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What are Widow's Mite Coins?

What are Widow's Mite Coins?

Jul 2nd 2020

In the New Testament in the Gospels of Luke and Mark is one of the most famous passages of the Bible that has come to be known as “the lesson of the widow’s mite." It is about a poor widow who offered two small copper coins in a church’s offering, while people with more money around her made much larger offerings.

When Jesus observed this happening at the Temple of Jerusalem, he said (according to Luke): “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” The lesson is that it is not how much you give, but why you give, that matters to God and that even a small amount is a huge sacrifice to someone who has very little.

Widow’s Mite Coin

The bronze coins of this story were not described with any detail, leaving it to scholars and numismatists to try to discern what specific coins were offered by the widow. They are widely believed to be what are known as a Lepton (which means small or thin) coins minted by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judea from 103 to 76 B.C. and the great grand-nephew of King Judah Maccabee. Two Lepta were worth a quadrans, the smallest Roman coin, and a Lepton was the least valuable coin that circulated in Judea.

The term mite, which is used today, did not exist at the time the coins circulated. They only became known as mites many centuries later. The term mite means “small cut piece” in Old Dutch and only came into use in the 14th century in Flanders. It is also used in the King James Bible, which brought the term and Widow Mite’s story to many millions of people beginning in 1611.

Several types of small bronze pieces were issued during the rule of King Alexander Jannaeus, but the most common ones featured an anchor and a star. Anchors were often featured on coins of the time and for the next century because of the importance of the seacoast cities of the Holy Land areas. These coins were among the first coins struck after Jews were granted authority to issue their own coins by Syrian authorities.

In addition, a Lepton was equal to one-half of a prutah – a small bronze coin about the size of a small fingernail. Lepta (plural for Lepton) were about the same diameter as a prutot (plural for prutah) but were thinner and weighed half as much. It is estimated that their value was equal to that of six minutes of an average daily wage.

During the Maccabean (or Hasmonean) period as this is known, the Greek silver drachma is believed to have been valued at 336 lepta or 168 prutot, while a shekel was worth 384 prutot. And a Roman denarius was worth about 96 prutot.

Of the prutot and lepta issued by Alexander Jannaeus, the most common ones had on their obverse an anchor and “King Alexander” in Greek, while the reverse had a star with 8 rays and sometimes Hebrew letters between the rays or around the rim, which reflected the influence of Greek culture. Researchers believe these small, low value bronze coins circulated widely and were plentiful at the time. They were made about a century before they were allegedly offered by the widow.

Value of Widow’s Mite

For centuries, these coins have been found in the Holy Lands and then sent to other markets to be sold. As a result, many exist in the coin market today. However, most of these small coins do not have very clear details and are worth 

$50 or less despite being so old and having a connection to the Bible. On the other hand, well-preserved examples are more valuable and can be worth as much as $350. Raw or graded examples in high grade and premium grades for under $100 are a good buy.

Ancient Coins

While ancient coin researchers and experts in other fields mostly agree that the coins known today as Widow’s Mites were likely the issues of Alexander Jannaeus as explained above, it is also possible that one or both of the widow’s coins were foreign coins such as Phoenician bronzes or others.

Because there is no way to be certain what coins they actually were with so many coins from different eras, rulers and kingdoms circulating at the time, NGC decided to extend the Widow’s Mite designation to any small Maccabean bronze coin issued from 135 to 37 B.C.

This decision is supported by David Hendin, author of Guide to Biblical Coins and a curator at the American Numismatic Society, who has noted that while there is a long-standing tradition of the Jannaeus anchor/star coins being considered the Widow’s Mite, this has less to do with actual evidence and more with the fact that since the mid-19th century pilgrims visiting Jerusalem have found these pieces there and brought them back home.

Hendin added: “He adds: “The truth is that any prutah or half-prutah coins of the Maccabees, Herod I and his son Archelaus, or the prefects of Judaea up to the death of Jesus could possibly qualify to have been the ‘Widow’s Mite’.”

These ancient Widow’s Mite coins will always be popular because they are very affordable and were minted more than 2,000 years ago. They also provide a link to the Bible and the time of Jesus.