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.

Ancient Seal found in Jerusalem

A small clay seal (bulla) has been unearthed during excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem. The button-sized seal dates approximately to the first century AD—close to the end of the Second Temple Era. It is inscribed in Aramaic with the words דכא ליה, meaning ‘pure to Yah(weh)’. This almost certainly suggests the seal was originally from the temple complex.

Archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron have interpreted the seal as something that temple officials placed on an object, such as a jar of oil, to mark it as fit for ritual use within the Jerusalem temple. The Mishnah documents the purity standards that were likely used in the temple, and stipulates the use of such seals.

Robert Deutsch, however, has a slightly different interpretation. According to Deutsch, the evidence of finger prints on the back of the seal precludes it from being something that was pressed into objects for ritual use. Instead, he points to a different passage in the Mishnah (Kedoshim, Tamid 3.3) that mentions a ‘chamber of seals’ in the temple. A pilgrim wanting to offer a libation at the temple would hand over money to one order of the priests in the chamber of seals, in exchange for which they received a token. This token was then given to another order of priests as proof of payment for a libation, and the libation was subsequently offered to God on the pilgrim’s behalf. Deutsch interprets the recently found seal as one of these very token.

My personal opinion? I like Deutsch’s explanation except for one thing: I can’t see how the inscription on the seal (‘pure for Yah[weh]) relates specifically to the ritual transaction described in the Mishnah. I tend, therefore, to favour Reich and Shukron’s understanding. But what surprises me about this is the use of Aramaic rather than Hebrew for something that appears to be rather priestly in nature.

Whichever way it’s understood, it seems almost certain that this tiny little find is one of the few physical artefacts that confirms documentary evidence of ritual practice in the Jerusalem Temple.

More on this can be found here.