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

Updated: Apr 24

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:


The costs of items in the Roman market are highly regulated, and to go against the prescribed cost is a death sentence. These prices listed on this website are not the same as what you will find in first-century Judea, but we can extrapolate the value placed on trades/items. In this chart from 301 AD, a general laborer made 25 denarii a day, and a skilled mason or carpenter made 50 denarii.


So if we convert this to 1 denarius a day and 2 denarii a day this is what we get:


General laborer/Farmhand/Shepherd = 1/day

Skilled mason or carpenter = 2/day

Scribe using his best writing had to write 200 lines to make 2/day

Scribe writing 5 petitions or contracts = 2/day

A fuller (wool-weaver) makes 3 1/2 per cloak

A brickmaker had to make 50 bricks, including preparing the clay and firing it to make 1/day. (If they were sun-dried bricks, it would take 100 to make 1/day.)

A basic teacher made 2/per month, per student. The wages went up to 10/per month per student for a teacher that could teach public speaking.


(For more professions and their wages, check out the website!)


How much did it cost to buy food and clothes?


Many professions, such as a shepherd, a farmhand, or a teacher, were supplied with food and a place to sleep, which helped make up for their lower wages. A teacher might have very little spending money but enjoy a good life in his patron's home. (8)


Using the same ratios that I used above from that chart from 301 AD, then converting food prices to match 1 denarius a day for simplicity, this is as estimation on the cost of food basics for a general laborer in Israel. You can expect to pay up to half a denarius a day just to feed yourself.


(You can half the cost of food for a skilled tradesman making 2 denarii a day):


For 1 modius (just under 34 cups) of:

Barley - just over 2 day's wages

Wheat – 4 day's wages

Lentils – 4 day's wages

Salt – 4 day's wages


(Note: A cup of barley today is about 650 calories a cup. If you're aiming for 2000 calories/day, you'd want to eat at about 2-3 cups a day, depending on what you're having with it, such as wine, vinegar, salt, olive oil, fruit, or honey. Barley alone will account for over 17% of your daily income.)


1 sextarius (about 2 1/3 cups) of:

Second Quality Wine – 1/2 day's wages (wine was almost always diluted with water)

Olive oil – almost 2 day's wages


A libra (just under 1 pound) of :

lamb, goat, or freshwater fish - 1/2 day's wages


A pair of sturdy shoes will cost a day laborer almost 5 days of work, while double-soled sandals cost about 2.5 days of work. A warm woolen tunic can cost you 3 days of work, and a cloak will be more than that.


Compare that to the cost of white silk, where one garment is worth 480 days of wages!


Side note: In the parable of the talents in Matthew, the one who owed ten thousand talents owed 60 million denarii! (1 talent = 240 aureus, and 1 aurei = 25 denarii.)


Sharing the Financial Load


On top of the costs for food and clothing, you need to make sure you budget for olive oil for lamps and washing, plus set money aside for taxes, house repairs, medicines, tools, animals or animal feed, travel to festivals, sacrifices, wedding feasts, and all the other little things that add up so quickly.


You can see why families work together to create income. A large family can not thrive on one denarius a day. Children working as apprentices can help their parents increase production and thus increase income. The more people bringing money into the house the easier life becomes. If you're not directly involved in the family trade, a woman can still supplement her family's income while at home by selling handicrafts and her weaving.


What do you think about the choices at the market? What would you miss most if you had to shop in this era? Let me know in the comments!


Make sure you subscribe to the blog to catch the next posts in this series!


Up Next! Learn about Purity, Sex, Childbirth, and STDs in the first-century!


Sources:

1. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 77

2. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson pages 83-85

3. Josephus, Against Apion, Book 1, verse 60

4. Backgrounds of Early Christianity bt Everett Ferguson page 86

5. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 83

6. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 90-93

7. Dictionary of New Testament Background pages 223-224

8. http://ancientcoinsforeducation.org/content/view/79/98

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