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Tax collection in First-century Israel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

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.

Roman taxation

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.

Tax collection

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.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.