price and history

When you reading about history, and someone mentions a particular amount of money, how can you understand what that amount means?

Mark Bernstein writes about Price and History, suggesting that an amount of money in one historical period can’t just be scaled by inflation to make sense of it in another era – there are other considerations. He proposes that this would be a great project for someone to turn into a website.

I encountered this trouble when reading a commentary on Revelation written in 1904; the author had converted the amount of money that the city of Sardis had taken from the Romans in the first century – to rebuild the entire city after an earthquake – into 1904 pounds sterling. How do I begin to understand how much money that is? How much would it cost to rebuild a city in the era of Roman slavery, compared to the relative advances in rebuilding that we have, but higher labour costs? It boggles the mind.

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2 Comments

  1. Very interesting point. Actually I fully agree that inflation doesn’t help much when talking about money in different periods. But I wouldn’t focus on labor costs, but technology. It’s not really important that the Romans had slaves – no amount of money would have equaled the comfort and luxury any ordinary person in the developed world enjoys today. What are 40 slaves good for if you are dying of TB?

    I’d also like to note that those 1904 pounds might reflect the losses caused by the fact that the slaves were occupied with rebuilding the city instead of doing what they were normally assigned to.

  2. The International Bible Background Commentary does a good job with this. In general terms, figure that a silver shekel (OT) was roughly the size of an American quarter (or an Australian 20-cent piece); it represented roughly one month’s wages for a working man.

    A denarius (NT), on the other hand, represented roughly one days’ wages for a working man . . . and any good Bible dictionary will tell you how many denarii in a talent, etc.

    Hope this helps!

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