In the early 80s I spent a couple of years working as a teaching assistant to S. Kent Brown, then the director of ancient studies at BYU. My main job was grading OT papers, but Kent would occasionally give me research assignments. One project I did involved a palaeographic analysis of some Coptic ostraca (as I recall, my verdict was fourth to fifth century C.E.). Another involved researching everything I could find out about a particular Roman coin. That kind of project was tremendously fun, and it was amazing to me what one could learn from that little bit of metal.
Male Jews over the age of 20 paid a temple tax (i.e., a tax for the support of the temple). This was an annual tax in the amount of a half-shekel. The existence of this tax provides the background for the Gospel stories of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers. The tax had to be paid in local currency, because Greek and Roman coins generally had images of the Emperor, and were therefore deemed profane as violating the command against graven images. So when you came to the temple to pay the tax, there were booths there where you could exchange your pagan coins for acceptably Jewish ones. The concession for these booths was held by the descendants of the High Priest Annas (thus “the booths of the sons of Annas”). They of course took a discount on these exchanges. (This reminds me of the old SNL bit about the bank that does nothing but make change. How do they make any money? The answer comes back: “Volume.”)
When the Romans put down the Jewish revolt in 70 C.E. and destroyed the temple, there was obviously no longer a temple to support by tax. The Emperor Vespasian imposed a replacement tax, the Fiscus Iudaicus, to be used for the upkeep of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. This tax was two denarii, and was imposed on every Jew, whether male or female, young or old, in Judea or elsewhere in the world.
Following the murder of Domitian in 96 C.E., Nerva became the new Roman Emperor for the next 16 months. During his brief reign, he repealed the Jewish Tax. (There is some evidence of the collection of such a tax as late as the third century, so it is not entirely clear whether the repeal was partial only or was reinstituted by a later Emperor.)
The repeal of the Fiscus Iudaicus was announced by a Roman coin, a bronze sestertius, an image of which accompanies this post. The obverse shows Nerva with his titles. The reverse has an image of a palm tree, a symbol of Judea, and around the rim the words FISCI IVDAICI CALVMNIA SVBLATA and the initials S.C. This legend means “the embarrassment of the Jewish Tax is removed,” and the S.C. stands for senatus consulto “with the consent of the Senate.”
The above is pretty straightforward. But the unanswered question is, why did Nerva repeal the tax? A recent article by Shlomo Moussaieff, “The ‘New Cleopatra’ and the Jewish Tax,” in the current issue of BAR, suggests an answer, admittedly one that is completely speculative. The author suggests that the answer has to do with the influence of Berenice (pronounced Bare-uh-NEE-kay).
Berenice was the great granddaughter of Herod the Great, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I and sister to Herod Agrippa II. She was with her brother at Paul’s trial in Caesarea, as recorded in Acts 25:23 and 26:30. She was wealthy, extremely beautiful, well connected, and intensely political (if you ever saw the HBO series Rome, you’ve got a sense for the kind of woman she was). She married three times, the last to King Polomon of Cilicia. He wasn’t Jewish, so she made him get circumcised before the wedding, a major sacrifice for a Roman–and after all that, the marriage didn’t last long.
Anyway, she was in Jerusalem during the years leading up to the Jewish Revolt, and lobbied hard both sides–to prevent the Jews from rebelling, and to prevent the Romans from attacking. She was active in Vespasian’s bid to become the Emperor. Vespasian’s son Titus (who with his Tenth Legion would conclude the putting down of the rebellion) took a liking to her, even though he was more than ten years her junior, and they had a romance in Jerusalem. In 75 C.E. she arrived in Rome with her brother, and the romance with Titus was rekindled. She moved in with Titus and acted as his wife in every respect. She was nicknamed the “New Cleopatra,” and for Titus the heir to the Emperor, to be romantically involved with a Jewish woman was a political liability. When he became Emperor in 79 C.E. he reluctantly sent his paramour back to Jerusalem. (She later would return to Rome anyway; the relationship would not die so easily.)
Nerva served as consul two separate times during the reigns of Vespasian and Titus’ son Domitian. The author concludes: “Was the Jewish Berenice somehow behind Nerva’s decision to annul the Fiscus Judaicus? This is the speculative part. Do you have a better suggestion?”