The English name “sparrow” is applied to several different small birds, principally of the finch family. Similarly, the Greek word strou·thiʹon is a diminutive form meaning any small bird, but was used especially as applying to sparrows. The common house sparrow is abundant in Palestine, particularly so in the coastal towns. Small brown and gray birds, the sparrows are noisy and gregarious, chirping and twittering, fluttering from their perch on a house-top, tree or bush to the ground and back again. Their nests are to be found in orchards, vineyards, gardens, and often in cracks or ledges of homes. Their diet consists chiefly of seeds, insects and worms. Along the Jordan valley the marsh sparrows are very numerous, nesting in the thickets there.
The only direct references to sparrows in the Bible are found in a statement that Jesus made during his third Galilean tour and evidently restated about a year thereafter in his later Judean ministry. Pointing out that “two sparrows sell for a coin of small value [literally, an assarion, worth about one cent]” or, if bought in quantities of five, “for two coins of small value,” Jesus stated that, though these small birds were counted as of such little worth, “yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s knowledge,” “not one of them goes forgotten before God.” He then encouraged his disciples to be free from fear, assuring them, “You are worth more than many sparrows.”—Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 12:6, 7.
Both anciently and modernly, sparrows have been sold in the markets of the East. As an item of food, they were plucked and spitted on wooden skewers and roasted (like shish kebabs). An ancient inscription of Emperor Diocletian’s tariff law (301 C.E.) shows that, of all the birds sold for food, sparrows were the cheapest. Often sold in lots of ten, the maximum price for this number was fixed in the law at sixteen denarii, evidently the copper denarii introduced by Diocletian and worth about one-fifth of a cent each. At this fourth-century rate, five sparrows would have cost somewhat less than two cents, or about the same price as was current when Jesus was on earth.
Although the sparrow appears in the Hebrew Scriptures in the Authorized Version (Ps. 84:3; 102:7) and in other translations, the Hebrew term so rendered (tsip·pohrʹ) is evidently a generic term referring to small birds in general and not specifically identifying the sparrow.