The Money of the Bible - Part 5

The Bible Monthly vol. 2



“Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art with him in the way; lest . . . thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou have paid the last farthing” (Matt. v. 25, 26, R.V.).

“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father: but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings? and not one of them is forgotten in the sight of God” (Matt. x. 29-31; Luke xii. 6, R.V.).

“And there came a poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which make a farthing”? (Mark xii. 42, R.V.).

The word, “farthing,” occurs four times in the ordinary T English Versions of the Bible, and the passages in question are quoted at the head of this article for easy reference. Though occurring four times, the word is used in only three different connexions, two of the passages being parallel.

In these texts, “farthing ” is used with reference to :-—

(1) the complete payment of a debt by a prisoner (Matt. v. 26);

(2) the sale of sparrows (Matt. x. 29; Luke xii. :6);

(3) the sum total of the poor widow’s possessions in cash (Mark xii. 42).

To assist the reader in the course of the remarks that follow upon these three passages, they will sometimes be briefly alluded to as :—

(1) the prisoner’s farthing;

(2) the sparrow’s farthing;

(3) the widow’s farthing.

It is well, however, to note in the first instance that the word, “farthing,” represents two different words in the original tongue. This arises from the fact that this coin is the smallest fractional part used in the British currency system, and, therefore, no other term is available. And inasmuch as the farthing conveys the idea of a very small piece of money, the general sense of the various passages is conveyed in the ordinary version. But when the Gospels are read in the language in which they were written at the beginning, the beauties and precision of the original expressions become more apparent.

The prisoner’s farthing and also the widow’s farthing are both translations of the Greek term, kodrantees, while the sparrow’s farthing is a translation of the term, assarion. The insolvent debtor was warned-that he should not leave his prison until he had paid the last kodrantees. The widow’s two mites made one kodrantees. In the case of the sparrows, two were sold for one assarion, and five for two assaria.

These two pieces of money were both Roman copper coins, but of different values, the sparrow’s farthing (assarion) being four times as great as the prisoner’s and the widow’s farthing (kodrantees),

A table of the relative values of these coins is added in the hope that it may help the reader to appreciate more accurately the force of the texts in which they occur:

a=assarion; k=kodrantees; l=lepton; d=denarius.

1 widow's mite (l) = one-eighth of an assarion.

2 widow's mite (l) = 1 prisoner’s d. (k)

8 widow's mite (l) = 4 prisoner’s d. (k) = 1 sparrow’s d. (a)

128 widow's mite (l) = 64 prisoner’s d. (k) = 16 sparrow’s d. (a) = 1 penny (d)

As will be seen, this table shows the relative proportion which the various copper coins bore to the Roman silver penny, or denarius. Valuing the silver penny at 8d. in our currency, then the

sparrow’s farthing = one half-penny

prisoner’s or widow’s do. = one half-farthing

widow’s mite = one quarter-farthing .

These values in any case are only approximate, being estimated variously by different numismatists. Neither do they give any reliable guide as to their purchasing power in New Testament times as compared with the present day.

This uncertainty of value will not be surprising on reflection; for it is within the actual experience of most if not all our readers that while the denomination of a coin may remain unchanged its purchasing power may fluctuate very considerably in a short period. In this country, for instance, as in many others, the penny in 1914 would have procured more goods than it did in 1921,

It may further be noted here that in accordance with modern researches the assarion of scripture has been regarded as the twelfth part of a denarius, and not as its tenth part which was formerly its assigned value.

Two or three observations may be added to the above remarks, which are written mainly with a view to help our readers in their personal study of the several scriptures quoted.

(1) The extreme poverty of the generous widow is accentuated when we observe what a small fraction a mite was of the silver penny, which was the day’s wages of a labourer in a vineyard (Matt. xx. 1-16). There were 128 mites (lepta) in one silver penny, and she possessed two such, that is, one sixty-fourth of the day’s pay, not of a skilled craftsman, but of a casual vine-dresser. Nevertheless, she made these her offering to the Lord, which was not despised of Him, but honoured above the donations of the wealthy.

(2) The prisoner’s farthing (kodrantees) is used by our Lord to illustrate the righteous government of the kingdom of God: “Agree with thine adversary quickly whilst thou art with him in the way; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily; I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the last farthing ” (Matt. v. 25, 26).

The Lord’s counsel to the Jews was to accept the terms of forgiveness offered them before God entered into. judgment with the nation. In that day the wrath of God would come upon them to the uttermost (1 Thess. ii. 16). The warnings of the Lord Himself and of His apostles after His ascension were unheeded, and that “untoward generation ” went wilfully and recklessly to its doom. The nation was driven forth among the Gentiles, branded as Cain was, to wander as a vagabond people, until the last farthing of its debt is paid according to the governmental dealings of God with them on account of their sin. But her iniquity will not be pardoned as a nation (the individual is not in question here) until Jerusalem has received at Jehovah’s hand double for all her sins (Isa. xl. 2). “Double ” has reference, no doubt, to the sentence prescribed in the law of Moses for a trespasser (Exod. xxii. 4, 7, 9).

In Luke xii. 59, a similar warning to the Jews by our Lord is recorded, but in that case a still smaller coin is named: “T say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence till thou have paid the very last mite.” This utterance, which was spoken on another occasion, is still more emphatic, since the mite (lepton) is the smallest known coin, and corresponds with the widow’s mite (see pp. 78-82, vol. i.).

(3) The Lord spoke of the sale of sparrows in connexion with His warning to His disciples against the fear of man which brings a snare. They were not to fear those who could kill the body, but rather Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. The incentive the Lord gave for their courage was the Omniscient guardianship by the Father who notes the fall of even a worthless sparrow and numbers the hairs of the heads of His own children. He whose eye is upon the sparrow, worth no more than half an assarion will not forget those whose value exceeds that of many Sparrows.

The same comforting features of divine concern ‘are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, only there in a more general manner, God being used instead of Father: “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten in the sight of God?” In this phrase the insignificance of the sparrow is still more strongly marked, and consequently the Omniscience of God is thrown into greater prominence. In the sight of man, one sparrow is of such little account that an extra bird is added in the purchase of two farthings’ worth; but in the sight of God that sparrow, so worthless in man’s estimation, is not overlooked.

Thus we need harbour no fears. If we are little, God is great. As the Lord said, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom ” (Luke xii. 32).