We find the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. In both passages (which are nearly identical), Jesus makes the point that the widow’s gift to the Temple treasury was very costly to her, because it represented everything she had. But the challenge for the translator is to determine how best to translate the technical terms for the coins she dropped into the box.
The Greek text in Mark 12:42 says that she dropped in “two lepta, which is a kodrantes.” So if we simply translate it that way in English, everything is clear, right? Sure, if the reader has an intuitive sense of the value of two lepta! And Mark even gives us a clue by telling us that two lepta (Jewish coins) are equal to a kodrantes (a Roman coin). But most of us would still have to reach for a Bible dictionary to make sense of those terms. So translators have resorted to numerous solutions.
KJV: two mites, which make a farthing
RSV: two copper coins, which make a penny
NASB: two small copper coins, which amount to a cent (with a footnote)
NIV: two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny (with a footnote)
ESV: two small copper coins, which make a penny (with a footnote)
HCSB: two tiny coins worth very little (with a footnote)
NLT: two small coins (with a footnote)
Which translation is correct? I would argue that the KJV, RSV, NASB, NIV, and ESV communicate the wrong message. After all, a penny has very little value in our current economy. But in the first century, a kodrantes was equal to 1/64 of a denarius, and a denarius was considered fair pay for a day’s wage. If today’s wage for a laborer in the USA is $15 per hour, that comes to $120 for an 8-hour day. At this rate, 1/64 of a day’s wage is $1.88. Round it up to $2.00, and we could say that the widow dropped two dollar-coins into the collection box. That feels very different from “two coins worth only a fraction of a penny.”
It’s for that reason that the NLT simply says “two small coins” [footnote: Greek two lepta, which is a kodrantes (i.e., a quadrans)]. After all, the point of Jesus’ teaching was that the widow gave everything she had. And if her two small coins were worth a couple of dollars in our economy, let’s not give the impression that she had only two pennies.
30 thoughts on “How much was the widow’s mite?”
Thank you Mark for this wonderful post. This Bible passage was one of the first I learned during Sunday school when I was a child. I was always confused when some translations refered to the coins as “pennies.” For years I actually thought it the widow gave two cents. If that was all she really had, then she was really a homeless widow. I like the NLT’s “two small coins” because no value is assigned. The fact that the coins are described as “small” alerts the reader that they were not very valuable, but certainly more that two cents. This is another example of why the NLT is quickly becoming my translation of choice.
I’ve never been concerned about how much the widow gave, the point is that she gave all she had even though she was poor. Isn’t it demonstrating her faith and obedience and sacrificial giving? I rather think the challenge for the reader is not to work out how much she gave but to imitate her example of sacrificial giving.
Excellent post this really gives a lot of value to what the NLT has to offer in some of the things that Jesus (and the rest of the bible) is talking about.
I think you mis-estimate. Now, it is really difficult to compare prices and purchasing power, especially across long ages… there really is no good answer.
But, the denarius was the wage of an agricultural day laborer — in the US, and around most of the world, that is not $15/hour. Wages are often less than $1/hour. But they worked long days… while there was light, they worked. All of life was work, except the Sabbath.
All this is to say that 1/64th of the pay for a day’s labor in an agricultural society would probably be more like two dimes.
(Now, a better way might be to use gold or grain as a unit of measure… at which point we might be above your $2… this is why I say this question is really impossible to answer.)
But, it’s not that relevant to the meaning of the parable, the main point was that she was poor and gave all.
Finally, on translation, the best way to do it would be the most precise — just say, “two lepta, which is a kodrantes” and leave an explanation in a footnote. Far better to let the word of God speak, and let preachers explain. The preached word is what brings faith. Translators should avoid injecting their own biases into the text.
I agree with you that it’s almost impossible to make a useful economic comparison between the purchasing power of two lepta in first-century Israel with our economy today. And I also agree that the exact value of the widow’s gift is not central to the point Jesus was trying to make.
But I must take issue with your suggestion that the biblical text must be explained by a preacher. When the text is read by an individual apart from a preaching context, it should be as clear as possible. Certainly God intended for the biblical text to be understood by the average reader. As William Tyndale said to a learned clergyman back in the early 16th century, “Before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!”
It is the preached word of God that brings faith (Romans 10). Preaching is integral to the church; reading by an average person does not grasp the richness of what is there.
I am not arguing that the text should be unclear — I am arguing that it should be more accurate. Let the text of the Scripture be tough, and reveal the stark idioms of God, and let preachers and footnotes explain. Far better to have an accurate rendering of the text, even if it is a little wooden, than one that smacks of the translators biased interpretation.
Give a literal translation. That is your job. Anything less makes you more important than God’s word. God will get his point across; the Holy Spirit motivates some to make the effort — those whom God will save.
Don’t explain the text, rather reveal it, in all its chunky Hebraic and Greek glory… we all do better when the text is tougher, but we gain a sense of the richness when it is explained to us by those who have studied it.
Part of the challenge in translating the bilbical text is to determine when a literal translation provides an accurate rendering of the meaning and when it clouds the meaning. You refer, David, to the biblical text “in all its chunky Hebraic and Greek glory.” But the original Hebrew and Greek texts were not chunky for the most part. It’s only when the Hebrew and Greek syntax is translated literally into English that it sounds chunky to our ears. The translators of the NLT hold the view that the message should be as easy to read and understand in English as it was for the original Hebrew and Greek readers.
But there is also a place for literal translations. And thankfully, there are many good ones available to us.
Your explanation, Mark, is fair and balanced. Most sources I’ve found agree that a denarius is a fair day’s wage, and a kodrantes as 1/64th of that value. I searched your blog while searching for a modern equivalent value for the “widow’s mite.” William L. Lane’s NICNT commentary on Mark (fn 84, pg 442) isn’t helpful for this comparison because it describes the Roman coin, lepta, in terms of 1/400th part of a Jewish shekel, “or roughly 1/8 of a cent,” which I assume is an American value, like our penny. The problem is that I don’t know the value of a shekel, let alone the lepta. If the lepta reflects 1/8th of a penny, then $2 is incredibly high. The association with the Roman denarius is probably more accurate. FYI, I used $100 per day take home pay, which turns out to value the kodrantes at $1.54. Bottom line, these coins are not easily translatable. I do think it preferable, however, to include in the translation something about the kodrantes, which is how I understand the HCSB reads. “Two small coins worth very little” would convey this idea.
As i was reading these comments, it came to me that these small coins cannot be compared to any values of today. There is no such records and accuracy to compare its worth. Also the values of money and goods of today has much change in worth thatn before. Let us see that the average daily home pay for a regular worker in the Philippines will only be P200 to P400, equivalent will be around 5 to 10 USD. Compare also to other countries. Now the two small coins will be very small.
The point here is that the widow depends her day with these two coins,which Jesus translates as everything she had – all she had to live on. It is simply stating that the widow with what she had, gave it all, with the trust that God will supply what she needs tomorrow.
God assures us that we are valuable in His sight, that He knows the things that we need, and He tells us not to worry (Matt 6:25-34).
We don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the Fathers mouth.
I think it’s a matter of TRUST to GOD as able to provide what we need!
Number one this wasn’t a parable, it was real. And Jesus spoke this in the presence of his disciples in clarity, so that they could see and understand and walk away with wisdom. To teach another day…in their own words, inspired by the Spirit.
If the common person must wait until the scripture is explained to them by a trained, professional preacher…the world will never hear the good news as many people in the world have only access to the written word of God and not the Spoken word – through preachers. Follow your reasoning to its end and you are advocating a Catholic way of Christianity that only allows the adharent to approach Jesus through a learned Priest. Which is not the way of Jesus.
We must have translations that bring the Gospel into our language. Otherwise we would have to depend on a dead language, one that no one speaks, like Latin or King James old English. Or rely on the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, which only 1% of the world speaks. It must be brought to the understanding of the common reader in every language and presented in such a way that something as basic as “two small coins” make since to the reader. Yes, through the Holy Spirit understanding comes and hearts are changed, but this will not happen if a Chinese man is reading the English KJV.
And, by the way, the Greek and Hebrew wasn’t “chunky” to the Greeks and Jews. It was understandable. Just the was God wanted it to be.
Respectfully, from an untrained scripture discoverer.
Lou’s post brings up a good point: English is a global language these days. Any English translation that tries to tie the value down to a sum in current money will fail, because wages differ hugely across countries as well as across time (even assuming we all agree on which country’s “dollar” is in question, people know how much their own currency is worth in it, and the translation is updated regularly for inflation :>).
Instead, one approach is to state the value in terms of a low-paid worker’s wage, e.g. “which a labourer would earn in 10 minutes”. That still has the problem that a good proportion of readers won’t instantly know how much it is – you have to know the daily / weekly / monthly wage of a labourer in your country, and be able to do the math. I suppose there’s still the unknown quantity of the length of a working day in Jesus’ time and today in various countries. Perhaps we’re stuck with 1/64th of a labourer’s daily wage.
In any case, as has already been pointed out, the main issue isn’t the value. Even back then, when most of a wage went on food, 1/64 was probably a discretionary amount for anyone earning regularly: easy to drop into the temple treasury. The point was that she was a widow, and this was all she had. People may differ about whether a 10% tithe is relevant today, but when someone poor puts in 100%, we’re all humbled into silence.
I am in no way a Bible scholar, but I would like to add my “two cents worth” (no pun intended) to the discussion.
1. I think putting a modern equivalent to the value of the coins is impossible and inaccurate (whether you use penny or dollar). Remember that readers of the ENGLISH Bible comes from all parts of the world, not just from the U.S.. So stating the value in terms of penny or dollar is inaccurate. A day’s wages is different in the U.S., and other parts of the world.
2. Therefore, I believe that translating it as two small coins (wit footnote on explanation of original language) should be the best translation.
3. Besides, the point of Jesus narration was the “smallness” of what the widow had, yet that was all she had to live on.
Thank you Bernie, I appreciated your “two cents worth”! I don’t live in the United States where a day’s wage is $15. Where I live, the majority live on $2 a day or less. How can these poor people be expected to give $2 when they go to church? A person shouldn’t feel like they are not welcomed in GOD’s temple because they have no money. There is a coin used in the country where I reside of such little value it is thrown in the street. Its value is 1/30 of a USA penny. Merchants and taxi drivers will not accept it. Banks won’t exchange it unless you bring in 150 of this coin, the equivalent of 50 cents, USA.
Yet the merchants and the utility departments keep them on hand to give out when your total contains a portion of a cent. When I first came to this country, six years ago, I could pick up a dozen of these coins in a week from the street. Not even the beggars wanted it. Now that hard times have come, it’s much harder to find this coin on the street.
The point Jesus was making was if you have no money, but you have faith, faith that GOD requires nothing from his servants except for our obedience, our love, and the best worship we can give, then prove it. Pick up two small coins from the street, the coins of “very little value” and proudly present them as your offering. Don’t worry about what people will say. Have faith that GOD appreciates your effort. That is the definition of “poor”, as in the “poor” widow woman.
I’ve never been hungry a day in my life. I don’t know what poor is yet, but I expect that before this system ends, I will know what it feels like to give from my needs. I just hope I will still have the faith to do it when it happens. For practice, I sometimes drop in the coins from the street. I don’t know what they do with them maybe they throw them back in the street, maybe they keep them in a jar until they collect 150 so the bank will accept them. I don’t know, I don’t care. What I know for sure is that it feels great! What I know for sure is my contribution counts, no matter how small it is.
Her contribution was worth more than all the contributions that came from the change found in the purses and pockets of her fellow believers, who probably didn’t have much to give either. You cannot put a price on Jesus’s illustration. To say it’s worth $1.80 is an insult to my faith and to my intelligence and to my GOD. May your collection boxes be filled to the max with small coins of very little value!
would you despise the widow’s mite? Jesus didn’t that’s all she had. Widows find it harder than married couples; if you despise the little then no wonder the large isn’t coming
She could have bought TWO SPARROWS with that much! Mmm good eats! Not very meaty tho, & ANY kind of firewood would have been hard to come by.
— anyway WHATS IN YOUR WALLET? Matthew 6:21
Very interesting conversation. Your love for the Scriptures is evidenced by the energy and thought you gave to your posts.
As a preacher now facing this text (marks version), you’ve made me more cautious in my approach. Rather than use the widow to shame our more affluent members to be more generous givers to the church, Perhaps I should lift up the philanthropy of our wealthier members in order to motivate their peers. Public recognition of generosity as can be seen in this text has been a well known fundraising tool for a long time. Jesus offers no word of judgement against the rich who made large donations he witnessed. He had in a sermon previously judged those who turn their alms giving into a public spectacle as hypocrites. I admit that I am grateful for them. Couldn’t your church use a few more wealthy hypocrites. Mine could! Sure they may place more value in receiving affirmation from their pastor and church members then from God who is with them in their more private moments but at least they are generous in their giving. Jesus calls his disciples to go beyond these generous public philanthropists by giving more than them anonymously. How we doing? How easily we’ve subverted this text into making our giving a private matter in order to hoard what we have and hide our ingratitude Woe unto us!
As for the widow, I wonder if Jesus isn’t expressing to his followers indignation and disgust for a religious institution that expects its most marginalized members to give what little they have to support it. Most of the churches I’ve served wouldn’t survive without the widow’s mite (might?)
Jesus . was no fan of Herods Temple contrary to the reverence shown by his parents. I wonder if he’s still a fan of the Church?
It’s a tough text to read as well as preach. Let’s see what the Spirit will make of it
Have been teaching this lesson to children. Personally, I was curious as to the value of the 2 coins. But after reading the discussions regarding the exact value of the two coins and everyone’s differing opinion, a realization came upon me that the exact amount is not the main idea here. The point is that the widow loved whole heartedly and withheld nothing from God. This is in direct opposition to the rich young man in Mark 10:17-22 whose chief love lay elsewhere. As adults, sometimes it seems to me that we get sidetracked in the intricate details. But in trying to teach children, I have found that you have to focus on the heart of the matter.
Commenters above who have complained that it’s not important what the coins were worth – that fact is exactly why Mr. Taylor wrote the article.
The King James Bible says that the 2 coins were worth a farthing, and that version of the bible WAS the bible for centuries. Obviously, hundreds of years later, a farthing was worth way less than it was in King James’ time, so that translation became useless. The same goes for the other versions mention pennies. A penny a hundred years ago is worth around 70 cents today.
The point is, you can’t attach a monetary value in a world where inflation changes that worth every day, and that monetary value itself is different in different countries. Which is why Mr. Taylor said, in his last paragraph: “It’s for that reason that the NLT simply says “two small coins”” The thing that’s important is that it was a small amount, and it was all she had, and the versions of the bible that try to attach the word “farthing” or “penny” are basically wrong.
We can learn from this woman that none of us are too poor, or too troubled to please the Lord when one give sacrificially to him from a heart that loves Him and is not concerned with what men think. She gave not all that she had but all she had to live on. That is to say that if the two lepta were the days wage and she was living on what she earned that day, it was all she had to live on. She obviously gave at a cost of her necessary food for the day. May the Lord give us such hearts. 7yN9a13
Of course one can estabish value of the coin. You do that by establishing how much of a day’s worth of meals it would buy in that time. And then figuring out what the equivalent would be today. Back then for a poor person in that day it would have likely been a cheap grain and a cheap vegetable. It was likely enough that she went hungry that day.
It is discouraging that the passage of the Widows Mite has been turned into a fundraising game for pastors. If one carefully reads the passage in context it is about the corrupt Temple worship system “devouring poor widow’s houses” and illustrated by the poor widow placing her last two cents into the collection box. The text does not tell us that it was a generous contribution when in fact it could have been given because of guilt or fear. The text tells us that it was the last money she had and probably the next thing taken by the corrupt system would be the widow’s house. The precise value of the coins is not significant as it was everything she had. She was now destitute.
The Temple worship of that day can be compared to our modern Mafia. What does a Mafia do? They cheat people, skim money off the top and kill people just like the Pharisees did in the first century. So why is it an example of exemplary giving when a poor widow gives her last two cents to the Mafia? Jesus certainly would not approve of that and that is why he made no comment as to his approval or disapproval of the contribution. He merely acknowledged that she gave her all that was more than all the rest. In fact Jesus rebels against Corban just 5 chapters earlier against those that would not take care of their parents because they gave it all to God. Why would he now say this is a good thing to give all the money to a corrupt organization?
Immediately following the passage of the widow’s mite Jesus predicted the total destruction of the Temple. So are we to believe that the widow’s contribution to a corrupt organization that was to be destroyed is honorable or exemplary? . Hardly not.
One has to be extremely biased to try to use the widow’s mite as an example of exemplary giving and try to use the passage as a fundraiser. There are much better ways to talk about unselfish giving than the use the widow’s mite. God Bless.
regardless of the value of her 2 mites, the Lord commended the FAITH of the widow. suffice it to say that her giving shames all the excesses some givers think— that giving to God’s work is like giving tips to waiters.
I didn’t read every response but it seems that it is overlooked that the woman had enough during that time to have had one decent meal. or maybe even a small corner in an Inn but she knowing that the amount she had could not sustain for more than a short period of time decided to give it to the one that could sustain her forever. Trusting totally on God and not trying to work it out her self.
There are many valuable lessons we can learn from this account. The most outstanding one, perhaps, is that while all of us have the privilege of lending support to true worship by means of our material possessions, what is truly precious in God’s sight is, not our giving what we can do without anyway, but our giving what is valuable to us. In other words, are we giving something we will not really miss? Or is our giving a real sacrifice?
Romans 10:17 states-Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. It is not specified whether preached or taught. Revelation is in both. You study to show yourself approved unto God, as a workman that needed not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth 2 Timothy 2:15. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth that is accessible to all believers. As we ask for wisdom and revelation of God’s word and search a matter out we receive answers. The two more meant something for Jesus to point it out. All others gave from their abundance, the widow gave more because the sacrifice was great, having to wait (if she was a widow indeed with no family) on the next distribution. It matters today for the simple reason if I give my 10 dollars and willingly without hesitation, not despising my little and you give your thousand with a couple of checks to be cashed, all bills paid, needing nothing but ritualisticly, not asking the Holy Spirit to guide your giving, then how pleasing is fleshly giving verses Spirit led giving. Applicable for today. Thank you.
I was so glad to find this post. The translation “penny” left me very confused when I found out that a quadrans is 1/64 of a day’s wage. I think the translation “worth very little” conveys very much the same thing the phrase “which is a quadrans” did to the original audience.