How Ancient Taxes Were Collected Under King Manasseh

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 Tax Day rolls around each year, 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).

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

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.

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.”

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, and first published in Bible History Daily in April 2012.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.


* 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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  • RAYMOND says

    THERE IS NO such script as “Paleo Hebrew.” Ancient Hebrew was borrowed/copied from the millennial preceding, Phoenician Alphabetic Language. Ancient Hebrew was a “near identical copy of the Phoenician.” There is a modern Israel-Nationalistic Archaeological attempt to distort the Phoenician (ancestral Lebanese) Alphabet as being Ancient Hebrew. Numerous examples have demonstrated that there is a distortion in attribution of Phoenician paleographic and epigraphic artifacts, by placing Ancient Hebrew “in the shoes of Phoenician.” Note that Professor Zellig Harris of the Univ. of Pa., concluded that “all inscriptiions discovered are in Phoenician. All Kings names are Phoenician Kings.” He further points out that “Hebrew corresponded so closely to (the borrowed from) Phoenician, that gaps in Phoenician can be filled in from the Hebrew.” Further, Prof. Harris states that “The Phoenicians referred to themselves as Canaanites and their land as Canaan.” SEE: HARRIS, Zelig. “A Grammar of the Phoenician Language.” (American Oriental Society. New Haven, Ct. 1936) SEE ALSO: Harvard Professor Thomas Lambdin. “Introduction to Biblical Hebrew.” (Scribners & Son. NY, NY 1971) BAR magazine and publisher Shenks continue to do a grave disservice to the field of archaeology, by publishing non-vetted articles that misstate the artifact history of the Phoenician-Canaanites, in what is now modern Israel. You are reminded of the fraudulent attempt to pass off the purported King Hezekiah Clay Seal, claimed to be found (2016) in the same refuse pit as identified above. That fraudulent attempt is revealed by comparing Eliot Mazar’s IAA image of the purported KH-CS, with the front cover image of the purported same CS as published by BAR magazine. Enough with the building fiction upon fiction. Enough with the date attribution of Phoenician artifacts with a non-evidence First and Second Temple Period.

  • 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?

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