Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bible Numismatics 1: Jesus And The 30 Pieces Of Silver


Recently there has been a lively discussion going on at Moneta-L, a Yahoo Group for ancient coin collecting. It has been over the value of the 30 pieces of silver given for Jesus' life to Judas Iscariot by the 'Chief Priests' of the Jewish Temple. Here are the relevant passages:

Matthew 26:14 Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, 15 And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him. King James Version (KJV)


Matthew 27:1 When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: 2 And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor. 3 Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, 4 Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. 5 And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. 6 And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. 7 And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. 8 Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day. 9 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; 10 And gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me. King James Version (KJV)

The post started off here, you might have to be logged in as a member (free to join) to read the posts so I will copy the better posts here minus the author's names and with a few minor spelling and grammar changes:

1st Post

Thirty Pieces of Silver in Today's Terms

Dear List,

I was at my local coin store today when the owner, who knows I'm a pastor, asked me if I knew what the infamous thirty pieces of silver from Jesus' betrayal might possibly be worth in today's currency - not in numismatic value, but in real earnings. In other words, how much would thirty shekels be in 2008 dollars.

I didn't have a good answer for him so I said I'd ask.

I know this is a vague and difficult question to answer, but are there educated guesses out there?

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Re: [Moneta-L] Thirty Pieces of Silver in Today's Terms

I think we are all in agreement that a denarius/drachma was about a days pay for a skilled laborer, so 30 pieces of Silver is equal to about 120 days pay, but I believe this was based on a low standard of living - more like the 3rd world today.

A good point for value reference is in 1st century AD (outside Rome) it would have cost about 100 Denari (200 Denari in Rome) to buy a years supply of wheat, oil and wine (basics) for a family of 4.

Here are some actual rates in 1st century Rome (before Nero)

Secretary =15 Denari/month
Lecturer =12 Denari/month
Messenger = 9 Denari/month
Fortune Teller = 10 Denari/month
Legionary = 20 Denari/month
Praetorian = 60 Denari/month

Prices in Rome

A Modius (6.67 kg) of wheat cost 32 AS (Rome), in the provinces about 1/2 that and 1/4 in rural areas
Loaf of Bread = 2 AS
Sextarius (1/2 liter of table wine) = 1 - 5 AS
Sextarius of fine wine = up to 30 AS
Public Bath = 1/4 AS
1 cloth tunic = 15 Sestersi
1 donkey = 500 Sestersi
1 slave = 500 denari
1 morgan(?) of land 250 denari

Prices as posted in Pompey

1 modium rye = 3 Sestersi
1 litra (1/3 kg oil) = 1 Sestersi
1 loaf of bread (+/- 1 lb)= 1 AS
1/2 liter of table wine = 1 AS
1 pot = 1 AS
1 dish = 1 AS
1 Oil Lamp = 1 AS
1 tunic cloth = 15 Sestersi
1 bucket = 8 AS
Criminal Fine = 25 Sestersi

I believe when talking about a denarius or drachma a day we must consider that this is a society where you could buy a slave for 500 Denarius so labor wages had to be competitive with slave labor. In Rome if it cost 200 Denarius a year just for basic food - a Denarius a day would not have been a very high standard of living.

One Roman writer (I forget who it was) says he would need 2500 denarii a year to maintain a middle class life style in Rome.

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Re:Thirty Pieces of Silver in Today's Terms

On Passover night, the Jews have a long elaborate meal combined with narrative about the exodus from Egypt. At the very end, there is a song, the refrain for which is "one kid (i.e. a small goat used for the Passover sacrifice) which my father bought for two zuzim". A zuz is ~ to a denarius (in the time of Bar Kochva, ~131-135 ce) the zuzim were overstruck on Roman denarii. It's denomination is 1/4 shekel. So a shekel would buy 2 goats with a maximum age of one year old. I never bought a goat, but a 55kg (121 pound) sheep/lamb cost me in Israel ~$250 US. I think that they are cheaper in the United States.

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Re:Thirty Pieces of Silver in Today's Terms

Afaik the legend tells us not what became of the proceeds, but 14oz of silver would provide Thanksgiving dinner for dozens of our destitute brethren, those said to be first in the heart of the hero betrayed.

Relating this tale of ancient coins to our own lives has been thought-provoking and fun.

Today we count blessings that can't be equaled in silver.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

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The coin in question is most likely the Shekel of Tyre, I have a very corroded one in my own collection which I recieved from a British dealer who mistook it for a tetradrachm of Elagabalus for a mere £5 GBPs ($10 USD at the time) :


Here is a better one from the lifetime of Christ (4/5 A.D.) :

Here is what 30 (mixed dates) would have looked like:
Full Lot Description here.

More profound than the coins themselves, the price seems related to the cost of living in real terms. It is folly to translate the value of something like 30 tetradrachms into 2008 dollars as if we could just crank it through a currency converter or tabulate the value of silver or gold then and now. But a skilled laborer, someone like today's Nurse or Tool and Die Maker, take what they make per day, times 4, times 30 and you begin to get a handle on it. I did some of my own calculations based upon when my wife was a nurse and it came out to about a 1/2 a years wages.

Would you kill a close, faithful friend or sell your soul for 6 months of what you earn?

Jim McGarigle
Polymath Numismatics

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