In first century Israel there were both Jewish and Roman systems of tax collection. When the Romans occupied a territory they tended to leave the local government in control, but under their authority, so both the Jews and the Romans raised taxes.
The Jewish temple tax
Nehemiah introduced an annual one-third shekel tax for running and maintenance of the temple (Neh 10:32f). This was later increased to a half shekel, which was worth about two denarius, the equivalent of two day’s wages. All Jewish males, except the priests, were liable to pay this tax, but it was mostly only the Pharisees who did so. After the destruction of the temple during the Jewish war in AD 70, Vespasian extended this tax liability to include women and children, and it was to be paid instead to the temple of Jupiter in Rome.
Jesus was asked by the collectors of the temple tax whether he had paid this tax (Mt 17:24). He told the disciples go fishing, and that the first fish they caught would have a coin in its mouth. Enough money for the tax for two people was found in the mouth of a fish (v27). The coin was probably a stater, worth four drachmae.
After Judea was annexed to the Roman Empire, the high priest was given responsibility to pay tribute to Rome. Josephus estimates that the revenue from Herod’s kingdom was between 600 and 800 talents per year (War 2:6:3, Ant 17:11:4). This is equivalent to 4.8 million drachmae (a drachma was a day’s wages for a labourer). If the population of working males was around 250,000, then each man effectively worked for about three weeks every year for the Roman state.
There were three main Roman taxes:
1. Land tax - tributum soli
This was a direct tax on the produce of the land paid by landowners (probably set at one tenth). Tenants paid this indirectly through their rent. It is impossible to calculate the tax burden on each farmer. In the city of Jerusalem there was a house tax, and a city sales tax.
2. Head tax - tributum capitis
The Roman government organised a periodic census to count the number of people liable to pay this tax (Luke 2:1-5, Acts 5:37). The cost was probably one denarius per year (one day’s wages) payable by all males aged 14 to 65. Men may have had also to pay for their wives. Landowners who paid the land tax may have been exempted from this tax.
It was probably this tax that Jesus was asked about (Mt 22:19-21). They showed him a denarius, the coin used for the tax. Jews hated paying this tax as they had to pay it with coins bearing an image of the emperor (seen as idolatry by Jews) and inscriptions claiming divinity (seen as blasphemy by Jews).
3. Customs system
These were indirect taxes in the form of tolls and duties on the transporting of goods. Taxes were collected at ports, important cross-roads, places of commerce, and at offices by city gates. Matthew was probably a collector of these taxes (Mk 2:14), as he was seated in his tax booth. The tax rate was between two and five percent, but on a long journey there would have been many places were tax was charged.
In the gospels, tax collectors are found in Capernaum and Jericho, places situated on main transport routes and near borders.
The land tax and head tax were collected by Jewish leaders and their representatives annually. The collectors of these direct taxes were despised for their collusion with Rome, they were seen as traitors. Taxation was seen as a symbol of their being a conquered nation.
The collection of customs duties in a particular region were “farmed out” to the highest bidder. The bidder paid the tax in advance to Rome, then made his own living by charging commission on tolls and customs.
From the record in the gospels, we see that these tax farmers were treated with scorn, because they were presumed to be dishonest. They were highly visible and they made their living from commissions, by charging a higher rate of tax they decided themselves. This would become a very easy way of charging whatever they liked! Only people with great wealth could have been able to pay the tax in advance, money he had probably raised by money lending at high interest.
A chief tax collector, like Zacchaeus, supervised other collectors. He would have made a profit out of the other tax-collectors before handing the money over to Rome, making him even more objectionable than ordinary tax collectors.
Jews also considered tax-collectors as ritually unclean as they had to deal with the Gentile Romans, and as traitors as the collected money for the occupying power.
For further reading
Schmidt, T.E. Taxes in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Green, McKnight & Marshall, IVP Leicester 1992.