The Temple Tax “30 Pieces of Silver” Shekel of Tyre
The shekel of Tyre, along with the “Widow’s Mite” lepton coin and the “Tribute Penny” silver Tiberius denarius are among the most popular coins with collectors of Biblical interest. The Tyre shekel is referred to a number of times in the New Testament since it was a coin of significant importance in Israel during the time of Christ.
Originally, the silver shekels, both the full shekel and half shekel, were produced in the city of Tyre. By the half century before the birth of Christ, they had become the predominant coin in the Judaeo-Phoenician area of the world. After Rome occupied Israel, Israel was no longer authorized to mint their own currency. Since the Jewish Talmud required the Temple tax to be paid with a coin of high purity of silver, the Tyre shekels and half shekels were the only acceptable coins available that met Jewish law requirement.
While the shekels of Tyre were part of the centuries old progression of the Greek tetradrachm coins. Shekels of Tyre were considered financially stable and of good silver quality, they did present one major problem however, the use of these coins violated the First Commandment: “I am the Lord, your God. You shall have no other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on earth below, or under the sea.” In fact, the silver shekels minted in Tyre were doubly blasphemous - they depicted the head of Baal, the chief deity of the Phoenicians on the obverse and on the reverse, they depicted an eagle engraved in the Egyptian style, with on claw resting on a ship's rudder. To make matter worse, the inscription read "Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable". Hardly an appropriate coin for the Temple.
So the Jews had a dilemma, either to not accept the coin and have a poor treasury, or the accept the coin with the graven images and have a Temple filled with currency. They chose to accept the money. However, since few devout Jews would carry a coin with a graven image, money changers set up business in the Temple courtyards to exchange whatever coins they carried for the shekels in which they could pay their Temple tax. The money changers knew that they could take advantage of the tax paying Jews and therefore they charged premium prices for their services. It was these moneychangers that Jesus overturned their tables and cried out "My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!" Matthew 21:12-14
In 19 BC, the Roman government decided to reduce the silver purity in the Tyre shekels. Even though the Jews were not authorized to mint their own currency, they negotiated an agreement with the Romans to mint the Shekel in Jerusalem maintaining the higher purity of silver. Therefore starting in 18 BC and continuing through 66 AD, the Jerusalem minted their own shekels. The coins were marked on the reverse behind the eagle’s head with the letters KP. While there are a few really nice detailed Jerusalem shekels, most of these KP coins are of lower quality images. Considering that the Jews really did not want the graven images, they probably took no real care to make them look nice. However, after the Jewish revolt took place in 66-70 AD, the Jews minted their own shekels and took priding in minting quality image coins with their own proper amphora images. All of these Jewish Revolt shekels are pretty much always in superb condition. The coins never really circulated much, however, since the Roman government after 70 AD outlawed usage of these coins and many of these Jewish Revolt shekels were melted down for other purposes.
Old Testament Shekels
The earliest shekels as we often read going way back to Genesis were a unit of weight, as were other units of weight, such as grams and troy ounces for trading before the advent of coins. Coins were invented by the early Anatolian traders who stamped their marks to avoid weighing each time used. Early coins were actually precious metals stamped with an official seal to certify their weight. As with many ancient units, the shekel had a variety of values depending on era, government and region with weights between 9 to 17 grams.