A medium of exchange. Anciently, livestock often figured in barter, that is, the exchange of one item for another and evidently the oldest method of making a business transaction. Indicative of this is the fact that the Latin word for money (pecunia) is drawn from pecus, meaning “cattle.” However, livestock (Ge 47:17) and foodstuffs (1Ki 5:10, 11) were not always convenient mediums of exchange. Therefore metals such as gold and silver came to be used. As early as Abraham’s time, precious metals served as money. But this was not standard coined money. It consisted of silver and gold, doubtless molded for convenience into bars, rings, bracelets, or other standard shapes having a specific weight. (Compare Ge 24:22; Jos 7:21.) The usual Hebrew term rendered “money” literally means “silver.” (Ge 17:12, ftn) Often the metal objects were weighed by the individuals concerned when payment was made.—Ge 23:15, 16; Jer 32:10.
As business transactions involved weighing, understandably designations of weights were also monetary designations. (See WEIGHTS AND MEASURES.) Among the Israelites there were five main divisions: the gerah, half shekel (bekah), shekel, mina (maneh), and talent. (Ex 25:39; 30:13; 38:25, 26; 1Ki 10:17; Eze 45:12; see GERAH; MINA; SHEKEL; TALENT.) Their relationship and comparative modern values in gold and silver are set forth below. (The price of gold and of silver has varied in recent years. In this publication, gold is conservatively calculated at $350.00 per ounce troy and silver at $6.00 per ounce troy; the ancient ratio of gold to silver, however, is considered to have been 13 to 1.)
= 1⁄20 shekel
= 10 gerahs
= 2 bekahs
= 50 shekels
= 60 minas
The value of the “piece(s) of money” (Heb., qesi·tahʹ) mentioned at Genesis 33:19; Joshua 24:32; and Job 42:11 cannot be definitely established. Likewise the value of the pim is uncertain. It may have been about two thirds of a shekel.—1Sa 13:21; see PIM.
Coins in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is commonly believed that the first coins were struck about 700 B.C.E. The Israelites may have first used coins in their homeland after returning from exile in Babylon. Postexilic Bible books refer to the Persian daric (1Ch 29:7; Ezr 8:27) and drachmas (Heb., dar·kemoh·nimʹ), which are generally equated with the daric. (Ezr 2:69; Ne 7:70-72) The Persian gold daric weighed 8.4 g (0.27 oz t) and is therefore presently evaluated at $94.50.—See DARIC; DRACHMA.
Money in the Christian Scripture Period. The lepton (Jewish), quadrans (Roman), as or assarion (Roman and provincial), denarius (Roman), drachma (Greek), didrachma (Greek), and the stater (Greek; considered by many to be the tetradrachma of Antioch or Tyre) are coins specifically mentioned in the Christian Greek Scriptures. (Mt 5:26; 10:29; 17:24, 27; 20:10; Mr 12:42; Lu 12:6, 59; 15:8; 21:2, Int; see DENARIUS; STATER.) The much larger monetary values known as minas and talents were weights, not coins. (Mt 18:24; Lu 19:13-25) The chart that follows shows the relationship between the various monetary units and converts these into approximate modern values.
1 lepton (copper or bronze)
= 1⁄2 quadrans
1 quadrans (copper or bronze)
= 2 lepta
1 as (assarion) (copper or bronze)
= 4 quadrantes
1 denarius (silver)
= 16 asses
1 drachma (silver)
1 didrachma (silver)
= 2 drachmas
= 4 drachmas
1 mina (silver)
= 100 drachmas
1 talent (silver)
= 60 minas
1 talent (gold)
* Thought to be the same as stater (silver)
Purchasing Power. Modern values for ancient money do not give a true picture of its worth. The Bible, however, provides some indication of purchasing power and this is helpful in understanding ancient values. In the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, agricultural laborers commonly received a denarius for a 12-hour workday. (Mt 20:2) It may be assumed that in the Hebrew Scripture period wages were about the same. If so, a silver shekel would be the equivalent of three days’ wages.
The price of a slave was 30 silver shekels (perhaps 90 days’ wages). (Ex 21:32; compare Le 27:2-7.) Hosea the prophet purchased a woman for 15 silver pieces and one and a half homers (15 ephahs) of barley. Likely this payment constituted the full price for a slave. If so, an ephah (22 L; 20 dry qt) of barley was then worth one shekel.—Ho 3:2.
In times of scarcity, prices rose sharply. The 80 silver pieces (c. 240 days’ wages) that at one time might have bought eight homers (1,760 L; 50 bu) of barley would, in time of siege, only procure the thinly fleshed head of an ass, an animal unfit for food according to the terms of the Mosaic Law.—2Ki 6:25; compare Ho 3:2.
In the first century C.E. two sparrows cost an assarion (45 minutes’ wages), and five sparrows could be obtained for double this price. (Mt 10:29; Lu 12:6) The temple contribution of the needy widow that Jesus observed was even less, a mere two lepta (1 quadrans), or 1⁄64 of a day’s wages. Yet Christ Jesus commended her giving as being greater than that of those who had donated much, because she had contributed, not part of her surplus, but “all of what she had, her whole living.” (Mr 12:42-44; Lu 21:2-4) The annual temple tax paid by the Jews was two drachmas, or a didrachma (about two days’ wages). (Mt 17:24) As a drachma was the equivalent of about a day’s wages, a woman might reasonably sweep her whole house and diligently search for a lost drachma coin.—Lu 15:8, 9.
Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, evidently the price of a slave. (Mt 26:14-16, 47-50) No doubt these silver pieces were either shekels or other coins similar in value. But the kind of coin is not specified in the account, except for their being silver.
Money Can Be Both Beneficial and Harmful. Money provides a defense against poverty and its attendant troubles, enabling persons to procure both necessities and luxuries. (Compare Ec 7:12; 10:19.) For this reason the possibility exists of a person’s beginning to trust in money as security and to forget his Creator. (Compare De 8:10-14.) “The love of money [literally, fondness of silver] is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been led astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves all over with many pains.” (1Ti 6:10) For money, persons have perverted justice, prostituted themselves, committed murder, betrayed others, and falsified the truth.—De 16:19; 23:18; 27:25; Eze 22:12; Mt 26:14, 15; 28:11-15.
On the other hand, the proper use of money is approved by God. (Lu 16:1-9) This includes contributing toward the advancement of pure worship and giving material assistance to those in need. (Compare 2Ch 24:4-14; Ro 12:13; 1Jo 3:17, 18; see CONTRIBUTION; GIFTS OF MERCY.) Although much good can thus be done with money, the most valuable things—spiritual food and drink, eternal life itself—can be obtained without it.—Isa 55:1, 2; Re 22:17.