See the Coin article more information on ancient money.
While “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1Tim.6.10), the study of money, particularly of money mentioned in the Bible, is rich and rewarding. Jesus and the apostles taught Christians about the proper attitude toward and use of money. The early Christians used money in their daily lives just as Christians and churches do today. Translators of the Bible, however, have always had difficulty finding terms for the various kinds of money in the Bible that indicate their value or purchasing power in Bible times. Therefore, a knowledge of the nature and value of ancient money is very helpful to the Bible reader in understanding the Word today.
A Brief History of Money
Money in the sense of stamped coins did not exist in Israel, so far as is known, until after the Exile. Before this time exchange of values took place by bartering; i.e., trading one thing for another without the exchange of money. This method was followed by the weight system, later by minted coins and still later by paper money, until today we have the credit system by which one may live, buy, and sell without the physical transfer of money at all.
Wealth is first mentioned in the Bible in connection with Abraham (Gen.12.5): “He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated” (cf. Gen.12.16, Gen.12.20). The three main items of wealth in the ancient world are listed in Gen.13.2, and Abraham had all three: “Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.” Among the Romans the word for money was pecunia, which is derived from pecus, the Latin word for cow or cattle. Perfumes and ointments also had great value. Besides gold, the Magi brought frankincense and myrrh to worship the newborn King.
Types of Money in the Bible
The first metal exchange was crude, often shapeless, and heavy so as to approximate the value of the item purchased in actual weight. The buyer usually weighed his “money” to the seller. The Jewish shekel was such a weight (shekel means “weight”). It was based on the Babylonian weight of exchange, generally of gold, silver, bronze, and even iron. Among the Jews the shekel was used for the temple tax, the poll tax, and redemption from the priesthood (Exod.30.11-Exod.30.16; Exod.13.13; Num.3.44-Num.3.51). Since Jesus was a firstborn son not of the tribe of Levi, his parents redeemed him from the priesthood (Luke.2.21ff.) by payment of a shekel, worth about a day’s wages at the time. The redemption shekel, we know from the discovery of a piece believed to be from the days of the Maccabees (175-140 b.c.), has on the obverse (front) a pot of manna (Exod.16.33) with the legend (writing or inscription) “Shekel Israel.” On the reverse is Aaron’s budding rod (Num.17.8) with the legend in Hebrew letters, “Jerusalem the Holy.”
Other weights mentioned in the Bible are: talent (circle), māneh (part), gērâh (grain), and beqa‘ (half shekel). It required three thousand shekels to equal one talent of silver, which reveals that the ten thousand talents the unmerciful servant owed his master (Matt.18.23-Matt.18.25) was an overwhelming debt. The pound (Luke.19.13) is a translation of the old weight mina or māneh (Greek: mna). Since a talent was sixty minas, a mina equaled fifty shekels in Attic weight and one hundred shekels in Old Testament weight, which means that in the parable the gift of the Lord to his people is a most precious gift, namely, the gospel.
Beginning of the Coin System
The Hebrews were not the first people to use minted coins. Except for a few brief periods of independence, they were compelled to use the coinage of their pagan conquerors. Thus in the Bible we find a wide variety of coins—mainly Greek, Roman, and Jewish—all used by the same people. Most historians believe that the earliest money pieces were struck about 700 b.c. in the small kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor. These early Lydian “coins” were simply crude pieces of metal cut into small lumps of a standard weight and stamped with official marks to guarantee the value. The Egyptians also developed such a system. Later the quality of the metal and the image on the coin indicated the worth in buying power, much like today. It is believed that the Jews first became acquainted with the coinage of the Babylonians and Persians during the Captivity and that they carried these coins with them when they returned to Palestine.
After 330 b.c. the world-conquering Greeks developed the Persian and Babylonian coinage, and their own, into something of a fixed world system. Animals, natural objects, and the Greek gods were used as symbols on the coins. Each coin was made individually with hammer, punch, and die. The Greeks called these coins drachmas (drachma means “handful”) of which there was a variety with about the same value. Later the terms drachma and shekel were used more or less interchangeably. The “lost coin” (Luke.15.8) was a silver drachma equivalent to a Roman denarius, a day’s wages. The temple or half-shekel tax (Matt.17.24) was a didrachma. Another drachma was the tridrachma of Corinth, a silver coin about the size of our quarter with the head of Athena on one side and the winged horse Pegasus on the other. It was worth a day’s pay and no doubt Paul earned it making tents and used it for payment of passage on ships during his journeys. A Greek coin Paul also may have “spent” is the now-famous “bee coin,” a silver tetradrachma of Ephesus dating back to 350 b.c. All these drachmas were about equal in value to the Jewish shekel.
The coin Peter found in the fish’s mouth was the Greek stater (Matt.17.27). Since the temple tax was a half-shekel, the stater would pay for two. Many authorities believe that the stater really was the tetradrachma of Antioch or Tyre since these coins were accepted at the temple. It is believed that the thirty pieces of silver (Matt.26.15; Matt.27.3-Matt.27.5) that bought the greatest betrayal in history were these large silver coins, tetradrachmas of either Tyre or Antioch from about 125 b.c. In Exod.21.32 we read that thirty shekels was the price of a slave.
The Greek assarion is mentioned twice in the New Testament (Matt.10.29; Luke.12.6): “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” (see “assarion” in niv footnote). In the Roman Empire this Greek coin was small in both size and value, and the English translators simply translated “penny” as a similar small coin with which the English people would be familiar.
Lepton and Kodrantes (Widow’s Mite)
During pre-Roman times under the Maccabees (175-140 b.c.) the Jews for the first time were allowed to issue money of their own. One such piece, as we have seen, was the shekel. Another piece was the lepton, a tiny bronze or copper coin, which we know as the “widow’s mite,” from the famous incident in Mark.12.42 and Luke.21.2. Lepton was translated “mite” in the KJV because it was the coin of least value among coins, as is clearly implied in Luke.12.59; NIV has “penny” there but “two very small copper coins” in the other two passages, adding that they were worth “only a fraction of a penny.” Even the metal was inferior and deteriorated easily. This coin should really be the “penny” of the Bible, not the denarius. The coins, in contrast to those of pagan rulers, had pictures from their religious history and agriculture instead of gods and men, obeying the command, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything” (Exod.20.4). A farthing (Gr. kodrantēs, Matt.5.26; Mark.12.42), twice the value of a mite, was like a two-cent piece.
The most interesting coin of the Bible is the Roman denarius (Greek denarion), known by collectors as the “penny” of the Bible because of this translation in KJV. This silver coin, which looks like our dime, was the most common Roman coin during the days of Jesus and the apostles. Collectors have been able to obtain originals of all twelve Roman emperors (Augustus to Nerva) who reigned during the New Testament period, 4 b.c. to a.d. 100. There were also gold denarii, but these were generally special issues and not nearly so numerous. The Romans as well as the Greeks struck mainly silver coins (alloys) and kept large government-owned silver mines throughout the empire, e.g., at Antioch and Ephesus. When Paul writes, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” he really says in Greek, “The love of silver (philargyria)...” (cf. Luke.16.14; 2Tim.3.2).
The true value of the denarius may be seen in our Lord’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard: “He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard” (Matt.20.2, Matt.20.10). This was the normal rate, the equivalent of what a Roman soldier also received. When the Samaritan (Luke.10.35) gave the innkeeper two days’ wages and was willing to pay anything more above that amount to aid an unknown stranger, he showed how great his love for his neighbor was.
The denarius is mentioned in the miracle of feeding the five thousand (John.6.1-John.6.71) when Philip declared (John.6.7), “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Similar light is thrown on the generous act of Mary, who anointed Jesus with perfume that, according to Judas, was “worth a year’s wages” (John.12.3-John.12.5). See also the reference in Rev.6.6.
The denarius was also the “tribute money” imposed by the Romans on the Jewish people. The “image” on the denarius handed our Lord in Matt.22.19 was the head of either Caesar Augustus (43 b.c. to a.d. 14) or that of Tiberius Caesar (a.d. 14-39). On it Caesar’s name was spelled out entirely to the right of the head, as in the case of a coin that has survived: CAESARAVGVSTVS. To the left of the head are the following Latin abbreviations, all run together: DIVIMPPATERPATRIAE. DIV means “divine,” IMP is “imperator,” PATER PATRIAE is Latin for “Father of His Country.” On the reverse one sees the figures of two Caesars, and above and around the figures the Latin abbreviations: AVGVSPONCOSTRPGER. AVGVS is “Augustus”; PON is “Pontifex Maximus” (religious ruler or “Highest Priest”); COS is “consulship”; TRP is “Tribuncia Potestate,” tribune power, civil head of the state. Below the images is the word CAESARES, Latin for “Caesars.” From this coin alone one can discern that the Roman emperor was an absolute monarch, head of both state and religion.
To study and handle these coins, some over two thousand years old, makes one feel close to the people who lived in Bible days, and helps us understand the times in which they lived. A study of the denarius reveals that this coin was not only a medium of exchange, but a disseminator of information and propaganda for the emperor. This was an age without newspapers! The Roman emperors believed the people read the legends on the coins and went to much trouble to change them often, sometimes every year. The coins also yield much historical data, i.e., the dates of the emperors, and help to establish the historicity of the Bible.
The value of coins fluctuated much in ancient times, making it difficult to state the exact value of each coin. The government issued money through moneychangers, and often the rate of exchange varied according to what a changer was willing to give on a certain day. The denarius became much less valuable after the second century.
To give the value of Bible coins in modern terms can be misleading. Many modern translators simply transliterate the Greek and Latin names (denarius, shekel, assarion, etc.), and allow the Bible reader to interpret for himself the value of the coins.
Material and Form
Gold and silver were the common medium of exchange in Syria and Palestine in the earliest times of which we have any historical record. The period of mere barter had passed before Abraham. The close connection of the country with the two great civilized centers of antiquity, Egypt and Babylonia, had led to the introduction of a currency for the purposes of trade. We have abundant evidence of the use of these metals in the Biblical records, and we know from the monuments that they were used as money before the time of Abraham. The patriarch came back from his visit to Egypt "rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold" (Ge 13:2). There was no system of coinage, but they had these metals cast in a convenient form for use in exchange, such as bars or rings, the latter being a common form and often represented or mentioned on the monuments of Egypt.
In Babylonia the more common form seems to have been the former, such as the bar, or wedge, that Achan found in the sack of Jericho (Jos 7:21). This might indicate that the pieces were too large for ordinary use, but we have indications of the use of small portions also (2Ki 12:9; Job 42:11). But the pieces were not so accurately divided as to pass for money without weighing, as we see in the case of the transaction between Abraham and the children of Heth for the purchase of the field of Machpelah (Ge 23). This transaction indicates also the common use of silver as currency, for it was "current money with the merchant," and earlier than this we have mention of the use of silver by Abraham as money: "He that is born in thy house and he that is bought with thy money" (Ge 17:13).
Jewels of silver and gold were probably made to conform to the shekel weight, so that they might be used for money in case of necessity. Thus Abraham’s servant gave to Rebecca a gold ring of half a shekel weight and bracelets of ten shekels weight (Ge 24:22). The bundles of money carried by the sons of Jacob to Egpyt for the purchase of grain (Ge 42:35) were probably silver rings tied together in bundles. The Hebrew for "talent," kikkar, signifies something round or circular, suggesting a ring of this weight to be used as money.
The ordinary term for money was keceph, "silver," and this word preceded by a numeral always refers to money, either with or without "shekel," which we are probably to supply where it is not expressed after the numeral, at least wherever value is involved, as the shekel (sheqel) was the standard of value as well as of weight (see Weights and Measures). Thus the value of the field of Ephron was in shekels, as was also the estimation of offerings for sacred purposes (Le 5:15; 27, passim). Solomon purchased chariots at 600 (shekels) each and horses at 150 (1Ki 10:29). Large sums were expressed in talents, which were a multiple of the shekel. Thus Menahem gave Pul 1,000 talents of silver (2Ki 15:19), which was made up by the exaction of 50 shekels from each rich man. Hezekiah paid the war indemnity to Sennacherib with 300 talents of silver and 30 of gold (2Ki 18:14). The Assyrian account gives 800 talents of silver, and the discrepancy may not be an error in the Hebrew text, as some would explain it, but probably a different kind of talent
[see Madden, Coins of the Jews, 4]. Solomon’s revenue is stated in talents (1Ki 10:14), and the amount (666 of gold) indicates that money was abundant, for this was in addition to what he obtained from the vassal states and by trade. His partnership with the Phoenicians in commerce brought him large amounts of the precious metals, so that silver was said to have been as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones (1Ki 10:27).
Besides the forms of rings and bars, in which the precious metals were cast for commercial use, some other forms were perhaps current. Thus the term qesiTah has been referred to as used for money, and the Septuagint translation has "lambs." It is used in Ge 33:19; Jos 24:32; Job 42:11, and the Septuagint rendering is supposed to indicate a piece in the form of a lamb or stamped with a lamb, used at first as a weight, later the same weight of the precious metals being used for money. We are familiar with lion weights and weights in the form of bulls and geese from the monuments, and it would not be strange to find them in the form of sheep. QesiTah is cognate with the Arabic qasaT, which means "to divide exactly" or "justly," and the noun qist means "a portion" or "a measure."
Another word joined with silver in monetary use is ’aghorah, the term being translated "a piece of silver" in 1Sa 2:36. ’Aghorah is cognate with the Arabic ujrat, "a wage," and it would seem that the piece of silver in this passage might refer to the same usage.
Another word used in a similar way is rats, from ratsats, "to break in pieces," hence, rats is "a piece" or "fragment of silver" used as money. These terms were in use before the introduction of coined money and continued after coins became common.
E. Rodgers, A Handy Guide to Jewish Coins, 1914.
A. Reifenbery, Israel’s History in Coins from the Maccabees to the Roman Conquest, 1953.
F. A. Banks, Coins of Bible Days, 1955.
L. Kadman et al., The Dating and Meaning of Ancient Jewish Coins, 1958.
E. W. Klenowsky, On Ancient Palestinian and Other Coins, 1974.