The Agrarian Priesthood of Second Temple Judaism

Most Judean priests of the Second Temple period lived dispersed throughout the region, coming to Jerusalem for weekly service periods throughout the year. The patterns of social and economic interaction that governed their relationships with villagers resulted from the failures of the temple to adequately provide for them, pushing them into land ownership. The biblical ideal of a priesthood free from the responsibilities of the farming life or working as if in quarantine within the confines of the sacred precinct in the city gives a false impression. These priests were fully entrenched in the Judean landscape.

See Also: Land and Temple: Field Sacralization and the Agrarian Priesthood of Second Temple Judaism. Studia Judaica 87 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2020).

By Benjamin D. Gordon
Department of Religious Studies
University of Pittsburgh
August 2020

In the Second Temple period (516 BCE–70 CE), Judean priests took an active role in the farming life in the countryside, far beyond the temple precinct in Jerusalem. Some priests were landholders themselves, hiring labor, trading their goods in the local markets, and acquiring new land through gifts or purchase. Some cultivated relationships with patrons who supported them, while others served in the role of patron to farmers in need, providing them with loans. The evidence for the active role that Judean priests played in the agrarian economy of Second Temple Judea fits broader patterns in the ancient Mediterranean. Cultic authorities regularly played an actual role in economy and exchange. Ancient religious organizations could directly manage production in the environment.

Take, for example, the religious fairs and festivals of antiquity. These were major generators of commerce. Jerusalem in the first century CE offers as good an example as any. The enlargement of its sacred precinct by King Herod, beginning in 20 BCE, was meant to turn Jerusalem into an international attraction. And it succeeded. Its sacred precinct had a circumference of nearly 1 mile. The early Jewish historian Josephus probably exaggerates when he claims that 2,700,000 male pilgrims came to the city during the Passover of 66 CE (War 6.425). Nonetheless, he gives some sense of the magnitude of this eastern pilgrimage city. Its economy was sustained largely by the three harvest festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot (Goodman 1999; Lapin 2017).

Fairs and festivals aside, many temples of the ancient world were landowners themselves. The presence of temple land, usually framed as the land of a patron deity, could sacralize a landscape. The administration of temple land varied by region. In the Greek world, it was typically managed by city officers. In Babylonia and Egypt, it was leased by temples to the highest bidder, who then rented the plots out to tenants. In some cases, temple land was, in fact, held privately by individual priests and their families. The sprawling and fertile church land of late antiquity carries on the phenomenon, as does, in a sense, the typical monastic farm (Horden and Purcell 2000:429–32; Manning 2018:124, 74).

The polytheistic religious organizations pre-dating the Christian era presided over what has been called the “temple economy” (Dignas 2002:13–35; Chankowski 2011). This refers to the flow of goods and services through the sacred institution. There were, of course, construction and maintenance costs for the house of worship. There were costs of operating a regular cult of sacrifice—animals, oils, grains, appurtenances that needed to be procured. There were religious festivals and pilgrimages to sponsor. To cover these expenses, temples relied primarily on the largesse of their patrons and worshippers, entrance fees, and fines for violations. Those with sufficient cash capital could issue loans at interest. Those with land collected rent. 

In the case of the cult of the God of Israel in the Second Temple period, its finances were managed by priests. Though the modern-day descendants of Jewish priests (kohanim) no longer enjoy any official role in Judaism, those who claim to be of priestly lineage are called upon in certain communities to bless the congregation during the worship service. The manner by which they do so can, to some, connote the arcane and secretive rituals of a bygone era. This is a priesthood on the verge of irrelevance, functioning merely as a reminder to a community that once it had a temple and once the ancestors of these priests officiated it. In fact, this conceptualization of the Jewish priest as a relic, of little consequence in Jewish life, has affected historical thinking as well.

Jewish scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement—that is, the earliest scientific approach to the study of Judaism in the 19th century—examined the late Second Temple period by careful study of the writings of the rabbinic sages of the 3rd century CE and onward. Those writings weave fabulous tales of the great sages of the first centuries BCE and CE, such as Hillel and Shammai. Very little is said in them, however, about the priests. Based on the rabbinocentric bias of the Jewish source material, Wissenschaft scholars argued that the priests in those centuries had become a detached class of plutocrats, mostly urban, given to corruption, and disengaged from the needs of the populace on the countryside. In this atmosphere, the theory goes, a democratizing rabbinic class was born: a meritocracy, as it were, and a most welcome replacement for the status-obsessed aristocracy of the Jewish priesthood  (Watts 2007:154–61; Leuchter and Hutton 2011:2–5). 

It is of some relevance, of course, that many Wissenschaft scholars were Jewish reformers themselves. A contemporary of theirs in German Protestant circles, Julius Wellhausen, who is known for articulating the Documentary Hypothesis for Torah formation, characterized the Torah’s Priestly Source as reflecting a degenerate, overly ritualistic, spiritually disengaged form of religious expression. His suspicions of the Catholic Church, and perhaps disdain for observant Jewish practice, may have colored his view (Barton 1995:316–29).

Even today, there may be an anti-ritual bias in historical thinking about the Jewish priesthood: that the sacrificial cult is supervised was a primitive expression of religiosity—either a perversion of enlightened religion or a stage in the evolution of religion into a higher form. This higher form of religion, so the thinking goes, was marked not by the ritualized slaughter of animals but by study, prayer, and philosophical thinking. As a result, modern scholarship has been prone to celebrate Israel’s prophets and be fascinated with its kings and sages, but not with its priests (Nelson 1993:101–5; Watts 2007).

When scholars study ancient Judean priests and the temple, their focus tends to be on issues of center rather than periphery. The cult of sacrifice in Jerusalem has been a major point of inquiry, as have been the high priests (VanderKam 2004; Leuchter and Hutton 2011). Entirely rare, however, are studies on the everyday lives of priests and their roles outside of the holy city: where they lived, how they lived, and how they managed divine property in the countryside.  

Jerusalem, in the mid-fifth century BCE, the time of the Persian governor Nehemiah, offers an instructive example. During that period, the holy city was limited to the narrow summit of its southeastern hill, with little more than 1000 residents (Geva 2014:141–43). The temple stood at its helm, but it was a far cry from the sanctuary destroyed by the Babylonians over a century prior. It was controlled by a line of Aaronide priests who redacted old national legends and legal codes into what came to be known as Torah. The latest legal code of Torah, which is called the Holiness Legislation (Lev 17–26), was probably authored by the same priestly guild, which was based both in Jerusalem and at the region’s other sanctuary to God at Mt. Gerizim, the capital city of the province of Samaria (Stackert 2009).

The Holiness Legislation is acutely interested in matters of land management—in maintaining the land’s holiness, giving it rest every 7 years, paying tribute to God’s priests in the form of tithes and first-fruit offerings, and assuring that landed property remained within the family. All of this is justified on the grounds that the one true owner of the land is God. As the deity proclaims in Lev 25:23, “For the land is mine; you are but strangers resident with me.” Earlier sources of the Bible conceive of the land in terms of a place of promise, in the manner of a land grant given by a king. The Holiness Code conceives of it as a divine estate, in the manner of the great temple land of the ancient Near East (Joosten 1996:198). Documentary evidence from the region of Bir-Ili in Babylonia demonstrates that descendants of deportees from Gezer, in the Judean lowlands, lived near estates of the Ebabbar temple (Jursa 2010:329).

The Holiness Code’s rhetoric of divine ownership over the land suits ancient Near Eastern theology. According to that theology, land, soil fertility, and rainfall are determined by decisions of the deity. When gods like Ashur, Marduk, or Yahweh choose a people to support, allocate them land, call the war machine into action, and establish the collection of tribute for a temple, religious structures associated with the control of natural resources become paramount in political structures as well (Boer 2015:141–45).

Nevertheless, the Holiness Code’s rhetoric of divine ownership should not obscure the fact that God and his cult owned and managed individual plots of land in the countryside. An addendum to the Holiness Code, Lev 27, regulates a system whereby persons could consecrate real estate, animals, or silver to God. As part of the dedication process for land, a priest would appraise its value, and the dedicant would retain the right to redeem the property from God at its appraisal value with a redemption fee. Commentators have universally understood the chapter to be regulating gifts to God (Milgrom 2001:2365–436). I argue, along with Josh Sosin, that the chapter is better understood as regulating a system of indebtedness to the deity (Gordon 2020:57–69; Gordon and Sosin forthcoming). In short, priests issued silver usually to farmers who needed money to buy seed, hire workers to till their fields, and so forth. In exchange for the silver, the priests called for some kind of property to be consecrated to Yahweh. The transaction assimilates a sale; God lays claim to the property until loan repayment, which the biblical text refers to as redemption.

The redemption comes with a 20% fee, an interest payment. Temples were important sources of credit in the ancient world. Moreover, silver loans in the mid-first millennium BCE in Babylonia and Egypt, regardless of whether they were issued from temples or not, were regularly repaid at 20% interest (Hudson 2002:24). Usually, signs or boundary stones noting that the real estate in question had been mortgaged by such-and-such deity were placed next to the property. Fines were imposed on persons who moved them. In Lev 27:20–21, a debtor who sells a field that is securing a loan from the deity and does not settle the debt with the proceeds of the sale risks losing title. In such a case, it becomes the priest’s perpetual holding.

Archaeological records also provide potential evidence for the sacred landholdings of the cult of the God of Israel in the Persian period. An unprovenanced inscription from Idumea—a region bordering Judea to the south—appears to be a geographic survey of the 4th century BCE, listing places with some sacred or otherwise special status exempting them from taxes (Lemaire 2004). Among the places is the “ruin” or alternatively the “plot of land of” the house of Yahweh. The other sanctuaries mentioned in the document are a “temple of Uzza,” a north Arabean god; and Nabu, a Mesopotamian deity and son of the god Marduk. The others appear to be proper names of individuals. Land surveyors, such as the one who presumably wrote the words on this ostracon, would have needed to pay special attention to the existence of such sacred plots on the countryside, lest a violation of some sort occur, whether in encroachment, outright theft, or improper taxation of property associated with a deity.

Moving forward to the Hellenistic period, disputes regarding consecrated real estate appear in the Damascus Document, a Jewish sectarian text of the mid-second century BCE. While the relevant section of the text is fragmentary (CD 16:14–17; 4Q266, 8ii:1–3; 4Q271, 4ii:15–16), it seems to deal with the consecration to God of stolen or otherwise wrongfully seized property. The possible scenarios that this very early sectarian text addresses extend far beyond simple theft and involve the use of land consecration as a means of preventing a creditor from taking possession over land that had been put up as a security on a loan. The wrongful seizure, in this case, is committed by the owner and is punishable by a fine. Tannaitic sources (e.g., t. ‘Arakin 4:1) elaborate on the phenomenon and attest that a similar kind of consecration-fraud was committed against wives seeking property that had been pledged in a marriage contract.

Another crime involving cultic property is a form of “ḥērem entrapment,” whereby laborers under the employ of the dedicant or household dependents, such as aging parents, find themselves deprived of any financial benefit from the property, due to the imposition of sacred status on it. This could be a household garden, field, orchard, or storeroom stocked with foodstuffs (Gordon 2017). 

In addition to these kinds of crimes, there appears to have been a concern among certain priestly authorities that earmarked gifts of real estate to God not derive from unseemly sources, however profitable. 1 Maccabees 10 focuses on the refusal of the Jewish leader Jonathan to side with the Seleucid king Demetrius. Among Demetrius’ offers to Jonathan to sway him to his side is a special gift to the temple of God in the form of the revenues of the entire agricultural hinterland of Ptolemais (Akko). This was one of the most powerful port cities in the eastern Mediterranean and a center of Greek culture. The historian who relays the tale is not only interested in stressing Jonathan’s loyalty and piety in refusing such a gift but also in underscoring the unsuitability of Ptolemais as a source of income for the Jerusalem temple.

In fact, while Hellenistic kings regularly endowed local cults with large tracts of real estate, in Judea we have not one account of a royal gift of this kind having been carried out. It was only outside Judea, in the nome of Heliopolis in lower Egypt, that there is evidence for a large land endowment set up to support a sanctuary of the cult of the God of Israel (B.J. 7.423–36; Ant. 13.62–73).

It is recalled that the language of Lev 27 implies that priests privately held land. Later Jewish sources attest to the same phenomenon. Josephus, himself a priest, held farmland near Jerusalem and was compensated for it when Roman troops garrisoned there during the war (Life 422). The priest Eleazar ben Harsom is said in the Talmuds to have owned 1000 villages in the Har Ha-melekh area (y. Taanit 69a, b. Yoma 35b), surely an exaggeration but one that could still retain the memory of certain priests possessing considerable holdings in land. It would seem that from the earliest days of the Second Temple period, herem dedications were offered for just that purpose. This, too, is indicated by various sources of the Pentateuch (Lev 27:21; Num 18:14), and it is commented upon in rabbinic sources (t. ‘Arakin 4:31; b. ‘Arakin 29a). 

For a number of reasons, private ownership of land by priests was a necessity for most Judean priests during this period. First, over time, their period of service at the altar decreased, limited to the three pilgrimage festivals and, on average, two additional weeks a year, for a total of around five weeks a year. For the remaining weeks, one can assume, they were back in their hometowns. Second, the Judean priesthood appears to have grown to a very large size by the breakout of the First War with Rome; Josephus has its numbers at 20,000 strong (Apion 2.108). And third, the distribution of sacred taxes to them was not necessarily always well managed or sufficient to cover their everyday expenses, leaving them to pursue self-sufficiency endeavors, farming of land among them.

Priests were influential in social circles and enjoyed great respect in late Second Temple society, even if the high priesthood underwent a decline in prominence in the era. The priests of God were not only officers of the cult but also superintendents of the Law in all aspects of daily life: they were judges, bureaucrats, tax men, and armed law enforcers. Josephus gives a clear sense of the power they wielded when he calls the priests of God “punishers of those who were condemned to suffer punishment” (Apion 2:187). But to limit their area of activity to the temple is to do a grave injustice to their societal influence. The landscape over which they held sway was dotted with towns and urban quarters inhabited entirely by them. These “priestly settlements” are referred to in various sources (Luria 1973).

A significant portion of priests lived in Jericho, for example (Schwartz 1988). An underground family tomb excavated at Jericho, a town near the Dead Sea, was used by three generations of what appears to be a priestly family (Hachlili 1999:152–55). Within the tomb is preserved a rare Judean wall painting outside of a royal context. The painting consists of vine branches, bunches of black grapes, red vine leaves and tendrils. The style is indebted to Hellenistic naturalism and reflects an embrace of the rustic. This is not the burial place of priests whose heart lay in urban religion, but in countryside religion.

In conclusion, we see, in essence, two kinds of sacred place-making in classical Judaism. One is structural and related to the empowered management of land. This was religion and state closely aligned in Judea of the Second Temple period. It relates to the collection of tax, the offering of credit, and the financial support of a revered religious institution. The other kind of sacred place-making is countercultural and responsive. This is the sacred landscape of Galilee after the destruction of Jerusalem. It attests to the adaptability and the resilience of the holy land concept in Jewish thought amid shifting sands. Both speak to the importance of territory in Judaism and to the role of priests in managing it.

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