The lepton, or Widow's Mite.

Perhaps the most famous biblical coin.


Refer also to my page on ancient coins.

Και καθισας κατεναντι του γαζοφυλακιου εθεωρει πως ο οχλος βαλλει χαλκον εις το γαζοφυλακιον και πολλοι πλουσιοι εβαλλον πολλα και ελθουσα μια χηρα πτωχη εβαλεν λεπτα δυο, ο εστιν κοδραντης. και προσκαλεσαμενος τους μαθητας αυτου ειπεν αυτοις· Αμην, λεγω υμιν οτι η χηρα αυτη η πτωχη πλειον παντων εβαλεν των βαλλοντων εις το γαζοφυλακιον, παντες γαρ εκ του περισσευοντος αυτοις εβαλον, αυτη δε εκ της υστερησεως αυτης παντα οσα ειχεν εβαλεν, ολον τον βιον αυτης.

And after he sat down opposite the treasury he was watching how the crowd was casting bronze into the treasury, and many rich men were casting in many coins; and a poor widow came and cast in two leptons, that is, a quadrans. And after calling his disciples to him he said to them: Amen, I say to you that this poor widow put in more than all those casting into the treasury, for they all cast in what for them was leftover, but she out of her lack cast in all she owned, her whole living.

—Mark 12.41-44.

Αναβλεψας δε ειδεν τους βαλλοντας εις το γαζοφυλακιον τα δωρα αυτων πλουσιους. ειδεν δε τινα χηραν πενιχραν βαλλουσαν εκει λεπτα δυο, και ειπεν· Αληθως λεγω υμιν οτι η χηρα αυτη η πτωχη πλειον παντων εβαλεν, παντες γαρ ουτοι εκ του περισσευοντος αυτοις εβαλον εις τα δωρα, αυτη δε εκ του υστερηματος αυτης παντα τον βιον ον ειχεν εβαλεν.

And he looked up and saw the rich who were casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw a certain poor widow there casting in two leptons, and he said: Truly I say to you that this poor widow cast in more than all of them, for these all cast into the gift out of what for them was leftover, but she out of her lack cast in all the living that she had.

—Luke 21.1-4.

About the coin.

The word mite once meant a British coin worth half a farthing. The British mite is no longer in circulation. Due, however, to the influence of the King James version of the Bible, the word has survived to refer to an ancient Judean coin called a lepton.

It was Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 before Christ) who first minted the lepton, a bronze coin of no great worth in ancient Judea.

The coin makes its biblical appearance in Mark 12.41-44 = Luke 21.1-4, the story of the poor widow donating two coins to the temple treasury. It is from the King James version of this story that this coin has received its modern designation as the Widow's Mite.

There is another ancient coin often inaccurately called the Widow's Mite, namely the bronze prutah, also minted in Judea. It is larger than the lepton, but bears almost identical symbols on its obverse and reverse.

There is also a copper coin called a lepton, minted in Judea by Pontius Pilate (26-36). But its obverse bore a representation of a simpulum, a ladle for pagan libations, making it unlikely that any observant Jew would donate such a coin to the temple.

The lepton was the lowest denomination of coin struck in Judea. Mark 12.42 informs us that it took two leptons to equal a quadrans, the lowest denomination of regular Roman coinage. For perspective, glance at this table of common Roman coins, keeping in mind that a denarius was a typical wage for one day of work (the numbers in parentheses indicate how many of that denomination it takes to equal a denarius):

denarius
sestertius (4)
dupondius (8)
as (16)
quadrans (64)

In other words, the two mites (equivalent to one quadrans) that the poor widow donated to the temple were worth very little indeed, only the sixty-fourth part of a denarius. Such was the worth of the coins that Jesus valued higher than the hoards donated by the rich.

Scans of the coin.

Below are scans of coins currently in my possession. The smallest of these mites has about two-thirds the diameter of a penny; the largest has about three-fourths. These scans are enlarged for detail.

Obverse.
1. Obverse.

Reverse.
1. Reverse.
Obverse.
2. Obverse.

Reverse.
2. Reverse.
Obverse.
3. Obverse.

Reverse.
3. Reverse.

On the obverse of the lepton is an anchor, which almost certainly derives from Seleucid symbolism, in which the anchor represents power at sea. The Seleucid dynasty lasted from 323 to about 60 before Christ.

On the reverse is a sun or star with eight rays. It is not entirely certain what the star might mean. Perhaps it represents heaven, though it more likely derives from the eight-pointed sun symbols prevalent on ancient Macedonian coins and shields.

Most coins discovered of this variety are as faded as these examples, though some come out quite a bit better.

The anchor on the obverse of examples 1 and 2 is fairly clear, though a bit less so on the obverse of example 3. The die might have been somewhat off center for the striking of examples 1 and 2, and note that it was completely off center for the striking of 3; the rims of two separate circles are visible.