We find the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. In both passages (which are nearly identical), Jesus makes the point that the widow’s gift to the Temple treasury was very costly to her, because it represented everything she had. But the challenge for the translator is to determine how best to translate the technical terms for the coins she dropped into the box.
The Greek text in Mark 12:42 says that she dropped in “two lepta, which is a kodrantes.” So if we simply translate it that way in English, everything is clear, right? Sure, if the reader has an intuitive sense of the value of two lepta! And Mark even gives us a clue by telling us that two lepta (Jewish coins) are equal to a kodrantes (a Roman coin). But most of us would still have to reach for a Bible dictionary to make sense of those terms. So translators have resorted to numerous solutions.
KJV: two mites, which make a farthing
RSV: two copper coins, which make a penny
NASB: two small copper coins, which amount to a cent (with a footnote)
NIV: two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny (with a footnote)
ESV: two small copper coins, which make a penny (with a footnote)
HCSB: two tiny coins worth very little (with a footnote)
NLT: two small coins (with a footnote)
Which translation is correct? I would argue that the KJV, RSV, NASB, NIV, and ESV communicate the wrong message. After all, a penny has very little value in our current economy. But in the first century, a kodrantes was equal to 1/64 of a denarius, and a denarius was considered fair pay for a day’s wage. If today’s wage for a laborer in the USA is $15 per hour, that comes to $120 for an 8-hour day. At this rate, 1/64 of a day’s wage is $1.88. Round it up to $2.00, and we could say that the widow dropped two dollar-coins into the collection box. That feels very different from “two coins worth only a fraction of a penny.”
It’s for that reason that the NLT simply says “two small coins” [footnote: Greek two lepta, which is a kodrantes (i.e., a quadrans)]. After all, the point of Jesus’ teaching was that the widow gave everything she had. And if her two small coins were worth a couple of dollars in our economy, let’s not give the impression that she had only two pennies.