Thirty pieces of silver
Thirty pieces of silver was the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, according to an account in the Gospel of Matthew 26:15 in the New Testament. Before the Last Supper, Judas is said to have gone to the chief priests and agreed to hand over Jesus in exchange for 30 silver coins, and to have returned the money afterwards, filled with remorse.
The Gospel of Matthew claims the purchase of the Potter's field as fulfilment, by Jesus, of a prophecy by Jeremiah. The amount may also refer to a passage in the Book of Zechariah which describes the return of a payment of thirty silver pieces.
According to the gospel accounts, Judas Iscariot was a disciple of Jesus. Before the Last Supper, Judas went to the chief priests and agreed to hand over Jesus in exchange for 30 silver coins. Jesus is then arrested in Gethsemane, where Judas reveals Jesus' identity to the soldiers by giving him a kiss.
According to Chapter 27 of Matthew's gospel, Judas is filled with remorse and returns the money to the chief priests before hanging himself. The chief priests decide that they cannot put it into the temple treasury, and so with it they buy the Potter's Field.
Types of coin
The word used in Matthew 26:15 (arguria) simply means "silver coins," and scholars disagree on the type of coins that would have been used. Donald Wiseman suggests two possibilities. They could have been tetradrachms of Tyre, usually referred to as Tyrian shekels (about 0.5 troy ounces), or staters from Antioch, which bore the head of Augustus. Alternatively, they could have been Ptolemaic tetradrachms.
The Tyrian shekel weighed four Athenian drachmas, about 14 grams, more than earlier 11-gram Israeli shekels, but was regarded as the equivalent for religious duties at that time. Because Roman coinage was only 80% silver, the purer (94% or more) Tyrian shekels were required to pay the temple tax in Jerusalem. The money changers referenced in the New Testament Gospels (Matt. 21:12 and parallels) exchanged Tyrian shekels for common Roman currency.
The 5th century BC Athenian tetradrachm ("four drachmae") coin was perhaps the most widely used coin in the Greek world prior to the time of Alexander the Great (along with the Corinthian stater). It featured the helmeted profile bust of Athena on the obverse (front) and an owl on the reverse (back). In daily use they were called γλαῦκες glaukes (owls), hence the proverb Γλαῦκ’ Ἀθήναζε, 'an owl to Athens', referring to something that was in plentiful supply, like 'coals to Newcastle'. The reverse is featured on the national side of the modern Greek 1 euro coin. Drachmae were minted on different weight standards at different Greek mints. The standard that came to be most commonly used was the Athenian or Attic one, which weighed a little over 4.3 grams. A drachma was approximately a day's pay for a skilled laborer. So 30 pieces of silver (30 tetradrachm), at four drachmas each, would roughly be comparable to four months' (120 days) wages.
In the medieval period some religious institutions displayed ancient Greek coins of the island of Rhodes as specimens of the Thirty Pieces of Silver. The obverses of these coins showed a facing head of the sun god Helios, with rays projecting around the upper part of it. These rays were interpreted as a representation of the Crown of Thorns.
In Zechariah 11:12–13, 30 pieces of silver is the price Zechariah receives for his labour. He takes the coins and throws them "to the potter". Klaas Schilder notes that Zechariah's payment indicates an assessment of his worth, as well as his dismissal. In Exodus 21:32, 30 pieces of silver was the price of a slave, so while Zechariah calls the amount a "handsome price" (Zechariah 11:13), this could be sarcasm. Webb, however, regards it as a "considerable sum of money."
Schilder suggests that these 30 pieces of silver then get "bandied back and forth by the Spirit of Prophecy." When the chief priests decide to buy a field with the returned money, Matthew says that this fulfilled "what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet." Namely, "They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me" (Matthew 27:9–10). Although many scholars see Jeremiah's name as included in error, Jeremiah's purchase of a field in Jeremiah 32 may indicate that both prophets are in mind. Craig Blomberg argues that Matthew is using typology in his quotation, rather than "any kind of single or double fulfillment of actual predictive prophecy." According to Blomberg, Matthew is telling his readers that, "like Jeremiah and Zechariah, Jesus attempts to lead his people with a prophetic and pastoral ministry, but instead he ends up suffering innocently at their hands." William Hendriksen argues that Matthew is referring to Jeremiah 19. Also, the books of the prophets were sometimes referred to in toto as "Jeremiah", just as Moses' five books were often collectively referred to as "The Law".
Blomberg also suggests that Matthew may also be saying that "Jesus' death is a ransom, the price paid to secure a slave's freedom," and that the use of the blood money to buy a burial ground for foreigners (Matthew 27:7) may hint at the idea that "Jesus' death makes salvation possible for all the peoples of the world, including the Gentiles."
Relics and depiction in art
Judas is often shown in narrative scenes from the Passion holding the silver in a bag or purse, where they serve as an attribute to identify him. As one of the "Instruments of the Passion" the Thirty Pieces by themselves often feature in groups of the Instruments, especially in the late Middle Ages, although they are one of the less commonly chosen elements of the group. Sometimes a money bag is used in depictions; otherwise a hand holding the coins, or two hands, showing the counting-out.
A number of "Judas-pennies", ancient coins said to be from the original thirty, were treated as relics in the Middle Ages, and were believed to help in difficult cases of childbirth. As a minor component of the Instruments, and one whose survival was hard to explain given the Biblical account of the use of the money, the relics, and their depiction in art, both appear from the 14th century, later than more important elements like the Crown of Thorns or Spear of Longinus. This was as a result of new styles of devotions, led by the Franciscans in particular, which promoted contemplation of the Passion episode by episode, as in the Stations of the Cross. The stone on which the coins were said to have been counted out was in the Lateran Palace in Rome.
The 30 pieces are used in Christian literature on the betrayal of Jesus, as in the poem Thirty Pieces of Silver by William Blane:
"Thirty pieces of silver"
Burns on the traitor's brain;
"Thirty pieces of silver!
Oh! it is hellish gain!"
or as in the poem Matthew XXVII:9 by Jorge Luis Borges:
The coin fell on my hollow hand.
I could not bear it, although it was light,
and I let it fall. It was all in vain.
The other said: "There are still twenty nine."
The phrase "30 pieces of silver" is used more generally to describe a price at which people sell out. In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, it is echoed in the 30 roubles which the character Sonia earns for selling herself. In the folk-song King John and the Bishop, the bishop's answer to the riddle of how much the king is worth is 29 pieces of silver, as no king is worth more than Jesus. In Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Part 2, the mistress of Falstaff asks "and didst thou not kiss me, and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings?"
The phrase is used to accuse politicians and artists of selling out their principles or ideals, and is also used in literature as a symbol of betrayal. For example, in the aftermath of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, a number of residents of the street in which the Governor General John Kerr had been born sent the Governor 30 pieces of silver, as Kerr was widely blamed for the crisis. Another usage was at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, a spokesman from Tuvalu criticised the final document by saying, "It looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future ... Our future is not for sale."
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- Matthew 26:15
- Jeremiah 32
- Zechariah 11:12–13
- Vincent P. Branick, Understanding the New Testament and Its Message, (Paulist Press, 1998), pp. 126–128.
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- The residents of the street in Balmain where he had been born posted him thirty pieces of silver. http://www.australian-politics-books.com/ccp0-prodshow/the-real-joh-kerr-richard-hall.html
- "Future not for sale: climate deal rejected". ABC News. 19 Dec 2009. Retrieved 11 Sep 2010.