Journal Watch
Fri, 12/03/2010

What is it with money? Dollars, pounds sterling, shekels, gold, wampum, dinars — all are examples of a very old convenience and newly unreliable artifacts. Coins, of course, have the most ancient provenance — Herodotus talks about the kings of Lydia establishing coinage in the eighth century B.C.E. — and coins became before too long the most notable of monetary conveniences. That is, until the dollar, nebuch.

So it is with coinage that Journal Watcher begins his monthly romp, this with an obscure topic — “black coinage” — which illumines a larger issue. What is “black coinage” you may very well ask. Look no further than University of Pennsylvania’s David Goldenberg’s smart article (“Babatha, Rabbi Levi and Theodosius: Black Coins in Late Antiquity,” Dead Sea Discoveries, 2007), which reveals all. Goldenberg reviews the protocols of coinage in the Roman Empire, especially those coins of low value — “blacks” — that contained an alloy of base value and were dark.

Not so, asserts Goldenberg. Indeed, Rabbi Levi, a third century Mishnaic scholar and midrashist, notes that blackening the image invalidated certain coins. “Blackening” became a metaphor for obscuring and indeed obliterating — and by extension invalidating — an image. The point: “blacks” referred not to color but to coins whose original images had been obliterated for political or social reasons — the Emperors Titus and Trajan are good examples — and examining the many “black” coins from Judea and its environs during this period affords us historical and sociological insights into a troubled period in Jewish history.

Journal Watcher needs not remind Text/Context readers that women in the ancient world were virtually invisible. All the more striking, therefore, is an unusual article that only now crossed Journal Watcher’s desk, Fred Strickert’s “The First Woman to be Portrayed on a Jewish Coin: Julia Sebaste” (Journal for the Study of Judaism, 2002). Wartburg College’s Strickert discusses a Herodian-era coin, minted by Philip, a son of Herod, from 30-33 C.E., which was the first to portray a woman on a Jewish coin. The “Julia” depicted on the coin is in fact Livia, the celebrated wife of Augustus Caesar, who was quite the character in her own right. Philip called attention to Livia, as well as to Augustus (naturally), because Livia was known to have been a benefactress in Judea. The year 33 C.E. would have marked both Livia’s 90th birthday and her 70th anniversary of marriage to Augustus — thus the double-image coin depicting both Augustus and Livia.

The coin figures in both Jewish and Christian history in the episode in which Jesus, confronted by the authorities in Jerusalem about taxes, calls for a coin and says, “Render unto Caesar things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” The saying revolves around the image of Caesar depicted on the coin; but the obverse depicts none other than our friend Livia, seated and in the guise of Pax (peace). “Livia was a well-recognized figure even among those living far on the eastern edges of the Roman Empire, in Judea,” Strickert notes. Livia was known in Judea as a benefactress of the Jewish people — doing in effect “God’s work” — and her role would have been familiar to Jesus. It was therefore a “natural” that it was precisely this coin, portraying the point-counterpoint of Jesus’ apothegm, which was demanded.

What about Jews and money? Imagine Journal Watcher’s surprise when he learns that the stereotype of the money-grubbing, interest-charging Jewish usurer is yet out there. At least two recent books — Jerry Muller’s splendid “Capitalism and the Jews” and Abraham Foxman’s effective, albeit lurid, “Jews and Money” — call our attention to this anti-Semitic canard. But the most enduring image of the Jew as economic bad guy is of course Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Come now Simon Critchley (The New School) and author Tom McCarthy, who, in a wonderfully idiosyncratic article (“Universal Shylockery: Money and Morality in The Merchant of Venice,” Diacritics, Spring 2004), take us on a romp through Elizabethan Jew-baiting, money as metaphor for evil and Early Modern legal morality.

The nexus of money, Venice, and Jews are meat for Critchley and McCarthy as they turn the play, “a piece of good old Elizabethan comic Jew-baiting,” 180 degrees into a devastating study of Christian anti-Semitism, and then another 180 degrees to flip back in what their study seems to deny. Got it?

Money, especially “money begetting bastard money” (that is, money-lending), is truly at the root of the evil that pervades Shakespeare’s play. Money, assert Critchley and McCarthy, is by its essence alienating — and even more so in the context of Christians and Jews, and in an environment, Venice, that was all about commercial transaction. (Indeed, as the authors cannily note, even the romantic sequences in “The Merchant of Venice” are played out in terms of financial deals.) Money dehumanizes: In Venice, “everything is for sale and everyone is a prostitute.” Shakespeare, argue Critchley and McCarthy, in effect turns classical anti-Semitism on its head: “Christendom has become dominated by Judentum [Jewishness], and by its secular god, money. Christians have become Jews.”

But that’s not enough, Critchley and McCarthy argue. At the heart of this Shakespeare play (and much of the rest of Elizabethan-era literature, according to many scholars) is the relationship between creditor and debtor; morality begins with what Shylock calls, many a time, a “bond.” It follows, therefore, that punishment is not based on the criminal merely being responsible for his crime. No, punishment — indeed the cruel punishment that Shylock would claim from Antonio — is necessarily a corporeal payment: the culprit who broke his bond must pay back his crime with pain. Nothing less will do. (It is no accident that Shakespeare, the master of diction, uses the word “mercy,” resonant in the play, which is derived from merches — the same root as that of “merchant” — meaning “payment,” recompense.”) The authors in fact note that the Roman legal source for Shylock’s flesh-bond, which must have been known to members of the Elizabethan bar, stipulated that, should a debt be unpaid after 60 days, the creditor may “cut the man to pieces.” Is Shylock seeking just compensation from Antonio by torturing his body? Critchley and McCarthy suggest, “yes.”

And who would have thunk it? From the “black” coins of antiquity to Early Modern Shylock, new meaning is given to “Money is the root of all evil.”

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages” (ADL), editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming “Whither American Zionism?” (Bar Ilan) and “The Future of American Jewish Religion” (Columbia University Press).