The traditional, narrow definition of the biblical Widow’s Mite is in need of revision
The Biblical Widow’s Mite is among the most familiar, yet most mysterious, coins of antiquity. Truth be told, we don’t know exactly what it was.
The best place to start is the New Testament, where the widow’s offering is described in the Gospels of Mark (12:41-44) and Luke (21:1-4):
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a farthing. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)
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Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
In these memorable passages, the coins are described only as small and copper, with no further details as to their identification. This is hardly surprising since the numismatic content of these quotations is purely incidental.
With there being no detailed description of the coin type (or coin types, as she donated two), this question is now impossible to answer. So it has been left to scholars, numismatists, and Biblical historians to speculate.
The most popular suggestion, which has now become tradition, is that the Widow’s Mite is a prutah of the Judaean king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE). It is not clear how this became the universal choice, though, it probably is due to the extreme abundance of these coins in comparison with any other ancient Judaean coin.
The anchor/star prutah of Alexander Jannaeus has traditionally been considered to be the Biblical Widow’s Mite. All images courtesy Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) and NGC
In discussing this subject the Reverend Edgar Rogers noted in 1914 that “…with some degree of certainty it may be said that the popular coins for this purpose were the small bronzes of Alexander Jannaeus and his successors…”. Though Jannaeus struck more than one type of small bronze coin, his most common issue depicts an anchor and a star. This type has popularly come to represent the Widow’s Mite, especially since there is a very small version of this coin that likely was struck by the immediate successors to Jannaeus.
Historians and Biblical scholars are uncertain about when Jesus’ crucifixion occurred. Estimates range from the late 20s to the early 30s CE, and since the widow’s offering is thought to have taken place late in Jesus’ lifetime, one might wonder why the coins of Jannaeus have been singled out as the Widow’s Mite. After all, at the time they would have been more than a century old.
The likely reason is that not only are they the most common ancient Judaean bronze, but hoard evidence suggests they continued to circulate even long after Jesus’ lifetime. Still, it is odd that this issue has been singled out above all others, and it is our belief that there is no reason to define the Widow’s Mite so narrowly.
The fact is, untold millions of small bronze coins were issued by other Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers of Judaea, from John Hyrcanus I (135-104 BCE) through Mattathias Antigonus (40-37 BCE), and by Herodian rulers, from Herod I “the Great” (40-4 BCE) to Herod Philip (4 BCE to 34 CE).
Herod I “the Great” (40 to 4 BCE) issued this prutah. There is no reason to doubt that many examples of this type circulated during Jesus’ lifetime.
We may add to those Hasmonean and Herodian issues the prutot (plural of “prutah”) of the Roman procurators of Judaea, including Coponius (6-9 CE), Marcus Ambibulus (9-12 CE), Valerius Gratus (15-26 CE), and perhaps even Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE).
This prutah of the procurator Valerius Gratus was struck in 24 CE, not long before the widow’s offering. There is no reason to exclude this coin type as a candidate for the Widow’s Mite.
Another point of interest is that the term ‘mite’ is a modern misnomer. Researcher Oliver Hoover notes that the term ‘mite’ means ‘small cut piece’ in Old Dutch, and that it did not come into use until the 14th Century, in Flanders. He also notes that in the original Greek text of the New Testament, the Widow’s Mite coin is called a lepton, and in the Latin Vulgate Bible, a minuta.
The most appropriate names that modern scholars apply to small, ancient Judaean bronzes are prutah and half-prutah. With this in mind, one might suggest that the widow would have donated a smaller half-prutot rather than prutot. But this is, perhaps, unlikely considering prutot are extremely common in comparison with the smaller pieces. Presumably the same was true in the early first century CE.
And to muddy the waters further, we should acknowledge that coins originating at mints in Judaea were not the only ones that circulated in the Holy Land. The possibility always exists that one or both of the coins offered by the widow were, in fact, foreign coins, such as small Seleucid, Ptolemaic or Phoenician bronzes.
The point of this discussion is to demonstrate how broad the definition of the Biblical Widow’s Mite should be if one is willing to break from a tradition that in truth has no solid footing whatsoever.
We believe the strength of tradition assures that the issues of Alexander Jannaeus will remain the generally accepted candidate for the Widow’s Mite. However, NGC Ancients now willingly extends that designation to any small Hasmonean (Maccabean) bronze coin issued from 135 to 37 BCE, as we consider any of them to be legitimate candidates.
The same could be said for all Herodian and Roman procuratorial bronzes of small size that predate about 27 BCE. However, these coins are scarce (or rare) in comparison to the massive issues of the Hasmoneans, and they typically are collected with other goals in mind.
David Hendin, an adjunct curator at the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and author of Guide to Biblical Coins (5th Ed., 2010), is among the chief authorities on ancient Judaean coins. In a recent interview on this subject he noted:
“The tradition of the Jannaeus anchor/star coinage being the ‘Widow’s Mite’ is strong, yet it is absolutely not based on evidence drawn from literature or archaeology. Its selection seems to have been mainly a commercial matter that likely can be traced back to pilgrims visiting Jerusalem in the mid-19th Century and finding these anchor/star coins in the market.”
“The truth is that any prutah or half-prutah coins of the Maccabees, Herod I and his son Archelaus, or the prefects of Judaea up to the death of Jesus could possibly qualify to have been the ‘Widow’s Mite’.”
Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group