Hasmonean Prutah, known as the, “Widows Mite” (103-76 BCE)
Date: 103-76 BCE
Ruler: Alexander Jannaeus
Mint: Judea (Jerusalem)
Obverse: ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ (King Alexander) around anchor
Reverse: “Yehonatan Hameleh” (Yehonatan the King) in Paleo-Hebrew between the rays of star with eight rays within diadem.
Size and Weight: 14mm, 1.35g
A Prutah is a Hebrew word that appears in the Mishna and Talmud. A loaf of bread was worth about ten prutot (plural). The Prutah was the most commonly minted coin of the Jewish kings and Roman procurators. Even though this coin was minted between the years 103-7c BCE , it was still in circulation during the lifetime of Jesus in the first century of the common era.
Due to its connection to Jesus and the Bible, it is one of the most famous ancient coins.
“He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, 'Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Everyone, whether a believer or simply a lover of history or of numismatics, will find in these coins direct evidence of, and witness to, an event mentioned in the New Testament Gospel of Mark that took place during the Second Temple period during the lifetime of Jesus almost two millennia ago, exciting to own.
Alexander Janneus (103–76 BCE)
“The whole character of the ruling family changed, from priestly rebels dedicated to the overthrow of a Hellenized ruling class to a succession of Hellenized despots.”
Under Alexander Janneus (Jonathan/Yehonatan Yannai) the Jewish kingdom reached its largest territorial limit and the Hasmonean court its zenith in prestige, importance, and world recognition. Alexander gained full control of the Mediterranean coast (with the exception of Ashkelon) and extended the Hasmonean hegemony in Transjordan. He also succeeded by the end of his reign into forcing the neighboring Nabateans to cede territories to him.
Alexander caused much internal strife, and his rash and arrogant actions polarised the Jewish population in his kingdom. Upon assuming the throne and the high priesthood from his brother he married his brother’s widow, Salome Alexandra (Shlomzion). This offended the traditionalists, as the Torah forbids the High Priest from marrying a widow.
Alexander minted coins that declared him king in both Hebrew and Greek. Until this point the Hasmoneans had studiously avoided using the title “king” in Judea and had used the less offensive title “ethnarch” instead, in order not to upset the traditionalist Jews, who believed that only a descendent of the house of David had the right to be named “King of the Jews.” When Alexander’s grandfather, Simon, had been appointed ruler by the Jewish council it had been only a contingency appointment, “until a true prophet arises [and appoints a king from the house of David].”
Alexander presided over a royal court with all of the Hellenistic trappings and employed non-Jewish mercenaries. This evoked the ire of the Jewish traditional purists who had fought for and backed the Hasmoneans precisely to avoid such a scenario. Many of them were also unhappy with the Hasmoneans assuming the office of High Priest, which they believed belonged only to a descendent of the priestly Tzadok family. In this and other issues Alexander showed complete disregard for religious sensibilities.
This disregard for the religious community was compounded in the thirteenth year of his reign (90 BCE), during the festivities of Sukkot in the Temple. Alexander, acting in his role as High Priest (Kohen Gadol), changed a part of the public ceremony. The first-century historian Josephus records that the assembled multitude, in an open challenge to Alexander’s legitimacy as High Priest, proceeded to pelt him with etrogim (citrons used on the holiday of Sukkot):
“As for Alexander [Janneus], his own people revolted against him at the celebration of the festival (Sukkot/Tabernacles), and as he stood beside the altar and was about to sacrifice, they pelted him with citrons (etrogim), it being a custom among the Jews that at the festival of Tabernacles everyone holds wands made of palm branches (lulavim) and citrons (etrogim), and they added insult to injury by saying that he was descended from captives and was unfit to hold office and to sacrifice; and being enraged at this, he (his non-Jewish mercenaries) killed some six thousand of them, and also placed a wooden barrier about the altar and the Temple as far as the partition of the court which the priests alone were permitted to enter, and by this means blocked the people’s way to him.”
(Josephus, Antiquities 13:372–74)
Ever since the reign of John Hyrcanus, the Hasmoneans had been aligned with the Sadducee sect. As a despotic Sadducee, Alexander Janneus waged open war against the Pharisees. Civil war broke out after his savage retaliation in the Temple, and Janneus was not always victor in the numerous battles. In a controversial move, the Pharisees appealed for aid to the king of Syria, Demetrius III, a descendant of the enemy of the Jews from the time of the original Hasmonean uprising, Antiochus IV. This proved to be an error, as after Janneus was defeated, many Jews sympathetic to the revolt balked at the thought of Syrian control and joined Janneus’s forces. In 88 BCE Janneus smothered the revolt and exacted gruesome revenge, crucifying eight hundred of his fellow countrymen, most of whom were probably Pharisees, and murdering many of their families before them as they hung dying on the crosses.
During the last years of Alexander’s rule he tried to reconcile with the Pharisees, and asked them what would be required in order to reach an understanding. Such was the depth of the hatred that their representative sardonically remarked that only the death of Janneus would lead to peace. Nevertheless, an uneasy truce between Alexander and the Pharisees did prevail for the remainder of his reign. However, relative internal peace and domestic order came only with the reign of Alexander Janneus’s wife and successor, Salome Alexandra.
Alexander was truly a Hellenistic-style warrior-monarch. Barely sixty years after the Maccabean uprising, the head of the Judean state, who was the grandson of Simon and the great-grandson of Mattathias, had a Greek prænomen (first name), and only his cognomen (surname) was Hebrew! He died besieging a fortress in Transjordan. One of his last requests to his wife and successor was that she attempt to make peace with the Pharisees. He was given a royal burial in Jerusalem, and his eldest son Hyrcanus II succeeded him as High Priest.