The New Living Translation
How much was the widow’s mite?

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.

22 Responses to “How much was the widow’s mite?”
Claudio Duckardt
20th April, 2010 at 10:37 am

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.

Patti
4th May, 2010 at 8:12 pm

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.

5th May, 2010 at 8:32 am

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.

1st November, 2010 at 9:53 am

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.

Mark Taylor
2nd November, 2010 at 10:45 am

David,
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!”

7th November, 2010 at 11:54 pm

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.

Mark D. Taylor
8th November, 2010 at 8:38 am

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.

23rd November, 2010 at 3:32 pm

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.

Lou
26th April, 2013 at 4:49 am

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!

Keith Carpenter
9th November, 2013 at 1:14 pm

-Dave Merkel-
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.

Keith

11th January, 2014 at 5:13 am

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.

Bernie
23rd March, 2014 at 5:02 am

Hi,

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.

Bernie

noeleen
27th September, 2014 at 9:46 pm

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
a Widow

Randy
14th February, 2015 at 1:46 pm

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

2nd March, 2015 at 12:37 pm

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

Tara Robbins
26th March, 2015 at 11:17 pm

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.

Steve C
18th June, 2015 at 11:46 pm

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.

ksm
11th February, 2017 at 8:18 pm

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

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