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Coins of the King James Bible

by MBG

One difficult task that any translator of the Bible faces is how to deal with archaic and difficult terms. One area that this is very obvious is with the ancient monetary systems. The dilemma faced is that you can keep the original terms which may be wholly unfamiliar to most readers or try to equate them to more commonly understood terms.

The translators of the King James Bible faced this task, and choose in some cases to use literal translations of terms and in other cases to substitute what they believed to be an equivalent term. Usually they used terms from the English coinage system, which can lead to some confusion for people like we Americans who may not be familiar with their system.

On this page we will look at the different English words used in the New Testament relating to coins and then give information on the ancient coins they refer to. Included are pictures from my small personal collection of coins where I am able to supply them. I hope that it will be of help to you as you study your Bible and give appreciation to the accomplishment of the King James Bible.

The Penny

Roman, English, and American Pennies

Roman denarius of Vespasian, English penny of James I, and American penny

The word "penny" in every instance is the Roman denarius. The denarius was a silver coin that was first minted around 211 B.C. It's weight at the time of Christ was around 3.9 grams, and was reduced later in the New Testament period by Nero to around 3.5 grams.

The KJV translators choose not to reintroduce the almost forgotten term of denarius and instead substituted it with what they felt to be an equivalent coin of the time - the English penny. Historians believe that its roots can be traced back to the Roman denarius, as evidenced by its abbreviation of "d." that was used until 1971. The English penny was a silver coin that began in 785 A.D. and was originally around 1.3 to 1.5 grams in weight. By the time of King James I its standard was around .5 grams.

The general thought as to why they used "penny" instead of "denarius" is for the understanding of the average reader. As you can see in the picture, they are definitely not equal in size. Their assumption was that the two coins were close enough in value as to make it accurate. It is impossible to determine if their economic values were close, but they would have been the most widely used silver coins at their times.

To Americans like myself, the use of the term "penny" can lead to confusion. The American penny is presently our smallest minted coin, equal to one percent of a dollar. The British penny was not their smallest coin (the farthing was) but appears to be their most common silver coin.

References to penny/denarius - Matthew 18:28, Matthew 20:2, Matthew 20:9-10, Matthew 20:13, Matthew 22:19, Mark, 6:37, Mark 12:15, Mark 14:5, Luke 7:41, Luke 10:35, Luke 20:24, John 6:7, John 12:5, Revelation 6:6.

The Farthing

As, Farthing, Quarter

Roman As of Tiberius, English farthing of James I, and American quarter

Quadrans, Farthing, Nickel

Roman quadrans of Claudius, English farthing of James I, and American nickel

Two different words are translated "farthing" in the New Testament. These two words are two different coins.

The first that we will look at the Roman "As" (I capitalize the coin "As" to distinguish it from the verb "as"). The Roman As dated back to around 280 B.C., and under Augustus it became a copper coin valued at 1/16th of a denarius. It was the lowest continually produced Roman coin, which smaller denominations like the semis and the quadrans being infrequently minted. In New Testament times, the coins weighed about 12 grams. Sometimes it is referred to as an "assarion".

The second coin is the Roman "Quadrans". It was produced off and on until the second century. This was the smallest Roman coin of the time, equal to 1/4th of an As.

The English copper farthing was actually introduced by King James I. Until his reign English monarchs considered putting their name or image on anything less than silver or gold as beneath the crown. There had been a few silver farthings minted, but this was very rare. In Scotland where James had earlier reigned the practice of minting such copper coins was very popular. The farthing was valued as 1/4th of a penny.

References to farthing/as - Matthew 10:29, Luke 12:6

References to farthing/quadrans - Matthew 5:26, Mark 12:42


Lepton, Prutahs, Quadrans

A lepton of Alexander Jannaeus, a prutah of Alexander Jannaeus, a prutah of Agrippa I, a Roman quadrans of Claudius.

I believe this is the most famous coin of the Bible, and one of the most difficult to explain. Not only does it get a little complicated in tracking down the type of ancient coin referred to, but even the English translation seems somewhat strange.

The Greek word used in each case is "lepton", which supposedly refers to the smallest Greek coin. The coin that is being described had to have been the smallest coin in active circulation at the time. The smallest coins in circulation at the time were Jewish minted coins from the first century B.C. These Jewish coinage was based on the "prutah". Some believe this to be the coin referred to. These were also some half-prutahs (commonly called leptons based on association to this story) and even under-weight prutahs minted by the Jewish king/priest Alexander Jannaeus from 103-76 B.C. Although others minted half-prutahs, including Herod the Great, the sheer volume and availability of Jannaeus' coins make it most likely that his coins were used.

Mark 12:42 is quite helpful in that it gives further information on the coin mentioned. It states that two mites (leptons) were worth a farthing (quadrans). The Roman Procurators and Governors that came after Herod sometimes minted prutahs, but they raised the coins size and value to equal the Roman quadrans. This means that the coin in question probably wasn't minted by one of them. This does make it most likely to be the smaller prutahs of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty and of Herod that followed, or the half-prutahs. In hand, it is very difficult to tell the difference at times between a prutah and a lepton, and many confuse them for each other.

So where did they get the word "mite"? Most believe the term itself as it relates to coins traces to a Flemish coin dating from the early 1300's. Easton's Bible Dictionary says that is a contraction of the Latin word "minutum", meaning "small". The 1913 Webster's dictionary says that it was an English coin valued at 1/3 of a farthing, of which I have found no other reference. In the late 1300's, Chaucer wrote in his "Canterbury Tales", "For in effect they be not worth a myte." Wikipedia has a chart stating that the mite was a British coin from the time of the Tudors worth 1/6 of a farthing. I remember also reading somewhere that there where no actual English mite coins, that is was just used for accounting purposes. Whatever the word origin is, the term quickly became associated primarily with these Bible passages.

One fanciful story that I recall hearing had that it was customary in the region to give something in the offering, and most gave the smalled coin - the mite. One of the King James translators was familiar with this and pushed for use of the word. I'm not sure about this, I just remember hearing a preacher tell the story.

References to mite/lepton - Mark 12:42, Luke 12:59, Luke 21:2.

Piece(s) of Silver, Tribute, Money

Half-shekel and Quarter

A half-shekel and an American quarter.

In spite of being a rather vague translation, many times these words are the literal translations of the Greek. Many times the Greek text simply says "a piece of silver" and the King James Bible says "a piece of silver". Most of these references refer to shekels or half-shekel based on the context. There a couple of exceptions and variations well discuss after the shekels.

Some of the most important coins of to the Jews were the shekels of Tyre. These coins were the official coinage of the Temple. They were used to pay the "Temple tax" of a half-shekel for each man. They are also famous for being the money used to pay Judas.

The shekel was made of silver and was equal to the Greek tetradrachm. The smaller half-shekel was equal to the Greek didrachm. These coins featured the god Melqarth on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. Despite this pagan imagery, these coins were acceptable at the Temple because of their weight, purity, and availability.

The words in the Greek text to describe the shekels varies greatly. The words "stater" and "argurion" are used for the shekel. The word "didrachm" is used for the half shekel. These coins are translated into English as "piece(s) of silver", "piece of money", and "tribute".

The first exception is a reference to the Greek drachm. The use of the Greek coin system was widespread throughout the eastern part of the Roman empire, thanks mostly to Alexander the Great's conquering. The drachm was a silver coin that was practically equal to the Roman denarius with just a tiny percentage difference in the weight.

Another obvious reference to a coin that is unclear in both the English and Greek occurs in Luke 15:8. The Greek word used is the same generic word used to describe the shekel. In this case, because of the location of the event and other factors, I believe it is referring to the Roman denarius.

Not every use of the word "silver" notes a coin. Many references are simply to the precious metal. There are also times where the word "money" is used generically.

References to shekel - Matthew 17:17, Matthew 26:15, Matthew 27:3, Matthew 27:5, Matthew 27:6, Matthew 27:9,

References to half-shekel - Mark 17:24

References to drachm - Luke 15:8

Possible reference to denarius - Acts 19:19

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