How Tax Collectors Were Viewed in the First Century
THE tax collector has never been a popular man. Especially in the first century C.E. was this the case among the Jews residing in Galilee and Judea.
The Jews resented taxation by the Roman authority to such an extent that the possibility of additional taxes was enough to give rise to rebellion. One of these uprisings is mentioned at Acts 5:37: “Judas the Galilean rose in the days of the registration, and he drew off people after him.”
A registration of this nature raised greater issues than just the expense of the tax: ‘Who was now master in the land? Did not each new requirement add to the yoke that Rome was imposing? Although to keep the peace the Jews were given a measure of control, was it not time to fight against further infringements of their rights?’ Thus thought men like Judas the Galilean. And, according to the historian Josephus, they urged their countrymen to resist, saying that ‘they would be cowards if they submitted to paying taxes to the Romans.’
But, besides the acknowledgment of subjection to a foreign power, there was yet another reason for Jewish hatred of taxation. This becomes apparent when considering the manner in which taxes were collected and the abuses that resulted.
ROMAN SYSTEM FOR COLLECTING TAXES
Poll and land taxes were collected by imperial officers. But the authority to collect taxes on exports, imports and goods taken through a country by merchants was purchased at public auction. The right to collect such taxes went to the highest bidders. When they collected taxes, they made a profit from tax receipts that exceeded the amount of their bid. These men, known as publicani, farmed out to subcontractors the right to collect taxes in certain portions of their territory. The subcontractors, in turn, were in charge of other men who personally collected the taxes.
Zacchaeus, for example, appears to have been the chief over the tax collectors in and around Jericho. (Luke 19:1, 2) And Matthew, whom Jesus called to be an apostle, was one who did the actual work of collecting taxes. Matthew, also known as Levi, apparently had his tax office in or near Capernaum.—Matt. 10:3; Mark 2:1, 14.
A tariff decree of Palmyra dating from 137 C.E. illustrates some of the abuses to which the tax system was subject. Its preamble states that in earlier (first century) times the rate of tax was not fixed. Charges were made by custom, often according to the whim of the tax collector. This frequently gave rise to disputes.
DISHONESTY OF TAX COLLECTORS
In the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry tax collectors often were speculators and men of dubious moral qualities. Many were extortioners, putting fictitious tax values on goods and then offering to lend the money—with high interest rates—to those not able to pay. With stick in hand, and brass plate displayed prominently on their chest, they would stop caravans and demand that everything be tumbled out upon the ground for inspection. Thereafter they would take whatever suited them, frequently leading away the well-fed beasts of burden and substituting inferior ones.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Jewish tax collectors were held in low esteem. They being in the service of a foreign power, Rome, and in close contact with “unclean” Gentiles, their very presence was resented. The other Jews generally avoided voluntary association with them. (Matt. 18:17) Tax collectors were classified with persons known to be sinners, including harlots. (Matt. 9:11; 11:19; 21:32; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:30; 7:34) To cheat a tax collector was not considered a sin among the Jews. The Talmud classified tax collectors with murderers and robbers, and their gains as acquired by deceit and violence, unfit even to be accepted for charity.
JESUS’ VIEW OF PAYING TAXES
Hence, strong and bitter feelings centered around the matter of paying taxes. Knowing this, Jesus’ enemies tried to trap him in connection with the payment of taxes. On one occasion certain party followers of Herod and disciples of the Pharisees asked Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay head tax to Caesar or not?”—Matt. 22:17.
As the “head tax” was collected by imperial officers, Jesus’ giving a negative answer would have been sedition against Rome. On the other hand, the Jews generally resented having to acknowledge subjection to Rome by paying this tax. A positive answer would therefore have resulted in Jesus’ being looked on with disfavor among the Jews generally. Discerning the motive of the questioners, Jesus said to them: “Why do you put me to the test, hypocrites? Show me the head tax coin.” The account continues: “They brought him a denarius. And he said to them: ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ They said: ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them: ‘Pay back, therefore, Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.’”—Matt. 22:18-21.
Thus Jesus stated a principle that his listeners had to apply themselves. If they chose to recognize that the money belonged to “Caesar” because of its being issued and having a particular value assigned by him, they could see the propriety of paying taxes. Then, too, they knew that the Roman state provided numerous services for its subject peoples. Taxes had to be paid to support these beneficial services.
JESUS’ ATTITUDE TOWARD TAX COLLECTORS
Of course, Jesus Christ did not condone the corruption prevalent among tax collectors. But he was ever willing to help them spiritually. For this reason his enemies labeled him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”—Matt. 11:19.
Nevertheless, no tax collector became a real “friend” of Jesus until such time as the man changed his course of life. Thus, in one of his illustrations, Jesus showed that the tax collector who humbly recognized himself as a sinner and repented was more righteous than the Pharisee who proudly viewed himself as righteous. (Luke 18:9-14) Among such repentant tax collectors were Matthew and Zacchaeus, both of whom came in line for membership in the kingdom of the heavens.—Compare Matthew 21:31, 32.
Jesus’ attitude toward tax collectors should be a source of encouragement to all who feel that their course of life has been despicable in the eyes of Jehovah God. They can rest assured that, upon repenting and conforming their lives to the divine requirements set forth in the Bible, they will gain God’s forgiveness and a clean conscience. The fact that men such as the wealthy tax collector Zacchaeus changed their ways illustrates that those who desire to take a like course of action can do so.—Isa. 55:7.