The Bible contains many references to money and coins, some of which may be unfamiliar to modern readers. One such monetary unit that appears in the New Testament is the mite. If you’ve ever wondered, “What is a mite in the Bible?”
while reading scripture, this comprehensive guide will provide the answers you’re looking for.
In short, a mite refers to the smallest currency in circulation in ancient Judea during the time of Jesus. But what exactly was a mite worth and why did Jesus and the gospel writers refer to this coin on multiple occasions?
Read on for a deep dive into the history and significance of the mite in the Bible.
The Monetary System of Ancient Israel
Shekels and Denarii
The main units of currency in ancient Israel were the shekel and the denarius. The shekel was an ancient unit of weight, and currency was measured by weight in precious metals such as silver and gold. There were several types of shekels in use:
- The tetradrachm – This was a large silver coin equivalent to four Attic drachmae or one Hebrew shekel.
- The Tyrian shekel – This contained four denarii, ninety-six grains of pure silver.
- The sanctuary shekel – This was the temple tax coin used to pay the half shekel contribution. It weighed 220 grains.
The denarius was a Roman silver coin that was the main unit of currency in the New Testament era. It was equal to one day’s wages for a laborer (reference).
Lepta or Prutah – The Mite
The smallest Judean coins were called lepta or prutah in Hebrew. These were bronze coins worth 1/128 of a denarius. They were also called “mites” in the King James translation of the Bible (reference). When Jesus saw the poor widow put two mites or leptas in the offering box, these were worth almost nothing (Mark 12:42).
This showed her great sacrificial giving out of her poverty.
The lepton (plural lepta) was also one of the smallest and least valuable coins in ancient Greece and the Hellenistic world. It was worth about 1/100 of a drachma. The name derived from the Greek word lepton meaning “small”, “thin”, or “light” (reference).
The Widow’s Mite in the Gospels
The Widow’s Offering (Mark 12:41-44)
The story of the widow’s mite is found in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. Here, Jesus observes a poor widow putting two small copper coins into one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped chests used for voluntary contributions in the Court of Women in the Jerusalem Temple.
In stark contrast to wealthy people donating large sums to the treasury, Jesus upholds this widow who gives the very little that she has. Though a small amount, it represents great sacrificial generosity from her poverty.
Jesus teaches an important lesson – when it comes to giving, it’s not the monetary amount that matters, but the willingness to give sacrificially from what one has. While the rich gave large sums, they still had plenty left over.
But the widow in her poverty gave all she had to live on, trusting God to provide for her needs. Her tiny contribution outweighed the large donations of the wealthy. As Jesus said, she gave more than all the others.
This passage teaches that motives matter in giving. God looks at the heart, not just the amount. It also shows God’s special care for widows and orphans, who were vulnerable and needy in society (Deuteronomy 10:18). The story commends sacrificial generosity and trusting God’s provision.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable contrasting the prayer of a Pharisee with a tax collector in the temple. The Pharisee’s prayer focuses on his own righteousness and looks down on others. He thanks God that he’s not like sinful people, and he lists his religious achievements of fasting and tithing.
In contrast, the tax collector stands far off, too ashamed to even lift his eyes to heaven. He simply pleads for mercy for his sins. Jesus declares that the tax collector rather than the Pharisee went home justified before God.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
A key lesson is that we should approach God with a humble and repentant heart, rather than pridefully focusing on our own goodness. We cannot earn salvation by our good works, but must rely on God’s grace and mercy.
This parable warns against self-righteousness and teaches the proper heart attitude of humility and contrition in coming before God.
The Symbolic Significance of the Mite
The Value of Generosity
In the biblical story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44), Jesus highlights the immense value of generosity and self-sacrifice, no matter how small. Though the widow gives just two tiny coins worth a penny, Jesus upholds her tiny gift as infinitely precious for what it represents – her whole livelihood and complete trust in God’s providence (“she out of her poverty put in everything she had, all she had to live on”).
The mite symbolizes that true generosity is not measured by the external size of a gift, but by the internal disposition and sacrifice of the giver. The widow’s mitless mites meant more to Jesus than the extravagant sums of the rich precisely because she gave all she had out of authentic love and devotion.
This attitude of total self-giving is embodied by Jesus himself, who gave his entire life for others out of limitless love. Though he possessed everything, he let himself be broken like bread for the life of the world. The widow’s mites foreshadow Jesus’ ultimate act of relinquishment on the cross.
The Importance of Proportional Giving
Beyond underscoring the priority of interior generosity, the story also highlights the importance of proportional giving. The widow’s tiny mites comprised everything she owned. Though the rich gave more in absolute terms, the widow gave infinitely more proportionally.
Jesus seems to imply that God weighs gifts not by their objective size, but by their relative weight against the giver’s means. Even small acts of generosity can thus take on immense value if they demand a real sacrifice of worldly security.
Relative generosity often achieves more than absolute generosity by inspiring others and testifying to sincere love.
|Rich man’s large donation
|Widow’s two small coins
The widow embodies the spirit of proportional sacrifice that Jesus expects of all his followers, as seen in his encounter with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-27). Her humble mites serve as an enduring model and challenge for all disciples to give generously in proportion to their means.
Some statistical research on global proportional giving can be found at How America Gives 2022.
Other Biblical References to Mites
While the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12 and Luke 21 is the most well-known biblical reference to mites, there are a few other instances where mites are mentioned in Scripture:
In Leviticus 13, God provides Moses with regulations regarding skin diseases. One of the skin conditions mentioned is a kind of fungal infection known as “tzaraath.” This condition could infect clothing as well as people. Leviticus 13:47-59 details what should be done if tzaraath infects clothing.
Part of the cleansing ritual involved washing the clothing and isolating it for 7 days. If the infection had spread during that time, the clothing had to be burned.
However, Leviticus 14:1-9 describes an alternative ritual if the clothing infection did not spread. This ritual involved taking two live clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop to make a sacrifice for atonement.
Verse 4 also specifies that the person being cleansed must tie one of the live birds with the cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop, and dip them into the blood of the bird that was killed. Then the living bird was set free.
Verse 5 clarifies that this cleansing ritual was required for tzaraath infections involving clothing or houses. Some scholars believe the cedar wood and scarlet yarn were intended to resemble a worm or mite since these insects were destroyers of garments.
Isaiah 1 has God chastising the children of Israel for their rebellion and sin. In verse 18, God says:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
Here, the mention of “crimson” may be translated as “worm” or “mite,” which would be references to the insect that destroys wool and clothing.
In Matthew 23, Jesus calls out the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. In verses 23-24, Christ says:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides!
You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
The mention of “straining out a gnat” refers to the Pharisees’ focus on following the smallest, most minor points of the law while neglecting more important matters. Some scholars believe the gnat here is a reference to small parasites like mites which would have been strained from liquids.
Destruction by Moths
Moths are insects that can destroy clothing and fabrics. There are a few biblical references to moths which may relate to the destructive nature of mites and other small insects.
Job 4:19 refers to mankind as “those who live in houses of clay, whose foundations are in the dust, who are crushed more readily than a moth.” This seems to imply the fragile, temporary nature of human life.
Job 27:18 says hypocrites’ houses “are as fragile as a moth’s cocoon, as flimsy as a temporary shack.” The moth cocoon demonstrates how the hypocrites’ apparent security will quickly be destroyed.
Isaiah 50:9 and 51:8 make similar metaphorical comparisons between the ease of destroying a garment moth larva’s cocoon and God’s ability to destroy evildoers who oppose Him and His people.
Finally, Matthew 6:19-21 encourages people not to store up earthly treasures that can be destroyed by moths, but instead to store up eternal treasures in heaven.
As one of the smallest coins in circulation at the time, the mite represented little monetary value. Yet Jesus upheld the tiny contribution of the widow’s mite as a shining example of generosity, faith and devotion.
This important monetary unit and the lessons associated with it remind us that giving is not about quantity, but about the spirit and motivation behind the gift. Though tiny in size, the mite carries enormous symbolic weight in the Gospels and highlights some of Jesus’ most vital teachings on true generosity and humility.