Currency in the Bible

Currency in the Bible

As one looks across the landscape of the Bible, truth shines through in the details of everyday life. Nowhere is this truer than when one looks at the financial transactions throughout the Bible.

The way that people purchased products and saved for the future tells a story about the kind of civilization in which they lived. For most of the Old Testament period, day-to-day transactions took place on the barter system, with the main forms of currency being sheep cattle, or goats.  Precious metals were also often used, measured out in weight, with gold being worth about sixteen times that of silver.

The Bible’s first wealthy man, Abraham, lived under this type of system as is evidenced in Genesis 13:2: “And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold.” Abraham conducted several financial transactions such as purchasing a burial cave for Sarah (Genesis 23:9-16). In this instance, the “shekel” is a set standard of weight. The shekel’s weight has been estimated widely because the standard changed over time. The best sources we have are stone weights that have been found on shipwrecks and in tombs, indicating that the shekel varied between 7.4g and 10.5g, or about 1/3 of an ounce.[1] Using this standard, it appears that Abraham paid $1,733 in today’s money for this burial cave.

The word shekel and its derivatives appear 84 times in the Old Testament, and it was by no means the only weight of value in use. It is not necessary to look at every one of these, but one more case might prove interesting. In 2 Kings 5, Naaman attempts to pay Elisha to cure him of leprosy. He offers him 10 talents (about 27.47kg or 60 lbs. each) of silver and 6,000 shekels of gold (possibly 138 pounds of gold). In today’s money this would be the equivalent of $124,000 in silver and $1,777,470 in gold. Elisha turns him down but cures him anyway.

The Old Testament gives considerable guidance in business practices. For example, it declares that weights and measurements must be accurate (Leviticus 19:35) and integrity must be shown in business dealings (Proverbs 10:9; 11:1). In addition, resources should not be used to exploit the poor (Amos 2:6-7; 4:1; Micah 6:10-12).

As economies and governments progressed, it became necessary to carry out transactions in representative money with the seal of the government guaranteeing the value of the coin. Coins still tended to have some intrinsic value in the gold or silver that they were made of, but in more stable governments they also carried additional value on the authority of the government.

The Greeks were early pioneers of coinage. Their system of coinage spread across the Mediterranean region and became the standard throughout the trade routes at that time. The Jews would have first come in contact with these coins while in Babylonian and Assyrian captivity.

Coins tell stories. The metal content and inscriptions tell about the affluence of the people that made them and spent them. In a time before newspapers, TV, and Internet when the general populace could not read well, coins declared power and told of victories. They were among the most powerful political propaganda of the day. A clear example of this is Vesapsian’s coin showing a captured and bound person with the words Judea Capta in the inscription. This coin, minted shortly after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, shows Roman dominance over the rebelling Jews. What better way to show dominance and superiority than stamping the very money that they had to use with propaganda of their defeat.

Between the Old and New Testaments, the Jews were allowed to mint their own coinage for the first time, but their coinage was limited.  They could not mint gold or silver coinage that would conflict with the political powers that controlled them. They also had to adhere to the first two of the Ten Commandments: 1) “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and 2) “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Even a cursory glance at the coinage of the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and Persians finds them replete with idols, gods, goddesses, and all sorts of graven images of beasts, birds, and fish. Instead the Jews chose mostly text, and in some instances they used an anchor to represent commerce.

Jesus uses these early Jewish coins in his teaching when he sees the poor widow give the two “mites,” in Luke 21:2, or when talking about resolving conflict with an adversary in Luke 12:58-59.

In fact, coins can tell the story of Jesus as well as any other illustration. He often uses coins in His parables on debt (Matthew 18:23-32), trust (Matthew 25:14-30), and seeking the lost (Luke 15:8-9), to name a few. Jesus uses coins in his experiential teaching when the Pharisees try to trap him (Matthew 22:17-21). Coins appear in his miracles when he needs to pay the temple tax in Matthew 17:27.

Money is there in His day-to-day life when he feeds the multitude in Matthew 14:15-21, and when his feet are anointed by the precious oil in Matthew 26:6-13. Money is there at his birth when the wise men give Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:7) and at His death as Judas betrays Him for the blood money of 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15). Because these coins still exist today, we can actually hold the silver temple shekel and think to ourselves, “Could this be one of the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas?”

Indeed, we can get very close to the time of Christ when we hold the coins of Pontius Pilate in our hands. For many years Bible critics stated that Pilate never held the office of procurator of Jerusalem. Eventually archeologists uncovered a stone with an inscription that proved what numismatists already knew, that Pilate did indeed hold this office. He issued coins in 29, 30, and 31 A.D.

These three different coins give us insight into his life beyond the scriptures. On one coin is a basin with a ladle that was used in divination. On another is an auger’s staff. It seems that Pilate practiced fortune telling by interpreting dreams, signs, and entrails. It must have disturbed him greatly when his wife told him that she had suffered many things in a dream because of Jesus (Matthew 27:19). We can wonder if the basin pictured in Pilate’s coin is the same one that Pilate dipped his hands in to try to place the guilt on the Jews instead of on himself. He never realized that the guilt of sin is on all of us.

As we look at the coins of the Bible, we see the perfection of the details contained within. As we delve deeper into the numismatic characteristics of the coins, we can see the picture clearer. As we meditate on currency in the Bible, we come to realize the greatest currency is the one that Christ paid for our sins when he laid down his life as a perfect sacrifice. In turn, let us write Christ’s inscription of life and love on our hearts.

[1] Kroll, John H. (2008). Early Iron Age Balance Weights at Lefkandi, Euboea. Oxford Journal of Archeology, 27 (1), 37-48.