In the New Testament of the Bible in Luke 21: 1-4 it reads, “And He [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, ‘Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.’”
Luke is believed to have been a Greek physician. He was no numismatist. What coins are the so-called widow’s mites of which Luke writes?
There has been conjecture regarding this almost since when Luke recorded the incident. We do know the story was meant to emphasize the widow was giving all she had while others gave a percentage of what they could have given. The mites, as the coins are translated to in English, were suggested to be the lowest denomination coins available. The term mite in modern Bible translations dates from the Old Dutch language used in 14th century Flanders, long after the New Testament was written.
The coins referenced by Luke are likely diminutive bronze leptons, the Greek word lepta means small or thin. It is possible the coins were prutot (singular prutah). At certain times the lepton may have equaled the half prutah, at other times the prutah itself. Evidence suggests that during the Roman period the Greek drachma (quarter shekel) was worth 64 prutot.
Extremely low value bronze coins were commonplace in Roman Judea at the time of Jesus and Luke. Unlike today many coins circulated for very long periods until they were so worn out as to have become useless. For that reason a reference to a mite could be any low value coin from as far back as Hasmonean ruler Hyrcanus I (132-130 BC) to that of the local Roman Governor Pontius Pilatus (AD 26-36). The mite could also have been a foreign coin, although most small bronzes that circulated in the southern Levant at this time were local issues. Such low value coins continued to be issued sporadically until the time of Roman Governor Porcius Festus (AD 59-62), although this is after the suggested date of the crucifixion of Jesus, likely in AD 33.
Today, the most commonly encountered coins that fit the description of being the widow’s mite are the prutot and lepta of Maccabee ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC). In his book Wars the contemporary historian Josephus says, “And now the king’s wife loosed the king’s brethren, and made Alexander king, who appeared both elder in age, and more moderate in his temper than the rest.” Alexander was both high priest and king.
The obverse of the Alexander Jannaeus coins depicts an anchor, with an eight-ray star on the reverse. Some of these coins include Hebrew letters between the rays and the rim. Despite the coins being issued much earlier than the time of Jesus and Luke it appears from the large quantities of these coins being found that they were issued in great numbers and likely continued to circulate until long after Jannaeus rule. Archaeological evidence indicates the coins may have circulated into the second-third century.
Preliminary metallurgical studies and similar anchor/star coins attributed to Herod I (about 72 BC-1 BC) suggest these issues may have been minted up until around 40 BC, at the time of Mattatias Antigonus (40-37 BC).
Today collectors often purchase the prutot or lepta of Alexander Jannaeus as examples of widow’s mites. Similar coins issued by other Maccabee rulers, Roman prefects and procurators, Herodian rulers, or similar foreign coins are encountered less often and are often more expensive. The issues of Alexander Jannaeus are often poorly made, either being softly struck and lacking detail or being struck off center. For that reason high quality examples can sell for significant sums greater than ‘average’ strikes.
Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America recently announced it will begin designating any prutot or lepta type coin issued between 135 BC and 37 BC as being a widow’s mite. NGC certifies all ancient coins as well as US, modern and medieval foreign coins. This would include coins of Maccabee rulers Hyrcanus I, John Hyrcanus I, Judah Aristobulus I, Alexander Jannaeus, John Hyrcanus II, and Matttathias Antigonus.
The decision was made by NGC with the support of Guide to Biblical Coins author David Hendin. Hendin is also vice president and an adjunct curator at the American Numismatic Society in New York. According to Hendin there are many Alexander Jannaeus anchor/star coin varieties. Hendin explains these varieties as engraver’s inconsistencies: “Some numismatists and archaeologists explain these mistakes by noting that even as early as Jannaeus’s time the ancient Hebrew characters had already given way to the modern Hebrew (Aramaic) script we know today…thus many scribes and engravers had to copy from old scrolls and manuscripts in the libraries, since they were unfamiliar with the ancient alphabet, they made many mistakes.”
Addressing the NGC decision to call these coins widow’s mites Hendin said, “The truth is that any prutah or half-prutah coins of the Maccabees, Herod I or his son Archelaus, or the prefects of Judaea up to the death of Jesus could possibly qualify to have been the widow’s mite.”