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Volume 1, Issue 1 (April/May 2008)
  New Data Sheds Light on Hasmonean Coin Theories         By: David Hendin

The following article was originally published prior to the release of David Hendin’s
4th Edition of Guide to Biblical Coins, in the June 1991 issue of the Celator (reprinted
with permission from the Author). While certainly an older article, we have
purposefully chosen it because it offers an incredible glimpse into the science of
numismatic research and how numismatists have made valuable contributions to
our understanding of the past. -Editor


Discoveries of coins in or near Nabulus (ancient Schechm) in Samaria seem to have resolved a key controversy in ancient Jewish and Biblical numismatics.

The controversy revolved around the question of which Jewish ruler was the first to issue coins in his own name.  For the first time in the modern era the world’s top experts agree:  It was John Hyrcanus I (135 – 104 B.C.), the son of Simon and nephew of the legendary Judah (Judas) Maccabee, hero of the Chanukah story.

Although I spoke on this subject before the New York Numismatic Society in 1988, this article is the first published report.  The Israeli numismatists who made the discovery agreed to allow a preliminary report in the The Celator because of the wide interest in the topic and the long delay involved in scholarly publication.

Theories have posited that either Simon Maccabee (Judah’s brother and the first Maccabee to achieve actual rule, 142-135 B.C.), Hyrcanus I, or Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.,Judah’s great-nephew) issued the first Jewish coins.  The Maccabean Dynasty is also known as the Hasmonean Dynasty

Professor Dan Barag of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem talked about the discovery in a series of discussions during the past two years.

“In January of 1988, an Arab antiquity dealer in Jerusalem showed me a hoard of coins covered with the same type of earth.  It was evident that it was a part of a hoard.  No doubt it was the most important Hasmonean hoard ever discovered.  The coins were so encrusted that I could not read their inscriptions.  Thus there could not have been a previous classification or sorting of the group”, Barag explains.

“On cleaning and sorting through the first group of about 180 coins, it became evident that it contained all types of coins referring to ‘Yehohanan the High Priest” along with Seleucid issues of the second century B.C. and a very early issue Nabataean coin.


“Within a few weeks after seeing the first group, I was able to trace almost 700 pieces from the same find.  There was not a single coin of Alexander Jannaeus, but the hoard contained all types of coins with the Hebrew name Yehohanan.  This, then, confirmed what I and others claimed on stylistic and circumstantial evidence before, that is, all of the coins of Yehohanan belong to the same ruler.  It also proved, in the absence of the later coins of Jannaeus, that this ruler must be Hyrcanus I.  It also raised the question if the name of Hyrcanus II was actually ‘Yehohanan’, as some theorized”, said Barag, who is also president of the Israel Numismatic Society.


A large number of the hoard coins were acquired by the Hebrew University “through a generous gift of donors from Toronto”, according to Barag.

After reviewing the coins gathered by Barag, Jerusalem numismatist Shraga Qedar noted that this was the “empirical proof” that had long been sought.  In 1980 Barag and Qedar published a study analyzing the style of the cornucopiae and other graphic elements of the Maccabean coins.  They concluded that all of the Yehohanan coins were struck by Hyrcanus I.  Thus the new discovery sows their theory was correct. 

Since the late 1960’s, the key proponent of the theory tht Alexander Jannaeus issued the first Jewish coins was Yaakov Meshorer, chief curator of archaeology and curator of numismatics at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.  Meshorer also had theorized that all of the “Yehohanan” coins were issued by Hyrcanus II..  Except for Barg and Qedar, Meshorer was alone in the belief tht all of the Yehohanan coins were from a single ruler. 

Meshorer’s theories were innovative and controversial; nevertheless they gathered many followers based on the archaeological, historic, and even epigraphic evidence available.  In 1979, Mark McLain, a Harvard graduate student working under Professor Frank Moore Cross prepared a detailed epigraphic analysis of the Maccabean coins during an American Numismatic Society seminar.  McLain concluded that Meshorer’s theory was correct.

But the evidence of Barag’s hoard, along with soon-to-be published data on the results of excavations on Mt. Gerizim in Nabulus by Y. Magen, caused Meshorer to promptly and firmly state:  “I am now convinced that all of the coins with the Hebrew name Yehohanan were struck by Hyrcanus I”.

For more that 150 years, the Maccabean coins have been the focal point of the longest lasting and most visible controversy in the field of ancient Jewish numismatics.  Indeed, even with the new evidence, there remain many questions of possibilities about the Maccabean coin series. 

The Maccabean coins were minted with five different Hebrew names:  Yehohanan; Yehudah; Yonatan; Yehonatan coupled with the Greek name Alxander; and Mattatayah coupled with the Greek Anigonus.

Ironically, early writers on Jewish numismatics such as Madden, Narkiss, and Reifenberg started us with a real ”red herring”.  They attributed the first Jewish coins to Simon Maccabee, assuming he had struck both the thick silver shekels and the large bronzed coins of the First Revolt.   Support was found for this theory in the statement of Antiochus VII to Simon “I give thee leave also to coin money for thy country with thine own stamp…” (I Maccabes 15:6).  This error of attribution was finally put to rest during the excavations in the 1950’s and 60’s at Jerusalem, Massada, and elsewhere, which made it clear that the coins previously attributed to Simon were definitely from the First Revolt (A,D.  66-70).   Furthermore, it was noted that Antiochus VII seems to have quickly withdrawn his permission to Simon to mint coins (see I Maccabees 15:27).

Once Simon was eliminated as a possibility, other questions arose.  They were and remain complicated because history refers mainly to Greek names of rulers (Hyrcanus, Jannaeus, etc.) while three of the five Maccabean coin categories only refer to Hebrew names.  Coins of Jannaeus and Antigonus have definite name linkage, and thus definite attribution.  The other three names, however, cannot be positively linked with Greek equivalents.

Thus there has been room for interpretation.  A portion of Meshorer’s experimental theory, for example, posed the probability that Hyrcanus II was also named “Yehohanan”.  Both Aristobulus I and II were named “Yehudah” and thus various possibilities existed.

In this article we will not rehash all of the previous theories of Maccabean coinage in detail.  Suffice it to say that major experts had each developed theories of their own and, as Alexandre Adler wrote in 1976, “Everyone has stuck to his own position”.  In 1981, Meshorer himself wrote that “I have no doubt that future archaeological evidence will finally lay these discussions to rest”.

Now that this has, in fact, occurred, and there is general agreement over the first Jewish ruler to issue coins – Hyrcanus I – questions remain about his successors, and not all can yet be answered.  We will discuss some highlights.

What was the purpose of both the obverse “A” monograms (see Hendin 19) and the assorted reverse Greek mongrams (see Hendin 21, 23, 24, 26, 27) on the “Yehohanan” coins?  In Meshorer’s theory that Hyrcanus II minted these coins, he believed the monograms possibly referred to Antipater, Hyrcanus II’s father-in-law and a significant power behind the throne.  The Kadman Museum’s Arie Kindler, among others, suggested that the obverse “A” monogram referred to Hyrcanus II’s month, Queen Salome Alexandra.

Now that we recognize that Hyrcanus I issued the coins, Harry J. Stein’s theory put forth in 1943 is appealing.  Stein stated that the “A” monogram on the obverse refers to Hyrcanus I’s son and successor Aristobulus I, and that the assorted reverse monograms refer to magistrates who may remain anonymous forever.

Barag and Qedar suggested in 1980 that the “A” monogram on the obverse of one coin mentioned above stood for the initial of either Alexander II Zebina or Antiochus VIII.  They believe that the “A” was removed when Hyrcanus I “severed his last ties with the Seleucids”.

Another question now comes from the title “Rosh” or “Head” inserted in the inscription on some of the Yehohanan coins.  Meshorer theorized that this coincided with Hyrcanus II’s appointment as “Ethnarch” by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C.  But why did Hyrcanus I issue some coins referring to himself as “Head of the Community of Jews” omitting the title “Head”?


Barag suggests that the coins using the word “Head” came later and may have represented a “move toward the crown, but before the title ‘king’ was actually claimed.”

It’s now a general consensus that Hyrcanus I’s brother, Aristobulus I (104-103 B.C.), issued coins under his name “Yehudah”.  There is, however, still mystery over the question of his title.  He styles himself only “High Priest” on his coins, even though Josephus clearly states that Aristobulus was the first Maccabean ruler to adopt the title of king.  Historian Strabo, however, says that only Aristobulus’ successors assumed the royal title and, indeed, this is seen on the coins of Jannaeus.


Most coins attributed to Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) are relatively straightforward, since more than one type carries both the name “Yehonatan” in Hebrew, and “Alexander” in Greek.  Thus there is little doubt of their origination.  Yet there remains the problem of the similar name “Yonatan”.

We have a clue with one particular issue (Hendin 17) that was involved in a massive restriking effort.  The Anchor/Lily type, with the names “Yehonatan” and “Alexander”, were restruck with the Hebrew inscription/double cornucopia type with only the name “Yonatan”.  In the process, the designation “King” was eliminated in both Hebrew and Greek, and replaced with

the title “High Priest”.  The spelling modification was suggested to be due to the elimination of the combination of Hebrew letters (YEHO-) used commonly as an abbreviation of the Lord’s name.  It has been said that the bellicose Jannaeus made these changes as concessions toward the rival Pharisees near the end of his life in an effort to reconciliate his people.

Now, however, it seems more likely that his successor Hyrcanus II was named “Yonatan” and restruck large numbers of coins that had remained in the mint for several years while Hyrcanus II battled continually with his brother Aristobulus II, until 63 B.C., when Pompey conferred upon Hyrcanus II the title “High Priest” but withheld the title “King”.

Apparently, in fact, Aristobulus II did not issue coins during his besieged and brief reign.

No doubt the final Maccabean coins were struck by Mattatayah (Mattathias) also called Antigonus on his coins.

In order to give some help to collectors with this series, we offer here a reevaluation of the types, according to Y. Meshorer’s Ancient Jewish Coinage (AJC) and my own Guide to Biblical Coins.

JOHN HYRCANUS I (Yehohanan) Hendin 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31.
AJC K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T.

JUDAH ARISTOBULUS I (Yehudah) Hendin 32, 33. AJC J

ALEXANDER JANNAEUS (Yehonatan) Hendin 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. AJC A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

JOHN HYRCANUS II (Yonatan) Hendin 17, 18, 19. AJC H, I.

MATTATHIAS ANTIGONUS (Mattatayah) As previously published

First published in The Celator, June 1991; reproduced by permission of the author.
Copyright 2008-2014 Alfredo De La Fé