A number of parables in the Jesus tradition appear to draw on the everyday details of ancient economic life. However, I consider a case for which there are no realistic comparanda: the so-called Parable of the Entrusted Money. The story is significant, I argue, precisely for the economic unreality it portrays. What is more, the Entrusted Money gives access to the kind of economic knowledge that informed it and other parables, particularly those found in the gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke as well as in their common source Q.
The economic knowledge I refer to concerns the many monetary amounts, sums, and values that characterize parabolic thinking in these gospels. Indeed, along with the Entrusted Money are, among others, parables about a woman who loses one Greek drachma out of a store of ten (Q/Lk 15.8-10), a creditor who forgives debts of five-hundred and fifty Roman denarii (Lk 7.41-3), and a vineyard owner who pays hired labourers a wage of one denarius for a day’s work (Mt 20.1-16). From a numismatic point of view we might conclude the parables in Q, Matthew, and Luke simply reflect patterns of coin use in Rome’s eastern provinces, where both Greek and Roman denominations circulated. Yet I suggest the parables display an understanding of the provincial monetary system that is more technical, abstract, and imaginative than we have previously recognized.
The Entrusted Money neatly illustrates this point. Surviving in various renditions in Q (19.12-13, 15-24, 26), Matthew (25.14-30), and Luke (19.12-27), the parable tells the story of a wealthy kurios who gives a group of slaves money to do business with while he departs on a journey. When the master returns, he asks each slave for an accounting. Two “trustworthy”/“faithful” slaves are rewarded for turning a substantial profit. A third, who failed to generate any income, is made to forfeit his money to the slave who had achieved the highest return. Significantly, every amount is enumerated, either in talents (as in Matthew) or minai (as in Q and Luke). What is the nature and purpose of such detail?
The answer to that question lies in the specified currencies. Originally ancient weight measures, the talent and mina were not individual coins but examples of what Serafina Cuomo calls “‘symbolic’ accountant money,” metrological units that were abstractions of concrete denominations. As symbolic monetary instruments associated with abstract accounting, the talent and mina were suited for calculating large investments, including lucrative commercial shipments of the sort recorded in the famous Muziris papyrus (PVindob G 40822 verso). Used throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, the talent was equivalent to six thousand drachmai/denarii, the mina to one hundred drachmai/denarii.
It stands to reason that a parable that trades in the language of talents and minai trades in practices of accounting and calculation. That is, the parable assumes an audience that possesses the ability to quantify, reckon, and make monetary conversions. I would even go so far as to say it is virtually unintelligible without such skills. For it is only when one determines the precise value of a talent or a mina, and begins to crunch the numbers in the abstract way those units require, that the magnitude of the sums entrusted to the slaves, and the rates of return achieved by the two trustworthy slaves, becomes clear. In other words, each version of the parable demands on the part of the reader/hearer knowledge of specific economic information as well as a certain level of numeracy. Since this can easily be lost on a modern audience, I lay it out below in a series of questions and answers:
Q: How many drachmai/denarii make up one mina? A: 100
Q: What is the rate of return if one mina makes ten minai more? A: 1000%
Q: What is the rate of return if one mina makes five minai more? A: 500%
Q: How many drachmai/denarii make up one talent? A: 6,000
Q: What is the rate of return if five talents make five talents more? A: 100%
Q: What is the rate of return if two talents make two talents more? A: 100%
A sense of the numbers is crucial, I maintain, since it raises an issue that is rarely pursued, namely, the parable’s utter lack of realism. And this appears to be the case for the earliest possible reconstruction of the parable, such as the one proposed for Q. Regarding the version in Q, which aligns with Luke in terms of the currency (minai) and rates of return (1000% and 500%), John Kloppenborg has remarked that there is “an air of unreality about the entire story.” As Kloppenborg explains, “[t]en-fold or five-fold increases … were conceivable in the first century only for persons who were prepared to make extremely high-risk maritime loans or who could demand high interest because of their political position – for example, Brutus’ loan to the city of Salamis which bore 48% interest– , or who could amass wealth through extortion or confiscation.”
However, while I agree with this general assessment, it also understates the matter. It is not that incomes in the staggering range of 1000% or 500% from one mina were attainable only in exceptional circumstances, such as through maritime trade, illegal rates of interest, or extortion (and let it be noted the parable does not indicate how the slaves made their profits). Rather, I contend the rates of return in Q were so uncommon as to be simply impossible. Furthermore, it is the very impossibility of the scenario that is the ultimate point: the profits are noteworthy precisely because they were not a normal, everyday occurrence. We are therefore confronted with a story based on amounts that, once calculated, would have rightly struck a literate and numerate audience as far-fetched. What are we to make of this?
Above all it suggests we are dealing with a story that intended to portray a fantastic economic scenario. This point gains further support from the numbers reported in Matthew. Where the slaves in Q/Luke make extraordinary returns of 1000% and 500% from one mina (that is, 1000 and 500 drachmai/denarii from 100), the parable in Matthew imagines earnings of 100% from five and two talents (that is, 30,000 and 12,000 drachmai/denarii from 30,000 and 12,000). In these details we catch a glimpse of a gospel writer performing their own metrological conversions and calculations: Matthew, it appears, reduced the rates of return in Q/Luke but also changed the currency to the much grander talent, a unit favoured elsewhere in the gospel in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (18.24). By playing with the figures in this way, Matthew further underscores the scenario’s utter impossibility.
Like so many of the parables, the Entrusted Money lent itself to various allegorical readings. Luke, for example, transformed it into a political tale on kingship by framing it within a separate narrative, the so-called parable of the throne claimant (19.12, 14, 27). For Matthew, as Jennifer Glancy has shown, the story is an illustration of divine judgment, here enacted on the body of the third slave, who in this version alone endures physical punishment for failing to make a profit (25.30). Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that business and accounting remain the dominant frames of reference. Even so, it is my contention that the parable does not depict a realistic economic situation. Similar to parabolic images of extraordinary agricultural growth, the Entrusted Money instead imagines the most incredible monetary yields, which, I stress, were to be recognized as such. Indeed, a parable of this sort could only have been directed at those with the appropriate knowledge of what was economically (im)possible.
Michelle Christian is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto.
 S. Cuomo, “Measures for an emperor: Volusius Maecianus’ monetary pamphlet for Marcus Aurelius,” in J. König and T. Whitmarsh (eds.), Ordering Knowledge in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 222.
 J.S. Kloppenborg, “Jesus and the Parables of Jesus in Q,” reissued in Synoptic Problems: Collected Essays (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 528-30.
 J. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 112-22.