Numismatic Neurosis
The History of Coins and Symbols in Ancient Israel.
by Wolf Wirgin and Siegfried Mandel.
Exposition. 264 pp. Illustrated. $7.50.

 

As the title suggests, here are two books stitched together with the seam visible. Wolf Wirgin’s, consisting of the first six chapters, is a work of numismatics, a radical reattribution of some of the anonymous and ambiguously inscribed coins of ancient Israel. The seventh and last chapter, by Siegfried Mandel, is a study in iconography called “Fertility Symbols on Ancient Jewish Coins.”

Wirgin’s chapters involve three major re-attributions as well as some minor ones. The famous silver shekels, with a chalice on one side and a triple bud on the other, reading “Jerusalem the Holy” and “Shekel of Israel,” in recent times attributed to the first revolt against the Romans from 66 to 70 C.E., Wirgin attributes to the revolt of the Maccabees against Syria some two centuries earlier. The tetradrachms portraying the Temple with two Torahs inside, reading “Jerusalem,” “Simon,” and various years “of Deliverance of Israel” (as well as the other coins celebrating “Freedom,” “Redemption,” or “Deliverance” of Jerusalem or Israel), almost universally attributed to the Second Revolt of the Jews from 132 to 135 C.E., Wirgin credits to King Herod in the last years B.C.E. The tiny bronze coins reading “of King Alexander,” customarily attributed to King Alexander Jannaeus c. 100 B.C.E., he associates with King Alexander the Great of Macedon two centuries before. Wirgin’s other redatings and reattributions are less striking. An appendix entitled “A New Key to the Dating of Ancient Jewish Coins” gives them in full, along with the contrasting sequence numbers in Riefenberg’s Ancient Jewish Coins.

The banner under which Wirgin performs these feats is one with which no one could quarrel: “In analyzing ancient coins, our attention must not be diverted from the main task, namely to seek meaning from the peculiarities of each issue rather than to attempt to impose a strait jacket of preconceived ideas upon them.”

Sometimes, however, his methods do not seem quite so inductive as his slogans. On occasion, as in the case of the coins he credits to Herod, he moves within a few pages from conjecture (“One of the possibilities which must be taken into consideration is that the Hebrew coins inscribed ‘freedom,’ ‘redemption’ and ‘deliverance’ were not war and siege or emergency issues at all”) to certainty (“The failure to make this vital distinction has led numismatists to attribute wrongly the coins of freedom and redemption to a period of political revolt”). Wirgin sometimes seems rather highhanded about dates, turning “years” inscribed on coins into Great Years or shmitta cycles seven years apart, or resourcefully choosing whichever of several dates will make his cycles work (“If the beginning of Agrippa’s rule in the Jewish provinces of Galilee and Judea is viewed as pertinent, instead of the date he was installed in office, then the period of his government coincides exactly with the dates marked on the coins”).

Some of his arguments seem contradictory and evasive, and even in terms of his own theories, they sometimes fall into absurdity. Thus, taking the “Simon” on Temple tetra-drachms to be Simon Maccabeus instead of Simon Bar Kochba, he writes, “It does not make sense when the picture of the Temple and the inscription ‘Simon’ are juxtaposed,” although Simon Maccabeus was one of the Temple’s cleansers, and succeeded his brother Judas as its high priest. One of Wirgin’s arguments, that the Jews under Herod manufactured counterfeits of Roman coins to use as blanks for over-striking with their own coinage, although supported by numismatic evidence, seems so intrinsically unlikely and uneconomical an assumption that some simpler explanation must be available.

Stylistically, Wirgin’s chapters are rambling and repetitious, their structuring a tissue of “it is likewise conceivable,” “yet it seems incredible that,” and “to come back to our theory.” There is no mention of a translator, so that they were presumably written in English, but it is the English of dialect comedy. Here are examples:

“This plunged Aristobulus into repentant moods and helped shorten his own life.”—“Finally, worn out by campaigning and seizures of fever, Alexander died in 78 B.C., honored by most of the populace but placed by the Pharisees on the calendar of memorable dates of joy in commemoration of his death.”—“Ultimately, we dare say, these coins will be of similar importance to historians as the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.”—“Herod’s gift of tongue and gold . . . caused Antony to vest full political power in the Idumean brothers.”

As for Wirgin’s theories themselves, an amateur numismatist like this reviewer cannot properly evaluate them, that being the task of Wirgin’s peers. Having noted what seem to me weaknesses of method and logic, I should fairly note that several arguments seem quite convincing. Among them are the principle that well-struck coins celebrating a revolt are more apt to be later commemoratives than field coinage, and evidence that some recent shekel “finds” have features suggesting that they were dug up out of dealers’ cabinets rather than out of the ground. Nevertheless, for what the statement is worth, Wirgin’s thesis reminds me less of numismatic science than of Immanuel Velikovsky arguing universal cataclysm, Joshua Podro rewriting the Gospels with Robert Graves, or Solomon Zeitlin insisting that the Dead Sea Scrolls are medieval. There seems to be a type of contemporary scholarship hard to distinguish from obsessional neurosis.

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Mandel’s chapter, its authorship clearly identified by his statement in the introduction that Wirgin “suggested that my studies of symbolism could be useful in approaching numismatic problems from another vital direction,” is a very different sort of thing. It is Mandel’s contention that the symbols on ancient Jewish coins are pagan fertility symbols transformed and reinterpreted: that the shekel’s chalice and buds derive from an anchor and trident on the cast coins of Greek Italy; that lulab and ethrog were originally sex symbols; etc. Mandel has a good eye for resemblance and makes a fairly strong case, citing the pagan divinities and figures from mythology discovered in the excavation of such early synagogues as those at Chorazin and Capernaum. His argument is weakened by the habit he shares with Wirgin of treating the Bible as though it were history rather than “sacred history.” His references to Greek mythology seem extremely muddled: he confuses the murder of Dionysus by the Titans with the similar murder of Orpheus by a group of human Bacchantes, and he seems to think that Amalthea was Dionysus’ mother. On the narrow subject of the specific symbols on ancient Jewish coins, however, it would seem impossible to dismiss his evidence, and he is willing to meet religious objections at least halfway: “The process of adopting and modifying foreign symbols or ideas should not be regarded as mere counterfeit or imitation; in many instances it became a new, creative act with broadened religious concepts.”

Origin need not be essence, we readily agree. Nevertheless, resemblances can mislead, as we note from a terribly funny passage Mandel quotes from Plutarch’s Symposiacs, in which Plutarch concludes from unimpeachable evidence that the Jews worship Dionysus:

The time and manner of the greatest and most holy solemnity of the Jews is exactly agreeable to the holy Orgies of Bacchus, for that which they call the Feast they celebrate in the midst of the vintage, furnishing their tables with all sorts of fruits, while they sit under booths or tabernacles made of vines and ivy; and the day which goes immediately before this, they call the day of Tabernacles. Within a few days afterward they celebrate another feast, not darkly, but openly, dedicated to Bacchus, for they have a feast among them called Kradephoria, from carrying palm branches, and Thyrsophoria, when they enter the temple carrying thyrsi. What they do within, I do not know; but it is very probable that they perform the rites of Bacchus. First, they have little trumpets such as the Grecians used to have at their Bacchanalia, to call upon their gods withal. Others go before them, playing upon harps, whom they call Levites—whether so named from Lusios, or rather from Evios, either word agrees with Bacchus. And I suppose that their Sabbaths have some relation to Bacchus; for even at this day, many call the Bacchi by the name of Sabbi, and they make use of that word at the celebration of the orgies of Bacchus.

Altogether, a stimulating book. Relative to the great sweep of Jewish history, we realize how few the coins are and at what disconcerting times they come: when King Aristobulus is converting the Galileans to Judaism with fire and sword, or Alexander Jannaeus is crucifying his countrymen en masse. Before the 2nd century B.C.E., and from the bloody suppression of the Second Revolt in 135 C.E. to the foundation of modern Israel in our century—thus for more than nine-tenths of Jewish history—there are no coins at all. Perhaps a culture does better to lay up its treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal. The latest Israeli commemorative, in gold (the ancient Israel coinage, befitting a poor country, had no gold and little silver), reproduces on one side a triumphant Roman coin proclaiming “Judaea Capta,” and answers it on the other side with “Israel Liberata.” Surely some Mandel of the future will point out that its palm tree design is borrowed from Tyre and bears witness to a phallic Astarte cult, and some future Wirgin will misdate it by centuries.

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