On Pomegranates, Scrolls and Coins

Inscribed pomegranate. This piece of art brings us back to the monarchy and religion at the time of the First Temple of Jerusalem, built by Solomon, King David's son. Archaeological exploration has revealed very little of this splendid structure described in the Bible. The inscribed pomegranate is the only artifact ever discovered from the First Temple. It is preserved in The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The small carved piece of ivory in the shape of a pomegranate presents an early Hebrew inscription around the neck: "Belonging to the House [of Yahwe]h holy to the priests."[1] This would be the only archaeological find from the 1st Temple of Solomon.[2] It has been dated according to its textual style to 8th century BCE. It may have been used as a scepter top piece, this being evidenced by a hole in its base.

Controversy has also raged about the symbolic fruit on the reverse of the shekels. Though it has been identified both as "an almond stave" and a "lilly with three flowers," the consensus of most numismatists is that the design depicts a pomegranate branch with three fruits.

The pomegranate, rimmon in Hebrew, is a round fruit with a rind that is usually yellow inside with either a deep pink- or red-skinned peel, and with an overall dimension varying from about 2-1/2 to 5 inches wide.[3] A small calyx, the word used for the collective sepals one finds on a flower, crowns the spherical fruit on one end. This rind contains many tiny red seed sacs, reminiscent of corn kernels, each filled with sweet and juicy pink, red, or whitish pulp and a seed.
Because pomegranates contain so many succulent seeds and because their roots take easily to the soil and tend to grow rapidly, many ancient cultures viewed them as a symbol of fertility.[4]
The pomegranate plays a historically prominent role in Jewish art and décor, appearing on pottery lamps, the sides of buildings, and burial fixtures, such as sarcophagi and ossuaries. In the Bible, the pomegranate frequently adorns important religious items, such as the garment of the high priest and the pillars in Solomon’s Temple.

Make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe (Exodus 28:33-34).

... the four hundred pomegranates for the two sets of network, two rows of pomegranates for each network, decorating the bowl-shaped capitals on top of the pillars (1 Kings 7:42).

Pomegranates are also mentioned as one of the seven species that blessed the Land of Israel: ... a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey (Deuteronomy 8:8).

And even in Jeremiah: The bronze capital on top of one pillar was five cubits high and was decorated with a network of pomegranates of bronze all around. The other pillar, with its pomegranates, was similar. There were ninety-six pomegranates on the sides; the total number of pomegranates above the surrounding network was a hundred (Jeremiah 52: 22-23).

They have also appeared on scrolls, as well as on the Shewbred Table and the Temple Menorah. More specifically, branches with three pomegranates, similar to the ones on the shekels, adorn the marble screen in the synagogue at Hamat Tiberias and decorate a ring found in Jerusalem. The Mishna also mentions three pomegranates referring to the uncleanness of utensils. All utensils [of wood] belonging to private persons [and which are broken by reason of having contracted uncleanness, recover the status of cleanness if their breaches are of] such a size that pomegranates [can pass through them]. The pomegranates of which [the sages] have spoken are three clinging to one another (Kelim 17:1).

Therefore, the branches were used as a measure the amount of space needed to determine ceremonial cleanness.

The number three also has Biblical significance, as it indicates a substantial quantity, and signifies a change of status or definition, as well as completion and perfection.
Furthermore Judaic tradition asserts that every pomegranate holds 613 seeds, representative of the 613 commandments of the Torah (mitzvoth).[5]

The Dead Sea Scrolls. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been dated to between the first century BCE. and the first century CE. They are almost a thousand years older than the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of Biblical texts that have been preserved. The scrolls were discovered in 1947. They are among the most symbolic manuscripts of all Hebrew manuscripts, being examples of this the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness (War Scroll), the Community Rule and Isaiah B.[6]

Hebrew manuscript. Dead Sea Scrolls: The Community Rule, Qumran. Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Hebrew manuscript. Dead Sea Scrolls: Manual of Discipline, col. 3, det., Qumrān Cave 1. Granger Collection, N.Y. (Britannica).

The First Jewish Revolt. Instability and conflict were nothing new to Judea in the 1st century of the Common Era. Conquered by the Romans in 63 BCE, Judea stayed under their rule until the empire collapsed. Policy toward the Jews, however, could hardly be considered stable. As noted by Moshe and David Aberach, imperial policy was "a weird counterpoint of tolerance and intolerance, appeasement and suppression, rights and prejudices, benefits and humiliations, privilege and provocation, admiration and contempt." Julius Caesar, for one, granted the Jews privileges, including freedom of worship, exemption from army service and emperor worship, and exemption from tax in Judea during the Sabbatical year, if only because the Jews had displayed their readiness to die for their beliefs in previous revolts against the Greeks. As one of the least assimilated groups in the empire, the Jews were upset by their "ambiguous status" and were also divided politically and spiritually amongst themselves.
Roman-Judeo relations, however, worsened after both the reign of Herod the Great (37-34 BCE) as governor of Galilee, and the official annexation of Judea. Herod, attempting to gain favor with Rome, taxed the Jews heavily and manipulated the Judean elite, also offending them by bringing Roman idols worship to their land. He rebuilt the Temple with hopes of promoting Hellenization, but instead, the Jews viewed it as a symbol of national pride, and it "became a magnet for anti-Roman feeling and activism."
In May of 66 CE, the Roman procurator, Florus, sent troops to plunder Jerusalem, and the Jews retaliated, overpowering Roman garrisons all over Jerusalem. Thus began the First Jewish Revolt. Pressing onward, they continued to recapture Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. From 67 to 68 CE rebels ruled the entire country, and four leaders emerged: John of Giscala, Simon ben Giora, Eleazar the Priest, and Joseph ben Matthias.
The Roman response to this rebellion was predictably brutal. Jews all around the empire were massacred. Wanting to put down the rebellion as soon as possible, the emperor, Nero, sent Flavius Vespasian, to command the Roman troops charged with quelling the Jewish resistance. They first surrounded Galilee, where Joseph ben Matthias led the Jews. Within a few months Galilee had fallen. Joseph eventually became the Roman court historian, renaming himself Flavius Josephus in Roman fashion.
By 68 CE the only remaining Jewish strongholds existed at Jerusalem and Masada; but as Vespasian zeroed in on Jerusalem, Nero died, bringing chaos upon Rome. Vespasian was then proclaimed emperor, and he sent his son Titus to finish putting down the rebellion.
Within Jerusalem, civil war raged among the zealots (led by Eleazar), the Sicarii (led by Simon ben Giora), and one opposing group (led by John of Gishala). Josephus reported that John’s men often paraded the streets in women’s clothing, seducing and killing men for sport. Simon managed to defeat John in a siege on the Temple. During this time, Eleazar pulled forces from John’s ranks, forming a yet another faction. Jerusalem was so war-torn that its citizens had to climb over dead bodies in the Temple to offer their sacrifices. Furthermore, thousands of Jews inside the city were dying of famine and plague, while Titus continued to pick away at the city’s walls. Once inside, Titus’ troops burned the temple, taking some Jews captive and slaughtering others. An estimated total of 1,100,000 people had died during the course of the war, and the revolt finally ended when the last group of zealots was put down in Masada three years later.
To commemorate their victory, the Romans minted the Judea Capta coins and constructed the Arch of Titus at the highest point of the Via Sacra which leads to the Roman Forum. One scene on the arch features the Roman soldiers plundering the Temple before its destruction.[5]

The Role of Coins in the First Revolt. Before the First Jewish Revolt, the Tyrian shekel—so called because it was originally minted in Tyre before 19 BCE—was the only coin accepted as proper payment for the Jewish Temple tax, an annual half-shekel that every Israelite male over the age of twenty was required to pay. In production since Greek rule before 126 BCE, the Tyrian tetradrachmas remained the standard for this payment long after the Romans took over the land because the Roman coins, now imported from the Far East, contained only 80% silver and were, therefore, of poorer quality than their Tyrian counterparts (95% purity). Specifically for the reason that the new silver pieces were of too poor quality to satisfy the laws about the Temple tax, Jewish religious leaders requested and were granted permission to continue minting Tyrian shekels. The Jews used Roman coins in their everyday business, but the religious authorities demanded that Tyrian shekels only be used to pay the Temple tax.

However, when war broke out in Judea, the era of the Tyrian shekel met its end. After capturing Jerusalem in 66 CE, Jewish leaders began minting their own currency as a statement of their independence from Rome and as an announcement of their goals. No one is sure, however, of who actually minted the coins. Because the Jews were divided into warring factions, we cannot be sure if only one of these factions was responsible or if some more unified governing body serving a variety of interests was responsible.
In the first year, only silver coins were minted, struck from the Temple’s silver stores, intended to be nationalistic replacements for the Tyrian shekels. These silver pieces included shekels, half-shekels, and quarter-shekels, each labeled with the year of their creation and their denomination.
Furthermore, the inscriptions on the new shekels resembled the inscriptions on the Tyrian pieces. While the reverse of the Tyrian shekels bore the words, "Tyre the Holy and City of Refuge," the reverse of the Jewish shekels read, "Jerusalem the Holy." Replacing the portrait of Hercules on the obverse of the Tyrian piece was a chalice and the words, "Shekel of Israel,"and replacing the eagle on the reverse of the Tyrian coin was a branch with three pomegranates.
In following years, the Jews began minting bronze prutot coins for everyday use because they were worth less than the shekels. Prutah is a Hebrew word found in the Mishna and Torah, meaning "a small coin" and originating from a root meaning "to break." These coins were the most commonly minted coin between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE.
The original design of the shekels was also refined. While the obverse of preliminary first year shekels contains a chalice and a ring of beads, the shekels of the latter part of the first year and those of the second year widen the ring and add a rim of pearls to the chalice. Each coin is dated in paleo-hebrew script, the letter shin (for Hebrew shanah) representing the word "year," followed by a letter representing the year in which the coin was minted: aleph for "one"; beth for "two"; gimel for "three"; dalet for "four"; and he for "five."
As the war dragged on through years four and five (69 to 71 CE), the weakening Jews began striking fewer coins. Because silver was becoming scarce, three denominations of bronze coins were minted to replace the shekels. With times growing increasingly dire, bronze had to serve as a substitute for silver for secular needs. However, in the fifth year, the last four months of the Jewish War, the only coins produced were silver shekels, and the striking of bronze coins ceased completely.
One unique characteristic of Year Four coins was their inscripted denominations. In ancient times, it was not common practice to include denominations on coins because most people simply judged their value by their size. Apparently, because the bronze coins served as silver substitutes, the addition of "half" and "quarter" was necessary to denote their values relative to silver coinage, those designated "half" being equal to half-shekels, and "quarter" to quarter-shekels.
As the war progressed and conditions worsened, the slogans on the prutot changed from "Freedom of Zion" to "To the Redemption of Zion." Some theorize that the Jewish realization of defeat spurred this alteration, for "freedom" calls for a physical state while "redemption" carries more spiritual connotations.[5]

1. Around the shoulder of the pomegranate is a carefully incised inscription in early Hebrew characters, part of which is broken off; it reads: "qodes kohanim I-beyt [yahwe]h" (Sacred donation for the priests in the House of [Yahwe]h; where "House of Yahweh" most probably refers to the Temple in Jerusalem).
2. The thumb-sized ivory pomegranate is 43 mm. high. Its body is vase-shaped and it has a long neck with six elongated petals. The body is solid with a small, rather deep hole in the base, probably for the insertion of a rod. Around the shoulder of the pomegranate is an incised inscription in paleo-Hebrew script, part of which is missing. It was, however, possible to reconstruct the missing word based on the surviving text and biblical evidence. The inscription reads: Sacred donation for the priests of the house of [Yahwe]h. This pomegranate is the only known relic associated with the Temple built by King Solomon on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. According to its paleographic style, the inscription dates to the mid-8th century BCE. The small pomegranate was probably a gift to the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem –the only such temple in the Kingdom of Judah. With its abundance of juicy seeds, the pomegranate fruit has been regarded as a symbol of fertility for thousands of years.
3. The name pomegranate derives from the Latin pomum which means "apple," and granatus, which means "seeded."
4. The juicy pomegranate fruit with its multitudinous seeds was a popular symbol of fertility and fecundity in acient times and was widely used in the sacred and secular art of various cultures throughout the ancient Near East.
5. Marcia A. Ciccone, Shekel of Israel: A Commemoration in Silver, University of Southern California, 2005
6. Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Civilization, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2003

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