Sacred Land Endowments and Field Consecrations in Early Judaism
The endowment of land as a gift for religious institutions was a prominent feature of ancient society in the Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds. Landed plots could with proper care become enduring, remunerative assets to these institutions and their ownership a mark of honor and prosperity. Once endowed, such plots were regularly viewed across cultures as the property of a patron deity, his or her role modeling that of the absentee landlord. Tantalizing clues in the Jewish source material relevant to the Second Temple period (515 BCE-70 CE) demonstrate that the phenomenon was part of early Jewish life in this period as well, though it has hardly been considered in scholarship.
The source material consists of a diverse group of ancient Jewish texts. A utopian vision at the end of the book of Ezekiel discusses a sacred land endowment as part of a reform program for the Jerusalem temple and its economy (Chapter 2). A legislative addendum to the book of Leviticus presents regulations on the proper use of arable land as a means of dedicating assets from the farm (Chapter 3). A description by the Jewish historian Josephus of the founding of a schismatic Jewish temple in Egypt delegitimizes the cult of sacrifice there by calling attention to the impurity of its land endowment; a similar perspective emerges in 1 Maccabees from its literary use of the gifting of the Ptolemais hinterland to the Jerusalem temple (Chapter 4). A legal section of the Damascus Document is concerned with the consecration of property as an act of fraud (Chapter 5), while the apostle Paul quotes a halakhic teaching on field consecrations in a preface to his famous olive tree allegory (Chapter 6). A halakhic text (4Q251) from the Qumran repository reasserts the priesthood's claim to a specific type of sacred land donation and works to uphold its sanctity (Chapter 7).
I argue by virtue of these various Jewish texts that the category of "temple land" simply does not apply for greater Judea in the Second Temple period. In Jerusalem, the temple did not hold tracts of land and enter into leasing arrangements with agricultural entrepreneurs or small renters, as attested in other regions of the ancient world. Rather it seems to have encouraged a system where gifts of land went directly from benefactor to priest or stayed entirely in the hands of the benefactor, the land's products or monetary equivalent then dedicated toward sacred purposes. Only in Egypt do we see evidence of a Jewish temple holding land of the type well known in other societies.
I suggest that the Judean sacred landholding arrangements were part of an ethos whereby land cultivation and support for the temple were to remain in the hands of the people, the accumulation and leasing out of temple land seen as perhaps contradictory to this ethos if not also a mark of foreignness. Incidentally, by the later centuries of the era the Judean religious authorities sustained its sanctuary in Jerusalem quite effectively by encouraging the devotees of the religion to contribute an annual tax and visit the city bearing gifts on three yearly pilgrimage festivals. Landed gifts are indeed an overlooked feature of this temple economy but were probably not a major component of its revenues.
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