Taxing Times

The economic history of the Jews in Palestine in late antiquity

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The Hellenistic Period (300-63 BCE)

A primary source for economic history in this period is the Zenon papyri, named for Zenon, an agent of the Ptolemies who ruled Palestine during the third century BCE. These papyri reveal that the Ptolemies treated Palestine like any other Egyptian economic district. Palestine exported some important commodities, including high quality wheat, wine, and oil to Egypt, and trade was generally by sea. Gaza became a major trade center for incense from Arabia and unguents from Egypt.

Other papyri note the extent of Egyptian taxation, including a bounty of one third of any confiscated goods given to someone who turns in a tax cheat. This tax system probably remained intact when the Seleucid Antiochus III (the Great) conquered Israel from the Ptolemies.

During Hasmonean times (165-63 BCE), taxation decreased. On one hand, the Hasmoneans continued to support a standing army. On the other hand, land conquests by the Hasmoneans in Transjordan and the coastal plain increased revenues and led to general prosperity. Jewish control of the coastal ports also increased trade. As 1 Maccabees reports, during the reign of Simon, "They tilled their land in peace, the ground gave its increase…Each man sat under his vine and fig tree" (1 Maccabees 14: 8.12).

From the Roman Conquest to the Destruction of the Temple (63 BCE-70 CE)

With Pompey's conquest of the east came the taxation needed to support the Roman military machine. (Josephus reports that Julius Caesar apparently reduced it to a 20% annual rate in 48 BCE.)

In addition to the heavy taxes, Pompey restored the independence of the Greek cities. Jews who had been given control of these appropriated lands by the Hasmoneans were now turned off the lands or remained as tenants or farm laborers. Later, Crassus stole 2000 silver talents and all of the Temple gold in order to finance his failed war in Parthia. Cassius (who organized the assassination of Caesar) imposed a 700-talent tribute to finance his war against Antony.

Herod brought an extended period of peace as well as the resettlement of the lands that had been taken by the Hasmoneans. During the decade after 30 BCE, Herod's domain grew, absorbing the coastal cities and the Golan in the north. Herod was known to tax heavily, but much of the income was turned back into the economy, through new settlements and Herod's massive building program. When building on the Temple was completed and there was a glut of labor, the workers were apparently diverted to other public works, including the paving of the streets of Jerusalem (Antiquities, 20:219-222).

Of greater significance may have been Herod's continuation of the Roman model of taxation that employed professional tax collectors rather than using the aristocracy that had been empowered to collect taxes under the Seleucids and Hasmoneans. This disempowerment of the aristocracy probably led to a great deal of resentment of Herod.

When direct Roman rule was reasserted in the year 6 CE, taxation increased. The Roman historian Tacitus noted how "exhausted" Palestine and Syria were from the long years of taxation under the emperor Tiberius. Most taxes under the Romans were based on a poll tax, a tax on property, and a tax on agricultural produce. Associations of tax farmers bid on the right to collect the taxes; they kept whatever they could extract beyond what they needed to meet their bid.

Palestine during this period was marked by a tremendous gap in wealth. This was exacerbated by the high rates of indebtedness of the poor to the rich. The resulting economic tensions contributed to the civil unrest that took place in the context of the Great Revolt against Rome (66-70 CE) one of the first events of the war was the burning of the debt records (Jewish War 2:427).

After the First Jewish War (70-220 CE)

As a result of the Great Revolt and the siege of Jerusalem, Judea was impoverished. The emperor Vespasian appropriated much of the land, and many Jews became tenant farmers and hired laborers. With the destruction of the Temple, the Romans transformed the contributions to the Temple into the fiscus Judaicus (Jewish tax) levied on all Jews--men, women, children, and slaves. Much of Palestine was reduced to a subsistence-level economy.

The situation in Galilee, however, may have been quite different. With the exception of Jotapata, most of then northern towns surrendered rather quickly and were spared major disruption. Certainly there seems to have been a period of general peace and restoration in the Galilee until the outbreak of the Second Revolt (the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 132-135) under the emperor Hadrian. The Mishnah certainly gives the impression of a fairly broad class of small landholders, and even after 135 CE, this does not seem to have changed.

From the Publication of the Mishnah to the Byzantine Period (220-600 CE)

Jewish relations with Rome reached a high point during the patriarchate of Rabbi Judah. When the emperor Alexander Severus died (235 C.E.), the empire fell into economic and political chaos. Inflation debased the currency, and new forms of taxation were instituted, including forced labor, billeting soldiers, and providing supplies for the army.

Heavy taxation and inflation led to areas of economic collapse; rabbinic literature attests to the widespread phenomenon of land-abandonment in order to avoid taxation. This had two significant results: displaced rural farmers moved into cities like Sepphoris and Tiberias, and wealthy individuals began to purchase large tracts of land from people fleeing the countryside.

Toward the end of the third century and during the first half of the fourth century, the economy of the land of Israel expanded. Hundreds of new settlements were established during this period. Similar expansion occurred in many cities on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, including Antioch, Sardis, Tarsus and Corinth.

By the mid-fourth century, however, many of the urban and rural settlements, especially in the Galilee, began to decline, probably as a result of the impact of the dramatic expansion of settlement in the previous century. The drop in numismatic finds reflects a significant drop in commercial life. This economic decline continued through the fifth century.

During the fourth and fifth centuries, more of the land became held by large estate-owners who lived in the cities and whose lands were farmed by shareholders. This system of estates replaced the many rural villages with patrician villas; economic resources flowed out of the rural countryside and into the cities.

Evidence and Economics

The nature of the evidence for economic history requires careful consideration; it is far too easy to draw incorrect conclusions based on limited evidence. For example, some scholars have seen the larger number of synagogues built during the sixth century as evidence of an improved economy. Indeed, for synagogues to be built, some excess resources were needed. But many of the synagogues were built over long periods of time.

The presence of new synagogues cannot be seen as evidence of an expanding economy. Rather, the synagogues may reflect a shift in communal priorities towards greater Jewish communal activity, perhaps in response to the expanding Christian presence in the land. The emergence of new literary genres of midrash (using particular structures for presenting interpretations of the biblical text) and piyyut (liturgical poetry), as well as and the redaction of the Palestinian talmudic literature, may also reflect this shift in priorities.

In this particular example, we see the importance of recognizing the limits of our evidence and the importance of looking at the various kinds of evidence from broader perspectives. Isolated texts provide snapshots that may or may not be accurate, but the identification of larger trends, like the emergence of new genres of literature and the dynamic of Christian settlement and conversion, will provide a broader, but probably more accurate picture of Jewish economic history.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.