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Treasures in Clay Jars

Earlier this year a well-known New Testament scholar visited Antalya, Turkey. The two of us spoke to a group of pastors and their spouses from international churches in Europe and the Middle East.

A coin hoard stored in a clay jar at the Aydın Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

During one session my friend spoke about a familiar text written by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The Greek word for clay is ostrakinos, from which the archaeological term “ostraca”—pottery sherds—is derived. He argued that the references to light in verses 4 and 6 strongly suggest that clay lamps were the ceramic objects in Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage. So Paul developed his analogy about the fragility of the human body from the clay lamps used in antiquity to provide light. Such lamps are discovered regularly at archaeological excavations. My friend’s idea seemed plausible, but because Paul used the general word vessel (skeuos) and not the specific word for lamp (lychnos), I was not totally sold on this interpretation.

On the post-conference tour we joined a group traveling to Cyprus. There we visited the Cyprus National Museum in Nicosia, which houses a small but rich collection of artifacts. One display in particular jumped out at me—a clay pot lying on its side with a bunch of coins spilling out of its mouth. The description said it was a coin hoard found nearby dating from the first century C.E. The topic of coin hoards caught my interest, and I discovered that archaeologists and treasure hunters working in the Greco-Roman world have found thousands of such hoards. The size of these hoards ranges from fifty to fifty thousand coins. The coins were buried in clay jars for safe keeping, often in times of warfare or instability. Coins were also hoarded for ritual purposes as votive offerings. The phenomenon was so well known that Jesus told a parable about a man who found such a hoard and sold all his possessions to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). The Greek word for “treasure” (thesaurus) used by Jesus is the same word that Paul used in 2 Corinthians 4:7. So they seem to be talking about the same thing!

Coin hoards can be seen in many archaeological museums in Turkey. One of the most famous—the Elmalı Hoard—is now on display in the Antalya Archaeological Museum. In 1984 three Turks with a metal detector discovered a clay jar buried in a muddy field. The jar contained some 1900 silver coins struck by the Attica-Delos League. The hoard included fourteen rare, medallion-sized decadrahmi produced by Athens to celebrate its victory over the Persians. The hoard was smuggled illegally out of Turkey and sold to collectors, much of it going to the wealthy American businessman William I. Koch. After a decade-long lawsuit initiated by the Turkish government, Koch returned 1,661 coins to Turkey in 1999. While visiting the new archaeological museum at Aydın (ancient Tralles) recently, I saw two coin hoards on display. The hoards were found at excavations nearby and consisted of Hellenistic bronze coins (4th century B.C.E) and silver Roman coinage (40–270 C.E.). The clay jars that contained these hoards were well-preserved and displayed next to the coins (see one in photo).

The ubiquity of hoards in antiquity, both in time and region, suggests that the phenomenon was so well known that Paul could reasonably use it as an analogy. However, these treasures—the coin hoards mentioned in 2 Corinthians 4:7—were never placed in clay lamps but rather in clay jars.

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Money Talks through Ancient Coins

Usually I have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to attend a conference. But recently, one was held near my office here in Antalya, Turkey, at the Ramada Plaza Hotel. Sponsored by the local Research Institute on Mediterranean Civilizations, it was titled the “First International Congress on Anatolian Monetary History and Numismatics.”

The First International Congress on Anatolian Monetary History and Numismatics.

Numismatics is a unique scholarly discipline that spans archaeology, ancient history and epigraphy. It seems the axiom “money talks” is true. Much information can come from an ancient coin: the name of a king or emperor as well as his regnal titles, the names of governors or elite citizens and a city’s symbols, local gods and goddess and foundation myths. Coins are also one of the primary means of dating archaeological remains. Sealed in a stratum, they can provide conclusive evidence for the date of that level.

I was eager to learn about new discoveries and developments in the field. One of the speakers was the French authority Michel Amandry, whose work on Roman imperial coinage I had consulted during my doctoral research. In Biblical studies the field of numismatics helps to illustrate the influence of Roman imperialism. Even Jesus discussed coinage on one occasion with the Pharisees and Herodians. He asked whose image and inscription (Greek: epigraphē) was on the denarius, and they replied that it was Caesar’s (Mark 12:16).

Roman Coins with Prof Kevin Butcher – Render unto Caesar

But which Caesar was it? Numismatics has provided us with an answer. One of the congress’s speakers was Kevin Butcher, an authority on Roman Syria, who has discussed the “Jesus coin” in above video. He explains why the image on the coin could only be that of Augustus, contrary to some popular opinions. His research has shown that denarii of Tiberius, the emperor who lived during the time of Jesus, never circulated in Judea.

A denarius from the reign of Augustus. Eretz Museum, Tel Aviv.

Something that struck me during the congress was the presentation of unprovenanced coinage sold at auctions. Various galleries and images connected to coin dealers were cited. I asked two of the numismatists at the congress about this. Readers of BHD know, some archaeological publications refuse to cite or publish unprovenanced material.* Both scholars told me that to ignore such coins would be to severely limit our understanding of ancient mints and coinage types. And they also believed that ignoring illegally excavated coins would not stem the flood of unprovenanced coinage entering the market.

In Turkey it is illegal for anyone except registered collectors to possess ancient coins. These collectors must maintain a detailed inventory that is reviewed regularly by a local museum. Because of Turkey’s numerous ancient sites, old Greek and Roman coins are frequently found, and many are collected clandestinely or sold on the antiquities market, from where they are shipped overseas. Turkish museums try to purchase ancient coins, particularly hoards, when they are found. Since most local museums display coins from the area, they usually have funds to purchase these coins. But the prices paid on the illegal market are often higher, especially when the coins are made of precious metals.

A final bonus at the congress was to see my friend, Inci Turkoğlu, give an outstanding presentation on the coins of Chalcedon, an ancient city located on the Asian side of the Bosporus in Istanbul. Numismatics is one portion of her doctoral dissertation being written on Constantinople’s sister city and the site of the Fourth Ecumenical Church Council in 451 CE. I walked away from the congress with a fresh appreciation for this specialized discipline and grateful for the contribution of these numismatists who helped me better understand the ancient world.