Taxing Times

The economic history of the Jews in Palestine in late antiquity

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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.