In this provocative and clearly-written study, Marius Heemstra analyzes the fiscus Judaicus under Domitian and Nerva. Dealing with issues such as the dating of 1 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation, the birkat ha-minim, and the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity, he contributes to current discussion in several fields, including early imperial Roman history, early Christian history and early rabbinic Judaism. While the fiscus Judaicus has not been entirely ignored in these fields, it has largely been minimized. Heemstra seeks to correct this oversight, arguing that the administration of this tax by Domitian and Nerva exerted a profound influence upon early Judaism and Christianity, and that our understanding of the end of the first century C.E. should be altered accordingly.
Heemstra begins by discussing the fiscus Judaicus, an annual tax of two drachmas on the Jews instituted by Vespasian, the same amount as was paid for the temple tax before its destruction. He next proceeds to analyze the “harsh” administration of this tax by Domitian. If a court determined that a Jewish man was avoiding this tax, through a public inspection of his genitals, the penalty would be the confiscation of his property. In addition, if it were determined that a person was not Jewish, but was living a Jewish life, this person could also face the confiscation of his property as well as the possibility of execution if he was unwilling to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor (Pliny, Ep. 10.96; Rev. 14:9-11). Heemstra concludes that this latter group would have included both God-fearers and Gentile Christians, which is significant for analyzing the texts of the New Testament and early Christianity.
Heemstra then proceeds to consider the reform of the fiscus Judaicus under Nerva. According to Heemstra, Nerva determined that the fiscus courts were the improper venue for convicting non-Jews of living a Jewish life improfessus. Heemstra also contends that Nerva instituted a change in the official definition of a “Jew,” from an ethnic to a religious one. This would have permitted apostate Jews to avoid the tax. It also would have allowed Jewish synagogues to further distance themselves from Jewish Christians who, they could argue, were no longer religiously Jewish. And, though they could not be prosecuted under the fiscus courts, both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could now be found guilty of atheism (Heemstra argues that the charge of living a Jewish life improfessus changed to atheism at this time).
Based upon his interpretation of the fiscus Judaicus under Domitian and Nerva, Heemstra examines the dating of several New Testament books. His argument for dating 1 Peter to the period of 70-85 C.E., however, is somewhat tenuous. The only reason he provides is that the author of 1 Peter uses the term “Babylon” to refer to Rome (96). Yet, it is an argument from silence that Christians would not have used such terminology at an earlier date. Jews prior to 70 C.E., and Jewish Christians in particular, had substantial reason to hide their disdain for Rome by using a codeword. Claudius’ decree in 49 C.E. would have been especially problematic for Jewish Christians, such as Paul, who were preaching to Gentiles. Combined with the expulsion of all the Jews from Rome due to a disturbance regarding Chrestus (Suetonius, Claudius, 25), which likely involved a dispute between Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not, the Jewish Christians had sufficient reason at a much earlier date than after the Jewish revolt to have disdain for Rome.
In addition, Heemstra suggests that the accusation against the Gentile Christians, to which the author of 1 Peter is referring, is that they are “living a Jewish life improfessus.” Yet, Heemstra assumes that this charge only began to be leveled against Gentile Christians under Domitian.1 While Heemstra is correct to claim that Gentile Christians were being wrongly charged by the tax enforcers who were enforcing the fiscus Judaicus, there is no reason to conclude that Gentile Christians could not have been charged with “living a Jewish life improfessus ” prior to these tax courts. In fact, the application of a charge of “living a Jewish life improfessus ” by the fiscus tax courts assumes that such a charge had already been applied previously. In addition, it would not be surprising if Paul’s opponents in many of the cities where he evangelized would have accused Gentile converts to Christianity in an attempt to discredit the nascent Christian movement in these cities. Whether or not this actually occurred cannot be known. But without a definite origin of this charge, Heemstra’s insistence that 1 Peter be dated after 70 C.E. cannot be substantiated.
Heemstra does offer a strong argument for connecting the fiscus Judaicus to the persecution in Revelation, with Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians each being given a different outcome: imprisonment and/or confiscation of property for the first group and execution for the second. He views this as the background to the letters to the seven churches, in which the desire for Jewish Christians to gravitate towards the Jewish synagogues and Gentile Christians to sacrifice to idols was due to the influence of the fiscus courts. However, Heemstra overstates his case somewhat. There is no reason to believe the fiscus courts were the sole source of persecution, as suggested by Heemstra. He rejects the possibility that persecution came from non-Christian Jews (124), pointing to the fiscus as the alternative. But why must it be an either/or option? Why not both/and? Is it outside the realm of possibility that Jewish synagogues would have exercised their own justice, just as they had done with Paul, especially upon recent Jewish converts?
Heemstra also believes the evidence of Domitian’s and Nerva’s administration of the fiscus Judaicus allows Hebrews to be dated to the reign of Nerva (late 96 or 97). He bases this assertion on the reasons given by the author of Hebrews for why some are being tempted to apostasize as well as the fear of what may soon occur to Christians. Christians are being “publicly exposed” (θεατριζόμενοι: Heemstra’s translation) and having their possessions plundered (Heb. 10:32-34). They are being tortured (Heb. 13:3), but have “not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4). Heemstra argues that the previous persecutions would have related to the administration of Domitian with the current threat of death relating to the change of definition of “what makes a Jew” instituted by Nerva, thus placing Jewish Christians under the risk of execution for their beliefs. This nuancing makes this a very plausible theory, though it does require his assumption that these persecutions were not experienced by Jewish Christians prior to the fiscus Judaicus courts. If, on the other hand, Domitian was continuing a previous practice of holding Jewish Christians accountable to the terms of Claudius’ edict, a date around the time of Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome would again become a possibility, especially if Rome is the destination of the letter.
Finally, Heemstra considers the birkat ha-minim 2 and the parting of the ways between Judaism and Jewish Christianity. Heemstra argues for an early date (90 CE) for the birkat ha-minim, against scholars such as Kimelman and Boyarin, contending that the harsh administration of the fiscus Judaicus under Domitian resulted in Jewish synagogues sharpening the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews. However, Heemstra accepts a date of 400 CE for the Cairo Geniza version of the Shemoneh Esreh, which includes a curse against the notsrim as well as against the minim. On this, it would have been helpful to consult David Instone- Brewer, who argues for a pre-70 date for the Shemoneh Esreh, including the curse on the notsrim (Nazarim) and the minim.3 If Instone-Brewer’s analysis is correct, Heemstra’s conclusion that this movement upon the part of non-Christian to Jews to distinguish themselves from Jewish Christians did not occur until the reign of Domitian would be greatly diminished. While Heemstra may be correct that it was under Domitian and Nerva that non-Christian Jews recognized the value in convincing Rome that there was a significant difference between Judaism and Jewish Christianity, this does not mean that they had not already considered the matter in earlier decades.
Heemstra critiques several scholars on the parting of the ways for either ignoring or minimizing the import of the fiscus Judaicus in causing this split. On the contrary, Heemstra strongly asserts that a formal separation between mainstream Judaism and Jewish Christianity occurred as a result of Nerva’s redefinition of a Jew in 96/97 C.E. Heemstra is correct in emphasizing the role that the ruling authorities would have had in affecting the relationship between Jewish Christians and the synagogues. However, this by itself would not necessarily have been sufficient to cause a change in self-identification amongst the two groups. Heemstra also insists that the term “Gentile Christian” is inappropriate, even after 96/97 C.E., because “the Jewish Christian element remained strong within Christianity” (209). But there is still validity in discussing one branch of Christianity, such as the Ebionites, as being distinctly Jewish whereas another branch of Christianity repudiated Jewish practices and traditions (Ignatius, Mgn. 8-10).
While Heemstra overstates his case at times, he does substantiate his main thesis. The fiscus Judaicus did have a much greater impact upon Judaism and Christianity at the end of the first century than has been acknowledged by most other scholars. As such, Heemstra’s work should be commended to any scholars seeking to understand this era in Roman, Jewish, and Christian history.
1.He does note writings by Seneca, Juvenal and Tacitus which demonstrate concern for Gentiles converting to Judaism.
2. The birkat ha-minim is a curse on heretics, found in the Shemoneh Esreh ( Eighteen Benedictions), which is a daily Jewish prayer developed sometime in the first or second century C.E.
3. David Instone-Brewer, “The Eighteen Benedictions and the Minim before 70 CE,” Journal of Theological Studies, 54 (2003): 25-44; idem, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament: Prayer and Agriculture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 115.