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New Testament Era

Archaeological and historical articles dealing with events from the Intertestamental and New Testament Era, circa 400 B.C. - 150 A.D.

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By Scott Stripling

Introduction

Few things are more exciting at an archaeological excavation than finding coins, probably because they provide a direct and tangible connection with history. There is often writing on these coins which is an important factor in archaeology, because a readable coin can help to date the stratum in which it was found. On June 1, 2011, my team in Field C at Khirbet el-Maqatir found nine coins; eight of them were from a single locus inside the central apse of the church. Three other coins were found in an Early Roman house on the east end of the site. In December 2011, another eleven coins were recovered. The table below provides the details of these 23 coins.

The Maqatir Coins

The oldest coin was from the mid-third century BC (Ptolemy11, 285-246 BC), and the most recent was a British coin from the 19th century. This range of dates spanning two millennia, yet appearing in the same stratum, requires some explanation, since the assumed dates for the ecclesiastical complex are from the fourth to the sixth centuries. The initial pottery readings and the coin dates confirm this. Thirteen of the coins date to the Late Roman or Byzantine timeframe. Six of the coins are from the three centuries before Christ. Five of the six were minted by the Hasmonean rulers. Three of the coins were from the first century AD, including a coin of Porcius Festus (Acts 26) and a coin from Year Two of the First Jewish Revolt. The final first century coin and the focus of this article was minted by Herod Agrippa I; it was the first from the New Testament period to be found at Khirbet el-Maqatir after nine seasons of excavation. Previously, coins were limited to the lntertestamental period, the latest being a coin of Herod the Great that was dated to his third year as king, 37 BC. 1

Agrippa coin found in the monastery excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir.


Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, was the son of Aristobulus IV and Bernice and father of Agrippa II (Acts 25-26); he ruled as king over much of his grandfather's realm from AD 37 to 44. The Agrippa I coin dates to the sixth year of his reign, AD 41/42. Agrippa I was in many ways an enigma. He was a close friend of Emperor Caligula (AD 37-41) and also enjoyed the favor of Claudius, who came to the throne in AD 41. Claudius was emperor when the Maqatir coin was struck. Agrippa I minted coins bearing the images of these Caesars and various pagan likenesses. On the other hand, he went to great lengths to maintain peace with the local Jewish population. He persuaded Caligula to abandon his bizarre intentions to erect a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple (Josephus, Ant. 18.8.2-9) Agrippa I also ingratiated himself with the Jewish leaders by ignominiously becoming the first ruler to persecute the nascent Christian Church (Acts 12:1-3). This was certainly in keeping with the policies of Emperor Claudius, who according to Acts 18:2 expelled all Jews (traditional and Messianic) from Rome. In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius poignantly confirms that "There were continual uprisings on account of Chrestus" (Life of Claudius 25:4). Chrestus is a reference to Christ.2

Agrippa's title on the obverse (front) of the coin is BASILEUS, the Greek word for "king." This is in keeping with the Roman custom of lauding the ruler who issued a coin, and not surprisingly, was the exact title attributed to him in Acts 12:1. The reverse of Roman coins was normally for propaganda purposes, but a client king like Agrippa wisely placed three ears of barley on it, a traditional Jewish symbol.

The Mishnah records that during the Feast of Tabernacles in AD 41 he publically read Deuteronomy 17:15 which states,"You may not put a foreigner over you who is not your brother." When Agrippa, who like all of the Herodian rulers was only part Jewish, began to weep, the people responded, "Grieve not, Agrippa; you are our brother! You are our brother!" (Sotah 7:8). This sort of adulation led to Agrippa's gruesome death at Caesarea Maritima in AD 44 at the tender age of thirty-four. After a speech, p erhaps in the still standing amphitheatre, the crowd proclaimed that his words were those of a god (clearly idolatry), and "Because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died" (Acts 12:23). Interestingly, the same event was recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus(Ant.19.8.2), a fascinating and important synchronism between biblical and secular texts.

Dec 2011 MAQ Group

Circulation of Ancient Coins

All of this is informative, but it begs the question, what is a first century coin doing in a fourth to sixth century conobium-type monastery?3 There are four possible explanations for this seemingly odd occurrence. First, one of the monks may have been a coin collector. This is pure speculation and highly unlikely. Second, maybe the monastery and church are much older than first thought. Although recent discoveries of early churches at places like Megiddo (ca. 230) have forced a rethinking of the transition from the domus ekklesiaor house church to basilicas or public buildings devoted to Christian worship, this second possibility also seems unlikely, especially with the appearance of a possible side apse indicating a later church (Tsafrir 1993:12). Third, the early coins may have been part of the fill used to level out the area upon the jagged bedrock to create a flat surface for the church and monastery. Most of the early coins came from below floor level (2914 ft [888.23 m]), but some were found above floor level. This could be explained by scavenging or earthquake damage. Third, in Roman and Byzantine times coins may have remained in circulation for hundreds of years. This appears to be the most plausible explanation. Classical numismatist David Yagi cites examples of this prolonged circulation:

     It is well-documented both by literary and archaeological
     evidence that ancient coins often circulated for centuries. An
     excellent example is the countermarking of older, worn coins
     in the east by the emperor Vespasian in the early A.D. 70s.
     The majority of these denarii were at least a century old at
     the time they were countermarked. The issuance of Imperial
     cistophori by the emperor Hadrian (117-138) is similarly
     convincing. Most (if not all) of the planchets used were older
     cistophori issued some 100 to 150 years earlier. We have no
     reason to doubt that these "host" coins (the coins that were
     overstruck) had been in circulation up until the time they
     were withdrawn for re-coining (1999: 19-20).

Furthermore, a bronze coin of Domitian (AD 81-96) was in circulation in Spain until 1636, when it was re-coined in the financial reforms of Philip IV (Blanchet 1907: 26). Coins minted under Constantine (AD 323-337) were still circulating in parts of southern France during the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870) (Friedensburg 1926: 3). Due to the high inflation of the third century AD, older Roman coinage appears to have been used much longer than contemporary money. The coinage from Pompeii confirms that a significant number of Republican coins (prior to Julius Caesar) were still in circulation at the time the city was buried by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, and they remained in circulation for another 30 to 40 years (Harl 1996: 18). This is over 150 years altogether.

The Agrippa I coin, like all bronze coins, would have remained in use much longer, especially in the provinces, than its gold and silver counterparts previously mentioned (Harl 1996: 257). So, it is certainly possible, indeed probable, that the Agrippa I coin had remained in circulation for four centuries. However, it seems to stretch the limits of plausibility to assume that the third century BC coin found in the same stratum could have remained in continual circulation. As always, archaeology raises as many questions as it answers.

Maq Monastery 2011

Conclusion

In an ironic twist of fate, Agrippa I, who died because of his refusal to give glory to God, is 2,000 years later buttressing the historicity of the biblical narrative. Many more coins are under the accumulated debris of millennia, just waiting to tantalize us with their mysterious stories. Maybe you can be the volunteer who finds the next one!

Notes

1See Wood, Bryant G, Three Coins from a Mountain. Bible and Spade 11.4: 86-90.
2Other early references can be found in the following sources: Josephus (Antiquities, Books 18:3:3), Tacitus (Annals, Volume 15:44:3), and Pliny the Younger (Epistles, 10:96-97).
3 Ascetic monasteries are referred to as laura, and communal monasteries as conobium.

 

Bibliography

Blanchet, Adrien J.
1907 Sur La Chronologie etablie Par Les Contremarques. Paris: Rolin.
Danby, Herbert.
2008 The Mishnah. Oxford: Oxford University.
Friedensburg, F.
1926 Die Munze in der Kulturgeschichte, 2nd ed. Berlin.
Harl, Kenneth W.
1996 Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to AD 700.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.
Josephus, Flavius
2006 Antiquities of the Jews. West Valley City UT: Waking Lion.
Suetonius, and John Carew Rolfe
2008 The Twelve Caesars: the Lives of the Roman Emperors. St. Petersburg FL: Red and Black.
Tsafrir, Yoram
1993 Churches in Palestine: From Constantine to the Crusaders. Pp. 1-16 in Ancient Churches Revealed. Washington DC: Biblical Archaeological Society.
Yagi, David L.
1999 Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Volume 11, Chicago: Filzroy Dearborn.

Read Scott Stripling's full article via PDF: Maqatir-Monastery-Money-_Dr-Scott-Stripling.pdf

This article was originally published in Bible and Spade Vol. 25 No. 2

Folly

The author said it: the message at the very heart of his faith was folly, not worth the paper it was written on, at least to some; but to others it was the very essence of genius, the high bar of wisdom and the core of true spirituality. Indeed, to demonstrate the profound contrasts in the way the crucifixion of Christ was perceived the writer explained plainly, “Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24, NIV).

But why these polar opposite reactions; why was the crucifixion of Christ viewed by some as nonsense but by others as profound wisdom? Further, to the modern reader who is far removed from the crucifixion of Christ, doesn’t the whole business often seem to be, honestly, quite irrelevant in any case? Yet, there was indeed much ado about something for those who experienced the event firsthand; and for those today with a curious mind, the search to know why it had such an impact and why it brought such varying reactions can lead to some interesting insight into this epoch-making death—a death that still touches us to this very day. Accordingly, let us take a look at the history and practice of the act of crucifixion itself with the hope of gaining some insight into this violent death of Jesus.

Crucifixion-History-and-Practice-Michael-Caba.pdf

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord (Lk 2:8-11).

It must have been an awesome sight: the Judean darkness shattered by celestial glory and an angel of the Lord proclaiming the birth of the Messiah. The message was certainly momentous, and the heavenly declaration befitting a heavenly King. The recipients, however, were not necessarily those we would expect. Shepherds?!?

While shepherding as a profession historically included illustrious company like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Amos, by the time of Jesus it had fallen into disrepute. They were lower-class peasants who were considered untrustworthy and whose work rendered them ceremonially unclean.1 Later rabbinic sources indicate a common contempt for the occupation in the years after Jesus, warning the pious not to buy wool, milk or kids from shepherds, assuming they were stolen, and noting that shepherds were not allowed to testify as witnesses in a court of law.2 Yet it was to these shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night and not to the rich and influential of the day that God sent the angel to announce the birth of the Christ.

Both the biblical text and ancient tradition place the shepherds near Bethlehem when the good news was proclaimed to them. In his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim describes Migdal Eder, a watchtower along the ancient road leading north from Bethlehem to Jerusalem where shepherds pastured special flocks for sacrifices at the temple.3 Another possible location with ancient ties is the village of Beit Sahour, 2 km east of Bethlehem. Excavations by Corbo in 1951 revealed that people from the Herodian and Roman times inhabited the caves nearby, suggesting that a small farming community grazed their flocks in the nearby fields.4 Today visitors can tour the Church of the Shepherds’ Field that celebrates the angel’s announcement to the shepherds. Regardless of the exact location, the biblical description of shepherds near Bethlehem has historical connections and it was to shepherds like these to whom the privilege of being the first heralds of the birth of the new King was given.

Being the first to bring good news was considered an honored position in the ancient world. The first to bring a report of victory from a battle were often rewarded (2 Sm 18:22). In Imperial Rome, "good news" declarations were well known. When Paullus Fabius Maximus proposed that the Roman new year begin on Caesar Augustus’ birthday, the provincial assembly declared: "Whereas Caesar when he appeared exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good tidings...and whereas the birthday of the god marked for the world the beginning of good tidings through his coming..."5 In similar fashion, the angel announced good tidings of the coming of the one True God in human form.

In making this announcement, the first evangelist truly was the angel of the Lord; "I bring you good news," he declared. In the Greek language that the gospel of Luke was originally written in, this thought is expressed with the word euaggelizoœ, from which we get the phrase evangelize...to preach the gospel (good news). Indeed, Wycliffe translated this verse as, "I evangelize you a great joy."6 What was the good news of great joy the angel brought? "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Lk 2:11). To lowly shepherds the angel of the Lord brought the good news that they could be saved through the long-awaited Messiah, and this offer was open to all. This message included a sign with which to find the baby and was accompanied by an angelic choir singing God’s glory.

Palestine BeitSahour3 tango7174

 

Church of the Shepherds' Field, Beit Sahour, Palestine

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (Lk 2:15-20).

With their response, the shepherds in turn also become evangelists. After seeing the new Messiah King for themselves they immediately begin to "spread the word" about him. As the Angel of the Lord had evangelized them, they begin to evangelize the town of Bethlehem, telling others what they themselves had been told about the child. Can you imagine what that would have been like? Dirty shepherds rushing through the streets of Bethlehem proclaiming the good news. "Have you heard? The Messiah has been born. He’s the Lord and he’s come to save us all." The people are "amazed" at this news. Perhaps they’re amazed that the Messiah has come in their lifetime. Maybe they're amazed that the angel of the Lord would actually visit a group of shepherds. It could be that they’re amazed at the implications of the message, that God would send his Son to save the world.

Two thousand years later, people continue to spread the good news of Jesus’ birth and his reason for coming, echoing the words of those first evangelists. There is much we can learn from them, but three lessons stand out:

1. Availability – The shepherds were not professional orators, nor practiced heralds. They could have kept the good news to themselves, but humble as they were, they were available and allowed themselves to be used by God to spread his message of peace on earth good will to man. Some today may not feel they’re gifted to be evangelists. In an age of professional televangelists and mega-church pastors, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that God often uses the weak, lowly and despised to accomplish His purposes (1 Co 1:27-28).

2. Urgency – Don’t miss the fact that the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem and then immediately began to spread the word. This was good news of great joy for all people. The shepherds’ haste and instant evangelism challenge us to understand the urgency of the gospel...this is good news that must be shared!

3. Sincerity – Finally, notice the personal response of the shepherds. They returned to their sheep-filled fields glorifying and praising God, no doubt filled with joy. To them, the news was more than just an announcement of an amazing birth. They got it...personally. When the angels evangelized them, they responded with glad and sincere hearts and praised God as they exited the city of Bethlehem that night. Does the gospel continue to cause our hearts to swell in praise to God for all that He has done for us? The angel evangelized the shepherds, who evangelized the town of Bethlehem. In the 2000 years since, people who have responded to the good news have, in turn, shared it with others as the gospel has spread throughout the world. From one evangelist to another, may we, like the first evangelists, spread the joyous message that Christ has come to save the world.

Notes

1 Liefeld, Walter L. "Luke." Matthew, Mark and Luke, 1984, p. 845. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version, general editor, Frank E. Gæbelein, vol. 9, Zondervan, 1976-92.
2 http://jesuswalk.com/lessons/2_8-20.htm
3 Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Longman, Green, and Co. London. 1883. p. 186-187.
4 http://www.bethlehem.custodia.org/default.asp?id=487
5 Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke, 1997, p. 133. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, general editors, Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee, Eerdmans, 1940-1997.
6 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%202:10-12&version=WYC

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