14 Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests,
15 And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.
(Matthew 26:14-15, King James Bible)
In case anybody is any doubt, this is not a religious blog and those who seek salvation, better seek elsewhere. Instead, here we are concerned with the famous story of Judas selling Jesus to the Jewish high priests for the now proverbial thirty pieces of silver; or to be precise, with the actual thirty pieces of silver.
And their legend, as told by Brother Felix Fabri in his diary of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri
I first came across Felix Fabri in the form of a quote in City of Fortune, a history book written by English historian Roger Crowley about the naval power of Venice; the good brother pops up for the first time on page 2. Subsequently, when I interviewed Roger Crowley and asked him which of his original sources would he recommend to the ordinary reader, he chose the diary of Felix Fabri.
I particularly love the good-natured Felix Fabri, the German monk who made two trips to the Holy Land and to Egypt in the 1480s. It’s vivid early travel writing at its best. Difficult not to enjoy the account of a man kept awake while travelling up the Nile by the belching of crocodiles.
(Roger Crowley in Narrative History at its Most Enthralling: Interview with Roger Crowley by Waterblogged)
Felix Fabri was a German monk in the 15th century, who made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land twice, in 1480 and 1483. He was blessed with an open and inquiring mind as well as an eye for detail, a photographic memory and the gift of the gab. His diaries, which run to volumes, have never been fully translated into English, but you can obtain – for a hefty price – a reprint of the section of his diary about his visits to the Holy Land, produced by the Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society. (In effect, you’ll be paying for print to order.) It starts with his departure from Germany and finishes – disappointingly – with his departure from the Holy Land for Egypt. From then onwards, you have to rely on excerpts in H.F.M.Prescott’s Once to Sinai: The Further Pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri. On the other hand, if you can read Latin, you can read the whole thing. (All of these are now available for reading online or to download as an e-book: see the links below.)
I haven’t got as far as Prescott yet. I’m halfway through the four volumes of the Palestine Pilgrims text and it took me more than a year to get this far – it’s not the easiest of readings. Fabri’s description of the journey from Germany to the Holy Land, across the Alps and then down the Adriatic and round Cyprus in a Venetian galley chartered by pilgrims is pure delight; but he then arrives and goes on to describe the Holy Land in great detail – every bloody rock, bush and indulgence you can obtain from kissing a blessed spot. At times it makes for extremely tedious reading, especially if you’re not religiously inclined – he could do with a good atheist editor. And yet… buried among the wealth of religious detail and biblical quotes, there are the real experiences of a traveller visiting a hostile country in the 15th century, interspersed with the philosophical musings of an erudite man.
But the thirty pieces of silver!
The Legend of the Thirty Pieces of Silver
One of the many stories Felix Fabri recounts is that of the thirty pieces of silver. It must have been a reasonably well known legend in his time but it’s hardly that now. It’s the legend of the thirty actual coins and how they passed from hand to hand during the centuries. Abraham and Joseph, the Queen of Sheba and Solomon all come into it. Enjoy!
Now, as for the thirty pieces of money, I have read a long rambling story which says that Terah, the father of Abraham, struck them at the bidding of King Ninus, with others of the same mintage; and that Abraham received them and brought them into this land, and that from him they were handed down to Ishmael by inheritance, all together, and that they never were divided from one another.
They were paid by the Ishmaelites to the children of Jacob for their brother Joseph, whom they sold to them, and the brethren carried them down into Egypt to buy corn with. From Egypt they were carried into Sheba, as the price of merchandise. The Queen of Sheba gave them to Solomon among other presents, and he cast them into the treasury of the Lord’s temple.
Nebuchadnezzar carried them off together with the other treasures of the temple, and made a present of them to Godolia (sic), by whom they were sent to the kingdom of Nubia.
When the Lord was born in Bethlehem, Melchior, the King of Nubia, offered them to the Lord, and the blessed Virgin and Joseph lost them in the desert when they were fleeing with the child. A shepherd found them and kept them for thirty years. This shepherd, hearing the fame of the miracles of the Lord Jesus, came to Jerusalem sick; and, having received health from Him, offered the thirty pieces to Jesus. Since He would not receive them, he gave them to the priests of the temple, who set them aside as corban. When the Lord had been betrayed, they handed them over to Judas, who, moved by remorse, flung them down in the temple.
The priests picked them up, and bought this field for them, and thus they became scattered separately throughout the world. I have seen one of them in Rhodes, and Johannes Tucher, of Nuremberg, took a cast of it, had a leaden mould made, and cast silver coins in its likeness, which he distributed among his friends; indeed, when we were all gathered together in Nuremberg in the year 1485, to celebrate the meeting of the chapter of the province, the aforesaid man gave one of his pieces of silver to a certain brother of our order.
It is about as large as those of the coins called blaffardi, which are marked with a cross; on one side there is a human face, on the other a lily. There once was an inscription, but it cannot now be seen.
(The Wanderings of Felix Fabri by Felix Fabri)
Links: ⇒ The Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri ⇒ Once to Sinai: The Further Pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri by H.F.M. Prescott ⇒ Narrative History at its Most Enthralling: Interview with Roger Crowley ⇒ Fratris Felicis Fabri Evagatorium in Terrae Sanctae, Arabiae et Egypti on Project Gutenberg