are stamped metal disks issued by a government for trade and valuation. Old Testament:
2 Samuel 12:30. New Testament:
Before money was invented, a man might trade or swap with a neighbor something he owned for something he wanted. Because of their intrinsic value and mobility, cattle were very popular in the barter system. Such trading took place also on a grand scale. When Hiram of Tyre agreed to furnish building materials for the Temple, Solomon pledged large annual payments in wheat and olive oil (1 Kings 5:11). Eventually the discovery and use of metals for ornaments, implements, and weapons led to their dominating the primitive exchanges. Silver, gold, and copper in various forms, such as bars, bracelets, and the like represented wealth in addition to land, cattle, and slaves. The silver shekel, weighing about four tenths of an ounce, became the standard measure. When Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah, he “weighed out four hundred shekels of silver” (Genesis 23:16). At that time the shekel was a weight rather than a coin.
The talent was another weight frequently associated in the Old Testament with gold and silver. The crown that David took from the king of the Ammonites weighed one talent (2 Samuel 12:30). After Judah's defeat at Megiddo, the victorious pharaoh appointed a puppet king and required the Jews to pay Egypt a heavy tribute in silver and gold (2 Kings 23:33). Although its weight varied slightly from one country to another, the talent was approximately 75 pounds.
Determining the weight and purity of any metal was a tedious business and sometimes subject to dishonesty. To establish some standards, the first coins were minted about the same time around 650 B.C. both in Greece and in Lydia of Asia Minor. Excavations in Shechem have uncovered a Greek silver coin dating after 600 B.C., about the time the Jews were returning from Babylon to Judah. The first mention of money in the Bible appears in
Ezra 2:69, describing funds collected for rebuilding the Temple. The King James Version lists among other resources 61,000 “drams of gold,” but the RSV has “darics of gold,” (NAS, NIV, “drachmas”) referring to a Persian gold coin. Years later, about 326 B.C., after Alexander overran the Persian Empire, Greek coinage was circulated widely in Palestine, according to archaeological research.
The Maccabean Revolt began in 167 B.C. Twenty-four years later (123 B.C.), Judea became an independent state, and about 110 B.C. the reigning high priest minted in bronze the first real Jewish coins. Only dominant political entities could produce silver coins. In accord with the Second Commandment, Jewish coins did not bear the image of any ruler, but they used symbols such as a wreath, a cornucopia, or the seven-branched lampstand of the Temple. Such symbols continued to be used by Herod and other appointed Jewish rulers after Palestine submitted to Roman domination. Many small copper coins from this early New Testament period have been discovered.
The coin most often mentioned in the Greek New Testament is the denarion, translated “penny” in the KJV and “denarius” in the RSV, NAS, NIV. It was a silver coin usually minted in Rome. It carried on one side the image of the emperor (Matthew 22:21), and on the reverse might be some propaganda symbol. Of course, the “penny” translation was an attempt to equate the value of an ancient coin with a familiar one of the King James era. Its value in New Testament times can be more accurately assessed by knowing the labor that the ancient coin could buy. The denarius was the daily pay for Roman soldiers and the wage of a day laborer in Palestine (Matthew 20:21).
Another reference to silver money occurs in
Matthew 26:15 in the agreement between the high priest and Judas for betraying Jesus. Although the original text mentions only “silver” with no specific coin, scholars feel that the figure “thirty” recalls the compensation required by law for killing a slave by accident (Exodus 21:32). So, Judas' pay could have been thirty silver shekels. By this time the shekel had developed from only a measure of weight to a specific coin weighing a little less than half an ounce. It is possible also that the “large money” (KJV) paid to the soldiers guarding Jesus' tomb (Matthew 28:12) referred to large silver coins or shekels.
A third coin mentioned in the New Testament was the one the poor widow put into the Temple treasury as Jesus watched (Mark 12:42). The KJV translates the original words as “two mites, which make a farthing” while the RSV reads “two copper coins, which made a penny” (NIV: “two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.” The first noun describes the smallest Greek copper coin, (lepta), and the second noun translates the Greek (quadrans) for the smallest Roman copper coin. In either case, they were the smallest coins available, but Jesus said they were greater in proportion than the other donations.
Some readers might wonder why Jesus found “changers of money sitting” in the Temple (John 2:14). Every male Jew was required to pay an annual head tax of half shekel to the Temple treasury (Exodus 30:13). At the Feast of the Passover pilgrims would come from various countries. Whatever currency they might bring, it had to be exchanged for coins that were acceptable by Jewish standards, that is, bearing no symbols violating the Second Commandment. Of course a small fee was paid to the changer.
From two parables told by Jesus we get the impression that the word “talent” had come in New Testament times to represent a large sum of money instead of just a measure of weight. In
Matthew 18:24, He told of a man who owed a certain king “ten thousand talents.” A few chapters later He described a wealthy man assigning different responsibilities to three servants. At the reckoning time he rebuked the one who had merely hidden his talent by saying that at least he could have deposited the money to let it earn interest (Matthew 25:27). Such a talent had been estimated to have a current value of about one thousand dollars.
William J. Fallis