A Currency Exchange Token? A New Take on the Recently Discovered Ancient Seal from Jerusalem

One thing that puzzles me about the recently discovered seal from Jerusalem is its Aramaic inscription. The seal reads דכא ליה (‘pure to Yah[weh]’), and evidently has some sort of ritual significance. Shukron and Reich argued that the seal was probably placed on objects to certify their purity and, therefore, declare them fit for use in the temple. The one thing that surprises me about this, however, is that the inscription is clearly in Aramaic, not Hebrew. This would be highly unusual for a priestly item. Deutsch offers an alternative theory that the seal was a token used in the monetary exchange for a libation offered in the temple. The use of Aramaic in this case would make more sense, as a lay person was involved in the exchange. However, the phrase ‘pure for Yaw(weh)’ seems a little peripheral to the exchange itself.

I want to propose a slightly different understanding of this little seal.

We know that the moneychangers in the Jerusalem temple exchanged ordinary coins with Tyrian silver coins. These Tyrian coins were noted for the purity of their silver. While most silver coins in the Roman Empire were only 80% silver, the Tyrian coins were approximately 94% silver—the highest purity level of all coins. They were, therefore, deemed as fit for monetary exchanges in the temple, as well as the collection of the famous half-shekel temple tax. On their obverse, these coins bore the image of the Tyrian god Melqart (Olympian Herakles), also known as Baal Zebul (‘Eminent Lord’). The Jews often referred to this deity pejoratively as Baal Zebub (‘Lord of flies’). The reverse bore the image of an eagle. Both images were prohibited under the Mosaic Law. However, it was generally agreed that the purity of the silver outweighed the fact of the coins’ images. It was, after all, virtually impossible to find aniconic coins (i.e. coins without images on them) in antiquity, and the Romans never allowed Judea to mint aniconic coins, since it would be deemed too much autonomy. Control over the minting of coins was very important, since, like today, it signified political and economic sovereignty (this is why the Jews began minting their own coins during the Bar Kochba Revolt in AD 132–135). The Tyrian coins were minted in Tyre for over a century, until the Romans closed the Tyrian mint in c. 18 BC—just after Herod’s renovation of the Jerusalem temple began. The coins, however, continued to be minted, although exactly where we are unsure. In any case, the continued minting of these coins meant that Tyrian silver was deemed the official currency of the temple in the first century.

A Tyrian Silver Shekel (c.115 BC) showing Herakles on the obverse, and an eagle on the reverse.

Since all monetary purchases in the temple were made in Tyrian silver, it seems reasonable that there was some kind of system in place to guarantee that pilgrims were using the correct currency exchanged at the temple. The recently discovered seal from the Old City of Jerusalem may have served this purpose. A pilgrim would come to Jerusalem with whatever coins they had, and would go to an officially sanctioned moneychanger in or near the temple complex. They would hand over their coins, receive Tyrian silver in exchange, as well as a token (the seal) guaranteeing the purity of the silver they were receiving. Whether the seal was given loosely or attached to a bag in some way is not known. However, the token was written in Aramaic so that a lay person (a pilgrim) might understand that they had received pure currency that was officially endorsed by the temple authorities. The pilgrim would then take these Tyrian silver coins, along with the accompanying token, and use them to make purchases, such as sacrificial animals or libations, within the temple itself.

In other words, the recently discovered seal from Jerusalem is a currency exchange token enabling the bearer to make purchases within the temple.

Your thoughts welcome.

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20 thoughts on “A Currency Exchange Token? A New Take on the Recently Discovered Ancient Seal from Jerusalem

  1. You seem to be suggesting 2 things here. Firstly, that the token would verify that the Pilgrim was getting the real deal when trading in his money for temple cash. And secondly, that the token was proof for traders inside the temple that the Pilgrim was using acceptable Temple currency.

    On the first idea, why would the pilgrim have any reason to doubt the Temple exchange system?

    And on the second one, I can’t see how such a tiny portable device could function as an effective indicator within the Temple that the coins being wielded by the Pilgrim really were Tyrian. Too portable, too easily produced/copied.

    • Excellent observations and questions, Tom!

      Firstly, the Jerusalem temple priests had monopolised the currency exchange within the temple. Indications are that pilgrims were forced to exchange their coins in the temple, even if they had Tyrian silver already. This way, both pilgrim and priest could be sure of the purity of the silver, but the priest could also ensure a commission from every transaction. From the pilgrim’s point of view, they would have wanted some kind of guarantee that the money they were getting was indeed the real deal so that they couldn’t be accused of bringing in their own silver, but rather could show evidence of having made an exchange. Furthermore, the seal-token may well have been attached to something else, such as a bag or a document, that in some way ensured proof of exchange. The seal-tokens would have rarely left the temple grounds (perhaps the reason why only one has thus far been found).

      However, the seal-token would have been more for the benefit of the priest than the pilgrim. A priest receiving one of these tokens could be satisfied that the pilgrim had completed the exchange within the temple grounds, and therefore that the money was ‘in the bank’. While this wouldn’t have been a foolproof method of guaranteeing payment, in antiquity it would have been pretty good. Remember, bullae like this one were stamped from rings or cylinders bearing the original imprint. A forger would need to recreate the seal making the imprint, which a priest could authenticate, and source supplies for whatever else was necessary (e.g. clay from a potter, a willing scribe to forge a document, etc.) — no easy task, especially if you’re a pilgrim from out of town with few or no connections in Jerusalem. And if you’re a law-observant Jew making the long trek to Jerusalem, you’re probably not the sort of person to want to be forging things anyway.

      Furthermore, the seal would only have been worth forging if you originally had Tyrian silver in the first place. You couldn’t take your average denarii with a seal to pay for a sacrifice or libation, because the currency wouldn’t have been accepted in the temple complex. If, as seems to have been the case, the priestly families (who were fabulously wealthy) monopolised the currency exchange and sacrificial supplies on the temple grounds itself, then this little token (and whatever else came with it) would have gone some way to ensuring that pilgrims went through the bottleneck of exchange and payment within the temple. Also, given how much money was probably involved in the temple’s daily transactions, there probably wasn’t much Tyrian silver in general circulation. There would need to be a study supply of it within the temple grounds itself to meet the demand of pilgrims. This means that most of the money coming into the temple was other currency brought by worshippers, and this same currency would then have been used by the priests in their own discretionary spending outside the temple. But the Tyrian silver mostly stayed put.

      So, in short, there would have been little scope for a pilgrim to forge the seal-token. It would have helped in some way to guarantee for them that they had gone through the expensive rigmarole of exchange on the temple grounds. However, more critically, it would have been something that the priests could use in their attempts to monopolise currency exchange and sacrificial purchases.

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  3. Your theory sounds perfectly reasonable overall, but I’m hung up on one element of your reasoning: “the token was written in Aramaic so that a lay person (a pilgrim) might understand that they had received pure currency that was officially endorsed by the temple authorities….” This seems potentially problematic to me because of the general consensus about literacy rates. Sure, the average Jewish layman of the time in question spoke Aramaic, but isn’t it also the case that the *average* Jewish layman probably couldn’t read in any language? And wouldn’t most of those who *could* read at all have been in the minority elite, able to read at least some small amount of Hebrew? Your reasoning in the sentence quoted above depends implicitly upon the existence of some middle ground population, who (unlike the majority of illiterate people) could read a little Aramaic but who also (unlike the priests and other types of learned elite) could not read/recognize even one very simple word of Hebrew. (And since “to God” would be the same in either language, the difference really is just one word: דכא in Aramaic, instead of the cognate זך in Hebrew.) Who constituted this educational middle class? What proportion of the population who arrived at the Temple to undertake these transactions would have been part of it? Or, alternatively, if there is some other element I’m missing here, or some other way in which I am being dense, I look forward to being corrected.

    Thanks,
    Seth C
    New York, NY

    • Hi Seth!

      As I mentioned in my reply to Tom, the seal-token presumably had significance for both pilgrim and priest. You’re right: the average pilgrim probably couldn’t read. But that fact is probably peripheral to the working of the system. The pilgrim wouldn’t need to be able to read the seal-token. What was more important was the possession of one, rather than the ability to read it. The priest who would have received it back from a paying pilgrim would most certainly have been able to read it. Furthermore, my guess is that the seal-token was attached to something, like a written receipt. Again, the important thing was not that the pilgrim could read it, but that the pilgrim had one that could be read by another priest.

      One further thing to notice is that the seal talks about purity rather than holiness. In other words, it didn’t designate something that had been sanctified for cultic use, but rather something that was designated as neutral — that is, not unclean. This, to me, suggests the seal-token was used outside the cult (strictly defined as what took place at the altar and the sanctuary), but evidently had some connection to the temple by virtue of the inscription. The currency exchange system seems to fit nicely.

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  5. Intuitively I am inclined to agree with you that Temple ritual objects would use Hebrew rather than Aramaic. But do we actually have any positive evidence that this was so? Any comments in Josephus or the Mishnah or whatever? It’s always iffy to second guess what people in antiquity would do or not do.

    • I had the same thought, Jim. You’ve hit on a methodological issue, and I’m keen not to impose modern expectations onto antiquity. However, the temple cult was in large measure prescribed in Hebrew (e.g. Exodus, Leviticus). We know the High Priest’s turban was labelled with Hebrew, and Zech 14.20 describes a situation (albeit one of wishful thinking) in which vessels are also labelled in Hebrew. I would date Zech 14 to c.300 BC, but even if you date it earlier, it still comes from a Second Temple milieu. It does, therefore, seem that holy objects used in the cult were marked as such with Hebrew labels. Aramaic, on the other hand, seems to come from a more popular or ‘lay’ milieu. So, while it still may be that Aramaic was used even for cultic objects, the circumstantial evidence suggests they would have been marked in Hebrew. So, that’s what I’m going with. However, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s circumstantial evidence, not corroboration. This may well be another case in which antiquity surprises us. Pending further evidence of that, though, I’ll side with the circumstantial evidence.

      • This is a very unreasonable leap. Objects that were officially sanctioned for use in the temple were of course inscribed in Hebrew. Some of them were required to be so by law. However, administrative and clerical items were inscribed in lay language. Just because they were used to facilitate temple practices does not make it part of the ‘temple cult’.
        We find explicitly in the Mishna Shekalim that some vessels were inscribed in Greek.

        • Thanks David. I take it, then, that you think Reich and Shukron are making an unreasonable leap? I too find the use of Aramaic puzzling for cultic objects.

          Also, do you have specific references to give us?

          • I think you misunderstand me. While your theory is plausible, it is not probable. The usage of ליה for currency purity is strange. My objection was to the premise that Aramaic was not used in the Temple. There is no evidence for that, and in fact, I quoted an example from the Mishna. In tractate Shekalim, chapter 3 mishna 2, the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael is that baskets were used that were marked in Greek.

            • I see what you’re saying now, David. Nonetheless, that there was no evidence for the use of Aramaic in a temple context evidently now needs to be reconsidered. Yes, I agree, the use of Aramaic is somewhat unusual. I find it surprising. However, the inscription does seem to have some kind of temple connection, though I doubt it is specifically cultic. The use of ליה in the seal can be explained as overriding the images of Melqart on the coins. My argument is that the seal has a predominantly economic use, albeit within a religious context. Does the Mishnah say anything more about the exchange of currency in the temple?

              • My point is that there can be any number of administrative or utilitarian ways in which lay language was used. We will never know exactly, but what is certain is that such language was used. Except for an actual ritual practice or sanctioned item such as the breastplate, or turban.
                Actually, regarding the currency exchange there is a great deal in the mishna. In tractate Maasar Sheni and Shekalim.

  6. “The reverse bore the image of an eagle. Both images were prohibited under the Mosaic Law.”

    Perhaps an exaggeration. Herod’s eagle on the Temple gate caused a riot, but there’s no record of any protest about his eagle coin. It could be that they were more relaxed about images on currency, or perhaps it was proximity to the Temple which led to trouble over the eagle on the gate.

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  8. Is there any chance that the DK> ‘pure’ totally is a hoax and the chain of letters had better be analysed D- ‘of/belonging to’ + a personal name ending in -YH (-yah(u))?
    Has the way it is currently read -DK>LYH- been proved beyond doubt?

    • No, it hasn’t been proved beyond doubt. However, the seal was found in controlled conditions, so it appears to be genuine. Without a personal inspection of the seal, I can’t confirm exactly what the letters are. I can only rely on current images and the opinions of others who have personally inspected the seal.

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  10. I’m not at all impressed by low estimates of ancient literacy. We know from the DSS that spelling was not standardized in ancient times, even among scribes. We have numerous examples of schoolboy scribbles to show that literacy was taught. And why shouldn’t every boy have been taugt to read and write? I set out this morning to teach myself paleo-Hebrew and by noon I was able to read the entire Jehoash inscription (which contains 21 different letters). Yes, writing material was expensive or not easy to use, but the rarity of ancient writings does not directly translate to the rarity of ancient literacy.

    • Yes, but you’re learning from within a literate and education-soaked context, and are already literate. So the experiment doesn’t really approximate an ancient person trying to learn from scratch. Literacy was certainly not widespread, since literary products are not commonplace in antiquity. They seem to be concentrated. It wasn’t 0%, but it doesn’t seem high.

      Have you interacted with the likes of Jamieson-Drake, Ian Young, and Seth Sanders?

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