribute Penny" story..."They showed Jesus a gold (coin) and said to him: Caesar’s agents demand taxes from us. He said to them: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine."

Thus, the aureus of Tiberius is sometimes identified as the 'Gold Tribute Penny'.

  

The dates and descriptions for the aurei are the same as the denarii. You should be able to identify the Giard type using the descriptions and photographs above.

From the passage above we can perhaps see why The Gospel of Thomas was excluded from the Bible. The specific wording may have been intended to deny the full deity of Christ (Arianism). Even if that was not intended, an important point of the story is that Jesus' concerns are spiritual, not earthly things, like taxes. "And give to me what is mine" detracts from the clearer message of Matthew.

The Tetradrachms of Antioch

Denarii were not in common circulation in Judaea during Christ's time on earth. D.T. Ariel in "A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem" mentions only one denarius of Tiberius and he suggests the denomination did not circulate there until later.2 The principal silver currencies in use in Jerusalem during Christ's life on earth were tetradrachms of Antioch and shekels of Tyre. Some say the coin may not have been a denarius, but may have instead been an Antiochian tetradrachm bearing the head of Tiberius. For the Romans a silver coin was a denarius. The Gospel was written for a Roman audience who had never seen the tetradrachms of Antioch. The point was theological not numismatic, so for simplicity the coin was just called a denarius. Another example of translation into imperial currency is found in Mark 12:42 where the writer felt he had to explain that two lepta equals one quadrans.

On the other hand, the tetradrachms of Tiberius are very rare. To date, Forum has never handled a Tetradrachm of Tiberius - not one. At the same time, Forum has handled over one hundred denarii of Tiberius. The rarity of denarii in Judaea is not a strong argument that the real "Tribute Penny" was a tetradrachm, because tetradrachms were just as rare. The primary coinage used in Judaea was local bronze prutot. Silver shekels of Tyre, which did not include the 'image and superscription of Caesar,' were used to pay the temple tax but also did not circulate for ordinary transactions (which is why the money changers were outside the temple).

Perhaps it was a more common tetradrachm of Augustus.

The Debate

The question, "What type coin was shown to Jesus?" has been pondered for centuries. Rasche's Lexicon of Ancient Coinage,3 c. 1790, article "Census," refers to the following treatises on the question, all in Latin:

- Marq. Freherus, A treatise on the census coin that the Pharisees asked about, 1599.4

- Io. Nic. Schülin, A treatise on the census coin, 1685.5

- Io. Lor. Moschem, Observations on the story of the census coin, 1725.6

- Hermanson, A treatise on the denarius of the census, 1733.7

One can argue that Matthew named the wrong coin. Doubtless that question will never be answered. But if the question is, "What coin is the "Tribute Penny'?" The answer is the denarius of Tiberius. The designation "Tribute Penny" relates to the story as told in the King James Bible. Since the ancient Greek text, which was translated to "penny" actually was "denarius," the "Tribute Penny" must be a denarius. If the coin was another denomination, we could call it the "tribute coin" but not the "Tribute Penny."

The circulation of denarii in Jerusalem during Christ's life on earth may be interesting but is not really important to the designation "Tribute Penny." There is only ONE denarius in the Gospel story, not hoards of circulating denarii. Some denarii of Tiberius were in Judaea at the time and some are still found in Israel today. If Jesus could turn water into wine, heal lepers and raise the dead, he could arrange for ONE denarius to be nearby when he asked to see one.

Of course Jesus could also arrange for that denarius to be the ideal coin for his lesson. Julius Caesar and Augustus were dead. One cannot "render unto" dead people. The truly perfect coin for his lesson, would have the image and inscription of the living Caesar, Tiberius.

"The Tribute Penny" is the denarius of Tiberius.

For other opinions, read, "Tribute Penny Debate Revisited (2006)" and "Tribute Penny Debate Continued (2015)" by Walter Holt and Rev. Peter Dunstan; and "No Tribute Penny" by James S. Wilk here on NumisWiki. (As always here on NumisWiki, blue text is a link. Click the title.)

Also see Doug Smith's article on the Tribute Penny and his article "An Indian Copy of the Tribute Penny."

See genuine ancient Tribute Pennies for sale in the Forum Ancient Coins shop.

All the photos above are from the Forum Ancient Coins shop catalog sold coin listings.

Attribution References (with Abbreviations)

BMCRE I: Mattingly, H. and R.A.G. Carson. Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum, Volume I: Augustus to Vitellius. (1923).
Calico: Calicó, E.X. The Roman Avrei, Volume 1: From the Republic to Pertinax. 196 BC - 193 AD. (Barcelona, 2003).
Cohen: Cohen, H. Description historique des monnaies frappées sous l’Empire Romain, Vol 1: Pompey to Domitian. (Paris, 1880).
Giard Lyon: Giard, J-B., et al. Le Monnayage de L'antelier de Lyon. (Wetteren, 1983 & 2000).
RIC I: Sutherland, C.H.V. The Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol I, From 39 BC to AD 69. (Spink and Son, London, 1984).
RSC II: Seaby, H.A. and R. Loosley. Roman Silver Coins, Volume II, Tiberius to Commodus. (London, 1979).
SRCV I: Sear, D.R. Roman Coins and Their Values, The Millennium Edition, Volume One, The Republic and the Twelve Caesars 280 BC - AD 86. (London, 2000).

Other Tribute Penny Articles in NumisWiki

An Indian Copy of the Tribute Penny
Doug Smith's article on the Tribute Penny
Tribute Penny Die
No Tribute Penny?
Tribute Penny Debate Revisited (2006)
Tribute Penny Debate Continued (2015)


1Giard, J-B. 1983. Le monnayage de l'atelier de Lyon, des origines au règne de Caligula (43 avant J.-C. - 41 après J.-C.). Numismatique Romaine XIV. Note, the descriptions of the groups provided above are not translations of Giard's text. They are based on Giard's text and observations of the author of this page.

2Ariel, D.T. "A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem until the end of the Byzantine Period" in Liber Annuus 32 (1982), pp. 273 - 326.

3Rasche, J.C. Lexicon of Ancient Coinage. (1785 - 1805).

4Freherus, Marquardus. de Numismate census, a Pharisaeis in quaestionem vocato. (Heidelberg, 1599).

5Schülin, Iohann Nicolaus and Iohann Widmann. De Numismate Census, ad Matth. cap. XXII. vers. 19. (Wittenberg, 1685).

6von Mosheim, Johann Lorenz & Johann August Steding. In Historiam De Nvmo Censvs Matth. XXII. Observationes. (Helmstadt, 1725).

7Hermansson, Johan and Ericus Christiernsson Christiernin. Specimen Academicum, De Denario Census. (Upsalia, 1732)..