Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. General Considerations
2. Limits of the Discussion
II. TAXES IN ISRAEL UNDER SELF-GOVERNMENT
1. In the Earliest Period
2. Under the Theocracy; in the Period of the Judges
3. Under the Kings
III. TAXES IN ISRAEL UNDER CONQUERORS
1. Under the Assyrians and Babylonians
2. Under the Persians
3. Under the Ptolemies and Seleucid Kings
4. Under the Romans
1. General Considerations:
Taxation, in the sense of regular, graduated imposts levied by authority upon wealth, whether in the form of flocks and herds, tilled lands or accumulated treasure, is a comparatively late product of social evolution. The beginnings of this trouble-breeding institution are, of course, very ancient. If in the beginning all wealth was common wealth, all property vested in the family or tribe, making any kind of levies unnecessary, with the rise of individualism, the prorata setting aside, for common uses, of certain possessions held as private property by individuals, which is the essence of taxation, is inevitable. With the advent of more advanced civilization, by which is meant fixed residence, systematic use and cultivation of defined and limited territory, established political organization centering in rulers of one kind or another, regular taxation must necessarily have begun. Throughout history the burden of taxation has kept pace with the elaboration of the machinery of government; kings, courts, ceremonials, legislative and judicial administration, wars, diplomacy--all these institutions spell expense and, consequently, taxation. In a very real sense, the history of taxation is the history of civilization.
2. Limits of the Discussion:
In following the history of taxation in the Bible, two lines of development are to be noted: Israel's internal history when left to herself, and her experiences as tributary to successive conquerors. These two lines of experience form the main divisions of this article. We shall confine ourselves so far as possible to the civil aspects of the subject, leaving for others those interesting problems of taxation connected with the origin and development of the priestly legislation.
See TITHE etc.
II. Taxes in Israel under Self-Government.
In the first glimpses of the ancestors of the Hebrew people given us in the Bible, no such institution as taxation appears.
1. In the Earliest Period:
Like all primitive communities, the nomadic Hebrews had no regular system of taxation nor use for any. Voluntary presents were given by the less to the more powerful in return for protection or other advantages. These are really ominous words, for even as late as the United Kingdom, when, of a certainty, the voluntary element had long since gone out the royal income was spoken of, with perhaps unconscious irony as "presents" (1 Sam 10:27; 1 Ki 4:21; 10:25). One great tap-root of the whole after-development of systematic taxation is to be found in this primitive custom of giving presents (Gen 32:13-21; 33:10; 43:11). The transition is so fatally easy from presents voluntarily given to those which are expected and finally to those which are demanded (2 Ki 16:8; compare 17:4, where the King James Version has "presents").
The first evidence of what corresponds to compulsory taxation discoverable in the Bible is in connection with the conquered Canaanites who were compelled to serve under tribute, that is, to render forced labor (Josh 16:10; 17:13; Jdg 1:28-35). In the early custom of making presents to the powerful and in the exactions laid upon conquered peoples, with the necessary public expense of community life as the natural basis, we have the main sources of what grew to be institutional taxation.
2. Under the Theocracy; in the Period of the Judges:
The only fixed impost under theocracy which has a semi-civil character was the so-called "atonement money" (Ex 30:11-16), really a poll-tax amounting to a half-shekel for each enrolled male member of the community above 20 years of age. The proceeds of this tax were to be used for the service of the Tent of Meeting (see TABERNACLE). It seems to have been levied by the authorities and accepted by the people whenever faithfulness to the ordinances of Yahweh was the order of the day (2 Ch 24:4-14; Neh 10:32; note here the emphasis laid upon the offering as voluntary, and the variation in amount from one-half to one-third shekel). In later times this tax was devoted to the service of the temple, and was paid by Jews at a distance during the Dispersion. Josephus speaks of the large amounts accruing to the temple-treasury from this source (Ant., XIV, vii, 2). It was still collected as the distinctive temple-tax levied upon the citizen as such (Mt 17:24). It is interesting to note that Jesus paid it under protest and with one of the most distinctive of His miracles, on the ground of His being the founder and head of a new temple, and hence, not subject to the impost which was the badge of citizenship in the old order.
The period of the Judges was too disorganized and chaotic to exhibit many of the characteristics of a settled mode of procedure. As far as we know the only source of public moneys was the giving of presents. If the action of Gideon (Jdg 8:24) is to be taken as indicating the ordinary policy of the period, the judges received nothing. more than a share of the spoil taken in battle. The account emphasizes, evidently with purpose, the fact that Gideon proffers a request (Jdg 8:24), and that the people respond freely and gladly.
3. Under the Kings:
As was to be expected, taxation assumes far greater prominence the moment we cross the threshold of the kingdom. 1 Sam 8:10-18 is equally significant for our purpose whether it was, as appears on the face of the narrative, the actual words of warning uttered by Samuel in view of the well-known attitude of kings in general, or a later recension from the viewpoint of experience. In either case, the passage gives us a fairly exhaustive list of royal prerogatives. Aside from various forms of public and private service, the king would take (note the word) the best of the vineyards, etc., together with a tenth of the seed and of the flocks. The underlying principle, suggested by Samuel's summary and fully exemplified in the actions of Israel's kings, is that the king would take what he needed for his public and private needs from the strength and substance of his people. Constitutional laws regulating the expenditure of public funds and the amount of exactions from the people in taxation seem never to have been contemplated in these early monarchies. The king took what he could get; the, people gave what they could not hold back. The long battle for constitutional rights has centered from the beginning about the matter of taxation.
In 1 Sam 10:27 (compare 2 Ch 17:5) the case cited of worthless fellows who brought Saul no present clearly shows that fealty to the new king was expressed in the giving of presents. The refusal to make these so-called presents was an act of constructive treason, so interpreted by the writer, who mentions Saul's silence in the premises as something notable. It is evident that the word "present" has become euphemistic. In 1 Sam 17:25 exemption from taxation is specifically mentioned, together with wealth and marriage into the royal family, as one element in the reward to be obtained for ridding Israel of the menace of Goliath.
In David's time an unbroken series of victories in war so enriched the public treasury (see 2 Sam 8:2,7,8) that we hear little of complaints of excessive taxation. If David's census was for fiscal purposes (2 Sam 24:2), we can understand why he was so severely dealt with for it, but the matter is still obscure. David's habit of dedicating spoil to Yahweh (2 Sam 8:10-12) kept the sacred treasury well supplied. Solomon undoubtedly inherited David's scale of public expense (1 Ch 27:25-31) and added to it through his well-developed love of luxury and power. At the same time the cessation of war made the development of internal resources for carrying on his ambitious schemes imperative. The boundaries of his kingdom are specified (1 Ki 4:21 (Hebrew 5:1)) together with the amount of his income (1 Ki 10:14,28; compare 2 Ki 3:4). It is also stated that other kingdoms paid tribute to him. His system of fiscal administration was very thoroughly organized. He put the whole country under twelve officers (to specify one feature) whose business was to provide, by months, provisions for the court (1 Ki 4:7-19). Under Solomon also, for the first time, so far as we know, Israelites were compelled to render forced labor (1 Ki 5:13-17). By the end of his reign the burden of taxation had become so severe that in the public address made to Rehoboam the people demanded a lightening of the "grievous service" of Solomon as the condition of their fealty to his successor. Rehoboam's foolish answer of defiance precipitated the separation of the tribes which proved in the end so disastrous. During the period of prophetic activity which follows, one recurring specification in the denunciations uttered by the prophets against the kings was the excessive burden of taxation imposed upon the people. Amos speaks of "exactions of wheat taken from the poor" (5:11; compare 2:6-8). In 7:1 he incidentally refers to a custom which has grown up of rendering to the king the first mowings of grass. Isaiah speaks of eating up the vineyards and taking the spoil of the poor (3:14). Micah, with even greater severity, denounces rulers "who eat the flesh of my people" (3:1-4). These citations are sufficient to show that all through the later monarchy the Israelites suffered more or less from official rapacity and injustice.
III. Taxes in Israel under Conquerors.
1. Under the Assyrians and Babylonians:
During the reign of Menahem, who-succeeded Jeroboam II as king of Israel, the Assyrian invasion under Tiglath-pileser III (Biblical "Pul," 2 Ki 15:19) began. The one act of Menahem (aside from his general sinfulness) which is specified in 2 Ki 15:17-22, the remainder of his unedifying career being left to the Chronicles of the kings of Israel, is that he bought off the Assyrian conqueror by a tribute of a thousand talents which he obtained by mulcting men of wealth in his kingdom to the extent of fifty talents each. A little later, Ahaz of Judah sent a present to the same ruler. He took the novel method of robbing the temple-treasury and adding the sum thus gained to the accumulations at hand in the royal treasury. Both these kings were somewhat original in their methods. Hoshea of Israel, a contemporary of Ahaz, was reduced to tribute; later, upon his neglect to pay, he was put in prison (2 Ki 17:4). A little later still, Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah, was deposed by Pharaoh-necoh, who placed a tribute upon the land of a hundred talents of silver and one of gold (2 Ki 23:31-33). Jehoiakim, the puppet king, raised this tribute by a special tax upon the people (2 Ki 23:34,35). This latter passage is especially interesting because it seems to indicate (2 Ki 23:35 f) a graduated system of taxation supposedly honored more often in the breach than in the observance. This same unfortunate Jehoiakim came under the heavy hand of Nebuchadnezzar (2 Ki 24:1-7). This latter ruler seems not to have levied a special tribute, at least it is not mentioned; but reimbursed himself for the expenses of conquest by carrying away to Babylon the vessels of the temple (2 Ch 36:7).
2. Under the Persians:
In Ezr 4:13, a part of a letter addressed to Artaxerxes by officials "west of the river" (see whole passage Ezr 4:7-24) who were hostile to the Jews, it is charged that in the event of rebuilding the city the inhabitants would not pay "tribute, custom, or toll." These three words, which are evidently combined in a formula and indicate three distinct classes of taxes, are interesting as being characteristic of the Persian period.
The three words are: (1) middah = "tribute" (Ezr 4:13,10; compare Neh 5:4, where the expression is "king's tribute"); (2) belo = according to Gesenius under the word: "tax on articles consumed" or "excise". (HDB "impost") (Ezr 4:13,10; 7:24); (3) halakh = "road-toll" or "custom tax" (Ezr 4:13,10; 7:24). These Assyrian words are to be contrasted with the words used elsewhere: (1) mac = "forced labor" (1 Ki 5:13 (Hebrew 5:27); compare ut sup. Josh 16:10; 17:13; Jdg 1:28,30,33,35; Dt 20:11; Est 10:1); (2) massa' = "burden" (2 Ch 17:11); (3) mekhec ="measure," used of tribute exacted for Yahweh, taken from people, cattle, and spoil, etc. (Nu 31:25-31). From this enumeration and comparison it will be seen that the Hebrew had no general word corresponding to the English word "tax."
To return to the situation in the Persian period, it is evident that the Persian rulers exacted practically the same classified tributes, direct and indirect, that are found elsewhere. It is recorded that Artaxerxes, in response to the letter of his officers in Israel (Ezr 4:21), stopped the work of the rebuilding of Jerusalem in anticipation of the refusal of the Jewish leaders to pay taxes. The work was resumed in the 2nd year of Darius under the protection of a royal decree which gave to the Jewish authorities a sufficient amount from the "tribute beyond the river" to finish without delay.
Artaxerxes, in addition to his generous gifts, exempted the priests and temple-servants from all taxation (Ezr 7:24). In the days of Nehemiah a serious condition arose. The king's tribute was so heavy that the Jewish common people were compelled to borrow money upon mortgages, and in so doing fell into the hands of usurers of their own people, by whom they were so impoverished as to be compelled to sell their sons and daughters into slavery (Neh 5:1-13). In addition to the royal tribute, they were forced to support the governors who were entitled to bread, wine and forty shekels of silver annually (Neh 5:14,15). In the prayer offered on the fast day (Neh 9) it was asserted that their burdens of taxation were so heavy that they were servants in their own land (Neh 9:36,37).
3. Under the Ptolemies and Seleucid Kings:
The Ptolemies, who practically controlled Israel from 301 to 218 BC, do not appear to have been excessive in their demands for tribute (twenty talents for Jews (Ant., XII, iv, 1) seems no great amount), but the custom which they introduced, or at least established, of farming the taxes to the highest bidder, introduced a principle which prevailed through all the subsequent history and was the cause of much popular suffering and discontent. The story of Joseph, the Jewis tax-collector (Ant., XII, iv, 1-5), who was for 23 years farmer-general of taxes for Israel under Ptolemy Euergetes, and the cause of "a long train of disasters" is peculiarly significant for the student of the New Testament.
The conquest of Israel by Antiochus the Great (202 BC) brought a certain amount of relief to the "storm-tossed" (Josephus) Jews of Israel, as of old the buffer state between contending powers. According to Josephus (Ant., XII, iii, 3), Antiochus gave the Jews generous gifts in money, remitted their taxes for three years, and permanently reduced them one-third (see Kent's discussion of the credibility of these statements, Historical Series for Bible Students, Babylonian, Persian, Greek Periods, 296).
That the Selucid kings were particularly severe in their exactions is clearly shown in the letter of Demetrius to the Jews, whose favor he was seeking in rivalry with Alexander Balas of Smyrna, the pretender to the Selucid throne (see 1 Macc 10:26-30; 11:34,35; 13:39; compare 11:28).
In this quoted letter Demetrius promises the following exemptions: from (1) "tributes" (phori = "polltaxes"); (2) tax on salt; (3) crown taxes (stephanoi = "crowns of gold" or their equivalents); (4) the tribute of one-third of the seed; (5) another of one-half of the fruit of the trees (1 Macc 10:29,30). This seems almost incredibly severe, but evidence is not lacking of its probability (Lange's Commentary Apocrypha, edition 1901, 525). With Selcucus IV (187-176 BC) the Jews felt for the first time, indirectly but powerfully, the pressure of Rome. This disreputable ruler had to pay tribute to Rome as well as to find means whereby to gratify his own passion for luxury, and was correspondingly rapacious in the treatment of his subjects (2 Macc 3).
4. Under the Romans:
During the early part of the Heroadian epoch, taxes were paid to the king and collected by officers appointed by him. This method which worked fairly well, at least under Herod the Great, had passed away before any books of the New Testament were written. After the deposition of Archelaus (6 AD), at the request of the Jews themselves, Judea was incorporated into the Roman empire and put under procurators who were in charge of all financial administration, although the tetrarchs still collected the internal taxes. This fact conditions all that is to be said about "tribute" and "publicans" in connection with the New Testament. It is to be noted first of all (a fact that is often overlooked by the student) that in the imperial era the direct taxes were not farmed out, but collected by regular imperial officers in the regular routine of official duty. The customs or tolls levied upon exports and imposts, and upon goods in the hands of merchants passing through the country, were sold to the highest bidders, who were called publicans.
With this distinction clearly in mind we may dismiss the subject of general taxation with the following remarks: First that the taxes in Judea went to the imperial treasury (Mt 22:17; Mk 12:14; Lk 20:22); second that these taxes were very heavy. These two facts explain why the question of paying tribute to Caesar, which our Lord was obliged to meet, was so burning an issue. It touched at once religious and financial interest--a powerful combination. In 7 AD, immediately after the appointment of Coponius as procurator, Quirinius (see Quirinius, New Testament Chronology, etc.) was sent to Judea to take a census (apographe) for the purpose of poll-tax (kensos, phoros, or epikephalaion (Mt 22:17; Mk 12:13,14; Lk 20:20 ff)). This census was the occasion for the bloody uprising of Judas of Gamala (or Galilee) (Acts 5:37; compare Ant, XVIII, i 1, 6).As a matter of historical faxct this same census was the occasion of the final destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, for the fierce antagonism to Rome which was aroused at that time never died out until it was extingushed in blood, 70 AD.
We are now free to discuss thos matters which center in a general way about the term "publican." According to Stapfer (PTC, 215) this term (telones) is commonly used to cover several grades of minor officials engaged in the customs service. The word was extended in meaning from the publicanus, properly so called, the farmer-general of a province, to his subordinate local officils. The publicans of the New Testament "examined the goods and collected tolls on roads and bridges" (Stapfer, op. cit., 216; compare Mt 9:9). These tolls (Latin, portoria; Greek tele) were collected in Israel at Caesarea, Capernaum and Jericho (Josephus, BJ, II, xiv, 4). Those collected at Capernaum went into the treasury of Herod Antipas. At Jericho there was a chief publican (architelones), but most of the publicans mentioned in the New Testament were probably subordinate to men higher in authority.
Sufficient cause for the unpopularity of publicans in New Testament times is not far seek. Hatred of paying duties seems to be ingrained in human nature. Customs officials are always unpopular. The method is necessarily inquisitorial. The man who opens one's boxes and bundles to appraise the value of what one has, is at best a tolerated evil. In Judea, under the Roman system, all circumstances combined to make the publican the object of bitter hatred. He represented and exercised in immediate contact, at a sore spot with individuals, the hatred power of Rome. The tax itself was looked upon as an inherent religious wrong, as well as civil imposition, and by many the payment of it was considered a sinful act of disloyalty to God. The tax-gatherer, if a Jew, was a renegade in the eyes of his patriotic fellows. He paid a fixed sum for the taxes, and received for himself what he could over and above that amount. The ancient and widespread curse of arbitrariness was in the system. The tariff rates were vague and indefinite (see Schurer, HJP, I, ii, 67 f). The collector was thus always under the suspicion of being an extortioner and probably was in most instances. The name was apt to realize itself. The unusual combination in a publican of petty tyrant, renegade and extortioner, made by circumstances almost inevitable, was not conductive to popularity. In the score of instances in the New Testament where publicans are mentioned, their common status, their place in the thought and action of Jesus, their new hope in the gospel are clearly set forth. The instances in which our Lord speaks of them are especially illuminating: (1) He uses them on the basis of the popular estimate which the disciples undoubtedly shared, to point in genial irony a reproach addressed to His hearers for their low standard of love and forgiveness (Mt 5:46,47). (2) He uses the term in the current combination in giving directions about excommunicating a persistently unrepentant member of the church (Mt 18:17). (3) He uses the term in the popular sense in describing the current condemnation of His attitude of social fellowship with them, and constructively accepts the title of "friend of publicans and sinners" (Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34). (4) Most significant of all, Jesus uses the publican, as He did the Samaritan, in a parable in which the despised outcast shows to advantage in an attitude acceptable to God (Lk 18:9 ff).
This parable is reinforced by the statement, made more than once by our Lord, that the readiness to repent shown by the publicans and other outcasts usually found with them was more promising of salvation than the spiritual pride shown by some who were satisfied with themselves (Lk 3:12; compare 7:29; Mt 21:31,32; Lk 15:1). The choice of Levi as a disciple (Mt 10:3, etc.) and the conversion of Zaccheus (Lk 19:8 f), of whom Jesus speaks so beautifully as a son of Abraham (Lk 19:9), justified the characteristic attitude which our Lord adopted toward the despised class, about equally guilty and unfortunate. He did not condone their faults or crimes; neither did He accept the popular verdict that pronounced them unfit for companionship with the good and without hope in the world. According to the teaching and accordant action of jesus, no man or woman is without hope until the messenger of hope has been definitely rejected.
It is fitting, if somewhat dramatic, that a study of taxation--that historic root of bitterness periodically springing up through the ages--should end in comtemplation of Him who spoke to an outcast and guilty tax-collector (Lk 19:10) the wonderful words: "The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost."
Louis Matthews Sweet
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'TAX; TAXING'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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