James chapter 2 begins with a warning against showing favoritism in the church. James starts with a hypothetical scenario where “a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes” (James 2:2). Today, it seems that nearly everyone in North America wears a gold ring. It is commonly used to signify that a person is engaged or married, but the modern use of gold rings goes far beyond that as well. So what was James getting at when he described a person who wears a gold ring?
The word James used, chrusodaktulios (Gk. χρυσοδακτύλιος) is a compound word composed of the word for “gold” (chrusion, χρυσίον) and the word for “finger” (daktulos, δάκτυλος), indicating an item of gold worn on the finger. A modern reader might conclude that this description probably excluded slaves, since they wouldn’t have been able to afford gold jewelry, and that would be true. However, in the 1st century, the scenario presented by James would have described a much wider social and economic divide than we might imagine. Roman law actually dictated who could or could not wear a gold ring.
The Romans had a thing about kings. Early in their history they had been ruled by kings, and they acquired a great distaste for monarchy. The ideals of the Roman republic frowned on ostentatious displays of wealth to begin with, but crowns (a topic for another day) and gold rings in particular represented wealth and prestige, and were reserved for particular classes of people or special occasions, such as a triumph or a religious ceremony. As early as the 4th century BC, Roman law only allowed nobles who held the curule office (and their descendants) to wear a gold ring (two men were elected to curule aedileship each year; it was the highest office in the land at the time). Over time, however, this rule was slowly relaxed, and by the late 2nd century AD, any soldier was allowed to wear a gold ring. This begs the question of who was allowed to wear a gold ring in the 1st century AD, when James was writing.
A new relaxation of the existing rules came about in the days of the emperor Tiberius (ruled AD 14-37), shortly before James wrote his book. According to the new rule, any 3rd generation freeborn person was allowed to wear the gold ring, if they also owned 400,000 sesterces. A sestertius was a quarter of a denarius, so this would have equaled 100,000 denarii. In the 1st century AD, a common soldier or unskilled laborer was paid about a denarius per day (cf. Matt 20:1-14). A centurion, by comparison, would earn about 10 denarii per day. All of that to say, 100,000 denarii was a fortune that very few enjoyed. This means that James was portraying a sharp contrast between social classes when he referred to a person in the 1st century who might attend a Christian meeting wearing a gold finger-ring. Such a person would have represented the very upper crust of society.
Pliny the Elder was a Roman author and historian who lived at the same time as James. He observed that even Roman senators did not usually wear a golden ring, but that those who were on official state business would wear wear it in public. However, even they, according to Pliny, would switch to an iron ring in private. Such rules were not scrupulously followed by everyone, and the ancient writers criticize those who don’t, but it seems that such rules were generally followed. It becomes clear, then, that James is warning against showing deference in the church to even those of the highest social status. Today we might compare such a person to a state governor, a very high political representative, or a wealthy business owner. Even the most extreme social/cultural disparity is not to be recognized in the church.
Gold rings were not restricted to men in 1st century Roman culture, but it may be presumed that their use by women fell under the same restrictions as were in place for men.
Fresco of a woman with a gold intaglio ring, from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, 1st century AD; photo by Wolfgang Reiger, Wikimedia Commons.
As noted above, an alternative to the gold ring was iron, which was considered to be more modest. Iron rings were not necessarily plain or unadorned, as illustrated by the ring below. Silver was also sometimes used for finger rings.
Iron ring with gold emblem showing Julius Caesar, Roman, 44–31 BC; photo by Todd Bolen, bibleplaces.com.
Finally, a bonus tidbit. Some Roman finger rings included inset gems, often beautifully carved intaglios made of precious or semi-precious stone. Ancient historians tell that some wealthy Romans were fond of collecting these, whether in their original setting or simply as the stone itself. Pliny the Elder identifies two of the better-known collectors of such antique rings as Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. He also indicates that some of these valuable collections were eventually donated to Roman temples, much like a modern collector who bequeaths their collection to a museum.
Gold rings and earrings, some with missing gem stones; photo by Todd Bolen, bibleplaces.com.
A tremendous resource that I leaned on for this information was the chapter “Jewelry as a Symbol of Status in the Roman Empire,” by Ann M. Stout, pp. 77-100 in The World of Roman Costume, ed. Judith Sebesta and Larissa Bonfante, Racine, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.