Tax Avoidance and the Parting of the Ways (Part 2)

It is a funny thing about the history of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity: there’s been much written about this subject, but the direct supporting evidence is rather thin. For example, consider the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person. Despite the recent controversy surrounding Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? – Ehrman answers this question with an emphatic yes, Jesus did exist – there is precious little written about Jesus within 100 years of his death outside of Christian sources, and much of what was written is both disputed and tantalizingly brief. To be clear, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus really existed. But it’s unlikely that we’d know anything about Jesus if Christianity had not survived to create and perpetuate its own historical record.

When it comes to the history of first Century Christianity and Judaism, we never have as much information as we’d like. This is certainly the case when it comes to the topic of my last post here, the fiscus Judaicus tax imposed on Jews by the Roman Empire after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. The sad truth is, we know a lot less about this tax than we wish we knew.

Just about all we know about the fiscus Judaicus can be summarized in five bullet points:

  • Upon the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the emperor Vespasian required Jews to pay this tax to Rome, and extended this tax to all Jews, including Jewish slaves. This made the tax considerably more expensive for Jewish families.
  • Vespasian’s successor, Domitian, purportedly did something to make the fiscus Judaicus even more burdensome. The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that Domitian imposed this tax “with the utmost rigor” and that “those were prosecuted who without publicly acknowledging that faith yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people.”
  • Domitian’s successor, Nerva, did something to remove “the wrongful accusation of the fiscus Judaicus.”
  • The fiscus Judaicus remained in effect for quite some time after Nerva, probably well into the fourth century C.E.

From these bullet points, it may appear that we know a great deal about the fiscus Judaicus! But in fact, these bullet points leave open at least four critical questions: (1) exactly who was required to pay the fiscus Judaicus under the rule of Vespasian? (2) What did Domitian do to impose this tax with “the utmost rigor”? (3) How did Nerva relax the imposition of this tax? (4) Did the imposition of this tax contribute to the “parting of the ways”, the separation of Christianity from Judaism?

To get a better feel for these questions, let’s examine the work of Martin Goodman, a prominent modern historian of Roman and ancient Jewish history. In 1989, Goodman wrote an important article on this subject, titled “Nerva, The Fiscus Judaicus and Jewish Identity”. Unfortunately, this article is not available for free on line (the price is $12, which by one means of calculation, is more than the amount of the fiscus Judaicus!). Luckily, much of Goodman’s argument is set forth in a chapter of the book Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135, and this chapter is available online. From these works, here’s how I think Goodman would answer these four questions:

1.  Vespasian imposed the fiscus Judaicus on all those of Jewish ethnic origin.

2.  Domitian did not change Vespasian’s tax policy, but under Domitian’s rule the tax was “tightened up” – “people who had previously gotten away without payment were now compelled to pay up.”

3.  Nerva’s reform was to limit the tax to those ethnic Jews who openly engaged in Jewish practices. But as it would have been impossible for Rome to identify who was and was not Jewishly observant, in practice the tax was limited to those people who “declared themselves as Jews”.

4.  The fiscus Judaicus ultimately contributed to a change in how Jews saw themselves and were seen by others: Judaism came to be seen less as the practices of those belonging to a particular ethnic group, and more as a faith/religion. The Romans came to understand that “people of non-Jewish origin could become Jews.” In like manner, Jews came to a new understanding of how a Jew could become a non-Jew – in particular, those who did not pay the fiscus Judaicus (including those Christians who opted not to pay) would not be regarded as Jewish. In this manner, the fiscus Judaicus helped mark the growing distinction between Jews and Christians.

I find Goodman’s argument to be persuasive, but not exactly conclusive. Let’s consider each of these four points again:

1.  Goodman is right to point out that at one time, Jews were considered Jews because of their national and ethnic origin alone. The word “Jew” comes from the Greek Ioudaios, meaning “Judean”, or those from the old kingdom and later Roman province of Judea.[1]  At some point, the word “Jew” began to mean a religion as well as a people, but it’s not clear when this change took place. As I noted in a prior post, the historian Daniel Boyarin argues that Judaism did not begin to emerge as a “religion” until the mid-second century C.E.  In contrast to Boyarin, the historian Shaye Cohen argues in The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties that the word “Jew” began to take on something of a religious meaning by the first century B.C.E. – well before the imposition of the fiscus Judaicus.

In truth, the question of Jewish identity is a complicated one. It is possible that Jews thought of Jewishness in religious terms before the Romans did. But it seems unlikely that Vespasian was able to impose the fiscus Judaicus without questions arising over who owed this tax. Perhaps Vespasian’s administration typically resolved these questions in favor of the taxpayer, while Domitian’s administration did not. We may never know.

2.  Goodman believes that Domitian did nothing more than to strictly enforce the policy adopted by Vespasian to tax “ethnic Jews”. Goodman’s argument is that the “definition of a Jew ought to have been clear.” But here again, Shaye Cohen provides a contrary and (in my view) more persuasive opinion: in antiquity, you did not know a Jew when you saw one! If Jews looked different from other Romans, the difference is not discussed in the surviving works of Roman authors (and these authors were generally quick to comment on anything they found unusual in the appearance of other peoples). There were no official lists or registers of Jews, no genealogical records, no immigration bureau that would have recorded whose ancestors came from Judea. Jews (in particular, diaspora Jews) dressed like everyone else, spoke Greek (the most common language in the Roman Empire), engaged in every kind of profession, and had gentile names. Even circumcision, that most particular Jewish marker (at least for half of the Jewish population), did not necessarily make Jews distinctive – other peoples (particularly in the eastern part of the Roman Empire) were also circumcised, and Romans were not in the habit of examining another’s penis to determine his identity!  Romans could pass as Jews, and Jews as Romans, if either desired to do so.

Cohen argues that what made Jews distinct in Roman eyes was the Jewish way of life: Jews associated primarily with other Jews, ate kosher food, observed the Sabbath and worshipped a single God. But even here, it would not have been possible to draw a distinct border line between Jew and Gentile. Jews lived in neighborhoods that might be predominantly Jewish but were not exclusively so. Jews may not have married Gentiles or shared meals with Gentiles, but they mixed with Gentiles in commerce and other areas of day-to-day life. Moreover, some Gentiles engaged in Jewish practices: they attended functions at the Jewish synagogue, or rested on the Sabbath, or studied Jewish texts. It is widely believed that some Romans were “God fearers” – they remained as gentiles, but they associated with Jews and adopted Jewish attitudes about God.  From the Roman standpoint, people who abstained from eating meat sacrificed to the Roman gods might well be Jewish … or they might be pagan vegetarians (evidently, some Romans gave up vegetarianism so as to avoid appearing Jewish).

As I’ve explored in prior posts, the first century border between Jews and non-Jews was fuzzy and slippery. If Domitian determined to strictly enforce the fiscus Judaicus, he probably determined to draw a hard-and-fast border, and if Domitian wanted to increase his tax revenues, he probably determined to draw this border to include as many “Jews” as possible. Since Domitian’s tax collectors could not always determine who was and was not an “ethnic Jew”, it’s likely that some (many?) people were forced to pay the tax because they engaged in practices that looked “Jewish” to the tax collectors. Throw into the mix that Domitian relied on informers to report potential tax evaders, and these informers could grow rich upon a successful tax prosecution – and there’s no doubt in my mind that Domitian effectively forced some Christians, God-fearers and other non-ethnic Jews to pay the fiscus Judaicus.

3.  Once Goodman’s discussion reaches the point of Nerva’s tax reform, Goodman is in full agreement with Cohen: it was not necessarily an easy thing to identify a person in the first century as Jew or Gentile. (Of course, this situation would not have changed drastically from Vespesian’s reign to that of Nerva.) In order to impose this tax without “wrongfully accusing” anyone, it would have been necessary to impose the tax only on those most obviously Jewish, or those willing to admit to being Jewish.

You might wonder why anyone would admit to being Jewish if doing so would result in having to pay a hefty tax. Indeed, some on the Jewish “border” might have decided not to make this admission. But there were advantages to being Jewish in the Roman Empire. Jews (at least at certain times in certain places) could avoid military service and participating in pagan cultic practices.  At least one Christian, the theologian Origen, wrote (perhaps with some envy!) that the Jews of Judea in his day had a large degree of self-determination because of the tax they paid. Perhaps Jews in the Roman Empire came to regard the tax as a price worth paying.

Ultimately, I think Goodman has probably reached the right conclusion: by the time of Nerva, the fiscus Judaicus was voluntary, in the sense that being an observant Jew was voluntary. A Jew could avoid this tax, but doing so would remove his or her special status in the view of the Romans, and would brand him or her as an apostate in the eyes of other Jews. For a believing Jew, the consequences of tax avoidance were severe enough to guarantee that most Jews – perhaps the vast majority of Jews – would continue to pay this tax.

4.  Finally, I’m left with the question: what do I think of all this? The best and most honest answer is: I don’t know. Notwithstanding the terrific analysis of scholars like Goodman and Cohen, we’re ultimately stuck with the tiny bit of information I listed in the above bullet points. We don’t know the precise tax policies of Vespasian, Domitian or Nerva. We don’t know exactly who was taxed when, or who was eligible to avoid being taxed. We don’t know if Christians (even ethnically Jewish Christians, or Christians who engaged in Jewish practices) were ever taxed under the fiscus Judaicus, or if Jews (even those willing to renounce their Judaism) were ever released from their obligation to pay the tax. The historical record does not speak directly to any of these questions.

As a beginning student in the history of “the parting of the ways”, I’m often struck by the inability of scholars to say “we don’t know” or even “I don’t know” in response to a difficult question. I get that scholars are paid to tell us things and not to shrug their shoulders. But my fear is that we ordinary folk are left with the impression that we know more about this era than we really do.

For example: I am convinced that there’s a connection between the fiscus Judaicus tax and the parting of the ways. But I’m not convinced that the connection is one of cause and effect. It may be that the fact of the parting of the ways was reflected in the difficulty the Romans had in collecting this tax. It could be that Jews had come to identify themselves in some part as a religion before the tax was imposed, and that the vast majority of Christians had determined not to identify as Jews before doing so would have any tax consequences.

 Sometimes, the best answer is to shrug your shoulders.


[i] In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Josh Garroway has written an excellent summary of the derivation and evolution of the word Ioudaios. I highly recommend Garroway’s piece to anyone interested in a deeper dive into the meaning of this term.

  • Lewis Beeler

    This is a well written and well argued piece. I am currently working on the Domitian Persecution for my PhD dissertation, and this article describes several lines of argumentation that I have been pondering myself. Well done!