Biblical Archaeology Review 19:5, September/October 1993

Glossary: From Shekels to Talents: Money in the Ancient World

By Oded Borowski

Biblical Archaeology Review

Deferred payment—using credit cards and checks instead of currency and coin—is a modern invention. But people have been using money, whether paper or metal, for a very long time. The Hebrew Bible mentions many different monetary denominations, and archaeologists frequently find coins and weights at dig sites.

For centuries, ancient peoples exchanged goods by bartering or by weighing out precious metals or jewels as payment for purchases. Under the barter system, people exchanged goods and services with one another according to various rates. For example, one donkey was worth three sheep or fixing a plow was worth two large clay pots. An example of barter in the Bible is 1 Kings 5:10–11, when Hiram of Tyre traded cedar and cypress timber to build Solomon’s Temple in exchange for wheat and oil.

When social structures became more complex and specialized, the barter system no longer worked well. If a seller wanted cattle and a prospective buyer only had sheep, they needed either a middleman or a new payment method in order to work out an exchange.

To solve this problem, payment with precious metals or, less often, with stones was introduced. Payment was made either by weighing out specific quantities of metals, such as gold or silver, or by handing over bars of these metals molded into a standard shape and weight.

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.