Post-382: Thirty Pieces of Silver

We use the phrase “thirty pieces of silver” metaphorically in a variety of contexts. I used it today. It is a reference to the betrayal of Jesus by his apostle Judas for which he was paid that sum of pieces of silver.

I got to wondering how much thirty pieces of silver, ca. AD 33 in the Roman province of Palestine, would be worth in our terms, today; what is a reasonable US-dollar figure to attach to it? I spent some time on this and would propose $10,000 (see below).

From a version of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper; Jesus has told the twelve apostles that one of them has betrayed him. Most are in one or another state of shock or anger. Peter, angry, leans over Judas’ shoulder. Judas, slouched over and looking worried, clutches a bag with unknown contents but about large enough to hold 30 pieces of silver.

$10,000 is no small sum but (the point is) still not “worth the price.” As such, one use of “thirty pieces of silver” in everyday speech might be a decision made against principles, one made going with the flow or based entirely on money, or some combination of those two things, but one which you will come (or have come already) to regret.

(No wonder Da Vinci painted Judas sheepishly slouching over.)

As to deriving the value of 30 pieces of silver for the early 2020s AD in the USA.

Somebody calling himself Mark Harrison, on the question-and-answer website Quora, helpfully cites the fact that a silver piece was used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to one day’s wages.

If we peg one work-day at eight work-hours in our terms, this means the thirty pieces of silver were worth 240 work-hours. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2018 and 2019, the average compensation in the US for a private industry worker is (the surprisingly high figure of) $35/hour ($24.50 in wages, $10.50 in benefits), making an eight-hour day’s compensation equal to $280, for the median private-industry worker. Thirty of these equals $8,400.

This is a national figure, including low-cost rural areas. The same calculation will be easily over $10,000 in many of the metropolitan areas; the Bureau of Labor Statistics also has the average wage for private employees in the Washington DC metro area now at $37/hour, 1.5x the national average wage-rate; holding benefits stable, the “thirty pieces of silver” = $11,400 for a Washington-DC-area worker. I think we can usefully peg the value to “approximately $10,000” and be done with it.

Ten thousand does seem like a lot, as a cash-in-hand, lump sum. Still too little to betray a cause you truly believe in, but enough to tempt down-and-out marginals.


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