Whitman Publishing’s new book by Kenneth Bressett, Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame, will debut in March 2022. The 224-page hardcover volume will be available from bookstores and hobby shops and online (including at Whitman.com), and in the meantime is available for preorder. Here, David Hendin, first vice president of the American Numismatic Society and a noted author in the field of ancient coinage, gives his impression of the book.
Ken Bressett is one of the grandmasters of numismatics. He has thrilled oh-so-many people with his passion for telling stories that help us understand our own histories through the study of coins. I have had the pleasure of knowing Ken for around 40 years, and his fascination with coins and their stories is clearly infectious to all of his many readers and friends.
In Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame, Ken narrates the Greatest Story Ever Told by taking readers on a journey of facts and artifacts going back several millennia, to trace the origins of our Judeo-Christian traditions.
As usual, he fills a gaping need by presenting a narrative for beginners in the study of coins or other small remnants from ancient civilizations. At the same time, if the reader is more experienced, Ken provides plenty of rewards. He is a teacher, a motivator, and a preacher of the numerous positive aspects of the study of coins and other artifacts that link the modern reader to history.
One need not be religious or even agree that the Bible is a divine text to fully appreciate the thrill of reading Ken’s narratives and seeing the excellent photographs of the objects being discussed. Ken reminds me very much of my late dad, also a numismatist, when he writes, “Knowing that genuine artifacts still exist provides a gateway to strengthening one’s faith and provides a tangible connection to the past that can only be experienced through studying or actually seeing some of these interesting items. They are the closest thing to ‘time travel’ that one can ever experience.”
Ken talks about the invention of writing and shows us examples of the earliest clay tablets with cuneiform letters. In his specialty of numismatics, he discusses trade and commerce from the earliest forms of barter through the precious-metal economy, and into the age of coins in which we still live. Many readers will realize the actual connection between money and writing—the earliest writing was used to keep accurate records of financial transactions and accounts! Coins emerged more than a millennium later than the invention of writing.
Was Jesus a pioneer scholar of numismatics? Perhaps, since he shows us his own interest in money—16 of the 40 parables refer to coins or money, and “the topic is mentioned throughout the scriptures more than almost any other subject,” Ken explains.
Ken uses examples of coins of the ancient world, and the stories related to them, to narrate the Judeo-Christian tradition from the invention of coinage right up to the Byzantine period. He begins his story in the days of the Old Testament, a time before coins existed, when “shekel” referred to a weight of metal, mainly silver. But, as the story reaches the “30 pieces of silver,” Ken explains that now they are talking about coins—and he identifies them as silver shekels of Tyre. They portrayed a heathen god but were the purest of silver and truest of weight of their time, and they were the only coin accepted by the Temple. Because Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem from around the ancient world, they arrived carrying only their local coins. These were converted into Tyre shekels or half-shekels by moneychangers near the Jerusalem Temple and, indeed, it was the behavior of these money changers that caused Jesus to disrupt their business by upturning their trading tables.
Through coins, readers reach the landmark when Rome accepted Christianity at the time of Constantine the Great (A.D. 307–337). Constantine had a dream before the battle of the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312. In his dream, a flaming cross with the Latin words In hoc signo vinces (“By this sign you will conquer”) appeared. “From that time forward, the Roman sun god was removed from Constantine’s coins and replaced with non-religious depictions,” Ken writes. Fascinating. I am betting that many professors of ancient history do not know this, because many historic details that are reflected in contemporary coins of the realm are often ignored except by specialists.
Ken also tells us that the face of Jesus does not appear on coins until the seventh-century reign of Justinian II. As for the origins of that image—well, Ken will tell the story better than I can here, so read his book!
Many readers of Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame will be surprised to learn that so many objects used around the time of Jesus still exist and can be seen in museums and private collections throughout the United States and the world. Ken not only tells us about these objects—from coins to oil lamps and ancient glass—but shows us photos of fascinating examples.
Indeed, each of these ancient objects is a portal to a continuum of human life across 4,000 years, an authentic key to the mind. Is every story true? We can never know. But Ken weaves tales that have been reconstructed by scholars since the Renaissance.
I found Bible Lore and the Eternal Flame to be a fun and fascinating book, and I’m happy to encourage you to read it, too.
David Hendin is a specialist in weights and currency of the ancient Levant, especially Judaean and biblical, local provincial, and Nabataean numismatics. He is author of the Guide to Biblical Coins (sixth edition, 2022) and ten other books, as well as articles in scholarly journals and his monthly column for The Celator. He joined the American Numismatic Society in 1976 and is now a Life Fellow and member of the Augustus B. Sage Society.