TAX COLLECTOR (τελώνης, G5467). The term is found only in the synoptic gospels—nine times in Matthew, three in Mark, and ten in Luke.
The word is incorrectly tr. “publicans” in the KJV. The publicani (Lat.) were wealthy men who paid for the privilege of collecting taxes in certain localities. They were often Romans, although it would appear that the Jew Zacchaeus (
These tax farmers employed local Jews to do the actual collecting of the taxes or tolls for them. It is the latter who are indicated by the term τελώνης, G5467. Therefore, “tax collector” (RSV) is preferable to “publican” (KJV).
The taxes levied by the Rom. government were many and varied. There was first of all the poll tax (tributum capitis). This had to be paid by every male over fourteen and every female over twelve (the aged were exempt). There was the land tax (tributum agri), which was payable in kind. Both of these direct taxes were collected by Rom. officials in Pal.
In addition, there were many forms of indirect taxation. Charges were made on all imports and exports, including the transportation of slaves. These were collected by the τελω̂ναι of the gospels. They examined goods and collected tolls on roads and bridges. There was also a market toll in Jerusalem introduced by Herod.
Schürer thinks that the customs raised at Capernaum, in Galilee, went into the treasury of Herod Antipas (I, ii, 67-68). In senatorial provinces, the Rom. senate took the money. Judea, however, was an imperial province, and the revenue collected went into the coffers of the emperor. This is the basis of the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (
As already noted,
As a class, the tax collectors were hated by their fellow Jews. This was almost inevitable. They represented the foreign domination of Rome. Their methods were necessarily inquisitorial. That they often overcharged people and pocketed the surplus is almost certain. In the rabbinical writings they are classified with robbers. In the synoptic gospels they are bracketed with “sinners” (
Jesus recognized this common attitude. He said “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (
Christ’s acceptance of repentant tax collectors is shown not only by His treatment of Zacchaeus, who became one of His followers, but also by the fact that He chose a tax collector, Matthew (Levi), as one of His twelve disciples. When Matthew gave a farewell feast to his former associates—prob. to introduce them to his new Master—the Pharisees asked the disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (
E. Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of(Eng. tr. 1897-1898), I, ii, 65-71; I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1st series (1917), 54-61.