widows_mite

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ….
 

And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
And He called unto Him His disciples, and saith unto them,
Verily I say unto you,
That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
Gospel of Mark, 12:42-44

 

IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that the poor are more generous than the rich. A New Testament parable[1] about the generosity of a poor widow provides a meaningful link to one of the most common and affordable ancient coins.

The Parable

The story is recorded in Chapter 12 of the Gospel of Mark. The consensus among biblical scholars is that the text of Mark was written down in Greek–possibly in Rome–about sometime between 66-70 CE. A shorter version appears in Chapter 21 of the Gospel of Luke, which dates from about 80 to 90 CE.

Jesus and His disciples were sitting in the Temple in Jerusalem, watching the crowd deposit contributions into a collection box. According to later rabbinical sources, there were 13 of these containers in the Temple, shaped like great bronze trumpets.

“Many that were rich cast in much.” This is significant, because earlier in the chapter, Jesus denounced the wealthy “scribes and Pharisees” who cheat poor widows out of their property. In first century Judea, anyone who could read and write was probably well-off, while widows were invariably “poor,” because on the death of a husband all his property would pass to his sons.

A poor widow came and cast in all she had: two small copper coins. Jesus tells the disciples that she has donated more than any of the rich, because while they gave of their abundance she gave from her poverty (“even all her living.”)

When St. Jerome (c. 347-420) translated the Greek text into Latin, he described the coins as duo minuta quod est quadrans (“two minuta, which is a quadrans”). The copper quadrans, weighing 3–3.5 grams and worth one-quarter of a bronze as, was the smallest Roman denomination that would have been familiar to Latin-speaking readers. But the widow’s coins in the parable were even smaller than that. The peculiar circulating coinage of first century Judea would have been unfamiliar to most residents of the wider Empire.

Very Small Change: Lepta and Prutot

The Greek text says λεπτὰ δύο,“two leptons.” Lepton in Greek means something small or thin. In modern Greek coinage, 100 lepta equals one drachma, and the word lepton still appears on the current Greek euro cent. Nuclear physicists adopted the word in the late 1940s to designate the class of subatomic particles that includes electrons, positrons and neutrinos.

The coin that numismatists generally agree is the type mentioned in the parable is the prutah or, more likely, the half-prutah (Hebrew plural prutot). Prutah is a later Hebrew word – we don’t know what any ancient Judean coins were called by the largely Aramaic- and Greek-speaking authorities that issued them. Small bronzes were struck at Jerusalem in the name of the Seleucid king Antiochus VII, who controlled Judea from 134 to 129 BCE. These “prototype prutot” weighed about three grams and bore the lily flower (a traditional symbol of Judea) and a boat anchor (the dynastic badge of the Seleucids).

Small coins continued to be struck in huge quantities under the Hasmoneans, who ruled Judea from 134 to 37 BCE, initially as clients of the Seleucid Empire and later as clients of the Roman Republic. David Hendin, a leading authority on biblical coinage, notes that the cost of a pomegranate (which grew wild in Judea) was one prutah (Hendin, 476). In the first century, one silver shekel was valued at 256 prutot.

Who Was Alexander Jannaeus?

By far the most common Judean small coppers were those issued by Alexander Jannaeus, whose Hebrew name was Yehonatan. He succeeded his brother Judah Aristobulus in 104 BCE as High Priest, and assumed the Greek title of basileus (“king.”) His reign was “prosperous but bloody (Hendin, 193),” and his conquests extended the borders of Judea almost to the extent of David’s kingdom nine centuries earlier.

His early prutot, weighing about two grams, show a pair of entwined cornucopiae (“horns of plenty,” a universal symbol of abundance). On the reverse an inscription in archaic Hebrew (which by this time had become a ritual language rather than a spoken tongue) hails him as “Yehonatan the High Priest and the Council of the Jews.” His rare half-prutot carry a lily flower and a palm branch, with the Hebrew inscription “Yehonatan the King.”

His later, much more common prutot, which weigh about 1.7 grams, depict a starburst of eight rays and the Seleucid anchor symbol surrounded by the Greek inscription “King Alexander.” On some examples, tiny Hebrew letters between the rays of the starburst spell out “Yehonatan the King.”

These are the coins usually sold as Widow’s Mites. This may seem improbable, since they were struck before 76 BCE and would’ve been almost a hundred years old when Jesus saw them in the Temple circa 30 CE. The need for small change in the urban economies of the ancient world was so great that coins could remain in circulation for centuries, long after the governments that issued them were only a distant memory. Hoard evidence shows that these prutot of Jannaeus coins were still in use during the first century and even later.

The blanks for these prutot were cast in stone molds with channels joining a strip of drilled-out pits, so that one pour of molten metal would create multiple blanks. The coins often have a beveled edge, because the pits tapered toward the bottom. After striking, the coins were separated with chisel cuts, often leaving part of the “sprue” attached to the coin. Since copper was cheap, there was no effort to control the weight of individual coins, and there is wide variation–some coins are twice as thick and heavy as others of the same type. The coins are often carelessly struck, and Hendin, who has handled tens of thousands of specimens, noted that a fraction of a percent left the mint without being struck at all.

What’s a “Mite?”

When the English clerics and scholars who translated the King James Version of the Bible (published in 1611) came to this parable, they faced a problem. The Roman quadrans (one-quarter of an as) corresponded neatly to the British farthing (one-quarter of a penny) but there was no English word for any smaller denomination. Old arithmetic books, however, referred to a unit of account worth half a farthing, the “mite.”[2]

This was based on an actual coin, the mijt, weighing less than a gram, which circulated across the Channel in Flanders in the 14th and 15th centuries. Originally struck in billon, a low-grade silver-copper alloy, it gradually declined to a tiny copper piece. These are relatively rare, since they had a low survival rate, but good examples occasionally turn up in Dutch and Belgian coin sales.

The farthing of King James’ time was a wretched copper piece weighing about half a gram. There was little profit for the Royal Mint in striking such a small denomination, so they were carelessly produced by contractors. The last modern farthings minted for circulation in the United Kingdom were issued in 1956, and they ceased to be legal tender in 1960.

Collecting Judean Coins

More than any other branch of classical numismatics, the study of Biblical coinage has attracted the interest of Jews, Christians, and others for centuries. As a result, the demand for Judean coins has always been strong, and rare types or exceptionally well-preserved examples always command premium prices. But the small coppers survive in such enormous quantities that average examples can still be purchased for a few dollars.

In 2013, I paid $8 at a coin show for a worn, off-center example. Very Fine specimens typically sell for $50 to $100. The highest recent price I could find for a half-prutah of Jannaeus was $4,000 for a perfectly centered, boldly struck Extremely Fine specimen in a March 2012 auction. Hendin’s Guide to Biblical Coins (2010; now in its fifth edition) is the standard reference in English, and a reliable handbook for both beginning and experienced collectors.

Notes

[1] Also Luke, 21:1-4

[2] The same word, from an Indo-European root meaning “small,” also refers to a vast class of tiny eight-legged arthropods related to ticks and spiders. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=mite

References

Bresset, Kenneth. Money of the Bible. Whitman. 2007

Friedberg, Arthur. Coins of the Bible. Whitman. 2004

Hendin, David. Guide to Biblical Coins (5th Ed.). Amphora. 2010

Hendin, David. “The metrology of Judaean small bronze coins”, American Journal of Numismatics, 9. 2009

Hoover, Oliver. “The Authorized Version: Money and Meaning in the King James Bible”, ANS Magazine 5 (2006)

Jacob, Kenneth. Coins and Christianity. Seaby. (1985)

Meshorer, Ya’akov. Ancient Jewish Coinage. Amphora Books, Dix Hills, NY. 1982
 


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