BMCR 2023.06.30

L’offrande et le tribut: histoire politique de la fiscalité en Judée hellénistique et romaine (200 a.C.-135 p.C.)

, L'offrande et le tribut: histoire politique de la fiscalité en Judée hellénistique et romaine (200 a.C.-135 p.C.). Scripta antiqua, 152. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2022. Pp. 541. ISBN 9782356134356.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” While the coin itself, a denarius, seems out of place in Jerusalem before the arrival of a legion in 70 CE, the aphorism just may be authentic: “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:17-22). To the more revolutionary among the Jesus group – those who held that nothing belonged to Caesar and everything to God – the man could have been heard to say that it was not lawful to pay Roman taxes.[1] Similarly, Josephus (AJ 18.4f.) draws our attention to a social movement, the Fourth Philosophy of Judas the Galilean, which rose up against nascent Roman rule in 6 CE, precisely in the context of the census or fiscal reform of Quirinius.

Should we understand from this that Roman, indeed all foreign taxes were especially hated in Judea? Was the theocracy of (ancient) Judaism, with its para-fiscal tithes and sacrifices and its elaborate system of finance for the maintenance of cult and priestly caste fundamentally anti-fiscal in its stance toward temporal power? Were Jews fiscally irreconcilable to the Roman ecumene, as in the vision of a second-century rabbi: “Everything that [the Romans] established, they established only for their purposes. They established marketplaces, to place prostitutes in them; bathhouses, to pamper themselves; and bridges, to collect taxes from all who pass over them” (b. Šabb. 33b)?

No, argues Michaël Girardin, in a daring and erudite cultural and psychological history of taxation in Judea between Cyrus and Hadrian. Judean subjects of the Hellenistic and early Roman empires, Girardin argues, only came to resist foreign taxation at moments of full-blown crisis, when charismatic leaders distorted fiscal reality in order to foment pious rebellions. Such leaders radicalized the public by “mobilizing” and ultimately “overcoming” a dialectic between two kinds of levies: “gifts of homage” which are rendered to God (offrande) and gifts rendered to one who is not God (tribut) (p. 31). Such rhetoric worked because the waters were already in a sense muddied. With a little prompting, Judeans imagined with horror the mixing of sacred and profane accounts in the Temple treasury and royal expropriation of holy vessels during the Maccabean Crisis. Later, the Maccabees’ sundering of the two concepts could not be undone. Rebels of the Roman period resuscitated these arguments, as when they claimed in the run-up to the Great Revolt that Florus was putting a stop to sacrifices by collecting arrears in Jerusalem. Yet clumsy or onerous imperial taxation was never enough to sustain a revolt, Girardin emphasizes. In principle, God and Caesar were not at odds over taxes but needed to be configured that way. Rebels manipulated the dialectic of offrande/tribut to cast both foreign rule and non-Temple taxation as at once illegitimate.

This book is a monument of scholarship. In addition to serving as a comprehensive guide to the imperial administration of Achaemenid, Hellenistic, and Roman Judea, it is also an invaluable philological aid. Frequently, a fiscal gloss sheds light on texts we thought we knew. For example, Jesus on the cross in the NT: the institution of ἀγγαρεία (corvée) is what compels Simon of Cyrene to do the carrying, and Jesus even calls out with a cognate term (p. 318). Or, take the pharaonic misdeeds of Antiochos IV in Jerusalem: the king sent in Apollonios, his ἄρχων φορολογίας, a title absent from Hellenistic epigraphy but explicable without emendation when we consider the allusion of the underlying Hebrew šry mysm to the oppressive Egyptian “taskmaster” of Ex 1:11 (1 Macc 1:29; p. 180). Finally, even early Christianity’s key word χάρις looks different when seen through a fiscal lens. Girardin explicates Paul’s attempts to levy charis at Corinth as tribute disguised as “don de l’esprit voué à l’utilité commune” (p. 384).

Indeed, the book reads as a constant unveiling of such disguises, a history of the representation of taxation. But first, in Part I, Girardin lays out the Biblical toolkit bequeathed to post-Exilic political leaders who would manipulate fiscal discourse. From an etic perspective, Temple and priestly collections (“offrande”) should be seen as compulsory and fiscal. This sacred taxation amounted to 25% of harvests (p. 110), though the centralization of the system was not completed until the Hasmonean period (p. 99). As God’s share, temple taxes were seen as inherently legitimate from the ideological standpoint of these texts. By contrast, the legitimacy of secular, royal taxation (tribut) was far less secure in Israelite thought. Even if what Girardin calls an ethical hierarchy between the two kinds of exaction had not yet emerged, a structural competition for the same resources was already in place.

Part II, therefore, begins with the rupture within the Biblical model, which made non-sacred taxation unacceptable. In one of the book’s recurrent twists of periodization, the break does not accompany a change of regime. In fact, though the reign of the conquering Antiochos III was later represented as a fiscal golden age in the Charter of Jerusalem (AJ 12.138f.), it is shown to have hewed close to traditions of benefaction stretching back to the Achaemenid period. Down to ca. 178, the Temple received a conventional subvention from the Seleukids, collected offerings, and stored royal taxes. However, a portion of those taxes was reserved for Ptolemy V, namely those, Girardin argues, which were raised on the former δωρεαί estates of the turncoat Ptolemy son of Thraseas (p. 154). Girardin argues that conflict first broke out over a “representational crisis,” rather than an economic one linked to an increase of the burden of taxation, nor even an administrative reform.[2] Reading 2 Macc 3 against the grain, Girardin holds that Heliodoros came to Jerusalem for an inspection (ἐπίσκεψις), a “remise en ordre comptable,” that merely reclassified a Ptolemaic account as a Seleukid one and investigated a variance (διαφορά) of the royal subvention (p. 167 with 2 Macc 5:18). Only after the elevation of a secondary priesthood in 175 did the dispossessed priesthood represent royal taxation in novel terms as impious. The Maccabees made of this a full-blown anti-fiscal ideology – but were only able to do so after Antiochos IV stormed the Temple in 168, collecting an arrearage that had accumulated since the king’s estimated doubling of the old Ptolemaic rate of taxation (p. 171).

The remainder of Part II explains how in the new climate of anti-fiscal bias, the Hasmoneans and then the Herodians still found cover to raise their own taxes or tribute on behalf of great powers. In fact, the Hasmoneans camouflaged so well we’ve doubted whether they taxed Jews at all – even though, according to Girardin, they managed to tax across the entire Diaspora by introducing the sneakily Biblical half-shekel (p. 220f.). In part, this distortion was the effect of their notorious pairing of the monarchy with the high priesthood, but Girardin brings out their genius, too. John Hyrcanus, for example, was forced to pay Antiochos VII an annual tribute of 500 talents to lift a siege and regain sovereignty (AJ 13.247f.). Hyrcanus then excavated 3,000 talents from the tomb of King David, a story which seems to be a “fiscal legend” disseminated in order to hide the reintroduction of foreign tribute (p. 207).[3] Hyrcanus even found a fiscal solution to the controversy of his dynasty’s high priesthood. Girardin breaks new ground by showing that Hyrcanus’ reputation in the Talmud for reforming aspects of the tithing system (e.g., m. Sotah 9:10) relates to a demagogic policy of renouncing sacred revenues in order to distract again from his own taxation or the controversy of his priesthood (p. 210).

The Herodians were heirs to this distinctly Jewish tradition of pious affect around taxation. Girardin contends that the tax rate changed little from the Maccabees to the foundation of the Roman province in 6 C.E. – when it actually decreased under direct Roman rule (pp. 242, 312). What changed with Herod the Great was not the burden of taxation, not after we factor in his many salubrious local expenditures and stimulus for the pilgrimage economy, but again, how taxes were represented. Another golden age ushered in by another charter, Caesar’s (AJ 14.190f.), comes to look like just another historiographical mirage (p. 235). To a largely sympathetic public, Herod presented his own fiscal system as identical with that of the Temple he just happened to be rebuilding, Roman tribute as a form of gift exchange with God’s providential partners. In the sympathy of unlettered folk, Girardin sees the success of such messaging and chalks up reports of onerous taxes to anti-Herodian sources representing the anti-fiscal critique of certain marginalized elites (pp. 276-9).

Part III grapples with the role of anti-fiscal ideology in sparking full-scale revolt from Roman rule. Its middle chapters (VIII and IX) search in vain for a popular view that secular taxation was gravely offensive to Judaism. Girardin examines attitudes about public finance in a diverse series of “groupes minoritaires,” so diverse – even the regime of Bar Kochva is later accounted one (p. 458) – that the value of the analytical category is weakened. Yet summed together, these add up to a plurality of Judean society, which inclined toward a-fiscal utopianism. Generally, the meaning of taxation was fluid. Take the fiscus iudaicus of Vespasian, which made the half-shekel (“offrande”) into a Roman didrachma (“tribut”). Girardin shows how Roman Jews inverted the symbolism after Nerva made the payment optional (p. 437). It became a way of buying oneself out of Roman cult and paying homage to God – via Jupiter.

On the background to the Great Revolt, the argument joins up with Anthony Keddie’s book in attacking the idea that Roman taxes impoverished the Judean peasant.[4] Like Keddie, Girardin focuses on economic institutions as sites of change and contestation. Increased urban unemployment and indebtedness, an unaccustomed manner of seizing arrears – these were the triggers. A bundle of causes is adduced, and while resistance to taxation is counted, we can exaggerate its significance because those who then and later objected to Roman rule on politico-theological grounds framed Roman taxation as impious and oppressive. Strangely, Bar Kochva leads a revolt, but both abandons the anti-fiscal arguments of earlier rebels and even taxes undisguised. The dialectic had broken, but why? Was it because, as Girardin shows, the Romans had squeezed too hard, taxing in a sabbatical year (131/2) and billing the population for the cost of Hadrian’s visit?

The book makes many relativized quantitative claims, carefully validating those of our sources, such as Josephus, who falsely accuses Neronian procurators of raising taxes on Judea on their own (p. 349f.). Yet changes in the burden of taxation are almost axiomatically excluded as “éléments significatifs” in explaining resistance (p. 356). Girardin writes that taxation as such was never the cause of conflict in Judea (pp. 405, 477-8) – but is it ever? At certain points in the story, the toll of taxation seems to make all the difference, as when the Rabbis authorize evasion or renounce first fruits (pp. 417, 445). Girardin argues that the Rabbis used narrative alone to render the Romans’ fisc oppressive, but perhaps they were adapting their rulings to hard economic realities? “Where there is no Torah, there is no bread,” but so too, “Where there is no bread, there is no Torah” (m. Âbot 3:17 and pp. 442-3). The real temperature isn’t what we feel – and resent – when windchill or humidity are factored in, and Girardin warns us not to confuse the two. Yet we do need to know the differential, which this book provides, when possible, if we hope to understand the motivations of historical actors.



[1] Cassidy, R.J. Jesus, Politics and Society. New York, 1978, cited by Girardin, p. 391, n. 152.

[2] Cf. Honigman, Sylvie. Tales of High Priests and Taxes. Berkeley, 2014.

[3] For Nachleben, see Britt, Karen, and Raʻanan S. Boustan. “The Elephant Mosaic Panel in the Synagogue at Huqoq: Official Publication and Initial Interpretations.” JRA Suppl. 106 (2017).

[4] Keddie, Anthony. Class and Power in Roman Palestine. Cambridge, 2019.