Tax Avoidance and the Parting of the Ways (Part 1)

One topic I plan to explore on this blog is the “Parting of the Ways” – the process by which Christianity emerged as a religion separate from Judaism. Let’s look at one factor that may have played a role in the Parting of the Ways: the fiscus Judaicus. Time for a little history!

The Bible (Exodus 30:13) commands Jews to pay a half-shekel tax “for an offering to the LORD.” By the first Century CE, this tax was payable annually by male Jews between the age of 20 and 50, with the revenues devoted to support the operation of the Temple in Jerusalem. This tax was voluntary according to some, and not voluntary according to others. The tax was required, in that it is commanded by the Torah (the Temple Tax is listed as one of the 613 commandments that are still incumbent on Jews, although since the Temple no longer exists, this commandment cannot be observed today). The Temple tax was voluntary, in that it was possible to avoid the tax without facing imprisonment, confiscation of property or other like punishment.

The not-quite-voluntary nature of the Temple tax is nicely illustrated in Matthew 17:24-27, where tax collectors approached the apostle Peter and asked, “Does your teacher [Jesus] not pay the Temple tax?” Implicit in the negative way the question was asked is that Jews were expected to pay this tax, but that some did not. Peter replied that, indeed, Jesus did pay the tax. But shortly thereafter Jesus told Peter that Jesus (and perhaps Peter too) was not required to pay the tax, since children of kings do not normally pay taxes to the king. Nevertheless, Jesus told Peter to pay the Temple tax for them both, “so that we do not give offense to them.”

The nature of the Temple tax changed dramatically with the Roman reconquest of Jerusalem during the first Jewish-Roman War. Although the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Romans continued the Temple tax as a punitive measure against the Jewish people. The tax revenues were initially used by the Romans to pay for the rebuilding of a temple to Jupiter in Rome, but even after this temple was rebuilt, the Romans continued to collect this tax[1].

The old Temple tax was collected for Rome by a Roman tax collecting agency called the Fiscus Judaicus. Under the Fiscus Judaicus, the old Temple tax became a great deal more expensive. The Romans kept the amount of the tax at its old level, but imposed the tax on many more people – not merely on adult male Jews, but on all Jews, including women and children, and also on Jewish slaves.  So a Jewish household with husband, wife and four children would have been required to pay the tax six times over. The half-shekel amount of the tax was roughly the equivalent of two days’ wages[2] – perhaps not a lot of money if paid by one adult male household member, but a considerable burden if the household was a large one – particularly since this tax was not the only tax imposed by the Romans[3].

In 81 CE, Domitian succeeded Vespasian as Emperor of Rome. By most accounts, Domitian was an unpopular emperor – his reign ended with his assassination by court officials, after which his arches were torn down and his name erased from the public records. What did Domitian do that made him so unpopular?  Well, for one thing, Domitian was a “tax and spend” kind of emperor. Domitian spent lavishly on triumphs and games, he had a large program for construction of public buildings, and he raised the pay for Roman soldiers by a third. To cover these costs, Domitian taxed his people aggressively, in a series of moves that Roman historian Suetonius described as “every sort of robbery.”

One tax Domitian pursued was the fiscus Judaicus. Domitian’s predecessor Vespasian had extended the fiscus Judaicus to nearly every Jew, but Domitian extended the tax even further, to cover (again according to Suetonius) (1) “those who without publicly acknowledging that faith yet lived a Jewish life”, and (2) “those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tax levied upon their people.” Moreover, unlike the Jewish tax collectors pre-70 CE, the Romans had an effective way to punish tax avoidance. The Roman penalty for tax evasion was confiscation of the taxpayer’s property, and informers who reported tax evaders to the government could count on receiving some of this property as a reward.

Domitian aggressively sought to increase the revenue from the fiscus Judaicus. Suetonius reports being present when a potential Jewish tax evader, “a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised.”

But what does all this have to do with the parting of the ways?

When Nerva succeeded Domitian as emperor of Rome, it appears that some people who had previously paid the fiscus Judaicus were given the opportunity to stop paying this tax. This is indicated by an inscription on a coin minted during Nerva’s reign: “FISCI IVDAICA CALVMNIA SVBLATA”, or “the removal of the wrongful accusation of the fiscus Judaicus.”

Evidently, some people required to pay the fiscus Judaicus under Domitian were let off the hook under Nerva. Unfortunately, we don’t know who was let off the hook, or what a person needed to do to get out of paying this tax. Might some of these ex-fiscus Judaicus taxpayers have been Christian? Stephen Wilson writes in the book “Related Strangers” that Jewish Christians were probably subject to the fiscus Judaicus under the rule of Vespasian.

Might some of these Christians have renounced all ties to Judaism in order to get off the fiscus Judaicus tax roll[4]? Is it then possible that Nerva’s tax reform was one factor that led to the “parting of the ways”? Is it possible that Christianity emerged as a religion separate from Judaism because nobody likes to pay taxes?

I will discuss these questions in Part 2 of this series, which (hopefully) will appear here next week.

[1] It’s not clear exactly how long the Fiscus Judaicus remained in effect. Some scholars believe that the tax remained in effect until the reign of the Emperor Julian “the Apostate” in 361 CE.

[2] Another way to guesstimate the value of half a shekel is this: a half shekel coin contained about ¼ oz of silver, worth about $8.00 today.

[3] Roman taxation was heavy.  Roman tax policy is described generally here and briefly here.

[4] It is also possible that some Christians might have been willing, even eager, to pay the fiscus Judaicus. While the tax was expensive, being Jewish in the Roman Empire had some compensating advantages, including the right to refuse military service and to substitute prayers for the Emperor in place of participation in the Roman imperial cult.