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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Weights And Measures

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WEIGHTS AND MEASURES.—The specific object for which the Gospels were composed did not call for anything like a full detailed use of metrical data. Within their limited compass there are only incidental allusions to a system, or rather systems, of weights and measures. These are naturally scanty and obscure. The most that can be done with them is to identify them as nearly as possible with equivalents in modern systems, and to ascertain their places in those that were current in the Palestine of NT times. At this last point a difficulty at once emerges, due partly to the absence of regard for accuracy and precision in such matters prevalent at the time and place, and partly to the mixture of standards derived from successive and widely differing populations coming in with successive waves of conquest and invasion. The situation was not unlike that of modern Syria, with its bewildering confusion of coinage and other standards of value, brought in and grafted on the native system by French, German, and English merchants.

It is generally agreed by expert metrologists that the basis and fountainhead of all systems of measurement is to be traced to Babylonia. But in passing into Western countries, the Babylonian system was naturally subjected to as many modifications as it entered regions, and gave rise to quite as many secondary or derivative systems. These, during the course of the interrelations of the peoples using them, mutually affected one another; and the result was a variety of values called by the same name, or by names derived from the same original. On account of this fact, etymological processes of reasoning are in this field of little value, if not altogether valueless and misleading. Moreover, throughout the whole history of metrology there is a tendency noticeable towards the shrinkage or reduction of primitive values, making it essential to distinguish with great care between the values current under the same name in different periods of history. In the attempt to reach the exact facts as far as the 1st cent. a.d. is concerned, it will be best to bear in mind that in Palestine during the OT period three main systems of metrology came into use more or less extensively, the Babylonian, the Egyptian, and the Phœnician, and that to these, just before the times of Jesus, the Roman conquest added a fourth as a disturbing element.

I. Weights.—The primitive unit of weight was the shekel. This developed into two forms, the heavy and the light (cf. Kennedy in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Weights and Measures’). The heavy shekel weighed 252.5 grs., and the light just one-half of that. Perhaps while the shekel was still being used in these forms, a third value was attached to it by the introduction of the Syrian shekel of 320 grs., and a fourth value later, viz. the Phœnician of 224.4 grs. In Roman times the denarius was introduced. This was equivalent to the Attic drachm. But Josephus (Ant. iii. viii. 2) represents the Hebrew shekel (σίκλος) as equal to a tetradrachm (4 drs.), and a drachm-denarius was fixed by Nero at 52.62 grs. At least approximately, therefore, for the 1st cent. a.d., three units in the scale of weights may be determined, as follows: the drachm-denarius = 52.5 grs., the light shekel = 105 grs., and the heavy shekel=210 grs. Of the higher units the mina is equated with 100 drs., and the talent with 60 minae, hence the scale:

 

Dr. Den.

Shek.

Tetr.

Min.

Talent.

 

 

Drachm-Denar.

1

 

 

 

 

52.5

+

grs.

Shek. (light).

2

1

 

 

 

105

+

grs.

Shek. (heavy) Tetradrachm

4

2

1

 

 

210

+

grs.

Mina.

100

50

25

1

 

5250

+

grs.

Talent.

6000

3000

1500

60

1

315000

+

grs.

In the Gospels the words δίδραχμον (light shekel, Matthew 17:24) and τάλαντον* [Note: ταλαντιχῖοε in Revelation 16:21 (cf. also Jos. BJ v. vi. 3) can in the nature of the case be only an approximation. The PEFSt, 1892, 289 f., records the discovery of a large stone weighing 64600 grs. (41900 grammes), used as a heavy talent weight.] (talent, Matthew 18:24; Matthew 25:15-28) occur, but not as the names of weights; they are the designations of coins (see Money). The only term purely designating a weight is λίτρα (pound, John 12:3; John 19:39).* [Note: In this place, according to Hultsch, the λίτρχ is not the same as in John 19:39. He understands the term to be the name of a translucent horn vessel with measuring lines on the outside, used by apothecaries in dealing out medicines. Such a measuring instrument was used; but that it served for carrying ointment is improbable, and the identification of the λίτρα here with John 19:39 seems more natural.] This was identified with the mina of the above scale as its approximate equivalent. Its exact weight in the Roman scale of weights is given as 5050 grs., or 11 oz. avoirdupois.

II. Measures

1. Measures of Length.—The unit of linear measurement in earlier Biblical times was the cubit (אַמָּה). This was obtained by the adoption of the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger as the standard. There are evidences that such a standard was early averaged, conventionalized, and made the legal unit among the Israelites, being introduced like other standards of the kind from Baby. Ionia. The cubit did not, however, remain a fixed unit throughout. From Ezekiel 40:5 (cf. Ezekiel 43:13) we learn that two standards of measurement called cubits had come into use, and were employed in the prophet’s day, and that these differed by one hand’s breadth. The common cubit was six hand-breadths in length, the sacred cubit, seven. The question of the absolute length of either is, therefore, resolved into the value of the handbreadth. It would be useless to discuss in detail the various processes through which the solution of the problem has been attempted. The results of these processes show a divergence of over nine inches. Conder (Handbook of the Bible) finds the cubit to be 16 in. in length. Petrie (Ency. Brit.9 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] xxiv. 484) finds it to be 25.2. Between these extremes are the following: A. R. S. Kennedy (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Weights and Measures’), 17.5 in.; Watson (PEFSt [Note: EFSt Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1897, 203 ff.), 17.7; Beswick (ib. 1879, 182 ff.), 17.72; Warren (ib. 1899, 229 ff.), 17.75 in.; Smith’s DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , based on Thenius, 19.5 in.; and Petrie (PEFSt [Note: EFSt Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1892, 31), 22.6. If we set aside the extremes by Conder and Petrie and Smith’s DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , the divergence in the remainder is reduced to a margin not larger than .25 inch. Accordingly, the consensus of the most recent investigation may be safely taken to fix the value of the cubit in inches at between 17.50 and 17.75. Therefore the symbol, 17.5 + may be accepted as the approximate value of the common cubit among the Israelites. Upon this basis the longer cubit of Ezekiel 40:5 was Ezekiel 20:6 in. This result coincides with the Egyptian metrological system, and it appears probable that, being introduced from Egypt as the equivalent of the royal Egyptian measure of the name, the cubit was gradually reduced until in Ezekiel’s day the shorter form of it had been definitely fixed. This, then, persisted up to NT times, and was identified with the Roman cubitus of a little less than 17.5 in. (cf. Smith, Dict. of Antiq. p. 1227). [Note: In Egypt, too, there was a longer cubit and a shorter, and these two were related to one another as 7 to 6, their values in inches being respectively 19.43 and 16.66.]

The subdivisions of the cubit were the span, equalling half a cubit; the palm or hand-breadth, one-sixth of a cubit; and the digit or finger-breadth, one twenty-fourth of a cubit. The multiples in common use were the fathom, consisting of four cubits, and the reed, of six cubits. Hence the table:

 

Digit.

Palm.

Span.

Cubit.

Fathom.

Reed.

 

Digit (Finger-breadth)

1

 

 

 

 

 

-73

in

Palm (Hand-breadth)

4

1

 

 

 

 

3.

in

Span.

12

3

1

 

 

 

8.75

in

Cubit.

24

6

2

1

 

 

17.52

in

Fathom.

96

24

8

4

1

 

70.+

in

Reed.

144

36

12

6

1.5

1

105.5

in

In the Gospels the cubit is mentioned in Matthew 6:27, Luke 12:25, and John 21:8. In all these passages it appears as an approximation, and neither requires nor admits or precise determination. Lengths less than that of the cubit are not alluded to. Of greater lengths the following occur, being outside the usual scale as given above. The stadium, or furlong (Luke 24:13, John 6:19; John 11:18). The term is borrowed from the Greek scale, and appears there as the equivalent of 600 ft. (more precisely 600 ft. 9 in.), or 400 cubits. The mile (Matthew 5:41) was also borrowed, but is taken from the Roman scale, and was equal to 7.5 Greek stadia (furlongs), or 3000 cubits (1700 yds.). The day’s journey (Luke 2:44), which is a common Oriental way of reckoning distances of considerable length at the present day, seems to have been used in ancient times also. It is not, however, reducible to any definite equivalent, and was no doubt a very elastic term. See on this and on ‘Sabbath day’s journey,’ art. Journey.

2. Measures of Surface.—Of measures of area no mention is made in the Gospels or in the NT anywhere. Occasional allusions to the purchase of land (Matthew 13:44; Matthew 27:7, Luke 14:18; cf. Acts 1:18) are not of such a character as to include the measurement used in these and similar transactions.

3. Measures of Capacity.—These naturally fall into liquid and dry measures. Primitively the most common word for measure of volume in Bible lands was perhaps the seah (σάτον, μέτρον, cf. Matthew 13:33, which is also the usage of the LXX Septuagint ). This was the ‘measurepar excellence. This, however, became differentiated at least as early as before the NT age into a unit of dry measure, and the hin, with twice the capacity of the seah, took its place in the corresponding liquid scale. Nevertheless, in ascertaining the values of both liquid and dry standards of measurement, the most convenient starting-point is the seah. This, on the one hand, is easily traceable in its equivalents in the Graeco-Roman metrology, and, on the other, as the unit on which the ephah-bath is based, furnishes a key to the Palestinian metrology of both dry and liquid varieties.

As to the equivalency of the seah in the classical Graeco-Roman system, the following data give testimony: Josephus (Ant. ix. iv. 5) says, ‘A seah is equal to one and one-half Italian modii.’ An anonymous writer, cited by Hultsch (Metr. Script. i. 81. 6), speaks to the same effect; so also Jerome (on Matthew 13:33), who, however, probably simply reproduces this representation. On the other hand, according to Epiphanius (Metr. Script, i. 82. 8), the seah was equal to one and one-quarter modii (20 sextarii); but that this is not a precise statement appears from the same writer’s equating the seah with 22 sextarii elsewhere (Metr. Script, i. 82. 9). Indirectly from the identification of the bath, the cor, and the hin by Josephus, with their corresponding Roman equivalents (cf. Ant. viii. ii. 9, xv. ix. 2, iii. viii. 3), the value of the seah is computed at 22 sextarii; and as this agrees with the equation of the Babylonian ephah-bath with 66 sextarii (Hultsch, Griech. and Rom. [Note: Roman.] Metr. ii. p. 412), it may be taken as correct.

This gives us the value of the seah in Roman sextarii. The reduction of the sextarii to present-day English standards may be made either upon the basis of the calculations of Hultsch (Metrol p. 453), which yield a sextarius of .96 pt. (cf. Smith, Diet. of Ant., followed by Harper’s Dict. of Class. Lit. and Ant., ed. H. T. Peck), and a seah of 21 + pts. (2 gals. 2 qts. and 1 + pts.); or this reduction may be made upon the basis of the use of the Farnese congius (= 6 sextarii) in the Dresden Museum, which yields a sextarius of .99 pts. The difference in results between these methods amounts to no more than .03 pt. in the Roman sextarius. Neither of the two methods positively excludes, the possibility of error, but the latter appears upon the whole more trustworthy. Thus in the reconstruction of a table we have the equation to start with: sextarius = .99 pt. The seah (22 sext. = 2 Galatians 2 qts. 1.78 pts.) is, then, approximately 23 + pts.

This yields for the dry measure the scale as follows:

 

Log.

Kab.

Omer.

Seah.

Ephah.

Cor.

 

Log.

1

 

 

 

 

 

=

1

pt.

Kab.

4

1

 

 

 

 

=

4

pts.

Omer.

7.5

1.8

1

 

 

 

=

pts.

Seah.

24

6

3.6

1

 

 

=

23.75

pts.

Ephah.

72

18

10

3

1

 

=

71.28

pts.

Cor (Homer).

720

180

100

30

10

1

=

712.8

pts.

And for the liquid the scale as follows:

 

Log.

Hin.

Seah.

Bath.

Cor.

 

Log

1

 

 

 

 

=

1

pt.

Hin.

12

1

 

 

 

=

11.9

pts.

Seah.

24

2

1

 

 

=

23.8

pts.

Bath.

72

6

3

1

 

=

71.28

pts.

Cor.

720

60

30

10

1

=

712.8

pts.

These two scales represent the values of measures of capacity of the later days of Judaism. For OT times the value of the seah would have to be made larger, and the table correspondingly increased. For practical purposes the log = sextarius= pt. equation may be deemed sufficient.

In the Gospels the following allusions to the scales occur. The seah (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:21) is the equivalent of one-third of an ephah, and so is meant to designate generally as large a quantity as was usually handled in household necessities. Three seahs are equal to 35½ qts. or 1 bushel. The cor (Luke 16:7) appears under the name of ‘measure,’ the expression being naturally a general and inexact one. The total quantity intended to be indicated is 100 Cors or 1110 bushels.

Measures not included in the above scales occur as follows. The xestes (ξέστης, translated ‘cup,’ Mark 7:4 (8)) was probably a small and handy household vessel, with the capacity of a pint measure, and used as such. The modius (μόδιος, Matthew 5:15, Mark 4:21, Luke 11:33, translation in all the English versions ‘bushel’) is. not the English bushel, but the Hebrew seah. The name is borrowed from the Graeco-Roman usage. The measure itself was, like the xestes, a useful household utensil. The metretes (μετρητής, John 2:6, translation firkin’) is evidently the bath of the Hebrew scale, containing approximately 9 gallons.

Literature.—Hultsch, Griech. u. Röm. Metrologie, ii. (1882), also his Collection of Greek and Roman Sources, under the title of Metrologicorum Scriptorum Reliquiœ, 2 vols. (1864–1866); Lehmann, ‘Altbab. Mass u. Gewicht’ (in Verhandl. d. Berliner Geseltschaft f. Anthropol. 1889); Zuckermann, Das Jüdische Masssystem (1867); Nowack, Heb. Arch, i. 198 ff.; Benzinger, Heb. Arch. 178 ff.

A. C. Zenos.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Weights And Measures'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/w/weights-and-measures.html. 1906-1918.

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