Statue of HadrianWhat was “Jewish Egypt” like after the defeat of 117 CE? The evidence of tax receipts on ostraca is both objective and appalling. Ever since the year 70, which saw the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, any Jew in the Roman Empire was subjected to a special tax. The Emperor Vespasian decreed that, in lieu and stead of the traditional contribution of half a shekel for the upkeep of the Temple, every Jew had henceforth to pay a tax destined to swell the coffers of the Roman rival of YHWH, Jupiter Capitolinus. The ancient offering, hallowed by centuries of tradition, had been a symbol of Jewish unity; now it had become a mark of defeat and humiliation. From the times of Domitian onward, this tax was paid into a special account of the imperial Treasury, the fiscus Iudaicus. The entire Jewish population of the Roman Empire was subject to it, but direct evidence of its payment is afforded only for Egypt, by a great number of ostraca that have come down to us.

For one Egyptian town, Apollinopolis Magna (today Edfu), the ‘Jews’ twopence” (denarii duo Iudaeorum), soon to be called simply the “Jewish tax” (Ioudaikon telesma), appear in a large batch of ostraca, mostly from the Franco-Polish excavations of 1937-39. Every Jew, male and female, from the age of three to sixty or sixty-two, free or slave, was subject to the tax. The annual sum due was eight drachmas and two obols; the eight drachmas represent two denarii and the two obols are a surtax, imposed because it was paid in “native” currency and not in denarii.

Under Hadrian and the Severi, contemporary documents mention “Jewish streets”in Oxyrhynchos and Hermopolis. But there were no longer any Jews in the houses lining these streets. It was only at the very end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth that the first new burgeonings of Jewish life were to appear in the provincial cities of Egypt.

In the administrative correspondence addressed by his colleague from the Herakleopolite nome to Apollonios, we hear of a “list of property that had once belonged to Jews” (Oxyrhynchos Papyrus IX 1189; CPJUD. II 445). Such a list indicates that appropriate measures had been taken by officials involved in the management of state land. To administrative its newly patrimony, the state had created two special accounts; this was only a transitory phase since, little by little, the lots corresponding to these accounts found their way into other, more permanent categories. The only durable traces of this episode were the expressions designating land that “once had belonged to Jews” (proteron Ioudaion) and “once had belonged to Greeks” (proteron Hellenon), in lieu of the proper qualifying terms “deceased heirless Greeks” and “Jews whose property had been confiscated.”

Source: Joseph Mélèze Modrzejewski. The Jews of Egypt. (p. 204-205, 214-215, 217-218)