Bible trivia time for hard-working religion scribes: What is a cubit? A shekel? An ephah?

GetReligion | 1/6/2020 | Richard Ostling
moricamorica (Posted by) Level 3
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THE QUESTION:

Bible trivia: How long is a cubit? What does a shekel weigh? How much does an ephah contain?

GUY - ANSWER

THE GUY’S ANSWER:

Readers of the Bible, particularly those wedded to the revered King James Version from four centuries ago, will keep running across esoteric words for weights and measures in ancient times. Many editions today help out by providing modern equivalents in the text or footnotes.

Equivalents - Specialist - Marvin - Powell - Advice

But don’t take those equivalents too literally. Specialist Marvin Powell’s advice is that “measures have always posed a special problem for translators.” He said it’s “almost impossible” to fix equivalents with much precision so we’re talking about rules of thumb — literally the thumb in one example below.

Ancient usage was approximate to begin with, and meanings varied by districts and eras. There appear to be differences before and after Israel’s exile in Babylon that began in 526 B.C., and between the Old and New Testament cultures. Powell figured that any proposed equivalents have a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent if not more.

Development - Metrology - Science - Measurement - Guy

This gets us into the development of metrology, the science of measurement. The Guy here relies especially on two historians of the ancient world, Powell of Northern Illinois University, writing in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and D.J. Wiseman of the University of London, in the New Bible Dictionary.

Consider the Old Testament prophet Amos, who denounced corner-cutters who “trample on the needy” by dishonestly selling wheat so as to “make the ephah small and the shekel great” (8:5). That indicates measurements were inherently a bit flexible as tradesmen bargained over weights and prices in their ancient marketplaces.

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