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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature

Weights and Measures

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This is a subject on which our knowledge is by no means complete and satisfactory, as the notices respecting it which the Bible supplies are fragmentary and scattered.

With respect to the coins in use among the Hebrews, it is evident that there prevailed among the Hebrews at an early period a very considerable and much employed metallic medium. Mention is made of talents, shekels, half-shekels, and gerahs. It is impossible to determine with absolute certainty the relative value of these coins, but the following table has been constructed from an examination of the coins of Simon Maccabaeus, and is probably very nearly correct:—

Gerah

13.7

Bekah, or common shekel

137

Sacred shekel

274

Maneh

13,700

Talent

822,000

These conclusions find corroboration by being compared with the weights of other Eastern nations, and the whole inquiry authorizes the inference that one general system prevailed in the more civilized nations, being propagated from the East, from an early period of history.

In the New Testament () the Temple-tax is a didrachm; from other sources we know that this 'tribute' was half a shekel; and in the stater is payment of this tax for two persons. Now the stater—a very common silver Attic coin, the tetradrachm—weighed 328.8 Paris grains; thus not considerably surpassing the sacred shekel (274 Paris grains). And there is reason in the passage of Matthew and in early writers for regarding the stater of the New Testament as the same with the Attic tetradrachm.

Names of measures of length are for the most part taken from members of the human body, which offered themselves, so to say, naturally for the purpose, and have generally been used in all times and places in instances where minute accuracy was not demanded.

At the basis of the Hebrew system of measures of length lies the cubit, the forearm, or the distance from the point of the elbow to the tip of the third finger.

A longer measure, applied in measuring buildings, was the reed, or more properly 'rod' (; ). Smaller measures of length were,

a span, from a root meaning to expand (the hand).

The breadth of the hand (; ).

The finger (), the denomination of the smallest measure of length.

Thus we have the breadth of the finger, of the hand, of the span—the length from the tip of the little finger to the point of the thumb—and the cubit.

As we have no unit of measure given us in the Scriptures, nor preserved to us in the remains of any Hebrew building, and as neither the Rabbins nor Josephus afford the information we want, we have no resource but to apply for information to the measures of length used in other countries. We go to the Egyptians. The longer Egyptian cubit contained about 234.333 Paris lines, the shorter about 204.8. According to this the Hebrew measures of length were these:—

Sacred cubit

234.333

The span

117.166

The palm

39.055

The finger

9.7637

Common cubit

204.8

The span

102.4

The palm

34.133

The finger

8.533

The two sets of measures, one for dry, another for liquid things, rest on the same system, as appears from the equality of the standard for dry-goods, namely the ephah, with that for liquids, namely bath. Mention is made of the homer, cab, bath and ephah—which are the same, hin, and log. The relations of these measures to the homer, the greatest of them, is exhibited in the following table:—

Homer

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bath and Ephah

10

1

 

 

 

 

 

Seah

30

3

1

 

 

 

 

Hin

60

6

2

1

 

 

 

Gomer

100

10

3 1/3

1 2/3

1

 

 

Cab

180

18

6

3

1 4/5

1

 

Log

720

72

24

12

7 1/5

4

1

The actual size of these measures, as stated by Josephus, is as follows:—

 

Size

Par. cub. in.

Weight in Water

Par. gr.

Homer

19857.7

7398000

Ephah

1985.77

739800

Seah

661.92

246600

Hin

330.96

123300

Gomer

198.577

73980

Cab

110.32

41100

Log

27.58

10275

Böckh has proved that it is in Babylon we are to look for the foundations of the metrological systems of the ancient world; for the entire system of measures, both eastern and western, must be referred to the Babylonish foot as to its basis. On Babylon also the ancient world was dependent for its astronomy. Hence Babylon appears as the land which was the teacher of the east and the west in astronomical and mathematical knowledge, standing as it were in the middle of the ancient world, and sending forth rays of light from her two extended hands. Palestine could not be closed against these illuminations, which in their progress westward must have enlightened its inhabitants, who appear to have owed their highest earthly culture to the Babylonians and the Egyptians.

 

 

 

 

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Public Domain.

Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Weights and Measures'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/w/weights-and-measures.html.

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