Q: Can you tell me why the Jews during the Jewish War against Rome (A.D. 66-70) used on their bronze coins the image of the amphora. I find it strange, since the very same amphora is used on at least two bronze procurator coins of Valerius Gratus, and these designs must have been abhorrent to the Jews. What were these vessels used for?
A: An interesting question that is not all that easy to answer. One point is certain, however. You are not correct in observing that “the very same amphora” is used on both the procurator coins and the coins of the First Revolt. Look at the photographs that accompany this article and you can see clear differences between the vessels on the two procurator coins and those on the coins of the second and third year of the Jewish War.
Even though the vessels are different, however, there is an interesting parallel between the two coin types. Both the procurator coins and the Jewish War coins depict a vessel on one side a vine leaf on the other side. Leo Kadman and Ya’akov Meshorer, among others, conclude that this supports the supposition that “the amphorae may have been used for wine libations.”
Meshorer notes that the procurator coins were widely circulated right up until the Jewish War began. “Although the procurators attempted to mint coins depicting designs which would not offend the local populace, the symbol of the amphora reminded the Jews of the Roman libations of wine poured out before idols.”
On the other hand, “The Jewish coins of ‘year two’ and ‘year three’ depict symbols which may represent the antitheses of the Roman designs,” Meshorer notes. “The amphorae on the Jewish issues may symbolize the sacred libations of wine made in the Temple. The vessels depicted on the coins of the revolt are not copies of the Roman amphorae; they are Jewish and of a different style than the classical Greco-Roman models represented on the coinage of Valerius Gratus.”
Virtually all of the twentieth century writers on the subject agree that the amphorae shown on the coins of the Jewish War were vessels used in the Temple services.
Paul Romanoff notes that “From Mishnaic sources we learn that only two liquids, water and wine, usually required covers.” (Actually, containers with milk also needed to be covered.) This is of interest since the amphora shown on the ‘year three’ coin is clearly covered.
In a fascinating 1964 article by E.W. Klimowsky, he quotes the Mishna (Sukkah 4, 9-10): “They used to fill a golden flagon holding three logs with water from Siloam. When they reached the Water Gate, they blew the shofar a sustained, a quavering and another sustained blast. The priest whose turn of duty it was went up the Altar-Ramp and turned to the right where were two silver bowls… They had each a hole like a narrow snout, one wide and the other narrow so that both bowls emptied themselves together… The bowl to the west was for water and that to the east was for wine… As was the rite on a weekday so was the rite on a Sabbath, save that on the eve of the Sabbath they used to fill with water from Siloam a golden jar that had not been hallowed, and put it in a special chamber. If it was upset or uncovered, they refilled it from the laver, for wine or water which has been uncovered is invalid for the Altar.”
“Here we have our vessels,” Klimowsky writes. "The big golden flagon holding three logs was that with a lid and also the one without it, which is on the coins of the First Jewish War.”
Klimowsky adds that the “natural size of the golden amphora, the Mishna reports tht the contents were three logs of water taken from Siloam. This would be about one and a half pints… (thus) the size of the golden amphora was not considerable.”