Judas Iscariot’s 30 pieces of silver is so well known, so infamous in history, that it’s a euphemism for betrayal in Western culture. Have you ever wondered what those 30 pieces of silver were exactly – or how much they were worth? Scholars have debated these questions for years. Let’s go through some of their ideas.
The details of this story are found in the biblical book of Matthew, chapters 26 and 27. Before the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’s disciples, went to the chief priests and arranged to hand over Jesus to them, saying:
“What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.
Later Judas, filled with remorse for his betrayal, threw the coins back at the priests in the Temple before he went and hanged himself. The priests decided that, as blood money, it could not be added to the temple treasury, so they bought the Potter’s Field.
The word the gospel writer Matthew used in Matthew 26:15 was argyria, meaning “silver coins.” This, obviously, is unspecific in terms of what kinds of coins they were. In 33 A.D. there were a number of possibilities for coins that might have been in circulation in Jerusalem, including:
- Tetradrachms of Tyre, or Tyrian shekels
- Tetradrachms or Staters of Antioch
- Roman denarii
Of these, Tyrian shekels had the highest silver content – 94% – so these were what the priests required as payment for the temple tax. This coin contained 14 grams of silver. Today’s spot price for silver is $.47 per gram. The silver in these 30 coins would be worth $197.40 today. The coins themselves, being ancient and historical, would of course be priceless, but at the time they were just regular silver coins used as instruments of commerce.
That $197.40 is a value out of time, however. You can’t just say that Judas betrayed Jesus for 200 bucks. The above coins vary widely in how much silver they contain, but you’d would also have to know the going rate for a man’s labor at that time and what the cost of living was in Jerusalem in order to determine how much money the chief priests paid for Jesus’s life.
What’s more revealing is the gospel writer Matthew’s intent. The phrase he used, “30 pieces of silver,” is a throwback to a reference in the book of Zechariah. In Zechariah 11 this phrase is used to mean the value of a slave and is based on Jewish Law. Exodus 21:32 states:
“If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull is to be stoned to death.”
The prophet Zechariah asked the Israelites to pay him for the work he had done working among them, that’s what they gave him. It was meant to be an insult; they didn’t value his prophecy. Jehovah told Zechariah to throw this slave’s wage into the treasury (back in their faces).
So when Matthew says 30 pieces of silver and has Judas throw it back into the treasury, it’s an allusion to this story in Zechariah in which unfaithful Jews undervalued a prophet of the Lord with an insulting amount of money – what a slave is worth. Matthew is saying the priests were willing to pay almost nothing for Jesus. They were angry at Jesus for the scene he’d made at the temple overturning the moneylenders’ tables and railing against the corrupt priests profiting off the sacrifices people brought to the Jerusalem to make to God out of devotion and duty.
Thirty pieces of silver to the priests, to Matthew, to Zechariah, then, was the price of contempt.
It’s interesting that this phrase, “30 pieces of silver” has had a negative meaning of contempt or betrayal for thousands of years, even though silver itself has been valued as a precious metal for the same amount of time or longer.
If you’d like to know more about any of the silver coins referenced above, call us at Mullen Coins. We would love to help you track down any of these coins for your collection. Old coins make history come alive!
In Acts 19, Paul went to the huge seaport of Ephesus to further spread the good news of the gospel of the God of the Jews and His resurrected son, Jesus. Acts 19:10 tells us that Paul discipled there in Ephesus for over two years and during that time, all the Jews and Greeks who lived in Asia heard the gospel. Even if this is an editorial statement, it is an amazing one to think that virtually all the people in the area were reached by Paul’s preaching. In Acts 19:17-20, we see that Paul’s preaching had great effect. Many people openly confessed their sins and quit living their ungodly lifestyle. They changed their lives completely and began to follow the God of the Bible. In order to publicly show their change in lifestyle, they brought all their worldly stuff and burned it in front of their friends and neighbors. Acts 19:19 even records how much their “stuff” was worth, 50,000 drachmas. A drachma was one days wages, so if we put this in today’s monetary value, their stuff would have been worth approximately four million dollars! They would have spent 136 years collectively of their daily wages on just “stuff”! If each person had brought $400 of merchandise, then approximately ten thousand people would have participated in this event! Knowing these figures gives us a clearer idea of just how big this would have been in Ephesus. Paul’s preaching had a huge impact on the whole environment of the city. This is a fascinating story to us and we marvel at the affect the gospel had on this city and it’s citizens.
A question that comes out of this story for us as modern day Americans is, “How much would our stuff be worth if we brought it all publicly and piled it up for all to see?” As the wealthiest nation that has ever lived, we too are captivated by, “our stuff”. We are a nation of accumulators and we desperately hang on to our worldly things. When we think of God testing us, we always think of things like cancer, or bad things that happen to us and our families. But, God also tests us through prosperity. America is definitely being tested by God with the wealth that He has given us. Wealth is such a hard test to pass because when we have it all, we don’t really need God. Read the entire chapter of Deuteronomy 8. In verse 12 it says, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, when your build fine houses and settle down, and your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold increase, and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, our of the land of slavery…You will say to yourselves, it is my power and the strength of my hands that has produced this wealth for me”.
As Americans, if we are honest, our “stuff” often holds us back from being an effective witness for the Lord. Think for a second, “What holds you back? What do you spend all your time doing? What keeps you from selling out?” We hang on to our retirement plans, our nest eggs, etc. and think that is where our security is. Wealth is a hard test to pass, but God warns us explicitly about clinging to our wealth and forgetting where our security really comes from. Like the crowd at Ephesus, we need to bring our stuff before God and tell him that we want to serve Him more than we want to cling to our stuff. He is where our happiness and security really lie.
19) Many of them also which used curious arts . . .—The Greek word expresses the idea of superstitious arts, overbusy with the supposed secrets of the invisible world. These arts were almost, so to speak, the specialité of Ephesus. Magicians and astrologers swarmed in her streets (comp. the reference to them as analogous to the magicians at the court of Pharaoh in 2Timothy 3:8), and there was a brisk trade in the charms, incantations, books of divination, rules for interpreting dreams, and the like, such as have at all times made up the structure of superstition. The so-called “Ephesian spells” (grammata Ephesia) were small slips of parchment in silk bags, on which were written strange cabalistical words, of little or of lost meaning. The words themselves are given by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. v., c. 46), and he interprets them, though they are so obscure as to baffle the conjectures of philology, as meaning Darkness and Light, the Earth and the Year, the Sun and Truth. They were probably a survival of the old Phrygian cultus of the powers of Nature which had existed prior to the introduction of the Greek name of Artemis.
And burned them before all men.—This, then, was the result of the two sets of facts recorded in Acts 19:12; Acts 19:16. The deep-ingrained superstition of the people was treated, as it were, homœopathically. Charms and names were allowed to be channels of renovation, but were shown to be so by no virtue of their own, but only as being media between the Divine power on the one hand and the faith of the receiver on the other; and so the disease was cured. The student of the history of Florence cannot help recalling the analogous scene in that city, when men and women, artists and musicians, brought the things in which they most delighted—pictures, ornaments, costly dresses—and burnt them in the Piazza of St. Mark at the bidding of Savonarola. The tense of the verb implies that the “burning” was continuous, but leaves it uncertain whether it was an oft-repeated act or one that lasted for some hours. In this complete renunciation of the old evil past we may probably see the secret of the capacity for a higher knowledge which St. Paul recognises as belonging to Ephesus more than to most other churches. (See Note on Acts 20:27.)
Fifty thousand pieces of silver.—The coin referred to was the Attic drachma, usually estimated at about 8½d. of English money, and the total amount answers, accordingly, to £1, 770 17s. 6d., as the equivalent in coin. In its purchasing power, as determined by the prevalent rate of wages (a denarius or drachma for a day’s work), it was probably equivalent to a much larger sum. Such books fetched what might be called “fancy” prices, according to their supposed rareness, or the secrets to which they professed to introduce. Often, it may be, a book was sold as absolutely unique.