The Fiscus Judaicus and the Parting of the Ways
By Marius Heemstra
(Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), xiv
+ 241 pp., €59.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Shaye J.D. Cohen
The fiscus Judaicus was a tax imposed on the Jews of the Roman Empire by Emperor Vespasian in the early 70s C.E. Whereas formerly the Jews had sent a half shekel (two drachmas) annually to the Temple of Jerusalem, now, after the Roman destruction, they would be required to send that same amount to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome, which had been badly damaged by fire and was in need of repair and restoration. The Roman victory over Judea in 70 C.E. was celebrated widely in Rome in the 70s and 80s C.E. because it was so important to the new ruling dynasty. Vespasian and his son Titus returned from Judea not only as triumphant generals but also as newly installed emperor (70–79 C.E.) and emperor-to-be (79–81 C E.). The Colosseum was built with funds from the war booty of Judea,* the city was adorned with two magnificent triumphal arches (one of which, the Arch of Titus, still stands), and the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was rebuilt with funds from the Jewish tax.
Our information about the fiscus Judaicus derives primarily (aside from tax receipts from the province of Egypt) from three literary passages: one from the Jewish War of Josephus, one from Suetonius’s Life of Domitian (son of Vespasian, brother of Titus, and emperor 81–96 C.E.), and one from Cassius Dio, a Roman historian of the early third century C.E. Although no Christian text mentions the fiscus Judaicus, Marius Heemstra argues in this book that this tax had an important role in the development of “Christianity” as a social and cultural system separate from “Judaism,” a process commonly called “the parting of the ways.”
In spite of its origins as a doctoral dissertation (at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands), this book is clearly written and clearly argued. There are charts and diagrams to help the reader along, and at key junctures Heemstra rehearses his argument. Here are the main points:
• Vespasian imposed a tax “upon the Jews wheresoever they were, commanding every one of them to bring two drachmai every year into the Capitol, just as they used to pay to the Temple at Jerusalem.”1 Vespasian did not concern himself about which Jews exactly would be liable for the new tax.
• In his Life of Domitian, Suetonius tells us that the emperor enforced the fiscus Judaicus “harshly,” in particular exacting it from two classes of individuals: those who lived a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging the fact and those who concealed their Jewish origins.2 These two groups, says Suetonius, had not been paying the tax but now were expected to. There has been much scholarly discussion, ably summarized by Heemstra, about the interpretation of these two categories. Heemstra argues that the first category includes gentile Christians (who lived a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging the fact) and the second includes Jewish Christians (ethnic Jews who concealed their Jewish origins). In other words, the Romans regarded both gentile Christianity and Jewish Christianity as forms of Judaism, hence liable to the tax.
• Gentile Christians were also subject to even more severe punishment. Cassius Dio reports that Domitian also executed those Romans who had “drifted into Jewish ways,” also known as “atheism.”3 These “Jewish ways,” argues Heemstra, would have included Christianity.
• Domitian’s exactions were unpopular in Rome. In 96 C.E. his successor Nerva immediately set about reforming the administration of the fiscus Judaicus, even issuing a coin celebrating this reform (p. 69).** The essential part of the reform was to redefine Judaism as a religion; indeed, this is how Cassius Dio depicts the fiscus Judaicus (the tax was imposed on “Jews who continued to observe their ancestral customs”).4 This reflects Nerva’s reform, argues Heemstra. Christianity was now seen by the Romans as not-Judaism; the fiscus Judaicus applied to neither gentile Christians nor Jewish Christians. Within a few years Christians would be persecuted as Christians (c. 110 C.E., Trajan in correspondence with Pliny).
• Heemstra seeks to buttress this reconstruction by appeal to Christian and Jewish texts. He argues that the persecution of gentile Christians under Domitian, occasioned by either their failure to pay the fiscus Judaicus, or by drifting into Jewish ways, is alluded to in the New Testament, specifically Revelation 2–3 and Hebrews 10:32–34. Consequently each of these books should be dated to approximately 85–96 C.E. The separation between Judaism and Christianity, established by Nerva in 96 C.E., is attested also by the Gospel of John, with its references to Christians being “put outside the synagogue” (John 9:22, 12:42, 16:2), and by the rabbinic tradition about the birkat ha minim, a prayer asking God to destroy “heretics.” Both the Gospel of John and the birkat ha minim should be dated to c. 100 C.E.
• In sum, the social, political and cultural separation between Jews and Christians, usually called the “parting of the ways,” was substantially complete by 100 C.E., and set in place first and foremost by Nerva in 96 C.E. as part of his reform of the fiscus Judaicus.
Each of these arguments has been advanced previously, as Heemstra shows, but Heemstra gets the credit for putting all the pieces together into a single coherent argument. Each argument is also highly debatable, as Heemstra is well aware (see, e.g., the chart on p. 33). This is old-fashioned positivistic philological-historical scholarship—for me, at least, that is a compliment. A full assessment of any one of these points, let alone all of them, would swell this review beyond reasonable length. So I will content myself with one objection only: Heemstra argues that gentile Christians and Jewish Christians alike were persecuted and punished by Domitian for their failure to pay the fiscus Judaicus. For the sake of argument I shall follow Heemstra on this point. Why didn’t these Christians pay the fiscus Judaicus? Heemstra does not speculate, so I shall. Is it because they succumbed to that desire, well-attested in all times and all places and among all peoples, to try to avoid paying taxes? If so, we should have expected non-Christian Jews also to be the targets of Domitian’s cupidity, since surely tax evasion is no more characteristic of Christians than of Jews, ancient or modern. But there is another possibility as well. Perhaps these Christians did not pay the fiscus Judaicus because they did not see themselves as obligated to do so, because they did not see themselves as Jews. In other words, Nerva’s reform (again, I am following Heemstra’s hypothesis, for the sake of argument) was not an innovation but merely a confirmation of what Christians, both Jewish Christians and gentile Christians, already believed, namely, that Christianity was not Judaism. If this suggestion is correct, a key part of Heemstra’s reconstruction needs to be rethought.
In any case, this is a learned and stimulating book, well worth reading by all students of “the parting of the ways.”
1. Josephus, Jewish War 7.218, cited by Heemstra p. 9.
2. Suetonius, Life of Domitian 12.1–2, cited on p. 24.
3. Cassius Dio, 67.14.1–2, cited by Heemstra p. 28.
4. Cassius Dio, 65.7.2, cited p. 10.