This semester I’ve been studying a subject called Judaism in the Greco-Roman Diaspora, and, since I have a website, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt here. I realise this has limited appeal to most of my regular readers, but other visitors may be interested. The following is the first essay I wrote for this subject.
In the first century of the Common Era, there were many more Jews living outside of Israel than within Israel. Large settlements of Jews of at least one million people lived in Babylon, Syria, Asia Minor and Egypt. (Feldman 1992:24) Jews also lived in smaller communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Philo mentions three things that set the Diaspora Jews apart from their non-Jewish neighbours: the synagogue, the Sabbath, and the sacred money that was sent to Jerusalem. (On the Embassy to Gaius 23 (156)). This article looks at the practice of Diaspora Jews sending sacred money to Jerusalem, and why this was important to them.
Profitable Pilgrimages to Jerusalem
The Jews saw themselves as a unique people that had been specially chosen by the one true God, and they regarded the temple in Jerusalem as the place where God’s Name resided on earth. The Jewish Scriptures placed a few obligations on adult Jewish males in regard to the temple, and it seems that many of them, including those in the Diaspora, were keen to fulfil these obligations. Jewish men were required to visit the temple three times a year for the agricultural feasts of Unleavened Bread (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukkot). While it was impractical for Jews living outside of Judea to visit the temple three times a year, many tried to make at least one pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple in their lifetime.
Each year several thousands of Diaspora Jews travelled to Jerusalem from all over the Roman world for the feasts. The author of Acts mentions pilgrims coming from many parts of Roman Empire for the feast of Pentecost in around 30 C.E (Acts 2:9-11). The Jewish philosopher Philo, who was born and lived in Alexandria, Egypt, considered himself as belonging to the Jewish nation, and as having a strong attachment to Jerusalem and its temple. (On the Embassy to Gaius 278) Yet he mentions making only one pilgrimage from Alexandria to Jerusalem. (On Providence 2.6)
When Jewish pilgrims came to Jerusalem, they did not come empty-handed (Deut. 16:16), and vast sums of money flowed into the temple. (Feldman 1992:5) Many of the pagan temples of the Greco-Roman world functioned as banks. Similarly, the temple in Jerusalem was not only a centre of religion, it was also a centre of finance. The temple was a treasury, or depository, where money was invested and where revenue was stored. The Jewish pilgrims supported, and contributed to, a large commercial enterprise that included the raising of animals for temple sacrifices, a banking system where foreign currency could be exchanged, and a hospitality industry for the accommodation of pilgrims. This enterprise employed thousands of people.
The Tithes and Temple Tax
The Diaspora Jews who did not travel to Jerusalem collected their tithes, taxes, and gifts, and these were then sent to Jerusalem. Tithes were a “mandatory contribution from agriculture and animals, or the equivalent payment in precious metals . . . [which] amounted to one-tenth of the yearly production or income.” (Stevens 2006: Kindle Location 282) Diaspora Jews living in urban centres did not make agricultural offerings; they mostly sent money, precious metals, and clothing.
Another mandatory contribution was the temple tax. Every adult male, twenty years and over, was obligated to pay an annual temple tax of a half-shekel. (The half-shekel was equivalent to two Attic drachmae (didrachma) or two Roman denarii.) The tradition of paying this tax can be traced back to a command found in Exodus 30:11-16: “You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and shall designate it for the service of the tent of meeting; before the Lord it will be a reminder to the Israelites of the ransom given for your lives” (Exod. 30:16 NRSV).
Exodus 30:11-16 refers to a one-off census tax which paid for the services of the newly constructed Tabernacle. This passage, however, was later used as the basis for the annual half-shekel tax for the temple. Philo wrote about this passage and commented on the ransom contribution, or temple tax: “For it is commanded that all men shall every year bring their first fruits to the temple, from twenty years old and upwards; and this contribution is called their ransom.” (The Special Laws I.76-77)
In the post-exilic period, the tax was set at one-third of a shekel instead of half a shekel (Neh. 10:32). This tax was to pay for “the service of the house of our God: for the rows of bread, the regular grain offering, the regular burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the new moons, the appointed festivals, the sacred donations, and the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God” (Neh. 10:32-33 NRSV).
Philo explains how the tithes, the temple tax of a half-shekel, and other voluntary offerings—all of which he refers to as firstfruits—were collected from the Diaspora communities during the Greco-Roman period:
. . . there is in almost every city a storehouse for the sacred things to which it is customary for the people to come and there to deposit their first fruits, and at certain seasons there are sacred ambassadors selected on account of their virtue, who convey the offerings to the temple. And the most eminent men of each tribe are elected to this office, that they may conduct the hopes of each individual safe to their destination; for in the lawful offering of the first fruits are the hopes of the pious. (The Special Laws I.78)
Image: The Tyrian silver shekel (made with quality silver mined in Tyre) was the only coin accepted as payment for the Jewish temple tax from 126 BCE to 66 CE. (Wikimedia)
Piety, Prosperity, and Penance
The collection and sending of sacred money gave the Diaspora Jews a tangible connection with Jerusalem, and there is good evidence that the collection of the temple tax, supplemented by voluntary donations from the wealthy, was scrupulously undertaken by Diaspora communities. (Barclay 1996:417)
By all accounts, sending money to Jerusalem was an important and significant act of piety and devotion for Diaspora Jews and Proselytes, as well as for those living in Israel. In the tale of Tobit (written in the second century BCE) the main character of the first two chapters, who lived in Israel, emphasises his devotion by relating that he often went to Jerusalem for the feasts and that he was liberal with his tithes (Tobit 1:6-7).
As well as being motivated by piety, Diaspora Jews sent money to Jerusalem with the hope of blessing in return. They believed that contributing to the temple would safeguard divine providence and help them to prosper (Prov. 3:9-10). Philo writes that the Jews brought their gifts to the temple joyfully with the sure hope it would secure them “a relaxation from slavery, or a relief from disease, and to receive in all respects a most sure freedom and safety for the future.” (The Special Laws I.77) Jews also sent voluntary contributions, over and above the amount of the annual tithe in appreciation for benevolent acts of God or to compensate for sinful acts. (Stevens 2006: Kindle Locations 285-286)
Difficulties with the Collections for Jerusalem
Since the time of Julius Caesar, the Jews had been given certain privileges and rights (Antiquities XIV 10 (185-267)). One of these privileges was the right for Diaspora Jews to collect sacred money and send it to Jerusalem. Julius Caesar had decreed that Jewish sacred money should not be touched (i.e. interfered with) or stolen. (Antiquities XVI 6.1-3 (160-166)) In 88 BCE, before these rights were established, Mithridates had seized 800 talents of Jewish money from the island of Cos. (Antiquities XIV 7.2 (110-114)) In 62 BCE, the Roman governor of northern Syria, Flaccus, confiscated a large shipment of Jewish gold sent from four cities in Asia Minor, possibly because of a scarcity of precious metals at the time. Flaccus had to defend himself before the Roman Senate but escaped severe sanctions after an effective defence by Cicero. (Stevens 2006: Kindle Locations 2443-2445; Pro Flacco 28:68) There were several cases where Jewish money meant for Jerusalem was misappropriated.
The Jews were insistent on their legal right to send money safely to Jerusalem, and whenever this right was threatened they sent ambassadors and letters to emperors and officials to argue for their rights to be reinstated. Josephus records several edicts where the right of the Jews in Cyrene and Asia Minor to send money was reaffirmed. (Antiquities XVI 6.1-8 (160-178))
In 66 CE, the Jews in Jerusalem revolted against the Romans. The seizure of vast quantities of silver from the temple by Gessius Florus, the last Roman procurator of Judea, was one of the catalysts of the revolt. (Wars II 14.6 (293); Antiquities XX 11.1 (252-258)) The Jews in Jerusalem were defeated in the ensuing war—about one million were killed—and in 70 CE the Jerusalem temple was destroyed. The wealth of the treasury that had not been destroyed by fire was plundered by the Romans, including sacred objects.
The Diaspora Jews could no longer send their sacred money to Jerusalem.
Still reeling from the devastating loss of their temple, Vespasian added insult to injury and ordered that Jews pay the didrachmon temple tax towards the new temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. All observant Jews—men, women and children over the age of three—throughout the empire were required to pay this tax. The didrachmon plus other taxes on the Jews were collected by a special agency called the Fiscus Judaicus.
In relation to collecting this tax, men were sometimes compelled to prove that they were Jewish, or not, by revealing whether they were circumcised. Seutonius writes that a ninety-year-old man had his genitals examined to see if he was circumcised. (Domitian 7.1, 12) The Jews were taxed more severely by Domitian; he even taxed those who appeared to live like Jews (perhaps gentile Christians). After Domitian, Nerva relaxed the laws. The Jewish tax was later abolished sometime before the 400s.
Image: The coin above is dated 96-98 CE and was issued by Nerva. It reads fisci Judaici calumnia sublata, “abolition of malicious prosecution in connection with the Jewish tax”. Image credit: © Classical Numismatic Group (Wikimedia)
The temple tax and tithes had been an effective way for the Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the Jerusalem temple and their ancient heritage, but the temple, with its ancient traditions of sacrifices and priests and offerings, now ceased to exist. From this time, the numerous local synagogues would become more important as places of worship, learning and identification for the Jews. As a way of showing some continuing link, many of the synagogues in the Greco-Roman Diaspora after 70 CE were oriented to face towards Jerusalem.
 While Jewish men were obligated to “appear before the Lord” three times a year (Exod. 23:17; 34:23-24), women were not necessarily excluded. For example, Hannah went to the tabernacle and Mary went to the temple each year (1 Sam. 1:3-5ff; 2:19; Luke 2:41ff).
 The Jerusalem temple was known for its great wealth and, from time to time, it was sacked of its treasures by conquering enemies (e.g., Antiquities XIV 7.1-2)
 Some people see similarities between the temple tax and Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church. Paul certainly regarded the collection as an almost sacred duty, but, unlike the temple tax, his collection was not compulsory. Also, Paul’s collection was primarily intended to help Christians in the Jerusalem church who were experiencing poverty. The temple tax was primarily intended to fund the ministrations of the temple. (See Acts 11:29, 30; Rom. 15:25-28, 31; 1 Cor. 16:1-4, 15; 2 Cor. 8:1-4; Gal. 2:10; cf. Acts 24:17.)
 Josephus records the account of a wealthy Roman woman, described as someone who had embraced the Jewish religion, who was persuaded by four Jewish charlatans to hand over purple and gold on the pretence that they would send it to Jerusalem on her behalf. (When the fraud was discovered all the Jews living in Rome were banished.) (Antiquities XVIII 3.5 (81-84))
New Revised Standard Version Bible, © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-Revised-Standard-Version-NRSV-Bible/ (Accessed March 2013)
Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, at Early Jewish Writings.
http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/josephus.html (Accessed March 2013)
__________ The Wars of the Jews, at Early Jewish Writings.
http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/josephus.html (Accessed March 2013)
Philo of Alexandria, On Providence, at Early Jewish Writings.
http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book39.html (Accessed March 2013)
__________ On the Embassy to Gaius, at Early Jewish Writings. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book40.html (Accessed March 2013)
__________ The Special Laws, Book 1, at Early Jewish Writing http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book27.html (Accessed March 2013)
Barclay, J.H.M., Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE-117 CE) (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996)
Feldman, Louis H., “Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism in the First Centuty” in Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of their Origins and Early Development, Hershel Shanks (ed), (London: SPCK, 1993), 1-40.
Mandell, Sara, “Who Paid the Temple Tax When the Jews Were under Roman Rule?” in The Harvard Theological Review, 77.2 (April 1984), 223-232. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1509387 (Accessed 26.03.13)
Marshall, Anthony J., “Flaccus and the Jews of Asia (Cicero ‘Pro Flacco’ 28.67-69)” in Phoenix, 29.2 (Summer, 1975), 139-154. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1087696 (Accessed 26.03.13)
Stevens, Marty E., Temples, Tithes, and Taxes: The Temple and the Economic Life of Ancient Israel (Baker Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2006-11-01)
Whittaker, Molly, Jews and Christians: A Greco-Roman View (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984)
Other articles on early Jewish history are here.