How Ancient Taxes Were Collected Under King Manasseh

A new bulla inscribed in paleo-Hebrew provides evidence of Judah’s tax system

Bulla inscribed in paleo-Hebrew

Discovered during the Temple Mount Sifting Project, this seventh-century B.C.E. clay bulla inscribed in paleo-Hebrew script with the phrase “Gibeon, for the king” provides new evidence for how ancient taxes were collected during the reign of the Biblical King Manasseh.

When April 15 rolls around, taxpayers may take some small comfort in the fact that taxes are by no means a modern invention. Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain both famously remarked about the certainty of death and taxes, and a recent archaeological discovery concerning ancient taxes in Jerusalem has added to scholars’ certainty about a tax system in ancient Israel, especially during the reign of Judah’s King Manasseh.

While wet sifting soil from the excavation of an ancient refuse pit on the eastern slope of the Temple Mount, workers at the Temple Mount Sifting Project* discovered a small clay bulla, or seal impression, inscribed in paleo-Hebrew script. Although some of the letters had broken off, archaeologist and codirector of the sifting project Gabriel Barkay reconstructs the two lines of fragmentary paleo-Hebrew text to read “[g]b’n/lmlk,” or “Gibeon, for the king.” This puts the new find in a special group of more than 50 so-called fiscal bullae, but it is the first of these to come from a professional excavation; all of the previous examples are from the antiquities market (the Temple Mount Sifting Project subsequently discovered a second example while sifting soil from Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron’s excavation near the Gihon Spring).

Interested in ancient inscriptions? Read Alan Millard’s assessment of the oldest alphabetic inscription ever found in Jerusalem in “Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem.”

Unlike the lmlk jar handles familiar to our readers,** Barkay told Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) by telephone that the fiscal bullae were not part of Hezekiah’s administrative preparations for the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 B.C. Rather, he thinks the bullae are evidence for a system of ancient taxes used by Hezekiah’s son and successor, King Manasseh, in the seventh century B.C.E. Barkay told BAR that under this system, “the urban administrative centers collected [ancient] taxes in kind [i.e., grain, oil, etc.] and then sent them on to the king in Jerusalem with the documentation attached and sealed by these bullae identifying where it had come from—in this case, Gibeon.” At least 19 cities are identified in the paleo-Hebrew inscriptions on the fiscal bullae, representing nine of the 12 districts of Judah listed in Joshua 15:20–63. Barkay suggests that this Biblical passage may even have been composed for purposes of administering and collecting ancient taxes during the reign of King Manasseh.

King Manasseh was not popular with the Biblical authors (as Barkay puts it, “they hated his guts”), but Assyrian records suggest that he implemented heavy taxes on his people in order to pay tribute to King Esarhaddon and then King Ashurbanipal, Sennacherib’s successors in Assyria. These ancient taxes thus helped King Manasseh maintain relative peace in Judah during his 55-year reign. Other evidence from the paleo-Hebrew inscribed fiscal bullae indicates that the city of Lachish was rebuilt during this time, as Barkay told BAR, 16 years after its destruction by Sennacherib’s invading army.

Proof once again that, when it comes to taxes, saving receipts is always a good idea.


Based on Strata, “The Taxing Work of Archaeology,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2012.

Originally published April 2012, updated June 2014.



* See Hershel Shanks, “Jerusalem Roundup,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2011; Hershel Shanks, “Sifting the Temple Mount Dump,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2005.

** See Gabriel Barkay, “Royal Palace, Royal Portrait,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2006.

In the web-exclusive article “Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax,” BAR author Nathan T. Elkins explores what imperial coins can tell us about how Jews and Christians became further differentiated under Nerva.


Posted in Ancient Israel, Daily Life and Practice, Inscriptions.

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7 Responses

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  1. Glenn says

    RE: “King Manasseh was not popular with the Biblical authors (as Barkay puts it, “they hated his guts”)”
    Although true of the books of Kings and Jeremiah, it is not the case with the Chronicler for whom Manasseh was a model of repentance.

  2. Alex says

    Glenn, I could not post a comment here, so I am leaving mine as a reply to yours. I apologise for the inconvenience.

    I quote the article: “…a recent archaeological discovery concerning ancient taxes in Jerusalem has added to scholars’ certainty about a tax system in ancient Israel, especially during the reign of Judah’s King Manasseh.”

    My question is, was there really any room for uncertainty? Wasn’t old testament tithing a form of taxation already?

  3. Mark says

    @Alex: Tithing was/is an ecclesiastical law, not intended for support of the civil government, but rather of the church/temple/synagogue and their operation.

  4. Alex says

    Mark, yes, but in Ancient Israel there was no separation of church/temple/synagogue and state as we now have it, was there? Is it not so that tithes were collected by the state?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Tax Collecting in Ancient Israel | God and the Machine linked to this post on April 13, 2012

    [...] other woolly mammoth bone carters to for some dynamic synergy-building exercises and a magic show.Recent discoveries are filling in some of the details about just how taxes were collected under Judah’s deeply [...]

  2. » Tax Day in Ancient Israel linked to this post on April 15, 2012

    [...] discovery uncovers evidence of how taxes were collected under King Manasseh. You can read about it here. Share This entry was posted in Archaeology. Bookmark the permalink. ← Can a Person Be [...]

  3. Fiscal Bullae: The ‘Missing Link’ Between Rosettes and Mwshs? « Against Jebel al-Lawz linked to this post on May 29, 2012

    [...] Josiah’s reign (at least, in my view): they were replaced by the lmlk bullae! Barkay’s explanation for their purpose seems to me satisfactory. I now suspect that, with further careful sifting, more [...]

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