February 8, 2011

Pharisees vs. the Poll-tax

Caesar's Image on that coin might not have been their main issue, in actuality.  Here's why:

To begin with one representative sample of Pharisaism, the historical Hillel school dates from an era when Julius' Caesar's famous tax exemption still applied in Judea - that Jews would pay no tribute in the seventh year.  While King Herod seems to have challenged that custom, and his son Archelaus infamously gathered ten harvests in ten seasons, the direct Roman poll tax did not come into Judean experience until the registration of Quirinius.

At any rate, before the year 6 AD, Pharisees who were sticklers about the Mosaic Sabbatical custom had an easy scapegoat for that custom's latest demise - it was all because of the Herods.  However, in 6 AD, the newly established Government under Quirinius introduced a new poll tax (tributum capitis) which, distinct from the land tax (tributum soli), was not agriculturally based.  But one thing the poll tax was, obviously, was perennial.

Whatever else changed about Judea's tax situation, in this sudden transition to direct Roman rule, the poll tax (by itself) was probably seen by many Pharisees as the first Roman reversal of Caesar's famous decree.  And in that, I suspect, certain Pharisees may have taken the poll tax as an affront in itself, in all years, from the standpoint that - from where they sat - this new tax seemed deliberately contrived as a method of sidestepping controversy about Judea's traditional sabbatical laws.

One caveat:  I'm not certain Quirinius actually instituted the land tax, or that one had yet been levied on Judea to this point.  But even if it had, any Pharisee who wanted to be strict about the year of rest could store up his own grain supply for six years.  As long as he was not a farmer, then (1) the debate was largely on principle, if not merely academic, (2) the land tax would not affect him directly, and (3) the poll tax would still come to him in the seventh year, and thus could still feel like an affront.

Of course, I'm not suggesting all Pharisees were concerned about this, and I'm sure that on a more common level of outrage the Image of Tiberius on that coin had to be the most [or, rather, least] popular sticking point with any traveling Rabbi's constituency.  I admit, that aspect of the poll-tax issue probably had become a very common complaint, but was it really a significant problem?  There's no record of grass roots non-payment across Judea, and anyway, practically speaking, isn't that why Judea had money changers?

Point:  As long as Roman tax collectors took shekels, a Pharisaic complaint about Roman imprinting seems more like empty rhetoric.  The more I think about it, empty rhetoric may really be all that it was.

We now have to consider that maybe this trap-question, as laid out in Mt.22, Mk.12 & Lk.20 (but also assuming historicity, here) was nothing more than a really weak effort to trap Jesus, which then turned into a good story for the Gospel writers, largely because it makes Jesus' response look more brilliant by comparison.  On balance, all of that seems quite plausible; but there's another side to this *coin*, also, which requires more thought.

What if, instead, we consider that maybe the trap set for Jesus on that day invited him into a slightly more complicated debate, one involving more than just moral shagrin for the imprinted face of Tiberius, on a coin no Judean was ever required to touch.  It should occur to us that - even though the graven image aspect may have played best with the crowds, and may still be what plays best in repeating the story - a more entrenched kind of dispute appears to be what we ought to expect from the larger historical context.  That is:

Both Mark and Matthew* frame the trap as a "choose sides" demand, as if the Pharisees and Herodians have been fiercely debating the poll tax issue for quite some time.  However multi-faceted that debate might have been, I don't see the Herodians giving it much time or respect if the Pharisees' major case could have been overturned with the quick response, "Well, they take shekels, don't they?"

To modern readings, the Gospel writers seem to suggest the main coin issue was about graven images.  But our 'impression' here may only be due to the fact that we've lost hold of what everyone knew, back then.  When Mark and Matthew say, "Pharisees", "Herodians" and "κῆνσον" (poll tax) in the same sentence, I suspect there were some in their original audience who knew much better to what larger political conflict those three elements alluded.  So, each writer wisely included that data, but overall managed to play to the crowd.  Just like the Pharisees did... and just like Jesus, as well.

By the way, just to clear up one side point, from above:  Jesus' response in the Gospels is most brilliant NOT because it overturns the tax trap so effectively, but because the Lord steered his way through a divisive contention by turning it into a challenge for all souls to acknowledge the centrality of God.

Because, naturally, we all have been formed in the image of God.

*I don't want to distract from this post here, but I find it characteristic for Luke-Acts to avoid repeating negative views of the Herodians, as often as possible.  I've always suspected this had something to do with Agrippa & Bernice being on Paul's side before his voyage to Nero, but I've not worked through that arugment yet at all.  Something else someone (else) should work on, someday. (!)


Charles Savelle said...

Bill, I have a couple of questions regarding this post. First, what does the Hillel school have to do with the discussion at hand? Second, are you aware that that it is possible that those who paid the land tax would be exempt from the head tax since this was practiced elsewhere in the Roman Empire? See Schmidt in his article on “Taxes” in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 805. If this is correct (and it is an if) then it might affect your argument somewhat.

Bill Heroman said...

Good questions, Charles. Thanks, as always, for the good pushback.

On the Hillel school, that should have been edited one more time, if not cut, but I was trying to say that at least one school of thought *within* Pharisaism (however many there were) seems to have gone back so far as the time when the 7th year was exempted. The point itself may be distracting, problematic, or unnecessary. I'm not sure. But I guess at least I didn't express it well. So thanks for letting me clarify(?).

On your tax point, I believe you're right that farmers weren't double-taxed, which makes sense, but I don't think that affects my argument...

First of all, prior to Quirinius, there was NO *direct* tax in Judea, on lands OR heads, so there's no comparison here. But secondly, even if we want to compare the post-AD6 poll tax with [whatever local taxes Judeans paid between Hyrcanus and the early years of King Herod], we'd still have to assume the Judeans paid no personal taxes in the 7th year. We'd assume this because Julius Caesar exempted Judea from *all* taxes in the 7th year. It wasn't reduced taxes, as in - fine, there's no grain but still do send us some cash from your regular non-aggie revenues. It was NO taxes. Period.

Thus, since it appears the Pharisees paid no personal taxes in the 7th year, as late as Herod's early years, then it wouldn't matter to them how Rome distinguished between land tax and head tax *elsewhere* or in general. To the Pharisees, it'd be as simple as no-tax vs. now-tax.

At least, that's my argument.

Btw, a fun typo - probably from Schmidt's editors - states incorrectly on p.805 that Julius Caesar abolished the publicani system "in 30 B.C." Heh heh. Obviously, that'd have been Augustus. ;-)

Charles Savelle said...

Thanks for your reply Bill.

Just out of curiosity, what is the evidence for your assertion that, "prior to Quirinius, there was NO *direct* tax in Judea"?

It is my understanding that when Pompey entered Jerusalem in 63 B.C. he imposed a tax of more than 10,000 talents on the Jews (Josephus, Ant 14.77) and that Julius Caesar later instituted reforms which exempted sabbatical years (Jos., Ant. 14.200-201) but that taxes were never completely eliminated. Also, it would seem to me that if Julius Caesar instituted reforms, then there would have been something to reform. Maybe I am missing something here.

BTW, I was doing some study in this area recently and in my cursory research, I did not find a lot of help in the area of primary sources. If you do have a list of such sources maybe you could share those. I would love to see them for my own study.

Bill Heroman said...

I've not read much on this topic that goes back as far as Pompey, but I've gathered that whatever he assessed was still "indirect", in that he required it of Judea's leaders. My point being that tribute and hegemony were different than Provincialization and taxes, as you know.

IOW, our sticking point seems to be my heavy leaning on the word "direct". (?) Or maybe the conversation is easily confused because it's kind of an artificial distinction to make "tribute" and "taxation" such distinct terms, as I'm doing. But again, thus my emphasis on "direct".

On Caesar and "reform", that's a great point. Still, this applies not to the distinction of "direct", but to the issue of 7th-year exemptions. Between Pompey (63 BC) and J.Caesar's reform (47), there were two 7th Years (c.57 & 50). So my "prior" needs qualification. But - in retrospect - that's something else I was trying to get at by starting out with the Hillel reference.

The ideology of the historical Pharisee party was probably somewhat fluid, over time. Compare "Republicans" in U.S. History up to G.W.Bush (God bless 'im), who presided over the largest expansion of the welfare state in American history, the prescription drug benefit. That's "Republican"? So how will historians define "Republicanism" in their future sourcebooks? (You get my point.)

So, yes, I wasn't trying to go back any farther than J.Caesar because, for all I know, the Pharisees may have paid sabbatical year taxes under the Selucid Empire as well. Or not. And they may have resented it mightily. Or not. IDK. Those questions are suddenly more interesting to me, but I still think it's fair to leave them outside the scope here. Probably.

But getting back to the topic: If Hillel's had become a (the?) leading philosophy in Pharisaism circa 33 AD, then I still (so far) feel comfortable going back to the edict of Julius Caesar, and using that as the reference point of "past history" for *these* particular Pharisees.

Finally, to your last question:

My only primary source at the moment [on Roman taxation in Judean, explicitly] is Josephus. I'm honestly not sure there's much else to draw from, but inscriptions and snippets elsewhere.

On taxation, more generally, the OCD entry refers immediately to twelve other articles, which simply underscores what a broad complex topic this is. Love and hate that, right? ;-)

Thanks again for making me dig and think harder. Much obliged...

Bill Heroman said...

I just re-read this conversation, one year later, and I think I may have failed to catch Charles' basic question in his last comment.

By "direct" or "indirect" I'm referring to the standpoint of an individual person living in Herod's Israel and/or Antipas' Galilee/Pilate's Judea.

Yes, Pompey and J.Caesar levied taxes on the nation as a whole. I would call those "indirect" taxes from the standpoint of an individual person. The King of Israel would tax his people directly and then the King would pay Rome. Since the King probably increased the amount of tax *he* required in order to pay any Roman increase in tribute, then new taxes by Rome (*before AD 6*) would have been - practically speaking - an "indirect" tax on the King's people.

One last note: in the past it has been customary for some English writers to call the old "indirect" system the "Tribute" and the new "direct" system a "Tax". That convenience of terminology can be confusing, however, when one notices that Rome continued calling taxes by the terms "tributum" (as above). I don't recall the last time I was reading widely on this subject, and the practice may or may not have been waning recently... but it probably should go away.

Leaving out the word "tribute" for now, it's as simple as this:

Before Quirinius, Rome taxed the King. After Quirinius, Rome taxed the people directly.

This dead horse should now be sufficiently beaten. I hope.

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