Author Archives: catholicbiblestudent

Two Ways to Calculate the Value of a Talent

Yesterday, I came across a helpful calculation of the sum of money that Tobit sent his son, Tobias, to retrieve from his relative: ten talents of silver. How much is ten talents actually worth?

Robert J. Littman’s commentary offers this helpful note:

“The only way to calculate the value of ten talents is to compare it to wages and buying power. At this period the wages for an individual were approximately one drachma per day. Ten talents would contain 60,000 drachmas, in comparative American wages of 2006, $6,000,000. In terms of silver value, a talent weighs approximately 20 to 40 kgs., and 26 kgs. in ancient Greece. At the 2006 price of silver at $11.50 per ounce, the value of one talent, weighing 26 kg, would be $10,547, and the value of 10 talents would be $105,468. In any case, this is an enormous sum of money.” (Source: Robert J. Littman, Tobit: Commentary, ed. Stanley E. Porter, Richard S. Hess, and John Jarick, Septuagint Commentary Series (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2008), 57.)

Ok, so to re-work the calculation for today, a talent of silver works out to about 75 pounds (at least most of the reference books use this number–and it is within Pittman’s parameters at 34 kgs).

  • Calculation #1: By Weight
    Today’s spot-price on silver: $22.69/oz
    One talent = 1200 ounces = $27,228 (in 2022 dollars)
    Tobit’s stash of ten talents = $272,280
  • Calculation #2: By Wage
    Daily wage in ancient Greek world: One drachma
    Daily wage in 2022 America (I’m using a median hourly wage of $29.55 from data tables provided by the State of Washington multiplied by an 8 hour day): $236.40
    One talent = 6,000 drachma = 6,000×236.40 = $1,418,400
    Tobit’s stash of ten talents = $14,184,000

Here’s a chart showing the dramatic difference in the two calculations:

While I am not going to calculate out every possible instance here, take a look at this chart I’ve prepared of other biblical instances of talents of silver, calculated two different way:

Silver Talents Talents Ounces By Weight By Wage
Exod 38:25 100 120,000 $2,722,800 $141,840,000
Exod 38:29 70 84,000 $1,905,960 $99,288,000
1 Kings 10:10 120 144,000 $3,267,360 $170,208,000
1 Kings 10:14 666 799,200 $18,133,848 $944,654,400
1 Kings 16:24 2 2,400 $54,456 $2,836,800
2 Kings 5:5 10 12,000 $272,280 $14,184,000
2 Kings 5:23 2 2,400 $54,456 $2,836,800
2 Kings 15:19 1000 1,200,000 $27,228,000 $1,418,400,000
2 Kings 18:14 100 120,000 $2,722,800 $141,840,000
2 Kings 23:33 100 120,000 $2,722,800 $141,840,000

It is important to remember that some of the talents in the Bible are actually in gold, not silver. I don’t have a good way of translating gold talents to a daily wage, but we can easily measure them by weight using today’s spot price on gold of $1802.90. Take a look at these examples:

Gold Talents Talents Ounces By Weight
Exod 38:24 29 34,800 $62,737,440
1 Kings 9:14 420 504,000 $908,611,200
1 Kings 10:10 120 144,000 $259,603,200
1 Kings 10:14 666 799,200 $1,440,797,760
2 Kings 18:14 30 36,000 $64,900,800
2 Kings 23:33 1 1,200 $2,163,360

So, we have two different precious metals and two different ways of calculating the value of a talent. Even though we can perform these kinds of conversion, it’s worth saying that economic value in the ancient world isn’t exactly translatable to economic value today. The way that we can reduce the value of land, food, personal property, diamonds and oil to American dollars is not really the way things worked in Ecbatana in Tobit’s time. These calculations are fun, but not necessarily accurate. That is, they are as accurate as we can get, but we have to account for the giant gulf of centuries of time, economic and cultural change. For me, the importance of this observation–that there are two different ways to calculate the value of a talent–puts many of these biblical passages into perspective. There’s a big difference between $272,000 and $14 million (in the case of Tobit’s stash). Considering both sides of the calculation might help us reach a more nuanced view of many of these passages.

What is the Sword of Damocles?

For some reason, I keep hearing the phrase “the sword of Damocles” over and over. I’m not sure if everyone in the world decided to brush off their Latin and read some classics during the Covid quarantine or what. But somehow, this particular classical reference is back in vogue and you’ve probably heard it too. So what is this famous sword?

Who is “Damocles” Anyway?

Here’s a short entry on him from The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870):

DAMOCLES (Δαμοκλῆς), a Syracusan, one of the companions and flatterers of the elder Dionysius, of whom a well-known anecdote is related by Cicero. Damocles having extolled the great felicity of Dionysius on account of his wealth and power, the tyrant invited him to try what his happiness really was, and placed him at a magnificent banquet, surrounded by every kind of luxury and enjoyment, in the midst of which Damocles saw a naked sword suspended over his head by a single horse-hair—a sight which quickly dispelled all his visions of happiness. (Cic. Tusc. v. 21.) The same story is also alluded to by Horace. (Carm. iii. 1.17.) Source: Edward Herbert Bunbury, “DAMOCLES (Δαμοκλῆς),” Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1870) 935.

Just so we all have our bearings: Syracuse (today Siracusa) is in Sicily, not upstate New York. Cicero is the extremely famous Roman orator and senator.

Wait – Who is Dionysus?

Dionysus I the Elder was tyrant of Syracuse, a Hellenistic ruler. He lived about 432 to 367 BC. Let’s just say he was not famous for his kindness. In fact, Dante places him in the River Phlegethon made of boiling blood in the Inferno:

“These are the souls of tyrants, who were given
To blood and rapine. Here they wail aloud
Their merciless wrongs. Here Alexander dwells,
And Dionysius fell, who many a year
Of woe wrought for fair Sicily. …” (Harvard Classics 1909)

But, at least in the afterlife, Dionysus gets to suffer forever with his tyrant buddies like Alexander the Great.

Tell us About the Sword

Ok, but we really want to know more about the sword hanging from a single horse hair over the head of Damocles. Damocles was a sycophant–a member of Dionysus’ court who flattered him and enjoyed his largess. Well, sort of. Dionysus was cartoonishly fearful of plotters and assassins–a typical tyrant perhaps. He wouldn’t even let a barber shave him for fear that the razor would “slip”, so he had his daughters burn off his beard with red-hot walnut shells. In order to keep his people on their toes, Dionysus did not take it lightly when Damocles the flatterer paid him some nice compliments about how great his life as tyrant must be. Dionysus, in order to teach Damocles a lesson decided to give him a taste of the tyrant’s life.

The Sword of Damocles by
Giuseppe Piattoli, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain

He had a huge feast prepared for Damocles, put him on a golden couch, surrounded him with all of the luxuries of the day. And while Damocles was enjoying himself immensely, Dionysus had a sword suspended over his neck, hanging from only a single horse hair. (You might wonder how the geometry works here since we sit in chairs while we eat so a sword could only be suspended over our heads, not necks. But the Greeks and Romans reclined on couches while they ate, so the neck could be an easy target for such a sword.) Needless to say, Damocles found the situation rather uncomfortable and asked to be released from the bizarre situation. Dionysus had the satisfaction of teaching Damocles the lesson of his life: “that there can be no happiness for him over whom some terror is always impending.” That’s the moral of the story.

Let’s Hear it From Cicero

Here is how Cicero himself tells the tale:

When Damocles, one of his flatterers, in talking with him, recounted his forces, his power, the majesty of his reign, the abundance of his possessions, the magnificence of his palace, and said that there had never been a happier man, he replied, ” Damocles, since this life charms you, do you want to taste it yourself, and to make trial of my fortune ? ” He answering in the affirmative, Dionysius commanded the man to be placed upon a golden couch with a covering most beautifully woven and magnificently embroidered, and furnished for him several sideboards with chased silver and gold. Then he ordered boys chosen for their surpassing beauty to stand at the table, and watching his nod, to serve him assiduously. There were ointments, garlands. Perfumes were burned. The tables were spread with the most exquisite viands. Damocles thought himself favored of Fortune. In the midst of this array Dionysius ordered a glittering sword attached to a horse-hair to be let down from the ceiling, so as to hang over the neck of the happy man. After this, Damocles had no eye for the beautiful servants nor for the silver richly wrought, nor did he reach forth his hand to the table. The gar- lands were already fading. At length he begged the tyrant to let him go; for he no longer wanted to be happy. Does not Dionysius seem thus to have declared that there can be no happiness for him over whom some terror is always impending? Yet it was no longer possible for him to return to justice, and to restore to the citizens their liberty and their rights. In his youth, at an improvident age, he had so ensnared himself by wrong-doings, and had committed them to such an extent, that he could not be safe if he began to behave reasonably. (Source: Andrew P. Peabody, trans., Cicero’s Tusculan disputations, [Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1886] Book V, 21, pp. 286-88)

Is the Sword of Damocles on the Rise?

According to Google nGram, peak “sword of Damocles” usage was in 1996. Perhaps I’ve just heard it a lot recently. Maybe if we check back in a few years, we’ll see a new spike in usage of the term. Anyway, there you have it. Now you know what the Sword of Damocles is all about.

The Quest of the King in the Wisdom of Solomon

My new article, “The Quest of the King in the Wisdom of Solomon,” was just published in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, Volume 31, issue 1. I presented an early version of this paper at the 2020 SBL Annual Meeting.

If you want to know what is all about, here is the abstract of the paper:

Historians largely agree that Hellenistic kingship was founded, not primarily on heredity, but on military achievement (MacDonald, 2015). The right to rule was thus militarily meritocratic, but philosophically unsteady, so kings felt the need to propagandize by commissioning writings peri basileias. Diogenes Laertius gives evidence that this type of kingship literature was widely produced in this era, though only fragments of these texts survive. The tracts attributed to Ecphantus, Diotogenes, and Sthenidas, along with the Letter of Aristeas, reveal that Hellenistic kingship was supported by a mythos that viewed obtaining kingship as a kind of moral achievement. The king’s virtues are emphasized as godlike and worthy of imitation by his subjects, as he embodies the law in his person. The Wisdom of Solomon reworks this kingship tradition by “democratizing” kingship (Newman, 2004) to all to call his readers to imitate Solomon’s choice of wisdom over folly. Solomon’s search for and embrace of wisdom (7:7; 8:2) takes the place of militaristic emphases and establishes a universalizable pattern for the moral quest of the individual. Wisdom domesticates a Hellenistic pattern of seeking wisdom and thus achieving kingly rule, which eventually allows one to be a benefactor of others. Wisdom is beneficent (7:23) and, rather than becoming a god, the wise Solomon benefits others with his wise and just rule (Wis 8:10–15; 9:12). Even the wise Israelites become benefactors to others (19:14). Thus, the quest of the king for wisdom follows a familiar outline of the journey of a king from obscurity, to conquest, to rule, to beneficence.

If you are interested in reading the whole thing, here is the permanent link to it:


My New Talk on Leviticus

The Book of Leviticus has always puzzled Bible readers. We come looking for inspiration, prayer and hope amid the challenges of life in the Valley of Tears, but instead we find rules about sacrifices, priestly garb, foods to avoid, skin diseases and other topics that seem like mere relics from the ancient past. Yet Leviticus is not just about rules and ritual purity. It is about the holiness of God. It shows us how holy He is and how he calls each one of us to be holy. In fact, to me, Leviticus is the Old Testament version of “the universal call to holiness” famously proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. In fact, that’s exactly it: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2 ESV). God is holy, that is, “set apart” from us. He’s different, other, separate from our sinfulness and selfishness. He wants us to leave behind the petty desires of the world and become truly holy like Him.

If you want to learn more about Leviticus, check out my new Lighthouse Talk on mp3 and CD from the Augustine Institute: “Leviticus Explained”. I hope you enjoy it!

New Short Course On Wisdom Literature

Today, the Augustine Institute released my new short course on Wisdom Literature. In it, I teach 30 minute video sessions on Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon. This non-credit video course is available as a standalone for $59 and also as part of the monthly short course subscription of $23/month.

The course is available here:

The short course program from the Augustine Institute is an easy way to encounter new ideas very quickly. The courses vary in length, but tend to consist of six or more 30-minute video lectures, accompanied by quizzes, links and other material. Right now, we have about twenty courses available and we add a new one every month.

It’s worth mentioning that I also teach the first course in the Short Course curriculum, “The Story of the Old Testament.” You can find that one here:

I hope you have a chance to check out these courses and the others. I hope that you’ll enjoy them! If you have suggestions for future short courses I should teach, put them in the comments on this post.

Recent Interviews

While I might not have been blogging much the past few weeks, I have been very busy with interviews. Here are all the links:

March 2: Polycarp’s Paradigm

February 28: Catholic Review Radio from Archdiocese of Baltimore


February 15

Formed Now: A Bible Study on the Luminous Mysteries – Institution of the Eucharist

January 23: Outside the Walls with T.L. Putnam

January 18: How they Love Mary with Fr. Edward Looney

January 14: The Good Book Club on Spirit Catholic Radio in Omaha, NE


January 6
I appeared on the Cordial Catholic, hosted by K. Albert Little.