Archeologists discover rare 2nd century coin with Hebrew inscription in Judean Desert

Archeologists find second century coins in the Judean Desert. One coin is engraved with the name “Eleazar the Priest” in ancient Hebrew script.
Archeologists find second century coins in the Judean Desert. One coin is engraved with the name “Eleazar the Priest” in ancient Hebrew script. | Israel Antiquities Authority/Facebook

Archeologists have discovered a rare bunch of coins in the Judean Desert from the second century AD, one of which is engraved with the name of “Eleazar the Priest” in ancient Hebrew script.

The engraved coin was uncovered in the Mazuq Ha-he'teqim Nature Reserve and is believed to date back to the first year of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (AD 132) when the Jewish people rose up against the Roman Empire. There were three other coins with the name “Simeon,” also dating back to the revolt, according to an announcement by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) on March 4. 

The coins were uncovered while the IAA was working alongside the Ministry of Heritage and the Archaeological Office for the Military Administration of Judea and Samaria to retrieve ancient artifacts before looters could take them. 

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The identity of Eleazar the Priest is a mystery, with some theorizing that it was Rabbi Eleazar Hamod‘ai, a Tannaic Rabbi from the time of Rabbi Akiva, a pupil of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai. 

“It seems that Rabbi Eleazar Hamod‘ai played a significant religious role at the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and he was living in the town of Beitar — the location of the revolt headquarters. The Talmud accounts that he died in Beitar, probably during the revolt. (Jerusalem Talmud Ta‘anit 4:5),” the IAA said. 

“On the obverse face of the coin, a date palm is engraved, with 'Eleazar the Priest' inscribed in ancient Hebrew script. On the reverse, a bunch of grapes is surrounded by the text 'Year One of the Redemption of Israel,' again in ancient Hebrew script." 

Eitan Klein, the deputy head of IAA's anti-theft division, who has helped with the mission to protect hidden treasures from being removed by looters, told Haaretz that the coin was found last month, which was about 20 years after the cave was excavated.

“The cave is in Matzok Hahe'etekim, a long line of cliffs on the western side of the Dead Sea. Back at the time, archaeologists did discover various items in that cave,” Klein said. “These included a Roman javelin, which the Jewish rebels had presumably stolen or otherwise obtained from a Roman soldier and stashed in the cave for future use. Which opportunity never arrived.” 

Regarding whom Eleazar the Priest might be, Klein told Haaretz that there's a lot of uncertainty, including many legends that might not be factual.  

"Eleazar lived in Beitar, the capital of the rebellion, of the Bar Kochba state. They say that as long as he would pray, Beitar couldn't be conquered. When he stopped, Beitar was conquered. This legend shows haModai's importance,"  Klein told the outlet.

“At least in the first year. HaModa'i's name only appears on coins from that year, but the rebellion lasted four years. Obviously he was one of the religious leaders at the start of the rebellion. What happened to him?”

Klein added that the name was inscribed in ancient Hebrew script, which had stopped being used by the time of the rebellion. 

“This anachronism was intentional,” Klein said. “The Bar Kochba rebels deliberately engraved their coins with ancient Hebrew script from the time of the First Temple, as a show of connection to their roots.” 

"They deliberately used an ancient Hebrew script used at the time of the First Temple, to show the continuity of the Jewish people and of the kingdom of the Jews: the connection between Bar Kochba and the kingdom of David and Solomon.” 

Nicole VanDyke is a reporter for The Christian Post. 

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