Currency in the Gospels

In the gospels, amounts in monetary currency show up fairly often. Jesus uses currency in some of his examples, and it comes up in some of the events of his ministry. But currency in first century Palestine is very different from today, so these amounts are often lost in translation. Translating currency amounts in the Gospels to their modern equivalent yields helpful insights into Jesus and his teaching.

In first century Palestine, the standard daily wage for an agricultural laborer is a denarius per day. The denarius (plural: denarii) is a silver Roman coin used widely in the ancient world. It is mentioned in the gospels frequently. Jesus uses it in his parable about a landowner hiring laborers to work in his vineyard, all of whom he pays the usual daily wage, one denarius [Matthew 20:1-16]. In Jesus’ parable, some workers work for the full day starting in the early morning, as early as the first hour of the day (6am). Other workers are hired at later times during the day: the third hour (9am), the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3pm) and the 11th hour (5pm). These are all paid when evening comes (6pm). They are all paid a denarius, even those hired at 5pm, who had worked only a single hour.

While it is clear to the reader that paying someone a full day’s wages for an hour’s work is generous, here’s how it looks in today’s terms. If we assume that a first-century agricultural laborer is roughly equivalent to someone earning minimum wage today, we know that in 2024, federal minimum wage in the US is $7.25 per hour for the first 40 hours of work in a week, with overtime rates of 1.5x ($10.88 per hour) after that. An agricultural laborer in ancient Palestine works as much as six days per week, for up to twelve hours per day, so if we equate this to minimum wage today, it is equivalent to about $100 a day. In the parable, the landowner pays his workers hired at 5pm the equivalent of $100 for their one hour’s work. $100/hr is a very generous rate for a laborer. In 2024, even highly demanding and dangerous physical labor like underwater welding generally pays less than that per hour, except for the most specialized and demanding assignments. So when Jesus’ landowner says to the people complaining about his salary practices, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” [Matthew 20:15], the generosity he mentions is very real. Jesus uses this as an illustration of God’s generosity in giving to us according to what we need, rather than according to the little we may have been able to earn.

With respect to generosity, one of the most striking events in the Gospel is Jesus’ miraculous (and very generous) feeding of a crowd of about five thousand people with five loaves and two fish [Mark 6:32-44]. Beforehand, Jesus asks one of his disciples, Philip, to estimate what it would take to feed the crowd. Philip points out that 200 denarii ($20,000 today) would be needed to buy enough bread for each to have a little. According to archaeological evidence from Pompeii and Herculaneum, a denarius in the first century bought five loaves of bread. While bread is cheaper today than in the ancient world, thanks to automation in modern agriculture and food production, ancient loaves are not the same as modern ones. A modern loaf is generally sliced, and typically weighs about 20 ounces. But loaves (panis quadratus) found in Herculaneum are larger and heavier, weighing more than twice as much, at nearly three lbs (46oz). These loaves were scored into eight segments, for breaking by hand.

When Philip estimates what it will take to feed five thousand people, we can make an educated guess from Pompeii to understand his reasoning. Pompeii is in southern Italy rather than Palestine, and its volcanic destruction occurs a few decades after the events of the Gospels, but the price of bread and the value of currency are quite stable across the Roman empire in the first century. Assuming the loaves and prices in Palestine at the time are similar to Pompeii, Philip would be estimating five panis quadratus per denarius, so his 200 denarii ($20,000) would pay for 1000 loaves. As each loaf is designed to be divisible into eight segments, Philip is assuming each person will eat a segment or two of bread. This is not generous, it is just “a little” [John 6:7]. Jesus next asks what provisions they have: five loaves and a couple of fish. Five panis quatratus (providing forty bread segments) would likely have been enough to feed the dozen apostles, but not the enormous crowd. But Jesus multiplies these provisions miraculously to do exactly that. The crowd eats their fill, and afterwards when the apostles collect the left-over bread segments (the pieces), they fill twelve baskets [John 6:14]. While we do not know the size of the baskets, almost certainly the apostles ended up with much more bread than they started. Jesus’ miracle would have been of significant monetary value, well over Philip’s $20,000 estimate.

Another example of high monetary value in the Gospels comes from an event shortly before Jesus’ crucifixion. During a visit to a private home, Jesus is perfumed by an unnamed woman equipped with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume worth 300 denarii [Mark 14:3-9], about $30,000 in 2024 dollars. This is the price of a new car today. While perfume is now generally quite a bit cheaper than this, it remains possible in 2024 to buy highly exclusive perfume in a special bottle for $30,000. Interestingly, while Jesus is hardly a rich man, instead of criticizing the expense as wasteful, as the bystanders do [Mark 14:4-5], he defends the woman’s extravagant gift. He does not deny the amount, but he praises her great generosity, which he calls a “beautiful thing” [Mark 14:6].

Jesus talks not only about large sums of money, but also small ones. On one occasion, he notes a widow putting in a collection box two small coins “which make a penny” [Mark 12:42]. This contribution is sometimes called the widow’s mite. While the coin in question is a bronze coin that looks somewhat similar to a penny, in terms of value, “penny” is a poor translation for 2024. Today, in the US, a penny is not worth anything of significance. The woman’s two small coins are leptons, equal in value to a bronze coin called a kodrantes, or quadrans. Four quadrans are equivalent to the largest bronze coin in general circulation at the time, the assarion, which is worth a sixteenth of the silver denarius, the usual daily wage of a laborer. If a denarius is equivalent to $100 in 2024, an assarion is worth just over $6, and a lepton is worth about eighty cents. So the widow’s contribution of two leptons is a bit less than $2, which is a small amount, but not so small as to be negligible. Even today, a poverty-stricken person might put $1 or $2 in a collection plate or a donation box, not being able to afford more.

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus points out that two sparrows are sold for a penny [Matthew 10:29]. “Penny” is again a poor translation choice for 2024, especially since it is not the same coin as the widow’s mite. The actual coin is “assarion”, worth about $6; thus a sparrow would have cost $3. While we don’t buy and sell sparrows today, given that we have much better poultry choices, they are still occasionally sold around the world. For example, in Japan, sparrows are sold by street vendors in Kyoto prefecture for just over $4.

Jesus also speaks of much larger sums that are more characteristic of wealthy people than of poor ones. He tells a parable of a man who goes on a journey. The man entrusts three sums of money to his three servants to use in his absence: to one, he gives five talents, to another two, and to the third, one [Matthew 25:14-30]. A talent is 6,000 denarii, more than nineteen years’ wages for a laborer. In 2024’s terms, the sum of money entrusted to the first would be $300,000, the second $120,000 and the third $60,000. These are considerable sums, of investment size, enough to start a small business, or to invest in one. Two of the servants start businesses, but the third simply buries the money. The entrepreneurial servants do well in their businesses, doubling the initial investment by the time of the man’s return. The man is pleased with these servants, but he chastises (and fires) the servant who buried the money, for failing to at least put the money in the bank to accrue interest. An investor today would likely expect no less. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate that God expects us to use for good the gifts we have been given.

Talents appear also in another parable of Jesus’, that of the ungrateful debtor. Jesus tells the story of a great debtor who is forgiven by the king a debt of ten thousand talents [Matthew 18:23-35]. This is an enormous sum, of “nation-state” significance: in 2024, it is roughly equivalent to six billion dollars,  the GDP of a small country such as Montenegro or the Maldives. It is about four times the construction cost of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which at over 2,700 feet tall is, in 2024, the world’s tallest building.  In Jesus’ parable, the debtor, after being forgiven this enormous debt, refuses to forgive the debt of someone who owes him 100 denarii, about $10,000, which in 2024 is the average cost of remodeling a bathroom, or the price of a fifteen year old used pickup truck. Put in these modern terms, the astounding difference between the two debts is made very clear to us. In Jesus’ parable, the king, upon seeing his enormous generosity so little reciprocated by the ungrateful debtor, reverses the forgiveness, and re-imposes the full $6B debt. Jesus uses this story to illustrate the enormous magnitude between our debt to God and our debts to each other. He cautions us to forgive our debts to each other, conscious of God’s forgiveness to us of our vastly greater debt to him.

Both in his parables and in his ministry, Jesus is not shy to use the currency of his time to illustrate what he means, whether it is $1-$2 for the widow’s mite or as much as six billion dollars in the parable of the ungrateful debtor. It is worthwhile to convert his currency examples to modern terms, to better grasp his meaning. Understanding it helps us understand Jesus, whose message for us today is as compelling as it was in the first century.

Agapios Theophilus

Agapios Theophilus

Agapios Theophilus is the "nom de plume" of a catholic layman who has loved Jesus from when, as a young boy in the 1970s, he first learned about him. His First Communion, at the age of seven, was the happiest day of his life, and he celebrates its anniversary each year. He lives in a large city with his beloved wife, two wonderful children, and an affectionate orange and white cat. He has no formal qualifications whatsoever to write about Jesus: he writes only because he has been given the great gift of knowing and loving him, and he would like others to come to know and love him too. See Agapios' posts at and follow Agapios on twitter at

Leave a Reply

next post: The Resurrection Community

previous post: Where Did the Bible Come From? Part 3