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The Tax Collectors in the Roman Empire
The Tax Collector or Tax Gatherer is the Greek word "telones" and the King James Version of the Bible translates the word "publican." He was contracted by Rome to collect taxes for the government during New Testament times. The Greek word telones were really NOT the publicans. Publicans were wealthy men, usually non-Jewish, who contracted with the Roman government to be responsible for the taxes of a particular district of the imperial Roman state. These publicans would often be backed by military force.
The telones tax collectors to which the New Testament refers (with the exception of Zacchaeus?) were employed by publicans to do the actual collecting of taxes within the areas where they lived. These men were Jews, usually not very wealthy, who could be seen in the Temple (Luke 18:13). They were probably very familiar with the people from whom they collected taxes.
The Publican collected income tax for Rome. Sometime around 200 B.C. the Roman Senate found it fitting to farm the vectigalia (direct taxes) and the portoria (customs) to capitalists, who agreed to pay a substantial sum into the publicum (treasury) and so received the name of publicani.
The Roman class who handled the contracts and financial arrangements were called equites. They often went further in their dealings with the publicani and formed a joint-stock societas (company) partnership with them or one of their agents magister (manager). This manager usually resided at Rome and conducted business and paying profits to all partners through the submagistri (officer) who lived among the provinces. Directly under their authority were the portitores (customhouse officers) who would examine all goods, whether imported or exported, assess the value, wrote out a ticket and enforced payment. They would live within the province where they were stationed and come into contact with all classes of the population. It was these portitores who were referred to as the Tax Gatherers (telones) in the New Testament.
These tax-gatherers were usually Jews and would collect taxes for Rome and it was understood that they were to keep a "fraction" for themselves. There was really no real way to prevent that fraction from assuming great proportions, and in fact fraudulent exactions were encouraged. Although there were some honorable exceptions, the publicans, great and small, were really extortioners.
Luke 3:12-15 "Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what is appointed for you." Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, "And what shall we do?" So he said to them, "Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages."
The Jewish people were outraged by the Publicans and regarded them as traitors and apostates. They were considered defiled by their constant contact with the heathen, even Rome’s willing instruments of oppression. Zacchaeus was called a "chief tax-gatherer" (Greek: ‘architelones’) in Luke 19:2 and his kind were utterly despised. Yet Jesus showed mercy on him:
Luke 19:8-10 "Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
In Augustus's day (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) the practice of selling tax-collection contracts to joint-stock companies ceased, and tax collectors were put on the public payroll. Thus a kind of Internal Revenue Service was established and continued through the rest of the NT period.
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.).
These tax collectors gathered several different types of taxes. Rome levied upon the Jews a land tax, a poll tax, even a tax for the operation of the Temple. There were different kinds of taxes for every territory. For example, since some provinces, like Galilee, were not under an imperial governor, taxes remained in the province rather than going to the imperial treasury at Rome. This is one reason why the Pharisees in Judea (an imperial province) came to ask Jesus, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" (Matt 22:17).
Levi or Matthew, gathered the customs on exports and imports and taxes (Matt 9:9-11; Mark 2:14, etc.). The office for "receipt of custom" was at city gates, on public roads, or bridges. Levi's post was on the great road between Damascus and the seaports of Phoenicia.
Zacchaeus' head quarters were in Jericho, which was a great center for the balsam trade. In fact this was the territory where the famed Marc Anthony purchased balsam plantations for Queen Cleopatra. It is interesting that when Jesus was in Jericho He preferred to eat at the publican’s house than any of the priests who lived in Jericho, who were said to have numbered over 10,000, which reveals the honor that He bestowed upon Zacchaeus and the scorn for the Jewish priesthood.