THE COINS OF ST. PAUL THE TRAVELER
by Breck Breckenridge (copyright 2011 by F.G. Breckenridge III)
This is a survey of those Roman Provincial coins which the Apostle Paul would have seen and even possibly handled during his lifetime and especially during the four missionary journeys he undertook to spread the gospel of Christ Jesus to the Gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) World during the First Century A.D. It is set out in the form of a chronological and geographical essay, with special note of which Roman Emperors were ruling the Empire at those times. [N.B: All coins shown were in my reference collection]
AUGUSTUS Emperor 27 B.C.–14 A.D.
5 to 19 A.D. TARSUS
There appears to be a consensus of sorts, on the part of several chroniclers of Paul, that he was born in approximately 5 A.D. There is no doubt that he was born in Tarsus of Cilicia. Tarsus is an important city from the standpoint of its status in the Roman Empire. Tarsus opposed Cassius, one of Julius Caesar‘s murderers; as a result in 42 B.C. Mark Antony rewarded its loyalty by granting it freedom and immunity. This was a rare privilege. After Actium, in 31 B.C., Augustus renewed its status. Grants of Roman citizenship probably arose from this, perhaps for Paul‘s father or family.
From the 30s B.C. Tarsus was administered in the province of Syria, the capital being Antioch. Few silver coins were minted in Tarsus, with the exception of one silver tetradrachm depicting Augustus, which resembles the well-known Antiochan tetradrachm (see below). The Tarsian is a rare coin and I have never seen one in collections or for sale.
Coin of Augustus. Syria: Antioch, a silver tetradrachm 25 mm. This Antiochan tetradrachm is dated 6 A.D., so it might have made its way to Tarsus and into Paul’s father’s hands and been seen by the very young child. It could also have been still in circulation long afterwards when Paul first visited Antioch.
Coin of Philip Philadelphus. Syria: Antioch, a silver tetradrachm 24 mm. One coin that may have had an equal chance of still being used in Tarsus whilst Paul still lived there, is a silver tetradrachm of Philip Philadelphus (92–83 B.C.). This silver coin was later revived and newly minted at Antioch by the Roman authorities, and these date from 50 B.C. until 16 B.C.
Keep in mind that silver coins remained in circulation for many years due to their value and because they were recognized as money throughout the Empire, regardless of city of origin. The Pocket Guide to Saint Paul (2002) tells us, “Silver coins tended to circulate longer than bronze, and we know that silver coins of Augustus were still in circulation during the reign of Vespasian because examples exist of cistophori of Augustus minted in Ephesus with countermarks of Vespasian”. From the end of the reign of Augustus (14 A.D.) until the time of Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) was roughly 55-65 years. Bronze and copper coins however, were not legal tender very far from the issuing city and were hence localized. (Sutherland  states that the full life-span of silver, until it was entirely worn out, might have been as long as a century).
TIBERIUS Emperor 14-37 A.D.
19-20 A.D. until 36? A.D. JERUSALEM
We do not know when Paul removed to Jerusalem in Judaea to be educated by Gamaliel. It depends upon the number of years of schooling he received in Tarsus. Luke’s statement in Acts (22:3) that Paul was “brought up…at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law” is open to interpretation. Many students of Paul’s life assume that “brought up” meant then what it means now, i.e. raised from childhood. However, Murphy-O’Connor (1996) argues, “In the absence of any evidence regarding Paul’s youth, we must presume the normal; namely, that Paul was already grown when he left his home in Tarsus”. Certainly a case can be made that he went to the equivalent of elementary school at home in Tarsus. Further, secondary studies began thereafter, normally at about the age of 11. This lasted about three years, and then at the age of 14, if promising, youths were taken to certain teachers for serious matriculation. This makes sense. Jewish boys became, ostensibly, men at 13, the result of their bar mitzvah. I propose that Paul was sent to Jerusalem to study with the renowned Gamaliel at about the age of 14. This would have placed him in that “city of cities” for a Jew in about 19 A.D.
How he got to Jerusalem is complete speculation. The easiest, fastest, and perhaps safest mode of transport would have been by sea. Tarsus had a port of its own at the mouth of the River Cydnus. There were several good, intermediate harbors between Tarsus and Jerusalem, including Antioch’s port city Seleucia, Sidon and Tyre, and closest to Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima. This artificial port was constructed by Herod the Great and finished by ca. 13 B.C. All of these ports could have been visited, or none. However, we’ll not attempt to use any coins from these ports at this point in our history.
Once in Jerusalem, he appears to have stayed there, studying and growing up in the Jewish community as would have befitted a “son of a Pharisee”. The authors of The Pocket Guide point out that the base metal, bronze prutahs of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) have been found, from archaeological evidence, to have been commonly in circulation in Paul’s day! More recent issues of prutahs by Roman governors before 19 A.D. would have been even more in evidence. These would have included the following prefects: Coponius, 6-9 A.D.; Marcus Ambibulus, 9-12 A.D.; and Valerius Gratus 15-26 A.D.
Coin of Marcus Ambibulus. Syria: Judaea, an AE prutah 15 mm. Ambibulus was procurator under Augustus. This prutah is a good candidate for a coin that Paul would have certainly seen: i.e. it was minted a few years before Paul’s arrival and is a very common, inexpensive coin; something a youth would have used in minor purchases or received in change. Incidentally, these small base metal coins were the “Widow’s Mite” in Mark 12:42.
We now have to move forward many years in time, for we have no information about Paul in Jerusalem until he appears, in Acts, as a player in the persecution of the Jewish followers of Jesus following His death.
Coin of Tyre. Syria: Phoenicia, a silver half-shekel 18 x 20 mm. The obverse features the god Herakles in profile and on the reverse an Ptolemaic eagle. It may seem odd that a Phoenician city would use a Greek hero, but scholars hypothesize that there may have been two “Herakles”, one being much older, depicting a Phoenician god that later metamorphosized into the Greek Herakles. The image on this coin was called simply “Melqart”, meaning ‘Lord of the city’.
It is worth noting that these famous silver coins of Tyre were 90% pure silver, and were used by Jews exclusively to pay the Temple tax. These shekels came in full and half sizes (equivalent to the Greek tetradrachm and didrachm, respectively). The half-sized coin was the one required at entering the Temple. My half-shekel specimen dates reliably to 35-36 A.D. Therefore it would have been put into circulation very near the time we believe the persecution of the followers of Jesus took place. If we date Paul’s conversion experience to about 34 A.D. (see explanation below) then he might not have seen my coin before leaving Jerusalem. If not he may have seen this issue when he returned, briefly, to Jerusalem in 37 A.D. after his journeys to Damascus and Nabataean Arabia. Regardless, this is a good coin for association with Paul, for, as we will see below, he was in Jerusalem on later occasions (especially at the end of his Third Missionary Journey in 57 A.D.).
GAIUS (CALIGULA) Emperor 37-41 A.D.
34 to ca. 37 A.D. ARABIA and DAMASCUS
Now, here is where timing becomes important in our study of Paul’s history. What we want to do is to date the year when he had his famous conversion experience, i.e. his vision of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Some biographers, such as Bruce (1977) , Murphy-O’Connor (1996), and Ramsay (1897) use 33 A.D. whereas others such as Goodwin (1951) and Conybeare/Howson (1851) use 36 A.D.
The best way to date the sequence of events, beginning with Paul’s journey to Damascus from Jerusalem, his fantastic experience on the way there, his trip to Nabataean Arabia, and his arrival (finally) at Damascus, is to fix the date that King Aretas assumed control over Damascus, then work backwards. It is quite probable that Aretas was given control over Damascus late in the year 37 A.D. following Gaius’ accession to power (Aretas‘ patron). This would have necessitated that Paul leave Damascus, and under pressure! Since we are told by Paul himself that he resided at Damascus for three years (Gal. 1:18), I am going to conclude that Paul’s conversion, trip to Nabataea, and return to Damascus all occurred in 34 A.D.; that he lived in Damascus from 34-36 A.D. (three years), left Damascus in late 37 A.D. and journeyed to Jerusalem for a mere 15 days to meet Peter, and then left directly via Caesarea Martima for Tarsus and home.
Two coins reflect this time period in Paul’s life: