Judas betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver

Or, should he have insisted on gold?

Many Christian denominations celebrate Easter this weekend. In the world of money, one transaction in the Easter story stands out – the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas to reveal Jesus, a move which ended in the death of both of them, in the first instance at least. And as Judas either gave it back, or bought a fairly useless piece of land with it (depending on which passage you look at) and then killed himself, we might conclude that no, it was not worth it. But biblical detail aside, just how valuable was that transaction?

There are many sites on the internet which attempt to put a modern day value on 30 pieces of silver. In terms of the value of the metal alone, we are probably talking about several hundred pounds/dollars/euros, depending on the (presumed) coins and their purity. In terms of how much spending power that money would have had, estimates suggest a figure in the thousands rather than the hundreds, although as those estimates are based on typical manual labour wages in “western” countries, the value would feel much higher to someone in a lower paid part of the world.

It is becoming a running theme already on this site that the value of any asset can only be expressed relative to that of another asset or in terms of ones specific needs. So let’s look at the relative value of silver to gold. Using two Roman coins, the aureus and the denarius, we know that the aureus (gold) is 25 denarii (silver). We also know the aureus contained about 8 grammes of gold (before emperors started to devalue it) and the denarius contained about 3.8 grammes of silver. That gives us a value of gold/silver of around 12.

In mediaeval Europe, the ratio of the price of gold to silver was around 14 to 15. As with Roman coinage, this ratio was largely set by the rulers, who probably owned most of it anyway. There was no open market. Doubtless in other parts of the world, relative supply of each metal would have meant a different ratio.

Today, many sites will show you the current ratio of gold to silver prices, both of which trade on the open market. In the last 40 years, the ratio has mostly been between 30 and 90, and currently stands at about 71. So whilst in Judas’ short lifetime there would have been no difference to receiving the equivalent amount of gold to his 30 pieces of silver, those pieces today would buy much less gold than they did then.

A ratio which hardly changed for centuries and which now fluctuates between a 30 and 90 in a matter of years suggests that if we were to be offered silver or gold, unlike Judas we perhaps should think very carefully which one to take. Anyone believing that the ratio is necessarily bound by those ranges might think that the current 71 values gold a bit too high and silver is the better bet of the two, perhaps converting to gold when the ratio drops closer to 30. However there is nothing to say that the ratio should be anything in particular, and certainly there is nothing fundamental driving the ratio to revert to the historic 15 or so as some sites suggest.

The real world of silver and gold has vastly changed since Roman times. Silver has many industrial uses and something like 25% of the world’s silver has been mined in the last 50 years. Gold on the other hand is not so easily extracted, and mostly stays accounted for rather than consumed by industry. One thing neither metal is used for these days is coinage.

I wish anyone trading gold and silver luck, because the markets never cease to amaze. For metals with little day-to-day use, it’s hard for us to see why they have more value than a useful metal like iron or aluminium. But they do. In terms of whether a human life is worth 30 pieces of silver, or its modern equivalent, is even more interesting and will likely be the subject of a future post.

If we were to unearth Judas’ bounty today we would be reasonably happy. But we would be happier still if he had instead taken payment in gold.

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