When Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ 12 closest followers, goes to the chief priests and asks, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver.” (Matt 26:15) Saying I will give you X pieces of silver for something seems such an odd way to express it’s worth, especially the value of a life. Yet that’s the phraseology the priests used and the number they gave.
The Greek word used in Matthew 26:15 is argyria, meaning “silver coins.” So, thirty silver coins was the value of that life, the price of betrayal. In 33 A.D., the Tyrian shekel was the coin that contained the highest silver content – about 94% pure – which translates to 14 grams of silver per coin. Since these coins were the most pure, they were also most likely the only coins accepted for the required temple tax, which is where the priests procured the 30 coins. At today’s spot price for silver of $0.48 per gram, they’d be worth $201.60. And, while it’s interesting to note what the coins are worth today, it’s more complicated and far more nuanced than simply saying, “Judas betrayed Jesus for 200 bucks.”
So, the priests paid Judas with silver coins, but how did they arrive at that sum, and why was it phrased as “30 pieces of silver?” Surprisingly enough, it’s scriptural. It’is a reference to Mosaic Law as it relates to the disablement/death of a slave in Exodus 21:32, which reads:
“If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull is to be stoned to death.”
Matthew’s choice of the phrasing is also intriguing, because it is an allusion to the prophet Zechariah as well. After he [Zechariah] had done all that God had asked him to do as a “shepherd” among the Israelites, in Zechariah 11:12-13, it states:
Then I said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” So they weighed my wages, thirty pieces of silver. “Throw it to the potter,” the Lord said to me—this magnificent price at which I was valued by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw it into the house of the Lord, to the potter.
Thirty pieces of silver, that’s what the sons of Israel reckoned were Zechariah’s “wages” for shepherding the flock as the Lord had commanded. As if he were no more than a slave that was rendered useless by a bull. As if God’s word was useless. It was meant to be an insult; they didn’t value his prophecy, or what God had to say. So, God told him [Zechariah] to throw the coins back to them. Isn’t it revealing that God tells Zechariah to “throw it back to the potter?” He is prophesying that the “wages” will be thrown back to the temple, they will go to the “potter,” and that’s exactly what happened. In Matthew 27:3-5, 9-10, we read:
Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to that yourself!” And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; he went away and hanged himself…Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set by the sons of Israel , and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
By using the same phrase, Matthew not only ties the price of a slave’s life to Jesus’ betrayal, but also to Zechariah’s prophecy about him. In context, thirty pieces of silver was more than simply the price of betrayal. It was in fact nothing, not to the priests, nor to Zechariah, but to God it was the price of contempt.