Modified: April 2011
by David Levine, ancient coin expert & jewelry designer
The Widow’s Mite is the most fascinating of the New Testament coins. The "mite" or "pruta" was the smallest of the bronze coins in Jewish currency. These coins were frequently mentioned in the New Testament manuscripts as we can read, for example in Mark 12:41-44, "And He sat down over against the treasury, and beheld how the multitude cast money into the treasury; and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, This poor widow cast in more than all they are casting into the treasury: for they did cast in of their superfluity; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living."
The smallest bronze coins in circulation at the time were the pruta coins of the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty. The period of the Hasmoneans extended over some 130 years, from the Maccabean revolt in 167 B.C. until the murder of the last of the dynasty, Mattathias Antigonus, in 37 B.C. After the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 163 B.C., the Seleucid dynasty of Syria began to decline, giving encouragement to the Hasmoneans in their ambition to renew the political independence of the Jewish people following the military successes of Judah Maccabee. It was Antiochus VII Sidites who, according to 1 Maccabees 15: 2-9, sent an epistle to Simeon, last of the Maccabee brothers and the first to achieve actual rule (142-135 B.C.), in which he specifically stated: "...I give thee leave also to coin money for thy country with thine own stamp...."
Thus the small pruta coins, which were to become famous for thousands of years, were struck in Jerusalem from the time of the earliest Maccabees, and by their successor, King Herod the Great.
How were these coins made? Typical coin production process from the ancient world was done in the following way:
1. Metal is melted in the furnace.
2. The molten metal is poured into molds making coin blanks.
3. The blanks are taken out of the mold as soon as they are solid but still warm.
4. The hot blank is placed on the bottom die. The top die is placed over it and struck with the hammer.
The only difference between this process and the production in Jerusalem was that the molds for the coin blanks had the coins lined up in a straight line with a shallow canal between them so that they were cast as one piece and then cut off from this cast mold. You can usually see the place where the coins were cut.
There are several different types of Widow’s Mite coins. The Cornucopia type had the double horn of plenty with a pomegranate in the center. These are symbols from the Temple in Jerusalem. The reverse of the coin written in ancient Hebrew script is: “Yonaton the High Priest and the Hever of the Jews”. Another is the Hellenistic type. Hellenism at the time had a great influence over the Holy Land, and this can be seen even in the coins, where the High Priest, Alexander Yannai, took a Greek name and called himself king instead of High Priest. The obverse has an anchor (symbolizing his fleet of ships) and an inscription in Greek, “Of Alexander the King”. The reverse has an eight-rayed star.
The debate is still going on why Yannai took thousands of the Hellistic type coins, rubbed them down and had the Temples style coin re-struck on top of the old coin blanks. These coins are the most exciting and controversial of all the coins of the Maccabees.
All of these coins were used in Jerusalem until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. What most people first think about when they hold one of these coins in their hand is, “who touched this coin 2000 years ago?” Am I really holding a coin that was in someone’s hand during the time of the Temple, during the time of Jesus and the disciples?”
David Levine is a renowned ancient coin expert and jewelry designer. His love affair with ancient coins began over 40 years ago when he first studied archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem under the world famous Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin. Living in Jerusalem, walking the ancient pathways in the Old City, and visiting the ancient sites all over Israel brought David a whole new connection with history and appreciation for what can be learned from the people who were here before us.
Although David’s working career as a high school and college teacher, his hobby of making jewelry skyrocketed into a lifetime pursuit as soon as he began setting ancient coins in handmade gold settings. But for David it wasn’t enough to just buy the coins--he always had to know the history behind the coin. Every coin was a new challenge: Where was it from? Who were the people who minted these coins and what was their life like? The search for these answers became an avocation and then a new career.
David studied Italian and Greek to allow him to personally speak with museum experts as he travels all over the ancient Roman and Greek world. Italy, Sicily, Rhodes, Turkey, Greece, England--the list is long. And every trip is a combination of museums and archaeological sites, always combining the history with the quest to see more coins in every major coin museum in Europe.
David says, "The thing I love most about my job is the excuse to travel all over the world looking for coins, meeting the people who sell them, and photographing the places where coins are found. I've also developed a deep respect for history from all the reading I do when I research the coins."