Their Customs

The Customs of Tax Collectors in the Roman Empire


"The tax collector could walk up to any traveler, on any road within his district and ask him to drop all of his goods in order to exact tax."

The taxes levied by the Roman 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 officials in Palestine who were usually Jewish.

Also there were many forms of indirect taxation. The people were taxed on all imports and exports, including the transportation of slaves. These were collected by the telones of the gospels. They examined goods and collected tolls on roads and bridges. There was also a market toll in Jerusalem introduced by Herod.

Many scholars believe that the customs raised at Capernaum, in Galilee, went into the treasury of Herod Antipas. In senatorial provinces, the Roman senate seized the money. Judea, however, was an imperial province, and the revenue collected went into the treasury of the emperor. This is part of the reason that they asked Jesus the question: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" (Matt 22 :17; Mark 12 :14; Luke 20:22).

Luke 19:2 mentions a "chief tax collector" at Jericho. Josephus (Jos. War II. xiv. 4) speaks of a certain John who was a tax collector at Caesarea in A.D. 66 and evidently a prominent Jew.

Alfred Edersheim makes an interesting comment:

"The Talmud distinguishes two classes of publicans-the tax-gatherer in general (Gabbai) and the Mokhes or Mokhsa, who was specially the douanier, or customhouse official. Although both classes fell under the rabbinic ban, the douanier-such as Matthew was-was the object of chief execration. And this because his exactions were more vexatious and gave more scope to rapacity. The Gabbai, or tax-gatherer, collected the regular dues, which consisted of ground, income, and poll tax. . . . If this offered many opportunities for vexatious exactions and rapacious injustice, the Mokhes might inflict much greater hardship upon the poor people. There was a tax and duty upon all imports and exports; on all that was bought and sold; bridge money, road money, harbor dues, town dues, etc. The classical reader knows the ingenuity which could invent a tax and find a name for every kind of exaction, such as on axles, wheels, pack animals, pedestrians, roads, highways; on admission to markets; on carriers, bridges, ships, and quays; on crossing rivers, on dams, on licenses-in short, on such a variety of objects that even the research of modern scholars has not been able to identify all the names. But even this was as nothing compared to the vexation of being constantly stopped on the journey, having to unload all one's pack animals, when every bale and package was opened, and the contents tumbled about, private letters opened, and the Mokhes ruled supreme in his insolence and rapacity" (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:515 ff.).

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Tax Collectors