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.
Bibliography 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 New Testament Times (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.