History of Scholarship

An overview of modern scholarship on the interpretation of the Capernaum coins highlights the need for this study. Such an overview can also help us to understand why most scholars are still confused about how to interpret the phenomenon or why they never thought to consider the issue to begin with.

Soon after the discovery of the Capernaum coins was made public, scholars began to speculate about the possible reason behind their burial.[5] Avi-Yonah was one of the first scholars to address the finds in a 1973 article. He proposed that the coins were hidden under the building deliberately in the 5th century when, according to him, Galilee was in danger of an attack, and the money needed to be stashed away for safe-keeping. He writes:

“These hoards show that the synagogue officials (for such hoards were mostly not private) were afraid of attack and ruin. To anyone familiar with Jewish history in fifth-century Palestine, such fears were only too well-founded. The fact that the caches were never recovered is clear evidence that all those who knew of their location either perished or were driven away.”[6]

Thus, according to Avi-Yonah, the coins were placed under the synagogue decades after the building was constructed: the synagogue officials had taken the money, opened the floor, hid the coins, and put the pavement back. When the village subsequently was attacked, the officials were killed or driven away; either way, they never made their way back to the synagogue and the coins were lost to history.

This early hypothesis of hiding money inside synagogue buildings to save it from barbarians, thieves, and other disasters found successive proponents and it is still a popular interpretation of synagogue coin deposits. Around the turn of the millennium, for example, a juglet containing fourteen gold coins dated to the reign of Justinian I (527-565 CE) was discovered in the interstices of a wall in the synagogue at Deir ‘Aziz. Knowing that Justinian I had been a great military leader, and that under his reign multiple wars and rebellions were fought, Nili Ahipaz interpreted the deposit as an emergency hoard, hidden by the local people in fear of upcoming war and pillaging.[7] In 2002, Donald Ariel suggested that a possible motivation for hiding coinage in synagogues could have been anxiety about the plague, which began circulating in Palestine in 541 CE and struck the region hard in mid-542 CE.[8] He writes: “While not all historians view the pandemic in this way, there is no doubt that vis-à-vis hoarding, plagues are excellent explanations for the deposition of hoards, especially small hoards.”[9]

Some scholars, however, contend that the Capernaum synagogue deposits were emergency hoards. To Loffreda, for example, it seems absurd that the heads of the synagogue would make “topsy-turvey a sizeable part of the valuable floor of the prayer room simply to hide hoards of bronze coins of modest value.”[10] Instead, he insists that the coins were deposited simultaneously with the construction of the building and the installation of its floors. His interpretation follows a hypothesis initially proposed by Yoram Kentman and published by Zvi Ilan in 1989. While interpreting the hundreds of coins found under the pavement of the synagogue of Meroth, Ilan writes:

“Jewish law requires that ma’aser sheni (the second tithe), approximately 9% of certain crops, be eaten in Jerusalem. It is permissible to transfer (redeem) the value of the crops, carry that coin to Jerusalem, and purchase food and drink, for consumption in the Holy City. In either case, ma’aser sheni could only be eaten in Jerusalem while the Temple stood. After the destruction of the Temple in 74 C.E. crops still had to be redeemed before they could be eaten. Jewish law at this time allowed for the symbolic redemption of a large amount of crops with coins of little value. While it was impossible to redeem those coins since the Temple no longer existed, the coins retained a holy status and could not be used for any purpose. Jewish law therefore required that they be destroyed. In practice, since ruling authorities forbade the destruction of coins other methods of disposing of the coins had to be found. Perhaps the coins underneath Meroth’s floor were ma’aser sheni coins which were forbidden for use. They may have been collected elsewhere, over a period of many years and when the synagogue was built, they were brought there. This would explain the exceptionally large number of coins we found.”[11]

However, Ilan admits that this hypothesis has its problems when looking at other synagogue deposits and he writes at the end of his paragraph: “Unfortunately, this theory is also problematic, since finds in Chorazin and Rimmon include gold coins, which could not be used to redeem ma’aser sheni.”[12] Nonetheless, Ilan’s hypothesis was later adopted by Loffreda who believes that the Capernaum coins indeed were used to redeem the ma’aser sheni and were placed under the floor at the time of the laying of the stone pavement.[13]

Not all coins discovered in ancient synagogues, however, were founds scattered under the floor, and some synagogue deposits have thus been interpreted differently. In the synagogue at Meroth, for example, a hollowed-out stone was discovered in a side room of the building containing almost 500 coins, half of which were gold. Kindler, who analyzed the coins, interprets the deposit as a treasury; “the community public funds” collected as taxes or charity by the leaders of the community.[14] This interpretation was later applied to the coins hidden in floors and/or walls as well; according to some scholars, these coins are “a result of the efforts to hide and protect communal funds.”[15]

A fourth hypothesis places the deposition of coins in synagogues not during the construction or use of the building, but in its afterlife as a ruin or tourist attraction. Yeivin based this interpretation on the coins found under the floor of the synagogue at Chorazin.[16] Here, in the earth patches between the stone pavement floor of the synagogue, 2000 coins were found dating to the 4th– 7th century, including two gold ones. According to Yeivin, these coins could not have been placed during the construction of the floor since he believes the synagogue was rebuilt no later than the 5th century and the coins are dated much later. He also does not believe that the deposit belonged to the use of the building, as he thinks that the synagogue was no longer in use in the 7th century. His hypothesis is that these coins were thrown on the floor over the centuries by Christian and maybe Jewish pilgrims for good luck after the building had gone out of use as a synagogue.[17]

Finally, some scholars have proposed that the synagogue coins were deliberately placed in or under the building as blessings for the building or its users. This theory was first proposed by Zvi Ilan, who wrote in 1989:

“They [the coins] might have been placed there to bring the building and its congregants’ blessings and good fortune, a tradition which persists in similar forms (tossing coins into fountains) to this day. The saying of the Jewish sages, “Blessings only reside in things hidden from sight,” might be relevant in this regard.”[18]

Although Ilan never mentioned the words “foundation deposit,” this is the nomenclature that proponents of this theory started to use following the publication of his article. Foundation or building deposits are groups of objects placed in the foundation of a building during construction, forming an integral part of the structure of the building but having neither a decorative nor structural function; their purpose lays in the symbolic world.[19] Foundation deposits are commonly found in the understructure of religious and secular communal buildings around the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, reflecting a popular practice among many cultures.[20] According to some scholars, the same phenomenon existed in Late Antique Judaism. Regardless of the validity of this interpretation, the streams of scholarship which promoted it became firmly entrenched in subsequent historiography. Ilan’s original theory found many advocates among prominent numismatists like Donald Ariel, Stanislao Loffreda, Ermanno Arslan, and Gabriela Bijovsky.[21] They too believe that the coins found under the floors of ancient synagogue buildings were intended to ensure good luck and prosperity, a phenomenon they call “Jewish foundation deposits.” Eventually, a ritual reason for the Capernaum coins was proposed as well. In 2011, Ermanno Arslan published an analysis of the coins from trench L812 at Capernaum, in which he writes:

“A reason for the continuous presence of nummi in the synagogue could be the traditional use of the smallest coins, the symbolic demonetization of which was more accepted during ritual services. This means that the faithful would bring a nummus to the synagogue rather than other denominations, even when lower numbers of nummi were in circulation. This would be similar to the so-called ‘Charon’s obol’ placed inside graves. For a long period of time in the Western roman Empire, the as, rather than a smaller denomination, or a coin of a different metal, was used for this purpose.”[22]

Finally, we cannot finish our overview of previous scholarship on synagogue coin deposits without mentioning the article that was recently published by Nili Ahpaz and Uzi Leibner.[23] This article is a summary of Ahipaz’s MA thesis and discusses floor deposits in ancient synagogues, using the synagogue at Deir ‘Aziz as a case-study. Focusing on only one specific group of deposits, scattered coins of low value found beneath the floors of ancient synagogues (and one church), Ahipaz and Leibner conclude that the function of these deposits can be found in the magical realm; a practice aimed at the protection of the synagogue.[24]

To summarize this overview, six major hypotheses for synagogue coin deposits have been proposed, debated, and argued since the 1968 Capernaum discovery, either to explain the phenomenon as a whole or to try to ascertain the function of individual deposits: emergency hoards, tithing money, the community treasury, pilgrim donations, foundation deposits, and magical deposits.

Despite these theories available, only few archaeologists dare to offer a comprehensive explanation or interpretation for their excavated synagogue coins in their final excavation reports. In general, archaeologists have approached this phenomenon in one of two ways when publishing coin deposits from ancient synagogues. On the one hand, there are the scholars who mention the coin deposits but do not offer any explanation for why they were brought into the building. For example, Amos Kloner and Tessa Mindel published an article in 1981 on two coin deposits from the western room of the synagogue at Horvat Rimmon. The coins were found in pottery jars, buried in fill on top of the floor level of the room. Despite providing a detailed analysis of each coin, their interpretation of the deposit as a whole is limited to: “Their location within the same Locus and at a similar depth, and the fact that both hoards span the same period […], indicates that they probably were buried contemporaneously. As no floor or living level that could be attributed to the period of the coins has been identified, it appears that Locus 33 served as a dump, in which the hoards were buried.”[25] No further explanation is given for who placed the hoards there and why. Sometimes the description is even shorter. In an overview of the small finds and coins from the synagogue at Ma’on Nirim, Levy Yitzhak Rahmani states: “There were 81 coins found in the synagogue area, including 71 in the debris above the pavement, between the foundation stones, or below the pavement level.”[26] An analysis of nine coins is subsequently provided, but no effort is made to connect the coins to a specific locus or context, nor is there any attempt to interpret the coin finds from this building. And in the final publication report on the synagogue at Horvat Sumaqa, Shimon Dar writes: “Sixty-four coins were found in various excavated areas of the synagogue and fifty were positively identified. … There were thirty 5th-, six 6th-, and one 7th-century coins. The last group were found collectively in between the cracks of the paving stones in the narthex of the synagogue.”[27] No further interpretation is offered.

On the other hand, there are the scholars who approach the phenomenon as if the question has already been answered and a longer discussion is no longer needed. Regarding the copious coins found in the synagogue at Bar’am, Mordechai Aviam writes: “The large numbers of coins (around seventy) unearthed in the excavated area suggests the same known custom of throwing coins in the fill or under the pavers in ancient synagogues.”[28] Analyzing over 705 coins found under the floor of the synagogue of Dabiyye, Donald Ariel states: “Over two-fifths of the coins from Dabiyye were part of what may be called a foundation deposit.”[29] And discussing the two hoards found at ‘En Nashut in the late 70s, Zvi Ma’oz explains: “Since both groups are copper coins of the smallest denominations, they were not hoards buried for retrieval, but votive offerings, possibly with some magical significance.”[30]

In other words, despite theoretical efforts to try to explain coin deposits found in ancient synagogues, archaeologists are still reluctant to connect their own finds to a specific theory and explore why and how their coin assemblage ended up at their site. Furthermore, fifty years after the discovery of the Capernaum coins and with the addition of over twenty newly excavated synagogue buildings with coin deposits, it has now become clear that we are actually dealing with different kinds of deposits — some found scattered, other in clusters, or in containers — found in a variety of contexts — some found spread out under the floor, others grouped inside the bemah, behind in benches, or in hidden compartments in the floor or walls. The question is thus if one overarching theory can really explain all this variety, or if we need to explore multiple functional categories. And if so, where and how do we start?


[5] Callegher 2016, p. 155: Capernaum was not the first synagogue building in which coin deposits were found (see catalogue), but it was very probably the first for which the archaeological-stratigraphical context was known with precision, and that was immediately reported to the archaeological authorities; hence why scholars were picking it up.

[6] Avi-Yonah 1973, p. 44.

[7] Ahipaz 2007, p. 162.

[8] Ariel 2002, p. 299. For an overview of the plague and its devastating consequences in the Middle East in the 6th century, see Conrad 1986; Little (ed.) 2006 (especially the contributions by Michael Morony and Hugh Kennedy); and Mordechai et al. 2019.

[9] Ariel 2002, p. 299. This hypothesis was also proposed by Ahipaz in her analysis of the Deir ‘Aziz golden coins deposit: “The eastern part of the empire was also struck by a severe plague (541/2 CE) and throughout the 540s and 550s subsequent waves of this pandemic were an important factor in the east’s demographic decline. I believe the Deir ‘Aziz hoard was an emergency hoard, meant to be retrieved when the threat subsided” (Ahipaz 2007, p. 162).

[10] Loffreda 1997, p. 234. He also brings up the fact that it would have been sufficient to make a hole, or at least to only remove one single stone to hide the coins, and that it would have been absurd to scatter the coins over a large area “as grass is sown” if the goal is to recover them one day. Doron Chen also points out that there are no archaeological traces of repairs or relaying of the pavement after initial construction and that “no builder would dig three meters down [to the Stratum B fill were many of the coins were found], as this would undermine the stability of the foundations” (Chen 1986b, p. 135).

[11] Ilan 1989a, p. 28.

[12] Ilan 1989a, p. 28. He thus admits that not all synagogue deposits are the same, even though he tries to find one overarching explanation.

[13] Loffreda 1997, p. 234. To be clear, this hypothesis is only proposed by Loffreda for the coins found in level C at Capernaum; the uppermost level of mortar found underneath the floor, which was poured to set the pavement stones and the benches. Hundreds of coins have also been found underneath this layer, in level B (the artificial fill for the podium of the synagogue) and level A (the older house structures found underneath the fill), but he does not link these particular coins to the ma’aser sheni.

[14] Kindler 1986.

[15] Stern 2021, p. 242.

[16] Yeivin 1987, p. 35.

[17] This hypothesis never caught on and seems very doubtful. First, we have no reason to believe Christians would visit Jewish synagogues in antiquity after they went out of use, while also dropping coins for blessings or to bring good luck. Second, the date of the Capernaum synagogue has been debated over the lasts decades and it is now assumed the building still functioned in the 7th century, making the pilgrim-theory obsolete (Magness 2001a).

[18] Ilan 1989a, pp. 27–28. He thus makes a distinction between the phenomenon either being the storage of ma’aser sheni money or the use of coins to bless the building. To be fair, he never called this “blessing money” a foundation deposit; this idea was only assumed and picked up by others.

[19] Definition by Ellis 1968, p. 1, who wrote the first comprehensive work on foundation deposits.

[20] And in many other cultures around the world. Deposits of weapons and precious artifacts, and skeletons of humans and animals have, for example, also been found buried under structures in Celtic, Germanic, and Indo–European settlements all over Europe. Here, however, I limit myself to comparisons of the ancient Mediterranean world, chronologically and geographically closest to Late Roman and Byzantine Palestine. Research in this region has been conducted by, for example, Ellis 1968; Weinstein 1973; El-Adly 1981; Bunimowitz and Zimhoni 1993; Gitin and Golani 2001; Weikart 2002; Mansel 2003; Sauer 2004; Sakr 2005; DePietro 2012; Tsouparopoulou 2014; Hunt 2016; Masson 2017. See “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: THE FLOOR DEPOSITs” for a thorough analysis.

[21] Ariel 1980, pp. 59–62; 1987, p. 148; 1991, pp. 74–80; Loffreda 1997; Arslan 1997, pp. 291–292; Bijovsky 2012a, pp. 90–97. Zvi Ma’oz was the first to propose that the coins found in ancient synagogues in the Golan Heights were placed there to “serve as protection against demons.” (Ma’oz 1999, pp. 147–148; 2017, pp. 110–111).

[22] Arslan 2011, pp. 152–153. Admittedly, he only mentions a “ritual service” as the purpose of the coins, without providing more details about the kind of ritual, nor mentioning the words “foundation deposit”.

[23] Ahipaz and Liebner 2021 (Hebrew). This article is an extension of her article on genizot published by the Hecht museum of Haifa in 2013. Nili shared this new article with me as soon as it came out and I am grateful for her collaboration and friendship.

[24] Ahipaz and Leibner 2021, p. 229. The article shares many examples and insights with my research and I am happy to see that the phenomenon is receiving scholarly attention once more. Hopefully, our mutual projects will put this phenomenon in the spotlight again.

[25] Kloner and Mindel 1981, p. 60.

[26] Rahmani 1960, p. 18.

[27] Dar 1999, p. 28.

[28] Aviam 2001, p. 169, italics are mine.

[29] Ariel 1991, p. 74, italics are mine.

[30] Ma’oz 1979, italics are mine. The same approach has in fact also been taken by some numismatists when discovering coin deposits in other contexts in Palestine/Israel. After the excavations of the Byzantine cardo surrounding the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the discovery of a coin deposit below a mosaic sidewalk, Bijovsky writes “Two other palm-tree Vandalic nummi appear in the small deposit of 51 minimi found in the bedding of a mosaic floor preserved in the eastern sidewalk (L4253; Nos. 151, 152). This was a well-known practice, wherein groups of coins were deliberately buried for good luck or votive reasons when a building was erected or repaired.” (Bijovsky 2019, p. 169). Is this an interpretation based on synagogue deposits now being projected onto other sites by Bijovsky?