Measures of capacity

Due to the length of the Weights and Measures page, it's been split up into different sections. You can find the main article at Weights and Measures.

Measures of length

Measures of area

Measures of capacity

Measures of weight

Balances

Measures of capacity

Just as the linear measures of cubit, finger, and span were derived from various parts of the human body, so also the ancient units of capacity were originally non-specific, and their names were taken from terms commonly used in the home or in commerce, such as the more imprecise “bowlful” (Judg 6:38; Amos 6:6) and “handfuls” (1 Kings 20:10); to more definite terms such as the homer, which is by derivation an “ass-load”; the hin, which is a pot; the omer, which is a sheaf; and the ephah, which is a basket.

The standard measure of capacity in ancient Egypt was the ḥḳt, and is considered to be 5.03 liters, about 1 1/4 American gallons and was used to measure grain or metal. The “hin” jar (hnw) which was 1/10 of a ḥḳt was used to measure certain liquids such as beer, milk, and honey, as well as being a dry measure; it amounted to c. 0.503 liters, or slightly more than a pint. There was wide variation in Mesopotamian standards as judged by the many names for measures of capacity which are found in Sumerian, Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Nuzian texts. The basic measure of capacity was probably the qa, equivalent of the Sumer. sila; it has been estimated to be between 1.004 liters and 1.34 liters.

Another standard measure of capacity was the sutu of ten qas (c. 13.4 liters or 1 1/2 pecks) and the imeru (which means “ass,” and represented the normal load carried by this animal) which is considered to be 134 liters or 3.8 bushels; this term is found in Middle Assyrian and Nuzian texts. There is not sufficient evidence to determine the Canaanite units of measure, though they were probably like the Mesopotamian system. The ḥmr (homer) was a unit of dry measure, as well as the ltḥ (lethech). The lg (log) was another unit of measure encountered in Ugaritic lit.

The Hebrew measures of capacity were never standardized and occasionally different names were used to designate the same unit. They were sometimes used to determine both liquid and dry measures, as the liter today. The Rom. measures of capacity were the quartarius, sextarius, congius, urna, and amphora. The major units in the Bible are:

Liquid, OT

Bath


Its capacity has been determined at c. five gallons based on the estimated capacity of broken jars of the 8th cent. b.c. from Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish) and Tell en-Nasbeh (with the inscription “royal bath,” בת המלך) and from Tell Beit Mirsim marked “bath” (בַּת֮, H1427). Pottery of the Graeco-Rom. period reveals a bath of 21.5 liters. Calculations of the capacity of the “molten sea” in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 7:23-26, 38) support the estimate of five gallons. It has also been estimated to be six gallons.

Hin


Log

The log (לֹג, H4253, Ugaritic lg, Coptic lok) was the smallest of the liquid measures, equal to 1/12 hin, and is mentioned only in Leviticus 14:10-24 as a measure of oil used in the ritual for the purification of lepers. The LXX trs. it as κοτύλη, about 1/2 pint; and the Vul. trs. as sextarius. The Talmud figured the log as the amount of water displaced by six hens’ eggs, roughly the equivalent of one pint. It is prob. 0.67 pint.

Dry, OT

Homer

The homer (חֹ֫מֶר֙, H2818) was the standard unit of dry measurement in the OT; it was also called the cor because of the assimilation of two systems. It is from a word meaning an “ass-load.” It has been estimated variously as 3.8 bushels or 6.524 bushels and by older estimates as eleven bushels. It was equal to the cor and contained ten baths or ephahs (Ezek 45:11-14). It was used for fairly large measurements in the OT. It was a large measure for cereals (Ezek 45:13; Hos 3:2), a homer of barley being worth fifty shekels of silver (Lev 27:16). It was used, by way of exception, to measure the quails which fell in the desert. They covered the ground to a depth of two cubits for a day’s march around the camp, and the people gathered the birds all day and all night, and the next day “he who gathered least gathered ten homers” (Num 11:32). The most conservative estimate of the homer would make this thirty-eight bushels, and would reveal the gluttony of the people. “A homer of seed shall yield but an ephah” (Isa 5:10) is the expression of a curse on the land because of the sins of the people.

Cor

The cor (כֹּר, H4123) was equal to the homer. The KJV usually translates it as “measures.” It was a large measure for flour (1 Kings 4:22) and for grain (5:11; 2 Chron 2:10). It was a dry measure, though Ezekiel 45:14 makes cor a liquid measure for oil, and, like the homer, it contains ten baths. The mention of cor for oil in 1 Kings 5:11 should be bath. It has been estimated to contain 3.8-6.524 bushels or 35.4-60.728 gallons. A half-homer of rust-colored stone used about 3,000 years ago in Jerusalem was found in an excavation.

Lethech

The lethech (לֵ֫תֶכְ, H4390, Ugar. lth), mentioned only in Hosea 3:2 where Hosea was told to buy the woman for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley, (“half homer,” KJV) was a dry measure, possibly Phoen. Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and the Vul. interpret as 1/2 cor. If correct, the lethech would be between 1.9-3.262 bushels.

Ephah

The ephah (אֵיפָה, H406, אֵפָה, Egyp. ’pt) was a dry measure, the one most commonly used in the OT; sometimes translated “measure,” KJV (Deut 25:14; Prov 20:10; Mic 6:10). It was equal to 1/10 homer (Ezek 45:11), and is estimated from 3/8 to 2/3 of a bushel.



Seah

The seah (סְאָה, H6006, translated as “measure” RSV, KJV), was a dry measure for flour and cereals (Gen 18:6; 1 Sam 25:18; 1 Kings 18:32; 2 Kings 7:1). It is difficult to determine its size. It has been estimated to be 0.367 bushels or 1.452 pecks. If the šalîš (which means “third” and translates “measure,” RSV, KJV) of Isaiah 40:12 is the equivalent of the seah, then it is 1/3 ephah or 1/30 of a homer. If so, it would be 0.127-0.217 bushel. Erubin 83a of the Babylonian Talmud says the seah of the desert was equal to the volume of 144 eggs and the seah of Jerusalem was equal to 173 eggs (1/6 greater than the desert seah) and that of Sepphoris (a sacred measure used for religious ceremonies) was equal to 207 eggs.

Omer

The omer (עֹ֫מֶר֮, H6685, γόμορ, LXX; from a word meaning sheaf) is found only in the story of the gathering of the manna (Exod 16:13-36) where every man gathered an omer a day. It represented a day’s ration; two omers were to be gathered for the sixth day and the sabbath; one omer was to be kept as a memorial (vv. 32-34). It is identified in Exodus 16:36 as 1/10 ephah, and would thus be equivalent to the issaron or “tenth” of Exodus 29:40. It would be 2.087 dry quarts or 2.299 liters. The omer should not be confused with the homer.

Issaron

The Issaron (עִשָּׂרון, H6928) a dry measure, was probably another name for the omer, and was 1/10 ephah. It is called only a “tenth” in Exodus 29:40, and is found as a measure of meal in the liturgical texts (29:40; Lev 14:10, 21, etc.). The RSV in some passages adds “of an ephah” whereas the KJV uses a more general word “deal.”

Kab (Cab)

The kab קַב, H7685, (“cab,” KJV) appears only once in the OT (2 Kings 6:25). During the siege of Samaria by the Assyrians an ass’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung (wild onions, de Vaux) sold for five shekels. The Hebrew of this verse is corrupt and it is difficult to determine what it was. Josephus (Antiq. IX. iv. 4) considered 1/4 kab as being a sextarius (ξέστης, G3829). It has been estimated as 1/18 ephah, or 1.159 dry quarts.

Handful

In addition to the above definite dry measurements, handful, though not an exact measure, is found often in the OT in such expressions as “handfuls of ashes” (Exod 9:8); “handful of the fine flour and oil” (Lev 2:2); “handful of it” (5:12); “handful of the cereal offering” (Num 5:26); “handful of meal” (1 Kings 17:12); “handful of quietness” (Eccl 4:6); and “handfuls of barley” (Ezek 13:19).


NT measures

Of the above liquid measures only the bath is found in the NT (Luke 16:6; “measures,” RSV). Of the above dry measures only two appear in the NT: the seah (σάτον, G4929, Matt 13:33) and the cor (κόρος, G3174, Luke 16:7). The saton was a commonly used measure of capacity throughout the Roman empire. It was the equivalent of 10.91 liters, or 1/2 ephah. The Hebrews used three sata of varying capacity. Other measures found in the NT include:

Choinix

The choinix (χοῖνιξ, G5955) was a Greek dry measure equal to about two dry pints (Rev 6:6, “quart,” RSV; “measure,” KJV).

Xestes

The xestes (ξέστης, G3829, Lat., sextarius) was the name of a household vessel and was equal to about 1 1/6 pints (Mark 7:4, “pot” RSV).

Metretes (firkin, gallon)

The metretes (μετρητῆς) was a liquid measure equal to about 39 liters or 10.3 gallons. The Hebrew bath is translated once in the LXX as metrētēs, twice by chous (equal to 1/12 metrētēs), and three times in one v. by kotulē (equal to 1/12 chous). Josephus makes the bath equal to the metrētēs (Antiq. III. viii. 3; VIII. ii. 9). Based on a jar found at Qumran marked “2 se’ah and 7 log” the metretes has been estimated to be about twelve gallons. It is translated as “firkin” in the KJV (John 2:6). The RSV trs. two or three metretai as “twenty or thirty gallons” (John 2:6).

Modius

The modius (μόδιος, G3654, Lat. modius) was a dry measure equal to about 8.49 liters or 7.68 U.S. dry quarts. It is the bushel of Matthew 5:15; Mark 4:21; Luke 11:33, which is used to mean a vessel which could cover a light. The measure used in Jerusalem during the Hellenic and Roman ages was equal to the Italic modius.

Litra

The litra (λίτρα, G3354, Lat. libra) was a Roman pound of twelve oz., and was used as a measure for both capacity and weight. It was the amount of ointment which Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus (John 12:3). Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes which weighed c. 100 litras (“pounds” RSV) for the dressing of Jesus’ body (19:39).

Artabe

The artabe was a Persian measure equal to about 1 4/5 bushels. Bel 3 tells that the Babylonians offered twelve artabai (ἀρτάβαι, “measures”) of fine flour and six metretai (μετρήται, from a word meaning “measurer”) of olive oil (“wine” KJV, RSV, following Theod.) daily to their idol Bel as food. The metretes was an Attic measure which contained eight to ten gallons.

Bushel

Translation of μόδιος, G3654, (q.v. as Modius) equal to 0.245 American bushels, found in Matthew 5:15; Mark 4:21; Luke 11:33, where it refers to a vessel which would cover a light. Also tr. of ἀρτάβαι in Bel 3 (“measures” KJV), a Persian measure (q.v. as Artabe).

Quart

A translation of χοῖνιξ, G5955, (choinix, q.v.) in Revelation 6:6 (“measure” KJV); slightly less than a quart.

An Additional Perspective

The bath was the standard liquid measure in OT times. Its value is a matter of dispute. At present scholars regard it as equal to about six gallons (twenty-three l.), rather than ten gallons (thirty-nine l.) as formerly. The finding of fragments of large jars, inscribed “bath of the king” (perhaps an attempt to standardize the bath for use in tax payments) or simply “bath” have helped to bring about this reduction in size. Unfortunately, these jars cannot be completely restored, hence there is still some uncertainty. Subdivisions of the bath are hin (one-sixth bath) and log (one-twelfth hin).

The liquid measures of NT times are difficult to equate with those of the OT. The English “measure” may equal a kōr, as in Luke.16.7, or a bath, as in Luke.16.6. The firkin of John.2.6 (kjv) held about 10.3 gallons (40 l.).

The homer was the standard dry measure of the OT. Homer means “donkey,” and therefore a donkey-load, or about 6.25 bushels (208 l.) It is to be equated with the cor. The ephah (about 3/5 bu.—20 l.) is the dry equivalent of the liquid measure bath (Ezek.45.10). The lethekh is mentioned only in Hos.3.2 and is probably given its correct value in the KJV, which translates it “half homer.”

Three smaller dry measures are: the se’âh, about one-fifth bushel (seven l.); the omer, four dry pints (two l.); the ‘issārôn (kjv “tenth deal,” rsv “tenth measure”), evidently equivalent to the omer; and the cab, a little more than two dry pints (one l.). However, modern authorities differ greatly as to the value of the dry measures, some inclining toward a substantially higher value for each. The system followed here is substantially that of R. B. Y. Scott in the article referred to at the end of this subject.

NT dry measures are: bushel (Matt.5.15), about seven and one-half dry quarts or slightly less than one-half US bushel; measure (“quart,” rsv), about one dry quart; pot (Mark.7.4), about one dry pint.