Governments and peoples of all civilizations, ancient and modern, have known taxation and the force of revenue. In general, methods, types of taxation and attitudes toward taxes have not changed. From the extensive list of words used for taxes and tribute in the Bible, one can see that God’s people were also acquainted with taxes. In the Bible one of the early references to taxation is in Egypt during the seven years of plenty when Joseph was authorized by the Pharaoh to levy a large proportion of the grain and store it for the lean years ahead (
Forced labor of captives, or “chain gangs,” was another kind of taxation or tribute, such as Solomon used in building the Temple: “And this is the account of the forced labor which King Solomon levied to build the house of the Lord and his own house and the wall of Jerusalem....But of the people of Israel Solomon made no slaves” (
Israel and Judah often were forced to pay taxes or tribute to the enemy countries around them who conquered them—the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and the Persians (
In Hel. times the familiar system of “farming taxes out” to the highest bidder who had the power of the army behind him to collect all sorts of taxes was used. During Gr. domination, it is said that wealthy and powerful business men met in Alexandria each year to bid for the franchise to collect taxes from their own people. Exorbitant profits were made from this system because the tax collector could pocket everything he could collect beyond the set amount demanded by the government. Sometimes the amount of taxation was unbelievable. Under the Seleucids, the government demanded one-third of the grain, one-half of the fruit produced and a portion of the Temple tax itself. Pompey of Rome levied very heavy taxes upon the Judean province; likewise did Julius Caesar, although he granted relief in sabbatical years.
In NT times under Herod the Great, taxes in Pal. were levied on almost everything, esp. on the fields (Jos. Antiq. 15.0). In the days of the Rom. procurators in Pal., taxes were also farmed out to the highest bidder, the system finally adopted throughout the empire. The kinds of taxes grew in such numbers that both rich and poor felt the heavy burden. There were land or real estate taxes, a poll tax (
It is true that under the Romans, the people received law and order on land and on sea, good roads, public buildings, markets, stadiums, baths, theaters, but the provinces were almost bled to death in the process. Besides all these taxes, the Jews were asked to pay the Temple tax—one-half shekel annually, called the didrachmon (
Later Rome introduced taxation through a regular census (
Without a doubt the ancients knew all about taxes. The abuse and indignities heaped upon people, esp. conquered nations, is incredible. References to taxes, toll, tribute, publicans, etc. in the Scriptures take on new light against this background. Some have expressed surprise that Jesus, when confronted by the dilemma of the Pharisees on taxation, uttered the familiar dictum, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (
A. Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1908), 45, 52-56; A. Bailey, Daily Life In Bible Times (1943), 204-208, 264-271, 275; A. C. Bonquet, Everyday Life inTimes (1954), 15; J. D. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1955), 321, 322; S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (1960), eight volumes; H. Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ (1962), 75, 161-165, 193.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. General Considerations
2. Limits of the Discussion
II. TAXES IN ISRAEL UNDER SELF-GOVERNMENT
1. In the Earliest Period
2. Under the Theocracy; in the Period of the Judges
3. Under the Kings
III. TAXES IN ISRAEL UNDER CONQUERORS
1. Under the Assyrians and Babylonians
2. Under the Persians
3. Under the Ptolemies and Seleucid Kings
4. Under the Romans
1. General Considerations:
Taxation, in the sense of regular, graduated imposts levied by authority upon wealth, whether in the form of flocks and herds, tilled lands or accumulated treasure, is a comparatively late product of social evolution. The beginnings of this trouble-breeding institution are, of course, very ancient. If in the beginning all wealth was common wealth, all property vested in the family or tribe, making any kind of levies unnecessary, with the rise of individualism, the prorata setting aside, for common uses, of certain possessions held as private property by individuals, which is the essence of taxation, is inevitable. With the advent of more advanced civilization, by which is meant fixed residence, systematic use and cultivation of defined and limited territory, established political organization centering in rulers of one kind or another, regular taxation must necessarily have begun. Throughout history the burden of taxation has kept pace with the elaboration of the machinery of government; kings, courts, ceremonials, legislative and judicial administration, wars, diplomacy--all these institutions spell expense and, consequently, taxation. In a very real sense, the history of taxation is the history of civilization.
2. Limits of the Discussion:
In following the history of taxation in the Bible, two lines of development are to be noted: Israel’s internal history when left to herself, and her experiences as tributary to successive conquerors. These two lines of experience form the main divisions of this article. We shall confine ourselves so far as possible to the civil aspects of the subject, leaving for others those interesting problems of taxation connected with the origin and development of the priestly legislation.
See Tithe etc.
II. Taxes in Israel under Self-Government.
In the first glimpses of the ancestors of the Hebrew people given us in the Bible, no such institution as taxation appears.
1. In the Earliest Period:
Like all primitive communities, the nomadic Hebrews had no regular system of taxation nor use for any. Voluntary presents were given by the less to the more powerful in return for protection or other advantages. These are really ominous words, for even as late as the United Kingdom, when, of a certainty, the voluntary element had long since gone out the royal income was spoken of, with perhaps unconscious irony as "presents" (
The first evidence of what corresponds to compulsory taxation discoverable in the Bible is in connection with the conquered Canaanites who were compelled to serve under tribute, that is, to render forced labor (
2. Under the Theocracy; in the Period of the Judges:
The only fixed impost under theocracy which has a semi-civil character was the so-called "atonement money" (
The period of the Judges was too disorganized and chaotic to exhibit many of the characteristics of a settled mode of procedure. As far as we know the only source of public moneys was the giving of presents. If the action of Gideon (
3. Under the Kings:
As was to be expected, taxation assumes far greater prominence the moment we cross the threshold of the kingdom.
III. Taxes in Israel under Conquerors.
2. Under the Persians:
The three words are:
(1) middah = "tribute" (
(2) belo = according to Gesenius under the word: "tax on articles consumed" or "excise". (HDB "impost") (
(3) halakh = "road-toll" or "custom tax" (
These Assyrian words are to be contrasted with the words used elsewhere:
(2) massa’ = "burden" (
(3) mekhec ="measure," used of tribute exacted for Yahweh, taken from people, cattle, and spoil, etc. (
From this enumeration and comparison it will be seen that the Hebrew had no general word corresponding to the English word "tax."
To return to the situation in the Persian period, it is evident that the Persian rulers exacted practically the same classified tributes, direct and indirect, that are found elsewhere. It is recorded that Artaxerxes, in response to the letter of his officers in Palestine (
Artaxerxes, in addition to his generous gifts, exempted the priests and temple-servants from all taxation (
3. Under the Ptolemies and Seleucid Kings:
The Ptolemies, who practically controlled Palestine from 301 to 218 BC, do not appear to have been excessive in their demands for tribute (twenty talents for Jews (Ant., XII, iv, 1) seems no great amount), but the custom which they introduced, or at least established, of farming the taxes to the highest bidder, introduced a principle which prevailed through all the subsequent history and was the cause of much popular suffering and discontent. The story of Joseph, the Jewis tax-collector (Ant., XII, iv, 1-5), who was for 23 years farmer-general of taxes for Palestine under Ptolemy Euergetes, and the cause of "a long train of disasters" is peculiarly significant for the student of the.
The conquest of Palestine by Antiochus the Great (202 BC) brought a certain amount of relief to the "storm-tossed" (Josephus) Jews of Palestine, as of old the buffer state between contending powers. According to Josephus (Ant., XII, iii, 3), Antiochus gave the Jews generous gifts in money, remitted their taxes for three years, and permanently reduced them one-third (see Kent’s discussion of the credibility of these statements, Historical Series for Bible Students, Babylonian, Persian, Greek Periods, 296).
That the Selucid kings were particularly severe in their exactions is clearly shown in the letter of Demetrius to the Jews, whose favor he was seeking in rivalry withof Smyrna, the pretender to the Selucid throne (see 1 Macc 10:26-30; 11:34,35; 13:39; compare 11:28).
In this quoted letter Demetrius promises the following exemptions:
(1) "tributes" (phori = "polltaxes");
(2) tax on salt;
(3) crown taxes (stephanoi = "crowns of gold" or their equivalents);
(4) the tribute of one-third of the seed;
(5) another of one-half of the fruit of the trees (1 Macc 10:29,30).
This seems almost incredibly severe, but evidence is not lacking of its probability (Lange’s Commentary Apocrypha, edition 1901, 525). With Selcucus IV (187-176 BC) the Jews felt for the first time, indirectly but powerfully, the pressure of Rome. This disreputable ruler had to pay tribute to Rome as well as to find means whereby to gratify his own passion for luxury, and was correspondingly rapacious in the treatment of his subjects (2 Macc 3).
4. Under the Romans:
During the early part of the Heroadian epoch, taxes were paid to the king and collected by officers appointed by him. This method which worked fairly well, at least under Herod the Great, had passed away before any books of the New Testament were written. After the deposition of Archelaus (6 AD), at the request of the Jews themselves, Judea was incorporated into the Roman empire and put under procurators who were in charge of all financial administration, although the tetrarchs still collected the internal taxes. This fact conditions all that is to be said about "tribute" and "publicans" in connection with the New Testament. It is to be noted first of all (a fact that is often overlooked by the student) that in the imperial era the direct taxes were not farmed out, but collected by regular imperial officers in the regular routine of official duty. The customs or tolls levied upon exports and imposts, and upon goods in the hands of merchants passing through the country, were sold to the highest bidders, who were called publicans.
With this distinction clearly in mind we may dismiss the subject of general taxation with the following remarks: First that the taxes in Judea went to the imperial treasury (
We are now free to discuss thos matters which center in a general way about the term "publican." According to Stapfer (PTC, 215) this term (telones) is commonly used to cover several grades of minor officials engaged in the customs service. The word was extended in meaning from the publicanus, properly so called, the farmer-general of a province, to his subordinate local officils. The publicans of the New Testament "examined the goods and collected tolls on roads and bridges" (Stapfer, op. cit., 216; compare
Sufficient cause for the unpopularity of publicans in New Testament times is not far seek. Hatred of paying duties seems to be ingrained in human nature. Customs officials are always unpopular. The method is necessarily inquisitorial. The man who opens one’s boxes and bundles to appraise the value of what one has, is at best a tolerated evil. In Judea, under the Roman system, all circumstances combined to make the publican the object of bitter hatred. He represented and exercised in immediate contact, at a sore spot with individuals, the hatred power of Rome. The tax itself was looked upon as an inherent religious wrong, as well as civil imposition, and by many the payment of it was considered a sinful act of disloyalty to God. The tax-gatherer, if a Jew, was a renegade in the eyes of his patriotic fellows. He paid a fixed sum for the taxes, and received for himself what he could over and above that amount. The ancient and widespread curse of arbitrariness was in the system. The tariff rates were vague and indefinite (see Schurer, HJP, I, ii, 67 f). The collector was thus always under the suspicion of being an extortioner and probably was in most instances. The name was apt to realize itself. The unusual combination in a publican of petty tyrant, renegade and extortioner, made by circumstances almost inevitable, was not conductive to popularity. In the score of instances in the New Testament where publicans are mentioned, their common status, their place in the thought and action of Jesus, their new hope in the gospel are clearly set forth. The instances in which our Lord speaks of them are especially illuminating:
(1) He uses them on the basis of the popular estimate which the disciples undoubtedly shared, to point in genial irony a reproach addressed to His hearers for their low standard of love and forgiveness (
(2) He uses the term in the current combination in giving directions about excommunicating a persistently unrepentant member of the church (
(3) He uses the term in the popular sense in describing the current condemnation of His attitude of social fellowship with them, and constructively accepts the title of "friend of publicans and sinners" (
(4) Most significant of all, Jesus uses the publican, as He did the Samaritan, in a parable in which the despised outcast shows to advantage in an attitude acceptable to God (
This parable is reinforced by the statement, made more than once by our Lord, that the readiness to repent shown by the publicans and other outcasts usually found with them was more promising of salvation than the spiritual pride shown by some who were satisfied with themselves (
It is fitting, if somewhat dramatic, that a study of taxation--that historic root of bitterness periodically springing up through the ages--should end in comtemplation of Him who spoke to an outcast and guilty tax-collector (