The Life of Jesus in Harmony
TAX-GATHERER (Gk. telones; KJV "publican").
A collector of the Roman revenue. The Roman Senate had found it convenient, at
a period as early as-early as the second Punic war, to farm the vectigalia
(direct taxes) and the portoria (customs) to capitalists, who undertook to pay a
given sum into the treasury
(in publicum) and so received the name of publicani.
Contracts of this kind fell naturally into the hands of the equites, who were
the commercial and financial class of Romans. Not infrequently they went beyond
the means of any individual capitalist, and a joint-stock company (societas)
was formed, with one of the partners, or an agent appointed by them, acting as
managing director (magister).
Under this officer, who resided commonly at Rome, transacting the business of
the company, paying profits to the partners and the like, were the submagistri,
living in the provinces.
Under them, in like manner, were the portitores, the actual customhouse officers
, who examined each bale of goods exported or imported, assessed its value
more or less arbitrarily, wrote out the ticket, and enforced payment. The latter
were commonly natives of the province in which they were stationed, being
brought daily into contact with all classes of the population.
It is this class (portitores) to which the term tax-gatherer refers
exclusively in the NT. These tax-gatherers were encouraged by their superior in vexatious
and even fraudulent exactions, and remedy was almost impossible. They
overcharged (Lk 3:13) and brought false charges of smuggling in the hope of extorting
hush money (19:8). The strong feeling of many Jews as to the unlawfulness of
paying tribute made matters worse.
for the most part were not against it and thus were considered traitors. The
publicans were also regarded as traitors and apostates, defiled by their
frequent contacts with the heathen and being willing tools of the oppressor.
Practically excommunicated, this class furnished some of the earliest
disciples of John
. The position of Zaccheus as a "chief tax-gatherer" (Luke 19:2, Gk.
architelones) implies a gradation of some kind among the publicans; perhaps he was one
of the submagistri. 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.
"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).