The Authorized Version: Money and Meaning in the King James Bible

by Oliver D. Hoover

As part of the ongoing conflict between Catholic Europe and Protestant England and out of a desire to bring unity to the somewhat fragmented outlook of the Church of England, King James I authorized a new translation of the bible into English. This translation, intended to be used as the official text in Anglican churches throughout the United Kingdom, was printed in 1611 after almost seven years of work by forty-seven scholars. Not only would this translation become one of the most popular English versions of the bible ever published, but the artistry of its language ensured that it would also become one of the greatest single influences on the development of English literature well into the twentieth century.

Because of the translators’ stated desire “that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar,” the Authorized or King James Version (hereafter KJV) and the earlier English translations that influenced its final text are also of some interest to numismatists, given their tendency to reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English money. Thus, in a small way the KJV serves as a document for the circulating coinage of early modern Great Britain.

I. Copper Coins

The smallest coin named in the KJV is the mite, made famous by the story of the poor widow for whom two of them represented her worldly wealth placed at the disposal of God (Mark 12:42 and Luke 21:2). Despite the fact that the translators have placed the mite into a story told by Jesus, no denomination going by this name actually existed in first-century Judaea. In fact, the mite (meaning “small cut piece” in Old Dutch) was only created as a circulating coin of Flanders in the fourteenth century. Initially, the mite was a small billon coin weighing about 0.97g, but by the sixteenth century it had become copper (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Flanders: John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. Billon mite, 1404-1419. (ANS 0000.999.7906) 17 mm.

Because the mints of the United Kingdom never struck a coin of this denomination, one might be tempted to think that imported mites were not uncommonly found in circulation under James I. However, there is little evidence to support this possibility. Instead, it is more likely that the mite has entered into the KJV, otherwise entirely dominated by English denominations, as a result of a translational quandary created by the original Greek text of the New Testament and reinforced by the Latin of the Vulgate Bible. Neither of these sources specify the denomination of the widow’s coins, instead referring to them only as lepta and minuta (“small [coins]”), respectively. The difficulty for the English translators arises from the fact that in these early texts Mark gives the value of the two small coins as a kodrantes or quadrans. Any Latin grammarian would have known that a quadrans was a bronze coin worth one-fourth of a Roman as, making its English translation as farthing (one-fourth of a penny) almost unavoidable. Unfortunately, in the English coinage system there were no denominations smaller than a farthing, creating the problem of how to deal with Mark’s lepta/minuta.

In the sixteenth century, the mite was used in English commercial arithmetic manuals to represent a fractional value varying from 1/3 to 1/16 of a farthing, but it was never struck as a coin and is not believed to have been used in regular daily commerce. Thus this English mite makes little sense in the biblical context. For coins worth less than a farthing, one only had recourse to the lead merchants’ tokens widely produced for small change, some of which were worth 1/3 of a farthing (for new discussion of English merchants’ tokens, see L. Jordan, “The DK Token and Small Change in the Early Seventeenth Century Settlement at Ferryland, Newfoundland,” CNL 131 [August 2006]: 3005-3059). In 1463 through 1465, a remarkable silver half farthing, which would have been equivalent in value to Mark’s mites, was struck for the Lordship of Ireland under Edward IV. However, it seems highly unlikely that this isolated Irish issue had any influence on the translators of the KJV.

In the Middle English of the Wycliffe Bible (1384), the translator sidesteps the denominational issue in Mark by literally translating lepta/minuta as “mynutis” (“small [coins]”), although in Luke’s parallel account, which lacks the value indicator kodrantes/quadrans, the widow’s coins are more naturally described from the English perspective as “twei ferthingis” (two farthings). The mite first appears in both Mark and Luke with the initial publication of Tyndale’s New Testament (1525), where it may be used as a contracted form of “minute” rather than a specific denomination. Nevertheless, one wonders whether William Tyndale might not have been a little influenced by the contemporary Flemish monetary system when he chose his words. After all, Tyndale is known to have had good Flemish connections, and he composed and printed his translation of the New Testament while in the nearby German cities of Hamburg, Cologne, and Worms. In 1534, Antwerp became his home and a base for shipping his contraband translations into Tudor England, until he was finally arrested and executed for heresy in 1536. Thus, Tyndale is likely to have been conversant with the Flemish currency system, in which there were twenty-four mites to the penning.

Tyndale’s mites were retained in the Coverdale Bible (1535) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568), but the translators of the Geneva Bible (1587) seem to have been troubled (rightly) by the relationship of the mite to the farthing, and therefore opted instead to translate kodrantes/quadrans as “quadrin,” a somewhat more generic term for a small coin, but frequently used for “farthing” and ultimately derived from the Latin quadrans. In this way, the point of the very low value of the coins was retained in Mark without resorting to a bizarre relationship between apparently named denominations. Nevertheless, despite this solution to the problem, the translators of the KJV, who were influenced by Tyndale’s text and those of his redactors, retained both “mite” and “farthing” for the Authorized Version. If not for the knowledge that a quadrans was one-fourth of an as, one wonders whether the translators would have chosen a route more in keeping with the current English currency system and identified the widow’s mite as a farthing, two of which make a halfpenny.

The translators should probably be excused for their difficulty in making sense of mites and farthings here, when we consider that other passages in the Greek New Testament and the Vulgate show that even the Gospel writers were unclear about the value of lepta/minuta and kodrantai/quadrantes. At Luke 12:59, Jesus warns his disciples to settle disputes outside of court lest they be compelled by a judge to pay back every last lepton/minutum, while the parallel account at Matthew 5:26 involves a kodrantes/quadrans, all despite Mark’s indication that there were two lepta/minuta to the kodrantes/quadrans.

The virtual insolubility of this numismatic disagreement within the synoptic Gospels notwithstanding, the widow’s lepton/minutum is widely identified as a small bronze denomination produced in Judaea under the Hasmonaean dynasty and the Roman administration (134 BC-AD 66). Although any of these issues are possibilities, certain series of the Hasmonaean priest-king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) are considered to be the best candidates because of their extremely small size, crude rendering, and continued circulation into the first century AD (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Judea: Hasmonaean kingdom. Alexander Jannaeus. AE prutah, Jerusalem mint, 103/76 BC. SNG-ANS 6.67 (ANS 1952.142.377, gift of Christian G. Gunther) 15 mm.

In the Jacobean context of the KJV, the farthing used to translate kodrantes/quadrans could really only be understood in relation to the copper farthings struck between 1613 and 1642 by John Harrington, Lord of Exton and the Duke of Lennox under a patent from the king (Fig. 3). These token issues were produced largely to fill the public need for a quotidian, low-value coinage. No farthings had been struck since the late reign of Edward VI (1547-1553), although the vacuum tended to be filled by merchants’ tokens of varying values.

Fig. 3. Great Britain: Ireland. James I. Copper patent farthing, 1603-1625. (ANS 1911.105.1235) 17 mm

As mentioned above, quadrans was the name given to a bronze denomination in the Roman system worth a quarter of an as. However, it is unclear whether Matthew’s kodrantes/quadrans refers to an actual quadrans from an imperial mint (Fig. 4). This denomination was not struck on a large scale in the first century AD and is not found in much quantity in the Near East. Instead, kodrantes/quadrans here may refer to any number of small bronze coins struck in the eastern Roman provinces that circulated with the value of one quarter of an as.

Fig. 4. Roman Empire: Augustus. AE quadrans, Rome mint, 8 BC. RIC 423. (ANS 1975.114.4) 17 mm.

However, the price of a farthing for two sparrows or two farthings for five given in the KJV and its sixteenth-century predecessors at Matthew 10:29 and Luke 12:6, respectively, do not translate kodrantes/quadrans, but rather the denomination assarion/as, a coin with the value of 1/16 or 1/18 of a denarius in the first century AD (Fig. 5). Presumably, the translators have used the farthing here because it was the smallest English denomination produced, and the whole point of the two passages is to illustrate the care of God for even virtually worthless things. Still, we might have expected to find “mite” used here instead of “farthing.” Based on Mark’s account of the widow’s mites, there should be eight of them to the penny, which is marginally closer to the eighteen or sixteen assaria/asses in a denarius than the four farthings to a penny.

Fig. 5. Roman Empire: Tiberius. AE as, Rome mint, AD 15-16. RIC 34. (ANS 1947.2.417, gift of W. B. O. Field) 26 mm.

It is worth noting that the farthing prices in these two verses may not be too far off in representing the real cost of small birds in Jacobean England. According to the statement of Hugh May, Clerk of the Markets to His Majesty’s Household, in 1625 one could buy twelve pigeons for a shilling. If much meatier birds like pigeons could be had for a penny each, as is implied by this price for twelve, then small birds like sparrows might easily have sold at two for a farthing in the Jacobean period. Curiously, in the Wycliffe Bible, the prices of two and five sparrows in Matthew and Luke are given as a “halpeny” (halfpenny) and “twei halpens” (two halfpence).

II. Silver Coins

Next to the widow’s mite, perhaps the most famous coin mentioned in the KJV is the penny of Matthew 22:19 and Luke 20:24 that was brought to Jesus when he was asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Rome. The use of “penny” to translate the “denarius” of the Gospel writers should come as little surprise, since the English silver penny of the seventeenth century really was a distant descendant of the Roman denarius. The latter was first struck by the Roman Republic in 211 BC (Fig. 6) and continued as the standard silver coin of the Roman Empire until financial crises led to its eventual replacement by the increasingly debased antoninianus (Fig. 7) in the third century AD. Nevertheless, despite the end of its production as a coin, the denarius lived on as a money of account, known as the denarius communis, well into the fifth century AD. The impact of the denarius on the monetary consciousness of the Mediterranean world and adjacent regions can hardly be overestimated. Memory of this denomination informed the name dinar, first given to the gold emissions of the early caliphs (Fig. 8), and it stands behind the term denier, applied to the reformed silver denomination of the Merovingian and Carolingian Franks. By the second half of the eighth century, this denomination was being produced in England by Anglo-Saxon mints in Mercia and Kent (Fig. 9), but it was going by the name of penny (from German pfennig). It is for these reasons that even today the monetary symbol for the British penny is d. from denier/denarius. From this point on, silver pennies were produced by almost every English king until the abandonment of the denomination for the regular silver coinage under George III. When it was resurrected by George IV in 1825, the coin was struck in copper rather than silver (Fig. 10).

Fig. 6. Roman Republic: Anonymous. AR denarius, Rome mint, AD 211. C. 44/5. (ANS 1987.26.3) 18.5 mm.

Fig. 7. Roman Empire: Caracalla. AR antoninianus, Rome mint, AD 213-217. BMC 79. (ANS 1944.100.51522, bequest of Edward T. Newell) 24.5 mm.

Fig. 8. Syria: Umayyad. AV dinar, Damascus mint, AD 697/698. (ANS 1917.215.3395)

Fig. 9. England: Kent. Cuthred. AR penny issued by Eaba, 798-807. Seaby 430. (ANS 1967.182.14, gift of Douglas P. Dickie) 20 mm.

Fig. 10. Great Britain: England. George IV. AE penny, 1826 (proof). Peck 1407. (ANS 1940.113.132) 34 mm.

In Luke’s account of the tribute penny incident, the KJV reports Jesus as saying, “Shew me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it?” Presumably, the translators had in mind here the pennies of James I struck in 1603 and 1604 or those of earlier rulers (Fig. 11), as these coins regularly carried a royal portrait and inscription. After 1604, the portrait was dropped on Jacobean pennies and replaced by the Tudor rose, which might have caused some confusion among the overly literal minded (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11. England: Elizabeth I. AR three half penny piece, London mint, 1572. North 2000. (ANS 1954.203.45) 16.5 mm.

Fig. 12. Great Britain: England. James I. AR penny, 1603-1625. North 2106. (ANS 1972.197.1) 14 mm.

There is disagreement among modern numismatists as to the probable identity of the ancient coin in the story of the tribute penny. Some have suggested a denarius of Augustus with the reverse type depicting his nephews Gaius and Lucius Caesares (Fig. 13), while others have thought a well-known denarius of Tiberius with the reverse type of a seated goddess (Livia?) (Fig. 14) to be the most likely candidate. A third but much less popular position has held that the term “denarius” should not be taken literally in the Gospel text, and that the coin may actually have been a provincial tetradrachm from Antioch bearing the portrait and titles of Tiberius (Fig. 15).

Fig. 13. Roman Empire: Augustus. AR denarius, Lugdunum mint, BC 2-AD 11. RIC 207. (ANS 1916.106.20) 18 mm.

Fig. 14. Roman Empire: Tiberius. AR denarius, Lugdunum mint, AD 14-37. RIC 30. (ANS 1935.117.357) 18 mm.

Fig. 15. Roman Empire (Syria): Tiberius. AR tetradrachm, Antioch mint, AD 14-37. RPC 4161.1. (ANS 1944.100.65559, bequest of Edward T. Newell) 25 mm.

While the translation of penny for denarius makes good sense from the historical perspective, it occasionally leaves something to be desired with respect to the value of seventeenth-century English money. For example, by turning the denarius promised to field workers in the parable of the vineyard laborers into a penny (Matthew 20:2, 9-10, 13), the translators may have added a further element of pathos not originally intended by Matthew. While a denarius was a decent daily wage in first-century Judaea, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, the average laborer could expect to receive about eight pence per day, whereas a skilled craftsman might earn a whole shilling (see E. H. Phelps Brown and S. V. Hopkins, “Seven Centuries of Building Wages,” Economica 22 [1955]: 195-206). Thus, the laborers in the parable who complained that those who started work late in the day were receiving the same penny pay as those who began early are made to appear more sympathetic, for not only do they seem cheated by not receiving more than the latecomers, but they were already working for cheap to begin with!

The penny for denarius is somewhat more convincing at Revelation 6:6, where it is given as the price for a measure of wheat or three measures of barley. In the original Greek text, the measure (of volume) in question is the choinix, roughly equal to an imperial quart (1.1 liters), while the Vulgate gives it as the weight bilibris (two Roman pounds). It is possible that the translators have used the generic term “measure” here because they did not know the exact capacity of the Greek choinix and therefore could not easily convert it into a contemporary English measure. Presumably, this is why Wycliffe found it necessary to retain bilibris in his fourteenth-century English translation.

On the other hand, it is tempting to suggest that the KJV and its sixteenth-century forebears are purposely vague here because the translators were thinking in terms of the bread that would be made from the two grains. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, the average person regularly bought his bread in a unit known as the penny loaf. As its name implies, this was essentially as much bread as could be made for the price of one penny, including the cost of the grain and the baker’s labor. Because the size of the penny loaf would vary depending on the harvest and the grain market, the measure of wheat or barley involved in making it was not fixed. Nevertheless, the penny brown loaf made from barley often weighed about three times the weight of a penny white loaf made from wheat, because barley was generally considered to be a lesser grain and was usually about three times less expensive than wheat. Interestingly, this relationship between the two penny loaves preserves the 1:3 relationship between choinikes of wheat and barley for a denarius.

Besides the penny, no other contemporary silver denomination is ever named in the KJV. However, the translators refer to generic “pieces of silver,” thereby preserving the ambiguity of the original Greek text of the New Testament, which simply refers to argyria. St. Augustine may or may not have intended a specific denomination when he translated this word into Latin as argenteus. While argenteus is an adjective that can refer to anything made of silver, it was also a late Roman silver denomination (Fig. 16) that could still be found in circulation in the fifth century, when St. Augustine was composing the text of the Vulgate Bible.

Fig. 16. Roman Empire: Diocletian. AR argenteus, Rome mint, circa AD 294. RIC 19a. (ANS 1956.102.22) 19 mm.

The most famous example of the “pieces of silver” formulation is the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for the betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26:15, 27:3, 27:5, 27:9). Pieces of silver also appear in the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8) and are used to express the value of the magic books burned at Ephesus during St. Paul’s sojourn in the city (Acts 19:19). Pieces of silver are even projected back into the Old Testament (Genesis 20:16, 37:28, 45:22; Joshua 24:32; Judges 9:4, 16:5; 2 Kings 6:25; Psalms 68:30; Canticles 8:11; Hosea 3:2; Zechariah 11:12-13), despite the fact that the stories and events recorded there all predate the invention of coinage. The KJV, as well as the Bishop’s and Geneva Bibles, frequently retain the Hebrew term shekel for the Old Testament; the Wycliffe and Coverdale Bibles usually translate this in terms of “pieces of silver” or “silverlings.”

The Coverdale Bible seems to be the exception in often identifying the pieces of silver as pence. The Bishop’s Bible also refers to pence on one occasion (2 Kings 6:25). Perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that all of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century translations give the value in silver at Joshua 24:32, while the Masoritic Hebrew text, as well as the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and Wycliffe’s English translation of 1395 all agree that the value in the verse is properly expressed in terms of heads of young sheep!

The use of “pieces of silver” by the KJV and almost all of its English predecessors not only preserves the sense of the Greek and Latin texts, but still manages to reflect the realities of silver money in early modern England. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, neither the Tower of London nor the Scottish mint at Edinburgh produced coinage in sufficient quantities to provide either England or Scotland with a unified circulating medium. Because of this problem, it was not at all uncommon to find foreign coins such as Spanish eight-reales, French écus, Dutch rix dollars, and various thalers of the German states in circulation alongside the royal issues of Elizabeth I and James I. Hence, while prices might be quoted in regular English currency, in reality actual payment could come in any variety of “pieces of silver” from various local and foreign sources. As in the case of the pieces of silver weighed out for payment at Zechariah 11:12, Elizabethan and Jacobean merchants also weighed their silver coins as a means of ensuring receipt of full value and protecting themselves against clipped or underweight coins.

Modern numismatists generally agree that the thirty pieces of silver are likely to have been shekels (tetradrachms) produced by the autonomous city of Tyre in the first century BC/AD (Fig. 17). In antiquity, the silver of that city was known to be of high purity and therefore became the only money acceptable for payments to the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus Tyrian coin was most likely to be on hand in the treasury for Temple business.

Fig 17. Phoenicia. AR tetradrachm, Tyre mint, BC 107/106. BMC 96. (ANS 1948.19.2285, gift of Archer M. Huntington) 27 mm.

The above review of the contemporary denominations in the KJV and earlier English translations alongside the ancient coins to which they correspond in the Greek New Testament may perhaps seem to be an exercise in numismatic frivolity without much purpose. However, we would argue that the decision to convert into English denominations—often with some apparent thought to making sense for contemporary readers of the passages in which they appear—is indicative of the larger religious, political, and cultural milieu in which it was made. In a land where kings claimed their authority through divine right, promoting themselves as contemporary versions of David and Solomon while their subjects were cast as the children of Israel, stories from Scripture had a tangible and real presence in the lives of both powerful and ordinary members of society. By using recognizable English denominations—and in one case by failing to name specific denominations—the translators further fostered the immediacy of the text. Thanks to the KJV and its predecessors, every time someone paid his penny for a loaf of bread in London, spent a farthing for a pint of beer in Dover, or weighed out pieces of eight and dog dollars in colonial Massachusetts, they were all in some small way connected to the holy and actively participating in the type of biblical modeling that ironically underpinned both divine-right kingship as well as Puritanism. In part, through the replacement of ancient coin denominations with those of contemporary England, the translators of the KJV and their immediate predecessors remade the sacred past in the image of the living present—an act that in itself could claim biblical precedent through the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9-10: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.”