Numismatic Evidence that Corroborates Suetonius’ Life of Otho and Contradicts the Gospels

Keener and WrightTo follow up on my previous review of Christian scholar Craig Keener’s “Otho: A Targeted Comparison” in Biographies and Jesus, I’d like to briefly discuss the relevance of numismatic evidence in evaluating Suetonius’ Life of Otho in comparison to the NT Gospels.

Numismatics is the study of ancient currency, and is particularly relevant to the study of Roman emperors, since the rulers of the Roman Empire would stamp their faces on the currency in circulation throughout the Mediterranean. A number of years ago I took a seminar on Roman numismatics with professor Edward Watts at UC San Diego, in which I did a research project on the emperor Otho and the currency he circulated with his image during his short reign. It is also relevant to another seminar that I took with professor Michele Salzman at UC Riverside in which I did a research project related to the depiction of Roman taxation in the Gospel of Matthew. My research in both seminars is relevant to evaluating Keener’s argument that Suetonius’ historical reliability can be compared to that of the NT Gospels.

Numismatics is a useful piece of data for assessing historical reliability, since ancient coins furnish archaeological evidence that we can use to corroborate (or contradict) ancient narratives. The historical claim of Suetonius in question, which is relevant to numismatics, is a peculiar of detail of Otho that he discusses about his hair (12.1):

“He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head, that no one suspected it.”

So the emperor Otho apparently had the custom of wearing a wig. Is there any way that we could corroborate this detail that Suetonius gives with archaeological evidence? Well actually there is. During my seminar with Watts, I gave a presentation on some Roman denarii minted during his reign, and one of the things that Watts pointed out during my presentation is that the coins actually depict Otho wearing a wig. If you take a close look at the denarius below, you may notice that there is something funny about his hair:

To make the detail of his wig more prominent, I’ve included another denarius of the emperor Nero below, in which his hair is depicted in the standard fashion:

And so, outside material remains confirm that Suetonius had gotten this detail of Otho correct in his biography. We can also use numismatics to corroborate other information Suetonius gives about the Roman emperors, such as another detail about the emperor Galba. In his Life of Galba (5.2), Suetonius claims that the emperor Galba had a special connection with Augustus’ wife Livia, writing:

He showed marked respect to Livia Augusta, to whose favour he owed great influence during her lifetime and by whose last will he almost became a rich man; for he had the largest bequest among her legatees, one of fifty million sesterces. But because the sum was designated in figures and not written out in words, Tiberius, who was her heir, reduced the bequest to five hundred thousand, and Galba never received even that amount.”

Once more numismatic evidence comes to our aid in corroborating this detail, since it turns out that, when Galba first became emperor, he actually minted coins that depict Livia Augusta on the reverse. Below is another Roman denarius that depicts both Galba and Livia together:

The connection that Galba drew with the house of Augustus and the empress Livia was a special part of his propaganda when he first became emperor, which is discussed by scholar Colin Kraay in The Coinage of Vindex and Gaiba A.D. 68, and the Continuity of the Augustan Principate.

And so, when it comes to his anecdotes about these Roman emperors, what the evidence of ancient currency bears out is that Suetonius tends to know what he is talking about. Can such numismatic evidence be used to evaluate the depiction of events found in the NT Gospels? Well, it turns out that it can. But rather than corroborating the Gospels, what scholar Fabian Udoh finds in To Caesar What Is Caesar’s–a scholarly monograph on tax administration in Roman Palestine from 63 BCE to 70 CE–is that the archaeological record actually contradicts the Gospel narratives.

Surely all of us have heard the famous saying of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mk. 12:17; Mt. 22:21; Lk. 20:25). The context of the saying is when hostile questioners try to trap Jesus into taking a stance on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities. Clever as he is, Jesus reframes the matter, by specifying that Roman taxes are a secular matter, as the denarius they hand Jesus bears the face of Caesar, and is thus one his possessions, rather than something pertaining to God. In the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22), the full passage reads:

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.

‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’ 

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ 

They brought him a denariusand he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’

Caesar’s,’ they replied. 

Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ 

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” 

While an excellent moment for displaying Jesus’ rhetorical wit, however, the scene does pose a historical-critical question: did the Judeans of this period actually pay Roman taxes using the denarius?

Roman denarius of Tiberius

By studying archaeological evidence such as the coin hoards excavated from this period, Udoh argues that this is unlikely. Interacting with the research of Donald Ariel in “A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem,” who provides a systematic analysis of surface excavations and coin finds, Udoh points out that significant numbers of denarii are found in Palestine only after 69 CE, particularly from the reign of Vespasian onward. This was because, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the currency and government in Judea changed dramatically. However, prior to this time (and during the time of Jesus) the primary silver currency in Palestine was the Tyrian shekel. For example, a coin hoard discovered at Isfiya, which contained coins dating from 40 BCE-53 CE, contained 4,400 Tyrian coins compared to only 160 denarii, of which about 30 were of Tiberius (Udoh, pg. 235). To be sure, a few denarii made their way to Palestine through circulation, but this proportion shows that Tyrian shekels were the dominant currency that would have been used for taxation in coin.

In light of this evidence, Udoh (pg. 236) concludes, “the imperial denarii were not required for Roman taxation, and they did not form the basis of the silver currency of the region. The connection that is made in the Gospels, especially in Matt 22:19, between Roman taxation in Judea and the denarius does not offer any specific historical information about taxation in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime.” What is especially interesting about this insight is that the traditional author of the Gospels of Matthew is even reputed to have been a tax collector, specifically a toll collector (τελώνης) in Galilee. That he would thus make a mistake about the currency used for taxation is rather peculiar, though such an error does fit with the fact that the majority of mainstream biblical scholars agree that the traditional authorial attribution is spurious.

Furthermore, taxation in Palestine was not administered by the Romans, but by the Jewish authorities, and it was collected by Jewish agents rather than Roman agents (this was done to make the presence of Roman imperialism less obvious). In the case of Matthew’s occupation as a toll collector, Udoh (pg. 241) explains, “If toll collection was leased out to contractors in Judea, it appears that both the contractors and their agents were Jews.”

As reviewer Ed Cohen explains, summarizing Udoh’s findings in Notre Dame Magazine (“Biblical Tax Story Rendered Implausible”):

“To determine the authenticity of Jesus’ pronouncement, Udoh looked at elements of the story: Did a Roman tax exist in Jesus’s time that everyone was required to pay? Was payment required in a particular Roman coin? Would that coin have borne the likeness of the emperor, and if so, would it have been circulating in such abundance that Jesus could have reasonably expected one to be produced on the spot?

First, Udoh finds no evidence from the period of a census-based, per-capita tribute or ‘poll tax,’ as the word in Matthew and Mark is customarily translated. Any assessments by Rome, he says, likely would have been based on agricultural production and paid in-kind with farm products like grain. In fact, by Udoh’s analysis, Rome did not impose a ‘per capita’ tribute on the people in Judea until 70 CE. He also finds no evidence of a direct tribute requiring payment in Roman money. Finally, he observes that since colonial taxes are notoriously difficult to collect, requiring payment in a specific coin would have only made collection more difficult.

As for the Roman coin Jesus calls for, a silver denarius, these did exist during the time of his ministry, and they would have borne the likeness of Caesar Augustus or Tiberius. But while denarii would have been recognized by people in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’s time, Udoh says, archeological findings suggest they were not the silver coin being used at the time. That coin was the Tyrian shekel.

For these reasons Udoh believes that the render-unto-Caesar story probably originated from a later time or another place.”

And so, the passage is either anachronistic or is conflating a tax imposed from another region than Palestine. If it refers to a tax imposed at a later date, it could be because Mark (the first gospel in which it appears) was composed after 70 CE, which was the earliest time that such a tax was imposed in Palestine. If it is from another region, it could be because Christians in those areas were struggling with the issue of whether they should pay Roman taxes [1], and the authors of the NT Gospels felt the need to address the question, by spuriously placing a saying on the lips of Jesus that he actually never spoke.

But unlike in the case of Suetonius’ writings, wherein numismatic evidence confirms the details of his narrative, here the evidence of ancient coins does not bear out the narrative of the Gospels. Beyond the problems I noted in my previous review of Keener, this is another reason why we probably shouldn’t be comparing legendary texts like the Gospels to a historical biographer like Suetonius.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] An additional argument from silence may be added against the notion that the historical Jesus had spoken in favor of paying taxes to the Roman authorities, based on Paul’s letters. In Romans 13:6-7, Paul states:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

Paul tends to mention when he had a previous teaching of Jesus available on a matter of Christian practice (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1411:22-24), and so his failure to mention Jesus’ alleged teaching on paying Roman taxes carries some weight in this passage against the notion that there was such a previous teaching. It’s also worth noting that Paul’s reasoning differs somewhat from Jesus’, since Paul equates the governing authorities with being servants of God, whereas Jesus disassociates Caesar from God.

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29 Responses to Numismatic Evidence that Corroborates Suetonius’ Life of Otho and Contradicts the Gospels

  1. Pingback: Vridar » Comparing Ancient Historical Biographies with the Gospels

  2. David Ashton says:

    The Temple incident is a practical joke on the accusers, themselves witlessly presenting an alien image in the precincts, and the banal aphorism re God and Caesar is not the crux.

    • Celsus says:

      Hi David,

      That seems to be an odd reading, given the content of the passage. Jesus asks for the coin used to pay the tax, and then says to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. He doesn’t say that no such coin is used to pay no such imperial tax. Likewise, it’s odd that the disciples of the Pharisees along with the Herodians would make such a witless mistake, since surely they would be familiar with the tax practices of the region. Given that Paul had previously expressed the concern that Christians pay taxes, it seems more likely to me that the Gospels are inserting an ahistorical episode into the life of Jesus, in order to clarify that Christians should pay Roman taxes, rather than simply trying to depict the questioners in the passage as fools.

  3. Travis R says:

    I found it worthwhile to read this in conjunction with your 2014 post on Matthew, which was also largely influenced by Udoh’s book and adds some additional data.

    At the risk of going off topic, I was struck by the fact that the content presented here is another piece of evidence for a post-70 synoptic authorship, but I don’t recall ever encountering it being presented as such. So I found the old 2014 post when I went looking to see if you had ever dedicated a post to specifically discussing the evidences for the dating of the gospels; and couldn’t find anything. Did I miss it? Have you ever interacted with Robinson’s ‘Redating the New Testament’ (which is apparently freely available online now)?

    • Celsus says:

      Hi Travis,

      I’ve mentioned in a comment under the post about my debate with Craig Evans that the passage about the denarius may be evidence for a post-70 date of Mark (and hence the other two Synoptics). The best counter-argument to that view is that the error is not an anachronism (reflecting tax practices in Palestine after 70), but is instead conflating Roman taxes outside of Palestine. Given that Paul mentions a concern for Christians paying taxes before 70, this could be the case, and since Mark was likely written outside of Palestine, it’s questionable whether the author knew about the taxes Vespasian implemented in the region, even if the text was written after 70. But, it could be an anachronism, it’s just not a bullet-proof argument for a post-70 dating of Mark. As such, I’m not sure how effective it would be in countering Robinson’s thesis. It would just be an additional factor to consider.

    • Celsus says:

      Though, I wonder if the passage could be an oblique reference to the fiscus Judaicus, which was imposed by Vespasian on all Jews not just in Palestine, but throughout the Empire. The tax was paid using the denarius, in reprisal for the Jewish revolt, and was a matter of political/religious controversy. If the author of Mark was Jewish, as scholars such as Boyarin and Kok argue, then the episode could be inserted to clarify that Jewish Christians should pay the tax. If this interpretation is correct, that could be a stronger argument for contending that the passage reflects a post-70 anachronism and hence a post-70 dating of Mark. That could be something worth exploring.

  4. focusonfocusblog says:

    This Udoh publication is over a decade old and the field work must be many years older as the review is dated 2001. Has more recent archaeology informed the conclusions? What do the apologists say in defence of their assertion that this is a record of real events?

    • Celsus says:

      2005 isn’t that long ago for a scholarly monograph. Works much older than that gets cited all the time in scholarly research.

      Unless a coin hoard or surface dig suddenly turns up a massive amount of Roman denarii dating to before 70 CE, however, Udoh’s conclusion that they did not form the silver currency in the region is fairly sound. He also engages the literary sources to demonstrate that Roman taxation wasn’t imposed there until the time of Vespasian. I don’t think new evidence is going to turn up on that matter any time soon.

      I haven’t seen any apologists critique Udoh, so I don’t know what they would say.

      Can you please comment under your real name though? I often prefer that people who comment here don’t write under a pseudonym.

    • Celsus says:

      I found a more recent source, dating to 2017, which corroborates Udoh’s finding that the Roman denarius is not found in significant quantities in Palestine until the reign of Vespasian, post-70 CE. Christopher Zeichmann (pg. 428f) in “The Date of Mark’s Gospel apart from the Temple and Rumors of War: The Taxation Episode (12:13-17) as Evidence” writes:

      “Numismatist Danny Syon shows that there was relatively strict observance of Roman imperial and Roman provincial currency zones (slightly north of the provincial border dividing Syria from Judea-Batanea-Nabatea) until after the Jewish War. Consequently, only a single prewar denarius has been found in Galilee, though the region attests 75 denarii minted between 69 and 135 CE. The number of denarii is less drastic for the province of Judea as a whole, but still overwhelming: 79 denarii in the period 63 B.C.E.-68 C.E., as opposed to 374 denarii in the period 69-135 CE. The periods differ in length, but the average number of denarii per year illustrates the change in coin circulation: 0.01 denarii/year in Galilee before the war, and 1.14/year in Galilee between the wars; 0.60/year in Judea before the war, 5.67/year in Judea between the wars. But even these data understate the stark nature of the numismatic evidence. Kenneth Lönnqvist observes that zero denarii are known in any prewar Judean coin hoards. Denarii that were minted before the war have been found exclusively either in hoards deposited during the war or later, or as stray finds for which the original context is usually uncertain. There is no reason to think such coins were in wide circulation before the war. Archaeologists and numismatists have also noted the striking dearth of denarii in Batanea, the Decapolis, and southernmost Syria (e.g., Ptolemais, Dor, Haifa) until Vespasian’s reign, under whom there was a concerted (if only half-successful) effort to inject imperial coinage into the Roman East. Syon concludes, “I think that it is quite clear that Roman imperial coins started arriving to Palestine in any appreciable numbers only in the Flavian period.”

      So it looks like Udoh’s research in 2005 still hold up, according to more recent research.

  5. Joe says:

    Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, and then again 65 years later. Seems like looters would keep the Roman coins, but Tyrian shekels might be as worthless as Confederate money in the reconstruction era. If so, wouldn’t the rarity of Roman coins unearthed in Jerusalem indicate less than we think about which coins were in usage pre-70?

    • Celsus says:

      The Tyrian shekel wasn’t worthless after the fall of Jerusalem. First off, silver currency is always going to have value, by virtue of being a precious metal. But likewise, as discussed in the comment above, Vespasian’s effort to inject the denarius into Palestine was only partially successful. The Tyrian shekel continued to be used in the region after 70 CE.

      • Joe says:

        Earlier in the first century CE, the Romans had stopped the mints producing the Tyrian shekel, but upon request, they allowed Jews to mint Tyrian Shekels, without altering the inscriptions. That then created the odd scenario of Jews having to mint coins with inscriptions that would normally not be allowed, but were ok because they weren’t as blasphemous as Roman coins. And then the Judeans started minting silver shekels dated with the years of the war (66-70 CE). So when Judea and Jerusalem were conquered by the Romans, the Jewish mints certainly ended and the production of shekels would’ve stopped. So what are the sources indicating the continued use of shekels post-70 CE?

        • Celsus says:

          I may have been under a mistaken assumption from reading Christopher Zeichmann’s article above about how the denarius did not become the uniform currency in the region under Vespasian. He injected the denarius into the region, but it wasn’t the only coin that was used. If the Tyrian shekel became obsolete, what other silver currency was used, then?

          But either way, your hypothesis about all the pre-war denarii disappearing from looting is disconfirmed from the coin hoards that have been discovered from before the war. As Zeichmann explains:

          “Kenneth Lönnqvist observes that zero denarii are known in any prewar Judean coin hoards. Denarii that were minted before the war have been found exclusively either in hoards deposited during the war or later, or as stray finds for which the original context is usually uncertain. There is no reason to think such coins were in wide circulation before the war.”

          Those coin hoards wouldn’t have been touched by any looters, and they don’t attest circulation of the denarii, so yes, the absence of the denarii does indicate something significant.

  6. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    The whole post presupposes that Jesus had the same political status as a Judaean – i.e. as a direct Roman subject under Pilate. But he lived his whole adult life under Herod Antipas in a client state, only entering the Roman Empire to visit Jerusalem for holidays. The issue is obviously the tribute Herod Antipas must pay to Rome, which will inevitably be an issue for Zealot types. Note that Mark has Pharisees in league with the Herodians, Should we give (δοῦναι) tribute (κῆνσος) to Caesar? as Herod certainly does. Luke uses φόρος which best means tribute . In Luke Herod is in town, like everyone, during the trial, where the accusation is made that he rejects tribute. This is may be an accusation of Zealotry, but on the other hand, you wouldn’t expect a messiah to give tribute to Rome. Lunacy about ‘tribute/ φόρος to Rome’ resurfaces in the account of the origins of the war in Josephus.

    • Celsus says:

      Hi Mark,

      The issue is the fact that all three Synoptic Gospels (including Luke 20:20-26) identify the Roman denarius as the currency used for taxation. But as both Udoh and Zeichmann find, from a survey of coin excavations and literary sources, the denarius was not used for taxation in both Judea and Galilee, neither for a direct tax by the Romans or by the local authorities. Herod Antipas collected tax using the Tyrian Shekel, which was the predominant silver currency in the region. Even in Judea under Pilate, taxes were not collected by the Romans, but instead by the servants of the Priesthood.

      The NIV translates κῆνσος specifically as an imperial tax, imposed by the Romans on subject peoples, in Mark 12:41. Udoh interprets this as a per capita “poll tax,” which the Romans did not impose at the time. Strong’s Concordance likewise notes that the taxation implied was “not paid in Jewish, but rather in Roman money.” Matthew 22:19 specifically identifies the denarius as τὸ νόμισμα τοῦ κήνσου (“the currency of/used for the imperial tax”).

      But, the denarius was not used for a Roman imperial tax until the time of Vespasian, when he injected more denarii into both Judea and Galilee. You are right that Luke 20:22 uses φόρος, but it’s also the latest Synoptic gospel, and this is likely a redaction on Mark (and possibly Matthew too, if the author of Luke was familiar with Matthew). Strong notes that φόρος was imposed “especially on persons,” adding:

      “φόρος, φόρου, ὁ (from φέρω, hence, properly, ὁ φέρεται; cf. φόβος), from Herodotus down, the Sept. for מַס and (2 Esdr. 4:20 2Esdr. 6:8; Nehemiah 5:4) for מִדָּה, tribute, especially the annual tax levied upon houses, lands, and persons (cf. Thomas Magister, Ritschl edition, p. 387, 13; Grotius as quoted in Trench, § 107:7; see τέλος, 2): φόρον, φόρους διδόναι, Καίσαρι, Luke 20:22; Luke 23:2 (1 Macc. 8:4, 7); ἀποδιδόναι, Romans 13:7; τέλειν, Romans 13:6.”

      But the Romans did not tax individual persons, houses, or land, and especially not using the denarius.

    • Celsus says:

      Here is what Zeichmann (pp. 430-1) finds about the translation of κῆνσος in Mark: “It is not immediately obvious which tax the Marcan Jesus discusses. The Gospel mentions three important features: (1) it was levied via census (κήνσος); (2) it was collected by coin (specifically a δηνάριον—but set aside that particular anachronism for the moment); and (3) it was paid to the reigning emperor (Καίσαρ). Phrased directly, no evidence suggests that any tax possessed all three of these features before the temple’s destruction. Mark locates the pericope in Jerusalem of Roman Judea, a province where a certain tax in Jesus’ time was collected visà-vis information gathered in the provincial census conducted in 6 c.e. In particular, a land tax (tributum soli; Josephus A.J. 18.1.1 §3) was exacted in the newly annexed province of Judea. Although this was not technically a capitation tax (tributum capitis), it is unlikely that the legal distinction entailed a salient difference for the terminology among most Greek-speaking provincial denizens. One could sensibly infer that various census-based taxes all fell under Mark’s term κήνσος. This tax, however—the tributum soli—was exacted in kind rather than via coinage in Judea; that is, it was paid in goods rather than money. Josephus makes clear that unsown land resulted in an inability to pay the tribute (AJ. 18.8.4 §§273-75), and apparently produce was kept in stores for “Caesar’s corn” (Vita 13 §71). Only in cases of extenuating circumstances was this tax collected monetarily, such as the emergency collection at Agrippa II’s behest in 66 c.e. (B.J. 2.17.1 §405). This collection policy was typical in eastern frontier provinces, where grain accumulated as tax might supply a nearby military garrison or be sold to other provinces.23 The fact that the Judean tributum soli was paid in harvested crops renders it moot for present purposes. Mark’s tax is explicitly paid with coin, a detail already noted to be essential to the pericope. The other taxes to which Judean denizens were subjected (e.g., tolls, duties) were sometimes collected monetarily, but they had no connection to a census. It is therefore unlikely that Mark would term them κήνσος. In fact, no monetary capitation taxes are known at all in the southern Levant before the war, much less any paid in denarii or equivalent coinage (e.g., didrachm). In short, there was no κήνσος that a resident of Judea or Galilee paid to Καίσαρ with a δηνάριον or any other coin for that matter at the time. Whatever tax Mark had in mind, it did not exist during the life of Jesus.”

    • Celsus says:

      Also, another issue is that there is no evidence that Herod Antipas had to pay tribute to Rome, from the taxation that he collected through his own administration. As Green and McDonald (The World of the New Testament) remark: “There is no evidence in Josephus that Herod was compelled to pay annual tribute to Rome, nor is there any indication that Herod’s sons Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip were forced to render proceeds from taxes gathered in their territories to Rome as a tribute after their father’s death…”

      • Mark Shapiro says:

        Jesus wouldn’t have had any experience of any individually paid tax to Rome, and the Antipas retinue, the ‘Herodians’, wouldn’t be asking him about it. The individual Galilean only pays taxes to Antipas. A Judean might have paid such a tax, but why would Jesus have a view about it, and why would the Herodians wonder how his religious system worked out in a country that is not their own? The whole topic of taxes in the sense of the word we use, is I think beside the point, despite all the ink or pixels spent on the topic above.

        The denizens of all Jewish lands would hardly be familiar with silver coins at all, and of all Jewish rulers, only Philip dared to put an image of Caesar on any of his (copper) coins. (Morten Jensen Herod Antipas in Galilee, chapter on coins of Herods and Hasmoneans) The denarius is however a highly appropriate coin for inclusion in the payment of Herodian tribute, or symbolizing it; the only surprise here is that there was one in the room. The reason why it is the theme here is the reason why so few are found buried in the ground.

        The guys who claim the Herods paid no tribute, Green and MacDonald, are strangely dogmatic. Appian says of Herod*.html

        “V 75 1 After these events Octavian set forth on an expedition to Gaul, which was in a disturbed state, and Antony started for the war against the Parthians. The Senate having voted to ratify all that he had done or should do, Antony again despatched his lieutenants in all directions and arranged everything else as he wished. He set up kings here and there as he pleased, on condition of their paying a p507 prescribed tribute: in Pontus, Darius, the son of Pharnaces and grandson of Mithridates: in Idumea and Samaria, Herod: in Pisidia, Amyntas; in a part of Cilicia, Polemon, and others in other countries.”

        (‘Tribute’ is phoros again. It is suggested that ‘Idumea and Samaria’ should read: Idumea, Iudea and Samaria, but the copyist messed up, but the learned have disputed this).

        Smallwood argues convincingly that there is no reason to think this arrangement let up later, and no reason to think Herod Antipas did not acquire the same obligation Herod certainly had at the outset

        I think it is in any case clear that we don’t have to do with taxes individuals paid with denarii, of all things: Jesus just wouldn’t know anything about such a thing, nor be asked by Herodians about it.

        • Celsus says:

          Your interpretation would hardly seem “clear,” when multiple experts who have studied the matter don’t reach that conclusion.

          First off, it doesn’t resolve the issue that the word used in the two earlier versions of the pericope is κήνσος, which more aptly means a census, per capita, “poll tax.” And in Matthew, Jesus specifically calls for τὸ νόμισμα τοῦ κήνσου (“the currency used to pay the tax”), which speaks against the notion that the denarius was symbolic.

          The use of the word κήνσος to refer to taxes on individuals, rather than the tribute of a client state, can be corroborated by Matthew 17:24-27. There the term is used in association with the Temple Tax, which Peter and Jesus must pay (Mt. 17:27). It’s also paired with the word tolls τέλη (“tolls”), which were likewise collected from individuals. Both Strong (here) and the LSJ (here) identify the proper meaning of the word as a “poll tax,” particularly for Mt. 17:25 and 22:19.

          Notably, one solution to the emphasis on the denarius and the way the tax is described is that it makes sense in the context of the fiscus ludaicus. As Zeichmann (pg. 434) explains:

          “The fiscus Iudaicus is the first known tax to even approximate the three aforementioned features of Mark’s tax: levied by census, collected in coin, and paid to the emperor. In fact, no prewar tax in Judea was both levied by census and paid in coinage (let alone denarii in particular), making the fiscus Iudaicus the first to have both attributes. To be sure, the Jewish tax was not technically paid to the reigning emperor, but, as noted above, other writers like Josephus euphemize the tax’s recipient in similar ways.”

          Furthermore, the fiscus ludaicus would make more sense of the religious tensions highlighted in the passage. Jesus draws a distinction between what is “Caesar’s” and what is “God’s.” Herod simply paying tribute to Rome doesn’t make as much sense in this context. Herod’s taxes (and speculated tribute) were more secular. But as Zeichmann (pg. 432) explains:

          “Shortly after the siege of Jerusalem, Vespasian introduced this tax to replace the annual half-tetradrachm/one-didrachm tax that Jewish men had paid to the temple. Though they bore some superficial similarities, such as a roughly equivalent fee of two denarii, the differences between the temple tax and the fiscus Iudiacus were significant: the new tax did not support the cult of the Jerusalem temple but was collected by Roman officials to fund the Roman temple known as Jupiter Capitolinus.26 This posed a significant problem for many Jews, since monolatry was widely understood to entail support for the Lord to the exclusion of other deities’ cults.”

          Likewise notable is the fact that the fiscus ludaicus was imposed on Jews throughout the empire, and would have been something that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels were well aware of, if composing in a post-70 context. It would also make more sense of the Gospel authors feeling the need to address the issue. Antipas fell from power during the time of Caligula (which is too early for any of the Synoptics to be written), but the fiscus ludaicus would have presented a conflict for Jewish Christians. Should they pay a tax specifically for a Pagan temple? The Gospel authors would have likely felt the need to spell out an answer for that problem.

          Also, this per capita tax uses the same vocabulary as the currency described in the Gospels. Zeichmann (pg. 434) explains: “Significantly, the fiscus Iucaicus was usually collected in denarii, and the tax was known by that coin in Greek texts (i.e., τιμή δηναρίων δύο Ιουδαίων).”

          Either way, even if the pericope does not refer to fiscus Iucaicus, one has to torture the language of the passage in Mark and Matthew to construe it as referring to the tribute of Antipas. Another thing speaking against your interpretation of Luke (the only gospel to use φόρος) is that the Herodians aren’t even mentioned in that version of the pericope. The teachers of the law and the chief priests only send “spies” (ἐγκάθετοι) to ask Jesus this question (Lk. 20:19-20), and it is so that they can hand Jesus over to the governor (ἡγεμόνος), i.e. Pilate, not Herod. Pilate is specifically described using the word ἡγεμόνος in Luke, whereas the author calls Herod a “tetrarch” (cf. Lk. 3:1).

          What is your evidence that Herod paid his (speculated) tribute to Rome using the denarius? And how would Jesus, who you claim wasn’t well-versed in tax policies, know about the arrangements between Herod and Rome, and specifically the type of coin used? (Note, Jesus is the one who calls for the denarius, the Pharisees and the Herodians don’t present him with it.)

          In any event, your interpretation would only sort of work with Luke (which doesn’t even mention the Herodians) and that doesn’t speak well to a historical context for this episode during Jesus’ lifetime. The two earliest sources would have described a census, “poll tax.” That could fit well into a context with the fiscus Iucaicus, for the reasons described above, but either way no such tax existed during Jesus’ lifetime. At best, Luke would have redacted one (or both) of the two earlier sources, in order to shift the emphasis to tribute (which still isn’t entirely clear, since φόρος can be used for both individual tax and state tribute). But considering that Luke inherited this pericope, that would be more of an editing decision on the part of the author, rather than any knowledge about the historical Jesus.

  8. Mark Shapiro says:

    The part you are missing in your enthusiasm for Zeichmann’s paper is that explaining everything early Christianity and post-2nd Temple Jewry by the ‘fiscus Iudaicus’ is a current academic vogue. Thus a typical Zeichmann citation is Heemstra, who explains the so-called ‘parting of the ways’ as a matter of Gentile believers not wanting to pay the tax and thus de-judaizing. Zeichmann is applying a familiar grid to the vexed passage. It is an unusually early date to make such an application; other uses of fiscus to explain something refer to the more savage and precise imposition that came later.

    Interestingly the paper is undercut by (to me) more interesting part of his paper on Martial. There he spends some time showing how little evidence there is to associate the tax with Jupiter Capitolinus – all that is clear is one late reference from Cassius Dio, who is maybe just combining the fact of the new tax, the fact that the old tax was for the Jerusalem temple and the rebuilding of the Jupiter temple that immediately followed (ending in 75). In the end Zeichmann suggests that a Martial passage helps shore up the tenuous received opinion; maybe it does. If we take the skeptical view that Cassius Dio was getting carried away, there is no need to construe every Jewish reference to the fiscus as ‘evasive’, as he constantly does.

    But the finished account is deeply incoherent. No one but zealot cranks (some of whom were among Jesus’ adherents) ever had trouble with Roman taxes and tribute; //these very people are now massively discredited//. The only problem the fiscus iudaicus can possibly pose is that, as Cassius Dio put it, it is dedicated to Zeus, ‘τῷ Καπιτωλίῳ Διὶ’. But the Mark passage does zero to help with this, on Zeichmann’s reading what it really says is: render unto Zeus the things that are Zeus’s and unto God the things that are God’s. –Which is an impious outrage.

    The problems keep piling up. The author supposes Mark is writing in or around Galilee and is a Jew. (I believe the traditional view that he is writing in Rome, but he is a Jew writing on the basis of experience of Galilean Jewish practice – and thus periodically Jerusalem practice – before 70. Mark emerges ever stronger from the long history of attempts to show him incompetent on geography and points of halakhah). But if he is writing in Galilee shortly after the fiscus iudaicus is imposed, everyone knows that he will just be making it up that there was a similar tax forty years earlier. The fraud is too palpable. If, on the other hand, he is writing in and for a diaspora, the question of making payments to Rome has forever been solved in the affirmative.

    The only problem with fiscus iudaicus would be the alleged dedication to Zeus Capitoline. In fact no seems to have a religious problem with the tax, however much Zeichmann wants to
    turn the very fact that no one had a problem into proof that they are ‘evasive’, and pose as a solution a text of Mark does NOTHING to solve the problem.

    ‘census’ is an abstract term meaning an estimate or assessment. It is /of/ something, and /in some respect/. I would like to see an argument that ‘census’ is particularly associated with the fiscus iudaicus.

    The best part of the paper is his repeatedly hammering on the correct point that it’s ridiculous to expect a subject of Antipas to have a view about Roman taxes of individuals. This is because the discussion is attempting to expose Zealotry, and pertains to Galilee only. The reader has been made well aware of the difference between Galilee under Antipas and Jerusalem under Pilate.

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