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The Christian Life: Sanctification

What Was Taxation Like During Jesus' Days on Earth?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
The Bible first stated our tax-paying obligations to Christians living under a pagan, oppressive, corrupt empire.

Part two of a series on the Christian and taxation. Read part one.

To fully comprehend our obligations as taxpayers, we need to understand the environment in which the Bible first stated them - to Christians living under the pagan, oppressive, and corrupt Roman empire.

In our last article we began discussing questions we've received from readers in Europe and the United States: How should Christians respond when the government's tax burden becomes excessive and even oppressive? Should Christians pay taxes to a government that uses them for clearly un-Biblical purposes, such as the funding of abortions, payment of bribes, and subsidizing obscene "art"?

The Bible gives believers clear direction on these matters, no matter what nation they may live in, and no matter what kind of government they may live under.

In our last article we began addressing the issue of excessive taxation. We saw that nothing in Scripture sanctions the non-payment of taxes, even those that are clearly excessive or unjust. In fact, as we come to the New Testament, we find clear statements regarding the right of government to impose taxes, and commands to pay even taxes that would be used for sinful purposes. We find this to be true even when those taxes were imposed dishonestly, and used for ungodly purposes.

To fully understand those Biblical commands, it is important to understand the environment in which they were first given - under the pagan, oppressive, and corrupt Roman empire.

The Hated Tax Collector

The publicans were the tax collectors in Israel. Matthew, before he left all to follow Jesus, was a publican (Matthew 9:9, 10:3). Zacchaeus was "the chief among the publicans" (Luke 19:2, KJV) - "a chief tax collector" (NKJV). This doesn't just mean that Zacchaeus was that hated man from the Internal Revenue Service. It was far worse than that. In Israel, the tax collectors were viewed as traitors and thieves.

Why was that? The publicans in Israel collected the taxes for the hated Roman Empire, the empire of the Caesars who ruled Palestine at the time. Publicans were Jews who bought tax collection franchises from the Roman government. Any amount that they collected over and above what Rome required, they could keep for themselves. So if you really owed the Roman government a thousand dollars, the publican might tell you that you owed fifteen hundred. And so the publican would send the thousand you really owed on to the Roman government, and keep the extra five hundred for himself.

In this way many publicans became wealthy at the expense of their own people. They gained their income by treachery and theft. In Luke 3:8, when some of the publicans came to John to be baptized and asked him what they should do as a matter of repentance, he said, "Collect only the amount of taxes that you are supposed to." And when Zacchaeus came to faith in Christ, he restored fourfold that which he had collected falsely (Luke 19:8).

Zacchaeus would have been the most hated of this hated profession, because he was the chief tax collector. To put it in modern terms, tax collection in Israel was sort of a cross between a pyramid scheme and a protection racket. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus had other tax collectors working for him. As those men collected money for the Roman government, they would take a cut off the top for themselves. The men who worked for Zacchaeus would also have to pay Zacchaeus a part of the money that they cheated out of the people, in addition to the dishonest money that Zacchaeus collected directly from the people himself.

No wonder the publicans were hated men. That is why the Jewish leaders criticized Jesus for going into the homes of the tax collectors and eating with them (Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:15-16).

The Census of Luke Chapter One

In the King James Version of Luke chapter one, we read that Caesar Augustus decreed "that all the world should be taxed." It was as a result of this decree that Mary and Joseph left Nazareth and were in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The word that is translated "taxed" is a form of the Greek apographo, which means "to enter in a registry" and not taxation specifically. (The same verb is used in Hebrews 12:23, which speaks of those whose names are written in Heaven.)

Historians are divided as to whether or not a tax was actually collected as part of this enrollment or census. But in any case, the records were subsequently used for taxation purposes, and were a particular source of resentment among the Jews.

The Roman Empire had taken censuses at previous times in its history, for a two-fold purpose: to register men who were eligible for service in the Roman army, and to account for all Roman citizens. (Paul, for example, was a Roman citizen, which was unusual among Jews. See Acts 22:25 ff.) Before the time of Jesus' birth, Israel had been excluded from the Roman census, because Jews were exempt from serving in the Roman army. However, the census at the time of Jesus' birth was for the additional purpose of establishing lists of people that the Roman government could use for taxation, and therefore Jews were included. The Roman authorities subsequently used this census data to levy poll taxes, and thus the Jews came to regard the census itself as a symbol of Rome's oppression and heavy taxation.

Jesus and the Hated Poll Tax

The poll tax is the tax at issue in Matthew 22:15-22 -

"Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, 'Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?' But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, 'Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.' So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, 'Whose image and inscription is this?' They said to Him, 'Caesar's.' And He said to them, 'Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.' When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way."

It is significant that the Jews raised the question of this particular tax with Jesus. The poll tax was used to finance the occupying Roman army, and among the Jews it was the most hated of all the many Roman taxes. As a head-tax, it implied that Rome owned not only the land but the people themselves. The Jews viewed both as the possessions of God, and the land as their rightful possession by God's ordinance. So in their view, if Jesus answered "No" to their question, the Herodians could charge Him with treason against Rome. But if He said "Yes," the Pharisees would accuse Him of disloyalty to Israel and her God.

The coin for which Jesus called is significant as well. The denarius was a silver coin equating to a day's wage for a Roman soldier. The coins were minted under the emperor's authority; only he could issue gold or silver coins. The denarius bore an image of Caesar's face on one side. On the other side was an image of Caesar sitting on his throne in the robes of a deity. The Jews considered the coin itself an idolatrous image.

For all these reasons, Jesus' answer is deeply significant: Whose image and inscription are on the coin? "They said to Him, 'Caesar's.' And He said to them, 'Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.' " Caesar's image is stamped on the coin, indicating his authority in his realm. Therefore, Jesus said, Caesar has the right to assess and collect taxes. Christians are to "render" (literally, "give what is due") to Caesar in Caesar's realm of authority.

It is God who ordains that authority. In our next article we'll take up the question of the believer's responsibilities today as citizen and taxpayer, even under governments that collect taxes in an ungodly manner and use them for ungodly purposes.

Next: Should Christians Pay Taxes That Are Used for Ungodly Purposes?

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