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.

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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.