Jewish & Roman Currency
Many different coins were issued in Judaea in New Testament times, but all formed part of the universal system of Roman and Greek currency.
The standard unit of Roman currency was the silver denarius (the same value as a Greek drachma). A denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage for a labourer (about fifty or sixty pounds in Britain today), and this was the precious coin that the woman searched for in the ‘Parable of the lost coin’ (see Luke 15:8). The ‘Good Samaritan’ in Jesus’s story gave the innkeeper two denarii (over a hundred pounds) to look after the wounded man for several days (see Luke 10:35). And in the ‘Parable of the Unjust Steward’, the servant was flung into prison for owing a hundred denarii (over five thousand pounds) to his fellow steward (see Matthew 18:28).
A Roman silver denarius
Another common silver coin was the shekel, worth four denarii (and equivalent to the Greek stater). The half shekel temple tax – that all Jews paid to support the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem – was the equivalent of two denarii or two drachmas (see Exodus 30:11-16). Jesus told Peter to catch a fish and open its mouth, whereupon he’d find a stater – a four drachma coin, enough to pay the temple tax for them both (see Matthew 17:27). As Jewish visitors to the Temple had to pay the temple tax in Tyrian shekels or half shekels (curency from Tyre which didn’t bear the image of any earthly ruler) this provided a lucrative trade for the moneychangers in the temple courts (see Matthew 21:12).
Only the very wealthy would ever handle gold coins. Those who were fortunate enough might have a single aureus (worth twenty five denarii or over a thousand pounds) saved for a rainy day. The wealth belonging to royalty, on the other hand, was measured in talents (equivalent to ten thousand drachmas or half a million pounds), a weight of gold too large to be minted as coins. Herod the Great’s annual income when he died was said to be about a thousand talents, so he was a ‘multi-millionaire’. The ten thousand talents owed by the steward in the ‘Parable of the unjust steward’ was an unimaginably large debt – which was nevertheless cancelled by the king (see Matthew 18:24).
Ordinary people would use copper coins for everyday transactions. The standard unit was the sestertius (equal to a quarter of a denarius), but the most widely used coin was the assarion (sometimes shortened to an ‘as’ or ‘rion’, and equal to a quarter of a sestertius). The average cost of a loaf of bread was one as, and two sparrows sold for a rion in Matthew 10:29 (while in Luke 12:6, five sparrows were sold for two assarions – an early example, perhaps, of five for the price of four). The smallest Roman coin was the quadrans, equivalent to a quarter of an as (or a sixty-fourth of a denarius). This quadrans was the ‘last penny’ that Jesus said a person might be forced to pay in prison if he didn’t sort out his differences with his enemies before leaving his gift in the temple courts by the gateway near the altar (see Matthew 5:26). Even smaller, however, was the Greek lepton (equivalent to half a Roman quadrans). It was two lepta that formed the ‘widow’s mite’ – the tiny offering made at the Temple by the poor widow (see Mark 12:42).
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