The Bible contains many mysteries within it, but not all of these were meant to be mysteries. Some are just references to a culture that no longer exists. One of these is found in The Parable of the Ungrateful Servant in the Gospel of Matthew. In this parable a king (or “master”) forgives the debt of a man who owes him ten thousand talents. The reader is meant to understand this is a huge sum of money and the king, who represents God, is very generous. How much money was a talent worth, though? What was a biblical talent? Here we will answer those questions.
The Parable of the Ungrateful Servant
For those unfamiliar with this story, the details are these: a servant who owes ten thousand talents to a king is brought before him unable to pay back his debt. He and his whole family are to be sold into slavery to settle what he owes. The man throws himself at the mercy of the king and begs a little more time to pay back the money. The king, in response, shows him pity and tells him the debt is forgiven and he can go.
This servant leaves the king and goes and finds someone who owes him 100 denarii and demands that he pay it. This man in turn begs the servant for mercy and asks him for more time, but the ungrateful servant refuses and has him thrown him into prison until he can pay it. Other servants are angered at how wicked the ungrateful servant is and tell the king who is disgusted:
“You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
Given the details of this parable, ten thousand talents would seem to be a large sum of money but something that could, in fact, be paid back with time and hard work. But is that the case?
How Much Was a Biblical Talent Worth?
If you go by what the various translations of the Bible say, you will be confused. The NIV (New International Version) translates ten thousand talents as “ten thousand bags of gold.” The Living Bible takes more leeway and translates it as “$10 million, literally, ‘10,000 talents.’ Approximately £3 million.”
Clearly it was a great deal of money. In the Old Testament the word “talent” appears when describing how much gold the Israelites used to build the tabernacle. It was a unit of measurement for weighing precious metals like silver and gold and weighed about 75 pounds. The Israelites used 29 talents of gold in the construction of their tabernacle.
In the New Testament the word meant something different. From the Greek word tálanton, it was a large monetary measurement equal to 6,000 drachmas or denarii, the Greek and Roman silver coins. It was the largest unit of currency at that time. The denarius was a standard silver Roman coin and equal to a day’s wages. The Romans, remember, were ruling over Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, so their minted coins were in use there.
So if one denarius was what a man like the ungrateful servant could earn in a day, he would need to work 6,000 days to earn one talent. Ten thousand talents would equal 60 million denarii or 60 million days of work.
A biblical talent was enough money that a man who owned it could be considered rich. Ten thousand talents was an astronomical amount of money for the common man, an unforgivable debt. The servant begged the king for a “little more time” to pay it back, but both of them knew that he never could. The other man who owed 100 denarii could have paid off his debt, perhaps, in time and with a little good fortune, but not the ungrateful servant. It certainly would have behooved him to extend the same forgiveness he had received to his fellow man.
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