Readers familiar with the gospels may know the story of the widow’s mite. This story is related in both Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. In it Jesus praises a widow for her generosity in giving all she had even though the financial value of her contribution was not large. If you’ve ever wondered what coins the widow’s mites were and what their value was, read on.
Luke’s Gospel Account of the Widow’s Mite
The gospel writer Luke relates the story like this (New King James Version):
“And He 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.’”
Clearly, the biblical point of this story is to demonstrate the value of generosity, even when the amount is small and to point out that God does not value things the same way that man does. The rich people in the story give far more, but they are not praised because their gifts are not sacrificial. In contrast, the widow gave hers in faith and with care, and she is remembered by history.
How Much Is a Mite?
Perhaps a better question is: What was a mite? Other translations of this text substitute the words “two small copper coins, which make a penny” for the word mites. This is obviously a very small coin denomination. What kinds of small coins were circulating in the Holy Land during Jesus’s day?
The Bible does not specify any type of coin. There were many small bronze coins in circulation at that time in Judea that Jesus could have been referring to. In fact, the two “mites” could have been two different kinds of coins.
The most likely coins would have been either leptons or prutot minted under the Hasmonean rulership of Judea between 135 B.C. and 37 B.C. The common prutah was struck during the reign of King Alexander Janneaus. This coin, minted in very large quantities, featured royal inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek with an anchor on the obverse and an 8-pointed star on the reverse. King Alexander Janneaus died in 76 B.C., well before Jesus was born, but his coins were still freely circulating.
The lepton, worth half of a prutah, was also minted by King Alexander Janneaus. It was a tiny coin smaller than a fingertip. At the time of Jesus, the lepton was the circulating coin worth the very least. Two leptons were worth one quadrans, the least valuable Roman coin. A Greek silver drachma was worth 336 lepta or 168 prutot.
Another option for the “widow’s mite” could also have been foreign coins such as Phoenician bronzes. The Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre are mentioned in the Bible multiple times and are not geographically distant from Judea.
In fact, the word mite is not a Hebrew word, but a Dutch one, meaning “small cut piece.” It was in use beginning in the 14th century and made its way into English use enough to be included in the 17th-century King James translation of the Bible.
Contemporary Value of a Widow’s Mite
While thousands of years old, many lepta and prutot still exist today, but as they circulated freely, most of them do not have clear details and are worth $50 or less. Better preserved coins may be worth hundreds of dollars.
Coin collectors, history buffs, and Christians may be interested in tracking down this piece of history. If you’ve been seeking a trustworthy business among the coin dealers in Michigan to help you develop your own coin collection, call us at Grand Rapids Coins. We are alway happy to help people find the coins they are looking for.