The Tribute Penny of the Bible
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."
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.
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."
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).
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:
- Io. Lor. Moschem, Observations on the story of the census coin, 1725.6
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.
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.)
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).
Other Tribute Penny Articles in NumisWiki
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.
3Rasche, J.C. Lexicon of Ancient Coinage. (1785 - 1805).