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Politics and Religion (The Biblical Tribute Penny) by Joseph Kleinman

Most of us are cautioned to avoid the topics of politics and religion when in polite society. However, there is a popular field in ancient numismatics devoted to these normally sensitive subjects, namely, what are referred to as Biblical Coins.

Just what are Biblical Coins? Well they could be coins that are mentioned in the Bible or they could be coins associated with events or places mentioned in the Bible. For example, a collection can be built with coins from each city associated with the missionary journeys of Saint Paul as mentioned in the Book of Acts. The events in that book take place in the reign of Nero, A.D. 54 – 68. Another example of a Bible based collection might be the coins from each of the "Seven Cities of Asia" as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation was penned in the time of the Emperor Domition, A.D. 81 – 96. These are just two of several themes that may be covered by what has become known Biblical Coins.

But for the serious collector of Biblical Coins there is one "must have" item that although common enough can nevertheless be quite costly. I am referring to what today we call the "Tribute Penny." The Tribute Penny is a Roman Imperial Silver Denarius from the reign of Emperor Tiberius, A.D. 14 – 37. It’s called a Penny because when the King James Version of the Bible was compiled in 1611, a Penny was a small English Silver coin. It is this coin that will be the topic of this article.

Photo © Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. Used by permission.
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The Tribute Penny is the focal point in the story of a confrontation between Jesus Christ and his enemies who are seeking to prevent his message from reaching the general population. Before we continue it will be useful if we put the confrontation into a historical perspective – In the eighth century B.C. the Assyrian Empire destroyed the Kingdom of Israel. In the sixth century the Kingdom of Judea was destroyed by the Babylonians. Next the Persians ruled the area to be followed by the Greeks and finally the country fell under Roman occupation but with a puppet king. At the time Jesus was preaching, the people of Israel had been under foreign domination for over seven hundred years.

Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi traveling through the countryside with his students (Disciples) and proclaiming the advent of a new kind of society ("Kingdom of God"), one in which the old forms of oppression will be eliminated. It is apparent from his treatment of the women at the well and of his healing the servant of a Roman Centurion that this new society would not be exclusively Judean. Today we might call this a universal worldview. In any case, we can see how such a message would be a threat to those who might have an interest in maintaining the status quo.

The Trap. At a public meeting the enemies of Jesus ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to the Romans. If he answers no he brands himself as a revolutionary and enemy of the reigning king and of the Romans. If he answers yes he cuts himself off from his own people and his message (Gospel) becomes meaningless. What to do? Enter the coin.

Jesus discovers the trap and calls his enemies hypocrites and then says to them, "show me the money of the tribute" and they produce the coin. About one day’s wage for a laborer at that time. Now Jesus asks, "whose image and whose inscription are on the tribute money" and they answer Caesar’s. Jesus then says "therefore render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. This answer defeats his enemies. Why?

What Jesus did was to open up a new area of inquiry. We must now ask the question what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? To the people of that time and that land the prevailing opinion would be that nothing belongs to Caesar and everything belongs to God. "The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and all that dwell therein" (24th Psalm). So we can see why it is at this point that the enemies of Jesus begin to plot his death. The Romans did put Jesus to death with the particular method reserved for those who would make rebellion.

I doubt that anybody at that time would even imagine that the religion founded on the teachings (at least in part) of that Rabbi would become the official religion of the empire that killed him.