The soil soaks in these black buckets and then is sifted to identify ancient artifacts. (credit: Gila Yudkin)

Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. – Mark 12:17 (ESV)

Next week, citizens of the United States set their minds on Tax Day, often grumbling about the process and burden. One might be tempted to think of taxes as a modern phenomena, but actually there is a deep history of collecting taxes throughout the ancient world. This has even been evidenced in Judah during the first Temple period by the remarkable discovery in recent years of more than 50 “fiscal bullae” or seals related to commerce and taxation. These clay seals were stamped on objects or documents to identify the sender and ensure that they were not opened without authorization. They provide clues to how the ancient tax system operated in the southern kingdom of Judah, especially during the reigns of some of its last kings Hezekiah, Manasseh and Josiah.

While most of these seals have been recovered from the antiquities market, a few of the more significant finds have come from the Temple Sifting Project. Sifting through buckets of sand and discovering a small fragment of something special is like a treasure hunt; likened to a childhood memory of a scavenger hunt. These particular buckets of sand are nicknamed “holy sand.” The project began when soil illegally dug from the Temple Mount was going to be discarded as garbage. The material, rich with ancient artifacts from all periods, has been recovered and is systematically being examined by the project. Each bucket is carefully sifted and searched for small historical evidence. Many items have been found by volunteers.

Sifters find coins, inscribed potsherds and clay seals otherwise overlooked. (credit: Gila Yudkin)

In the spring of 2012, this searching yielded a small clay bulla written in Paleo-Hebrew. Some of the inscription is broken off, but according to an article by the AP, Eli Shukron, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s director of excavations said the first line most likely read “Beshava’at” — or “in the seventh” — likely the year of the reign of a king. The second line, he said, has the crumbling letters of the word “Bethlehem.” The third line carried one letter, a “ch” which Shukron said was the last letter of the Hebrew word for king, “melech.” Others have supplied the reading of, “belonging to the king.”

This First Temple Period bulla, found in the City of David, is the earliest known mention of ancient Bethlehem. (credit: IAA)

Image of bulla in hand for size relationship. The bulla is believed to have been used for taxation purposes. (credit: IAA)

The phrase “belonging to the king” indicates that this seal was attached to a tax shipment from Bethlehem to the king of Judah in Jerusalem. Taxes were often collected from farmers in the agricultural commodities they produced such as wool, wine or wheat. Taxes could also be paid in silver.

This seal is also important because it contains the oldest inscription of the name “Bethlehem” ever found. According to Shukron, “the seal, 1.5 centimeters (0.59 inches) in diameter, dates back to the period of the first biblical Jewish Temple, between the eighth and seventh century BC, at a time when Jewish kings reigned over the ancient kingdom of Judah and 700 years before Jesus was born.” This is roughly the same time Micah prophesied that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. – Micah 5:2 (ESV)

As Bob Thiel, Ph.D. notes on his blog, “History shows that taxation occurred in places such as ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome. The famous Rosetta Stone mentions taxes on grain and wine.” In the Bible, Joseph’s famine policy included a 20 percent tax on the people who had sold their livestock, lands and themselves to Pharaoh in exchange for the grain Joseph had stored during the seven years of plenty. This sustained the great amount of wealth already pouring into Pharaoh as a result of Joseph’s actions. This is one of the main markers of the “Arrival” step of the biblical sequence, and surprising evidence matching this point can be seen in the film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus.

The ancient Israelites gave a “temple tax” for the maintenance of their religious center and the operation of the priests. When the people of Israel demanded a king like all the nations around them, the prophet Samuel warned them that this would play into the abuses and tyranny that the centralized power of a monarchy often produced – including excessive and ever increasing taxes.

So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

…But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” – 1 Samuel 8: 4-20 (ESV)

During Solomon’s reign, burdensome taxes were put on the backs of the Israelites. When he died, his son Rehoboam had a chance to relieve this obligation, but instead he could not resist the tendency to increase the burden, causing the split of Israel into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.

…and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” … And the king answered the people harshly, and forsaking the counsel that the old men had given him, he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” – 1 Kings 12:3-4, 13-14 (ESV)

Then King Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was taskmaster over the forced labor, and all Israel stoned him to death with stones. And King Rehoboam hurried to mount his chariot to flee to Jerusalem. So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day. – 1 Kings 12:18-19 (ESV)

Biblical Archaeological Review reported another find of a fiscal bulla from the Temple Mount Sifting project in 2012. This one read “Gibeon, for the king.” Gibeon was another city in Judah. Archaeologist and co-director of the sifting project Gabriel Barkay said that he thinks the seals are evidence for a system of administering and collecting ancient taxes used by Hezekiah’s son and successor, King Manasseh, in the seventh century BC. Barkay believes,”the urban administrative centers collected [ancient] taxes in kind [i.e., grain, oil, etc.] and then sent them on to the king in Jerusalem with the documentation attached and sealed by these bullae identifying where it had come from—in this case, Gibeon.” At least 19 cities of Judah are identified in the paleo-Hebrew inscriptions on the over 50 seals that have been found so far. These represent nine of the 12 districts of Judah listed in Joshua 15:20–63.

While many amazing finds like these bullae have been recovered, the future of The Temple Mount Sifting Project is uncertain. Currently, work of has been suspended. It was to close immediately in April, but crowdfunding may help to reinstate the work.

The New Testament contains several references to taxes. Luke 2:1 states, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” This registration was for the purpose of taxation. Not only did Jesus say to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Mark 12:7), he paid the temple tax in Matthew 17:24-27. The Apostle Paul wrote this about the governing authorities and taxes:

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. – Romans 13:6-7 (ESV)

So as tax day 2017 approaches, know that you join a long line of others, stretching back to ancient times, who have made their required payments. It is interesting to see that there are patterns of evidence, even related to taxes, that point back to the Bible and its explanation of how things have come about. Keep Thinking.