“And the brass of the offering was seventy talents, and two thousand and four hundred shekels” (Exodus 38:29 (AV). This biblical verse illustrates the use of two units of weight – the talent and the shekel – common in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Babylonia, Israel, Greece, and Rome. Archeologists estimate that the Babylonian talent was about 66 pounds, the Greek (Attic) talent was about 58 pounds and the Hebrew talent was over 90 pounds.
In Greek and Latin the word was also used for a sum of money (a Greek talanton was equivalent to 6,000 drachmas). The Evangelist Matthew illustrates this usage in relating the “parable of talents”, in which a master gives to one of his servants five talents, to another, two talents, and to a third, one talent. In time the master asked each of them what he had done with the talents. The first two servants had doubled their talents, and the master was pleased. The third servant, being afraid to lose it, hid his one talent in the earth. This made the master very angry, and he took back the only talent and gave it to the servant who had ten.
Critical interpretations of the text have seen this monetary sense of talent being used metaphorically as a God-given endowment which, if not used, would be lost. In English this metaphorical sense dates from the fifteenth century. In the 17th century this “endowment” sense gave rise to its extended use for “mental ability or aptitude”. In his poem “Mad Mullinix and Timothy” (1728), Jonathan Swift gives us an example: “When first in public we appear,/ I’ll lead the Van, keep you the Rear./ Be careful, as you walk behind,/ Use all the Talents of your mind.”