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Biblical units of measure

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Biblical units of measure are those named units that the Bible uses to state certain measures of length, volume, and weight.[1][2]

Contents

History

Standards of ancient Hebrew units of measure have never been found. The Bible speaks repeatedly for "just" weights and measures.[3] Other Bible passages suggest that unjust weights and measures were prevalent.[4] As if to underscore this point, archaeologists have recovered merchants' weights that someone has lightened by chiseling the bottom.[1]

To add to the confusion, the ancient Hebrew texts contain terms that the translators of the King James Version rendered in modern terms when they had no warrant for supposing these to be exact equivalents. For example, the Hebrew term translated "inch" is actually a thumb's breadth, while the English inch (and the US Customary inch) are the length of three barley corns laid end-to-end.[2]

The situation with Roman units is only slightly less confused. Roman weights and measures were the purview of the curule aediles,[5] and the standard Roman prototypes were housed in the Temple of Castor and Pollux. But how "standard" these prototypes were is an open question.

Thus while one can construct a table of various portions of length, weight, and dry and liquid volume in relation to one another, one can achieve only a rough conversion into modern (that is, US Customary or SI) units.

Measured quantities

Length

The ancient Hebrew standard measure of length was the cubit, defined, roughly, as the length of a man's arm from the elbow to the outstretched middle finger. Other Hebrew lengths, all denoted in terms of the cubit, were:[2][1]

Name Number/fraction of cubit(s)
Cubit 1
Zereith, large span 1/2
Small span 1/3
Palm, hand's breadth 1/6
"Inch", thumb's breadth 1/18
Orguia, fathom 4
Reed, Ezekiel canna, kalamos 6
Pole (Arab canna) 8
Chain, line, Schoenus 80
Stadion, stadium, furlong 400
Sabbath day's journey 2000
Milion, mille passus (Rome) 3200
Judean mile 4000
Parasang 12,000

Matheney gives the length of a Hebrew cubit as 18 US Customary inches.[1] Whiston, however, insists that a cubit was actually 18 Hebrew thumb's breadths, and therefore the Hebrew cubit measured 21 British inches.[2][6]

Dry Volume

The ancient standard of dry measure was the ephah. One ephah was that amount of dry goods that could fit in an average basket. (In Hebrew, ephah stands for "basket".) Other dry measures, listed in relation to the ephah, were:[2][1]

Name Number/fraction of ephah(s)
Ephah 1
Seah, saton 1/3
Omer, issaron[7][1] 1/10
Kab, choinix 1/18
Xestes 1/36
Modios/modius 2/5
Letek 5
Chomer, homer, kor 10

One ephah was the rough equivalent of 3/5 of a bushel, or about 22 metric cubic decimeters (about 0.022 cubic meter).[1]

Liquid Volume

The standard of liquid measure was the bath, which was that volume of water that corresponded roughly to an ephah of dry goods. Other units of liquid measure, stated in relation to the bath, were:[2][1]

Name Number/fraction of bath(s)
Bath 1
Hin 1/6
Xestes 1/48
Log 1/72
Metretes, firkin 5/3

The bath was roughly equivalent to 22 metric liters.[1] This is based on the most common figure given for the brass "sea" in the Temple of Jerusalem, which measured 2,000 baths according to its description in II_Kings.[2]

Weight

The ancient unit of weight was the shekel, or tekel in ancient Farsi.[8] The original definition of a shekel is difficult to discern. Evidently three different shekels were current in ancient Israel.[1] The most commonly used shekels probably weighed about 10 to 12 metric grams, or about 1/3 to 2/5 ounce.

Common weights, given in proportion to the shekel, were:[2][1]

Name Number/fraction of shekel(s)
Shekel 1
Bekah 1/2
Gerah 1/20
Pim 2/3
Litra 30
Mina 50
Talent[9] 3000

References

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 M. Pierce Matheney, "Entry on Weights and Measures," in The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, eds., Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003 (ISBN 0805428364), pp. 1665-1669
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 William Whiston, "Jewish Weights and Measures", The Works of Josephus (unabridged), William Whiston, trans., Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987 (ISBN 0913573868), pp. 887-890.
  3. Leviticus 19:36 , Proverbs 16:11 , Ezekiel 45:10
  4. Proverbs 11:1 , Proverbs 20:23 , Hosea 12:7
  5. These magistrates also enforced Rome's building codes; hence their title, from the Latin aedes a building.
  6. Note that Whiston's attempted conversions date from 1737, the date during which he wrote his works.
  7. Defined as a daily food ration
  8. Daniel 5:25
  9. The weight that an average man could carry on his back.
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