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 (Gen 41:25-57). The tax rate must have been very high because “Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured” (v. 49). This could be done in Egypt because the Pharaoh was absolute ruler and owned the land (v. 44). King David enforced another type of taxation in the form of tribute from nations and rulers he defeated in war, such as the Philistines, Moabites, and Edomites. “David defeated the Philistines and subdued them....And Joram brought with him articles of silver, of gold, and of bronze....David took from him a thousand and seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand foot soldiers” (2 Sam 8:1-15).
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” (1 Kings 9:15-23). Solomon must have introduced a tax system into his own country, according to 1 Kings 4:7: “Solomon had twelve officers over all Israel, who provided food for the king and his household; each man had to make provision for one month in the year.” So far as is known, this is one of the first times the people of Israel were subject to taxes—prior to this, support of the government came from the booty and captives of war. Solomon also obtained revenue from traders and caravans (1 Kings 10:14).
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 (2 Kings 18:13ff.). The Pharaoh of Egypt placed Judah under heavy tribute and Jehoiakim oppressively taxed Judah to pay the tribute (23:33). In ancient times many governments were taxing their people to pay tribute to a foreign power. The Persians introduced a method of taxation which became widely used in later history: the provincial governor of a conquered country was forced to pay a certain amount of taxes each year to the occupying power and he, in turn, collected these taxes from the people of the province in various ways (cf. Ezra 4:13). Perhaps the beginning of tax exemption for religious purposes began in Ezra’s time: “It shall not be lawful to impose tribute, custom, or toll upon any one of the priests, Levites, the singers, the doorkeepers, the temple servants or other servants of this house of God” (Ezra 7:24). There was also heavy taxation under Persia in Nehemiah’s day. He complains that the former governors before him “laid heavy burdens upon the people, and took from them food and wine, besides forty shekels of silver” (Neh 5:1-15). This taxation was commonly known as “bread for the governor.”
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 (Matt 22:17), export and import taxes collected at seaports and the gates of cities or country, a crop tax (one-tenth of the grain crop and one-fifth of the wine, fruit and oil), an income tax of one percent of a man’s income per year, taxes to use a road, to enter certain towns, taxes on animals and vehicles, a salt tax, sales tax, tax on the sale of slaves and the transfer of property, and emergency taxes!
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 (Matt 17:24). Every Jew twenty years old from all over the world paid this tax for the operation of the holy Temple (cf. Exod 30:11-16). After Vespasian, when the Temple was destroyed in a.d. 70, the Jews were required to pay the Temple tax nevertheless.
Later Rome introduced taxation through a regular census (Luke 2:2). There was a Rom. high official called a censor. He tried to collect revenue the cheapest way possible. He sold tax franchises in various areas or districts to highest bidders. He set the quota for the government and gave the publicanus the right to collect at an open-ended commission. Contracts were let for five-year periods. This is the sordid oppressive tax world in which men like Matthew the Publican and Zacchaeus operated. They were known to cheat both the government and the taxpayer. They took bribes from the rich and permitted them to pay less taxes (cf. Jesus’ parable of the dishonest steward “write fifty!” [Luke 16:1-9]). There were whole armies of tax gatherers in Pal.; it was often a family profession, fathers followed sons forming a caste of tax collectors. Under Judas the Galilean the Jews rebelled against the extreme burden of taxation, but the revolt was crushed by the heavy heel of Rome (Acts 5:37). It is not surprising the Jews hated taxes; they had many reasons: 1) Publicans made fortunes off poor and rich alike. 2) The method of census and censor under Rome, requiring people, as Joseph and Mary, to go to another city at great inconvenience and be numbered as animals just to be taxed. 3) Much of the revenue from the poor went to opulent Rome to be doled out to an idle population, days when it was beneath the dignity of Rom. citizens to work. 4) On top of this burden there was the annual Temple tax. Collectors went from town to town once a year by the dozens collecting this tax and in foreign countries certain places were designated for payment.
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” (Matt 22:15-22), and that Paul, who also lived in the Rom. world, would lay down the lasting principle (Rom 13:6, 7): “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Jesus and Paul were not speaking against taxation, but for honesty and justice and good order under God in the world.
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 in
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" (1Sa 10:27; 1Ki 4:21; 10:25). One great tap-root of the whole after-development of systematic taxation is to be found in this primitive custom of giving presents (Ge 32:13-21; 33:10; 43:11). The transition is so fatally easy from presents voluntarily given to those which are expected and finally to those which are demanded (2Ki 16:8; compare 17:4, where the has "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 (Jos 16:10; 17:13; Jud 1:28-35). In the early custom of making presents to the powerful and in the exactions laid upon conquered peoples, with the necessary public expense of community life as the natural basis, we have the main sources of what grew to be institutional taxation.
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" (Ex 30:11-16), really a poll-tax amounting to a half-shekel for each enrolled male member of the community above 20 years of age. The proceeds of this tax were to be used for the service of the (see Tabernacle). It seems to have been levied by the authorities and accepted by the people whenever faithfulness to the ordinances of Yahweh was the order of the day (2Ch 24:4-14; Ne 10:32; note here the emphasis laid upon the offering as voluntary, and the variation in amount from one-half to one-third shekel). In later times this tax was devoted to the service of the temple, and was paid by Jews at a distance during the Dispersion. Josephus speaks of the large amounts accruing to the temple-treasury from this source (Ant., XIV, vii, 2). It was still collected as the distinctive temple-tax levied upon the citizen as such (Mt 17:24). It is interesting to note that Jesus paid it under protest and with one of the most distinctive of His miracles, on the ground of His being the founder and head of a new temple, and hence, not subject to the impost which was the badge of citizenship in the old order.
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 (Jud 8:24) is to be taken as indicating the ordinary policy of the period, the judges received nothing. more than a share of the spoil taken in battle. The account emphasizes, evidently with purpose, the fact that Gideon proffers a request (Jud 8:24), and that the people respond freely and gladly.
3. Under the Kings:
As was to be expected, taxation assumes far greater prominence the moment we cross the threshold of the kingdom. 1Sa 8:10-18 is equally significant for our purpose whether it was, as appears on the face of the narrative, the actual words of warning uttered by Samuel in view of the well-known attitude of kings in general, or a later recension from the viewpoint of experience. In either case, the passage gives us a fairly exhaustive list of royal prerogatives. Aside from various forms of public and private service, the king would take (note the word) the best of the vineyards, etc., together with a tenth of the seed and of the flocks. The underlying principle, suggested by Samuel’s summary and fully exemplified in the actions of Israel’s kings, is that the king would take what he needed for his public and private needs from the strength and substance of his people. Constitutional laws regulating the expenditure of public funds and the amount of exactions from the people in taxation seem never to have been contemplated in these early monarchies. The king took what he could get; the, people gave what they could not hold back. The long battle for constitutional rights has centered from the beginning about the matter of taxation.
In 1Sa 10:27 (compare 2Ch 17:5) the case cited of worthless fellows who brought Saul no present clearly shows that fealty to the new king was expressed in the giving of presents. The refusal to make these so-called presents was an act of constructive treason, so interpreted by the writer, who mentions Saul’s silence in the premises as something notable. It is evident that the word "present" has become euphemistic. In 1Sa 17:25 exemption from taxation is specifically mentioned, together with wealth and marriage into the royal family, as one element in the reward to be obtained for ridding Israel of the menace of Goliath.
III. Taxes in Israel under Conquerors.
2. Under the Persians:
In Ezr 4:13, a part of a letter addressed to Artaxerxes by officials "west of the river" (see whole passage Ezr 4:7-24) who were hostile to the Jews, it is charged that in the event of rebuilding the city the inhabitants would not pay "tribute, custom, or toll." These three words, which are evidently combined in a formula and indicate three distinct classes of taxes, are interesting as being characteristic of the Persian period.
The three words are:
(1) middah = "tribute" (Ezr 4:13,10; compare Ne 5:4, where the expression is "king’s tribute");
(2) belo = according to Gesenius under the word: "tax on articles consumed" or "excise". (HDB "impost") (Ezr 4:13,10; 7:24);
(3) halakh = "road-toll" or "custom tax" (Ezr 4:13,10; 7:24).
These Assyrian words are to be contrasted with the words used elsewhere:
(2) massa’ = "burden" (2Ch 17:11);
(3) mekhec ="measure," used of tribute exacted for Yahweh, taken from people, cattle, and spoil, etc. (Nu 31:25-31).
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 (Ezr 4:21), stopped the work of the rebuilding of Jerusalem in anticipation of the refusal of the Jewish leaders to pay taxes. The work was resumed in the 2nd year of Darius under the protection of a royal decree which gave to the Jewish authorities a sufficient amount from the "tribute beyond the river" to finish without delay.
Artaxerxes, in addition to his generous gifts, exempted the priests and temple-servants from all taxation (Ezr 7:24). In the days of Nehemiah a serious condition arose. The king’s tribute was so heavy that the Jewish common people were compelled to borrow money upon mortgages, and in so doing fell into the hands of usurers of their own people, by whom they were so impoverished as to be compelled to sell their sons and daughters into slavery (Ne 5:1-13). In addition to the royal tribute, they were forced to support the governors who were entitled to bread, wine and forty shekels of silver annually (Ne 5:14,15). In the prayer offered on the fast day (Ne 9) it was asserted that their burdens of taxation were so heavy that they were servants in their own land (Ne 9:36,37).
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 with
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 (Mt 22:17; Mr 12:14; Lu 20:22); second that these taxes were very heavy. These two facts explain why the question of paying tribute to Caesar, which our Lord was obliged to meet, was so burning an issue. It touched at once religious and financial interest--a powerful combination. In 7 AD, immediately after the appointment of Coponius as procurator, Quirinius (see Quirinius, New Testament Chronology, etc.) was sent to Judea to take a census (apographe) for the purpose of poll-tax (kensos, phoros, or epikephalaion (Mt 22:17; Mr 12:13,14; Lu 20:20 )). This census was the occasion for the bloody uprising of Judas of Gamala (or Galilee) (Ac 5:37; compare Ant, XVIII, i 1, 6).As a matter of historical faxct this same census was the occasion of the final destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, for the fierce antagonism to Rome which was aroused at that time never died out until it was extingushed in blood, 70 AD.
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 Mt 9:9). These tolls (Latin, portoria; Greek tele) were collected in Palestine at Caesarea, Capernaum and Jericho (Josephus, BJ, II, xiv, 4). Those collected at Capernaum went into the treasury of Herod Antipas. At Jericho there was a chief publican (architelones), but most of the publicans mentioned in the New Testament were probably subordinate to men higher in authority.
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 (Mt 5:46,47).
(2) He uses the term in the current combination in giving directions about excommunicating a persistently unrepentant member of the church (Mt 18:17).
(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" (Mt 11:19; Lu 7:34).
(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 (Lu 18:9 ).
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 (Lu 3:12; compare 7:29; Mt 21:31,32; Lu 15:1). The choice of Levi as a disciple (Mt 10:3, etc.) and the conversion of Zaccheus (Lu 19:8 f), of whom Jesus speaks so beautifully as a son of Abraham (Lu 19:9), justified the characteristic attitude which our Lord adopted toward the despised class, about equally guilty and unfortunate. He did not condone their faults or crimes; neither did He accept the popular verdict that pronounced them unfit for companionship with the good and without hope in the world. According to the teaching and accordant action of jesus, no man or woman is without hope until the messenger of hope has been definitely rejected.
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 (Lu 19:10) the wonderful words: "The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost."