The Repeal of the Jewish Tax

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 During his brief reign, he repealed the Jewish Tax.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?”

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  1. Esther II?

    Good things can happen when people are in the Emperor’s . . . good graces.

  2. Natalie K. says:

    I have no expertise on this subject, but your review is fascinating. And am I missing something, or did the picture of the coin get left out? I’d love to see it.

  3. Natalie,
    The image was missing from the OP, but has been added. Try refreshing the page a few times if you’re still not seeing it.

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    The ex-coin collector in me wants to know how one gets their hands on one of these, and what it would cost.


  5. I don’t suppose you have any sorts of information or indications of where most of the revenues from this tax came from? I just finished reading Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” (highly recommended reading) and answer to that question would be a nice datapoint to compare to some of his theses of the era.

  6. I don’t suppose you have any sorts of information or indications of where most of the revenues from this tax came from? I just finished reading Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” (highly recommended reading) and answer to that question would be a nice datapoint to compare to some of his theses of the era.
    Ooops, should have mentioned solid post! Can’t wait on your next post!

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, the author of the article, Shlomo Moussaieff, owns that coin. He is a very rich London businessman with a world-class collection of Jewish antiquities. He also owns the seal of Malkiyahu, which many Mormon scholars (myself included) equate with Mulek:

    BTW, I found an interesting dissertation chapter that deals with Nerva’s reform of the Jewish tax, here:

    Click to access 07-c3.pdf

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Jamal, I don’t, but note that apostate Jews who were not connected to a synagogue were exempt.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    If anyone is interested, the inscription on the obverse is:


    which stands for:

    Imperator, Nerva, Caesar, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, in possession of the Tribunicia Potestas, Consul for the second time, Pater Patriae

  10. Fascinating stuff, Kev. I also briefly checked out that bit on the seal of Malkiyahu. How do ancient near east folks deal with provinance? It looks like a giant mess.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    It is a huge mess, J., and extremely controversial. Some journals refuse to publish unprovenanced finds. Hershel Shanks, editor of BAR, takes the view that there is simply too much unprovenanced stuff for us to ignore it all. The issue results in very heated arguments among the players in archaeology.

  12. Fascinating! Lacking any positive evidence, it’s probably as nice a proposal as any. I should think generally the answer for why any tax is repealed, even in ancient times, is “lobbying” and Berenice sounds like an effective lobbyist.

    The emphasis on the humiliation rather than the fiscal burden may bolster the idea that some rich and influential Jew or group of wealthy Jews were the catalyst. Since this was a head tax it would not have cost the wealthy much of anything (except to pay it on behalf of their poorer clients). For the rich, it would primarily be seen as a humiliation: a reminder of the war, the destruction of the temple, and an indication that Jews were seen as rebellious and not on par with other residents of the Empire.


    This arxive share my modern hebrew transliteration of this ancient roman coin. There´s a way to read correctly those semitic inscriptions.

  14. Eric Boysen says:

    The true humiliation was on Rome in establishing the tax in the first place!

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