Wages, Food Prices, and Shopping for the Family in First-Century Israel

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Who managed the household income in the biblical era, the husband or the wife? What was available for purchase in a first-century Jewish market? What was a typical family income? How much could you buy based on your family's wages?

This is the sixth post in a series that details How to Live as a First-Century Woman in Israel. If you're not planning any time-travel excursions, these posts will still help you to understand women in the culture and context of the Bible. So far we've looked at the trades women might be involved in, how to manage a household and slaves, marriage and divorce, what to wear, hairstyles, and cosmetics, and how women worshipped in the days of Jesus.

Now we're going to look at wages, food prices, and shopping for the family!

Who manages the money?

Women in this era are trusted to be the guardians of the things in the house. (1) As a first-century wife, you can expect to be responsible for keeping order in the house and for managing the household's money. Spend it carefully, as your family's survival might depend on your shrewd purchases.

What is trade like in the first-century?

Mass production has not been invented yet, so there are no stores selling racks of identical items for a housewife to peruse. Even so, there are many things you can buy. You are not limited to what is produced in your own community. Roman-built roads are making travel easier than ever before. Israel is along important trade-routes, so you may routinely see caravans of camels coming through bearing goods from afar. Other items come in by ships crossing the Mediterranean. As you might expect, the larger the city, the larger the market, and the more selection you will have.

What can you expect in a first-century market?

Most of Mediterranean life is lived out of doors, and the markets follow that style. In Israel, markets are open Mondays and Thursdays. In a little farming community, a market might be as simple as a goods spread out under a canopy. However, in the larger cities, you can expect something much more exciting.

Built in the heart of town, a market is called an agora in Greek, or in Latin it is called a forum. Officials will make sure that sellers are using proper weights and measurements, so if you're worried you're being cheated by the man weighing your fish, check with them.

As a first-century woman in Israel, you may live in or near a Hellenistic (Greek-influenced) city. There the market is a large rectangle, with stone pillars supporting sheltered porches called a stoa, where vendors can set up their booths. The market might boast statutory, platforms for speeches, and you can find philosophical debates along with local gossip. The market, as a place where the whole community can hear public speeches, helps aid the spread of new ideas, including Christianity. (2)

What can you buy in a first-century market?

Products from the lands of Galilee, Judea, and the Jordan Valley are largely agricultural. (3) Depending on the time of year, you can buy olives, olive oil, wine, grain (wheat and barley), dates, figs, pomegranates, citrons, balsam, sheep and goats, fish, and occasionally cattle. Possibly you can find donkeys for sale in the market, as well as fowl like chickens, pigeons, pheasants, or quail. (4)

Revelations 18:11-13 mention these additional trade items: Gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen, purple and scarlet cloth, silk, citron wood and costly wood, ivory, marble, iron and bronze, cinnamon and other spices, incense, perfume, frankincense, horses and chariots, slaves and human lives, and a larger variety of fruit.

For dishware and storage you can also buy blown glass (blown glass production is a new invention around this era!), ceramics (cheaper if it's from Gaul, more costly if it's from Aventine), and pottery. (5)

We also know that people ate other foods, so it is possible they were available for purchase at the market, like honey from bees, date “honey”, bread (leavened and unleavened, cakes, sweetened), melons from Egypt, raisin or date cakes, lentils, beans, cucumbers, fresh greens, herbs, curds, vinegar, and almonds.

It is also likely that you can buy ready-made garments like coats and cloaks, tunics, belts and sashes, leather sandals and shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, aloes, hairnets, and combs.

Coins in first-century Israel

So now that you have an idea of what you might buy, you need to know if you can afford it!

Money can be confusing in this era, because you have Jewish, Roman, and Greek currency floating around, so trying to convert one to the other can be tricky. What follows is the most basic of overviews.

In Matthew 20:1-15, it says that a day laborer makes a denarius a day. A denarius (plural denarii) is a silver coin that has the head of Caesar on one side and the inscription: "Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus." These coins were used to pay taxes to Rome, and both the inscription and the image (Jews are forbidden from creating images of people) will constantly remind you that you are under the rule of Rome. A Roman denarius and a Greek drachma are roughly equivalent in value. (6)

A Jewish shekel is about 2 denarii in the biblical era, but you can also get a half-shekel or a quarter shekel. In 66-70 AD these coins were minted in Jerusalem with a chalice on one side and a pomegranate on the other and the inscription “Jerusalem the Holy”. You will also come across bronze coins with images of palms, grapevines, pomegranates, or a chalice. (7)

You might also get your hands on Jewish coins minted before the first century during the reign of the Hasmoneans (also known as the Maccabees). These coins are made of bronze, while silver coins were still being minted in Tyre and Sidon. Herod the Great and his successors also minted bronze coins with Greek inscriptions. The Roman governors sometimes minted bronze coins equivalent of the quadran, which were worth two of the smallest Greek coin, the tiny bronze lepton, which is most famous as the “widows mite”. (7)

Ok, but what can you get with a denarius a day?

A denarius in the days of Augustus up to Nero was worth about 1/84 of a Roman pound. The value of a denarius continued to fall after that. I was able to find a table with wages and costs of food in Rome in 301 AD at this website: </