Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Tax Collectors

The synoptic gospels - Mark, Matthew and Luke - all report that tax collectors were regarded as outcasts from good Hebrew society at the time of Jesus. They also report that Jesus was not well thought of because he appears to have insisted upon associating with them regardless of what people thought.

Few of us step back to note that these reports [1] date from between 35 and 65 years after the death of Jesus.

Furthermore, the gospels were not written as history but as theological expositions of the meaning of Jesus for the world. Nor are they eye-witness accounts. Each pastes together chreiai (useful anecdotes), parables, miracle and pronouncement stories, and sayings to form a Christian story. 

It isn't therefore wise to assume that what they report about tax collectors is good history. Nevertheless, we know quite a lot about the telonai or "publicans" (a name derived from the Latin version of the Bible which used the old Roman term publicani for a tax collector).

All three authors were removed in time from the original scene by the intervention of a vicious and highly destructive civil war. During the years 66 to about 75, Jerusalem was totally destroyed. It ceased to be the centre of Hebrew hopes for worldwide domination. By the time they wrote, the people and culture in which Jesus lived had been largely destroyed.

What we now know as Palestine became a dangerous region once Roman authority collapsed after the year 66. Bands of insurgents and robbers roamed relatively unchecked. As a result, many thousands of Hebrews became a new Diaspora, emigrating to other parts of the Roman Empire.

Taxes then as now were not popular. The average Western country today finds taxation somewhat more bearable because there are generally substantial social services to show for them. This was not the case in first-century Palestine. The money went to the ruling hierarchy and to Rome.

Jesus was born around the end of an era during which Herod the Elder ("the Great") ruled Palestine as a vassal of Rome. 

Few Christian commentators do more than pigeonhole Herod as a bad man who tried to kill the baby Jesus and executed John the Baptiser. But in the eyes of Rome and the local hierarchy - which included the wealthy Hebrews and priests - Herod did great things [2]

His was a highly successful government. He created a kingdom largely secure from banditry and invasion. His public works were impressive. Roads and a great sea port were built to facilitate a huge increase in trade and agricultural production. Religious fanatics who constantly arose to destabilise the nation were ruthlessly crushed.

However, his success and stability were bought at a considerable price. 

First, powerful allies were bought off by a policy of dispossessing bankrupt landed peasants. Matthew's story of the labourers in a vineyard may reflect those who had recently lost their land and been forced into piece-work for a wealthy landowner [3].

Second, heavy taxes on goods and trade had to be levied to pay for Herod's public works. One such was the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. This was his way of raising his public profile and of buying off highly influential priests who did not look too kindly on anyone who might usurp their traditional power base.

Third, Herod depended on indented labour to build his roads, palaces, fortresses, theatres and barracks. It seems that these labourers were usually paid, though not well. But no law existed to prevent Herod taking their time and energy for nothing if needs arose.

A defining moment came after Herod's death when Judea and Samaria eventually came under Roman rule. This meant that taxes had to go direct to Rome rather than via the local Herodian rulers. The "census" referred to by Luke was in fact a tax assessment by Quirinius, Governor of Syria and Judea in the year 6 [4]. The same happened to Galilee in 44. Both ignited simmering unrest which, according to Josephus, contributed to the revolt of 66 [5].

This background is necessary if the place of the tax collector in Hebrew society is to be properly understood. At one extreme some such as Judas of Galilee (in the year 6) and his sons (later, around the year 40) demanded (on religious grounds) that no tax at all be paid to the infidel invader. At the other extreme the priestly group were allies in enforcing the taxation system. In particular, Sadducees were noted for their collaboration with the Roman authorities.

The tax collectors included "toll collectors", those who levied taxes (portoria) at particular bottlenecks of trade such as harbours where fish and goods were landed and sold. They were regarded as "sinners" in the sense of being morally and obstinately evil - in this case because they preyed upon the poor using the power of the civil government. 

The average Hebrew was theoretically obliged to pay an annual Temple tax, which went to the priests for the costs of the Jerusalem Temple. But this tax was quite small, hardly more than would be covered by two days work a year. In addition, the ability to collect the tax was limited, especially in far-flung communities. But the high priests could be ruthless. Josephus relates how

Such was the shamelessness of the high priests that they were bold enough to send slaves to the threshing floors to receive the tithes that were due to the [local] priests, with the result that the poorer priests starved to death ...

The greater burden were civil taxes which were collected through the Herodian authorities for Rome. These taxes were carefully monitored. Failure to pay could result in imprisonment, extreme physical punishment, or even confiscation of land. Civil tax amounted to around a quarter or more of all produce and income. This would have been a severe burden to the many who lived on the edge of poverty.

A city or town would pay tax as a social unit. For example, one such (Messene in the province of Achaia) was expected to pay 100 000 denarii around the year 40. What we today think of as sophisticated modern forms of tax such as import duty, sales tax and inheritance tax were all normal ways of getting money into the hungry Roman coffers.

The main forms of taxation in Judea and Galilee at the time of Jesus would have been:

  • Land tax This would have been the bulk of taxes gathered. It was linked to the amount of produce derived from a piece of farm land. In cities and towns it was replaced by a house tax.

  • Head tax  This was the type of tax levied on males by Quirinius on the basis of a census - which explains the great resistance often expressed to such events.

  • Customs tax  These were collected at booths on goods passing through city gates, and at ports on goods and produce coming ashore.

It was into this system that the Jewish telonai fitted. They were civilian contractors who tendered for the task of gathering direct and indirect taxes in on behalf of the Herodian and  Roman administrations. Oversight of the tax collectors was in the hands of the Roman governor or provincial Procurator.

In exchange for payment of taxes in advance, the tax collector would impose a surcharge from which he garnered his profit. The highest bidder would obviously get the contract. This encouraged higher taxes. In addition, only those who were already wealthy were able to afford the up-front payments. Thus the rich got richer by exploiting the poor.

There was no standard method of valuing goods. The  tax collector assessed that himself. The system clearly was thus open to abuse and exploitation of the vulnerable and it is hardly surprising that the Jews of Jesus' time regarded tax collectors as beyond the pale. Nor is it surprising that Jesus was vilified for refusing to go along with public convention.
[1] Matthew 5.46; 9.10; 11.19; 17.24; 21.31  Mark 2.15  Luke 3.12; 5.29; 7.29; 15.1
[2] Excavating Jesus, J D Crossan & J L Reed, SPCK, 2001
[3] Matthew 20.1
[4] Luke 2.2
[5] Jewish Antiquities

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