USURY (Heb. neshekh, interest, nāshakh, to bite, to lend on interest, nāshâh, to remove, nash’, lead astray, Gr. tokos, interest on money). God gave specific instructions to Israel with regard to interest on money lent. Any money that a Jew lent to his brother was to be without interest (Exod.22.25; Deut.23.19). Money could, however, be lent to a stranger with interest (Deut.23.20). The main purpose for lending money among the Israelites was for the relief of the poor for which, according to law, no interest was to be demanded (Lev.25.35-Lev.25.36). During Israel’s time in Babylon many abuses arose regarding the lending of money (Ezek.18.8, Ezek.18.17). Because of this, Nehemiah, after the return from exile, took measures to have the practice stopped (Neh.5.10-Neh.5.12).

In the NT reasonable rates of interest received for money lent are never condemned. It was a common practice in the days of our Lord, and is referred to in the parable of the talents. The meaning of the English word usury has changed in recent centuries. While it once meant simply the charging of interest on money lent, it has now come to mean excessive interest.

Although at present the term means an exorbitant or illegally high rate of interest on money, it originally meant any charge for the use of money. (Thus “usury” and the present meaning of “interest” would be identical.) In the OT the exacting of interest was forbidden in the case of Jewish debtors (Exod. 22:25; Deut. 23:19f.). Ancient Greek philosophers also condemned interest as unjust. Aristotle* taught that money is barren and that if two coins are put in a bag they will never reproduce; hence demanding the repayment of a larger sum than what is loaned not only violates justice, but also nature. The NT does not state anything explicit about the lending of money, but in the patristic age usury was condemned by most of the Church Fathers. During the Middle Ages the teachings of Aristotle were accepted by Scholastics like Aquinas. In the Decree of Gratian and at the Third Lateran Council (1179) usury was condemned, although Jews were allowed to engage in the practice by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

With the rise of capitalism, opposition to lending money for interest was gradually abandoned. Although some sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Latimer condemned the practice, others such as Calvin and Beza justified it by distinguishing between consumption loans and those for production, insisting that in the latter case money was fertile or productive. Laws were passed in Geneva that allowed for a moderate rate of interest. Later (1571) England and Germany along with other continental lands followed suit, although in France interest was not legalized until 1789. Some scholars in the Roman Catholic Church began to shift their attitudes on usury during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but as late as 1745 Pope Benedict XIV reaffirmed the Scholastic opposition to the charging of interest. By the nineteenth century, however, the Curia issued statements indicating that those who lend money at moderate rates of interest are “not to be disturbed,” although the theoretical justification for the practice has never been settled in the Roman Church.

R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926); B.W. Dempsey, Interest and Usury (1943); J.T. Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (1957); B.N. Nelson, The Idea of Usury, From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood (2nd ed., 1969).

USURY. KJV form for RSV Interest.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. In the Old Testament:

The Hebrew law concerning exaction of interest upon loans was very humane. Hebrews were to lend to their brethren without interest (Ex 22:25; Le 25:36 f; De 23:19 f). This, however, did not apply to a stranger (De 23:20). Two stems are used in the Old Testament, rendered in the King James Version "usury," in the Revised Version (British and American) better rendered "interest":

(1) verb nashah (Ex 22:25; Isa 24:2; Jer 15:10), and the noun form, mashsha’ (Ne 5:7,10);

It would be easy to go from a fair rate of interest to an unfair rate, as seen in the history of the word "usury," which has come to mean an exorbitant or unlawful interest. Abuses arose during the exile. Nehemiah forced the people after the return to-give back exactions of "one hundredth," or 1 percent monthly which they took from their brethren (Ne 5:10 f; compare Eze 22:12). A good citizen of Zion is one who did not put out his money to usury (Ps 15:5). One who is guilty of this comes to disaster (Pr 28:8).

2. In the New Testament:

The Greek word is tokos, literally, "offspring," interest springing out of the principal. Money lenders were numerous among the Jews in Christ’s day, and, in the parable of the Talents, He represents the lord of the unprofitable servant as rebuking the sloth in the words, "I should have received mine own with interest" (Mt 25:27; Lu 19:23 the Revised Version (British and American)).