Roman Government and Tax Collection in Palestine

Paul E. Kretzmann


Rome was the fourth world power to get possession of Palestine and to make the Jews vassals. The latter, while retaining the characteristics of their nationality and laying a greater emphasis than ever on the externals of their religion, had not been an independent nation for any great length of time since the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. Even the reign of the Maccabees proved to be only a last desperate attempt to return to the ancient power and glory. Disrupted by a civil war between the Asmonean Sadducees and the Pharisees, the nation was not in a position to present a united front against an enemy from without. The Roman general Pompey, who was just then conducting a campaign in Syria, gladly availed himself of the opportunity to interfere. The hatred of the opposing parties made a peaceful settlement of their differences impossible, and so Pompey finally took the city on the 23rd of Sivan, a fast-day, in the year 63 B. C. Although he entered the Temple, and even visited the Holy of Holies, he did not interfere with the worship of the Jews, being content with having made them tributary to the power of Rome.

Anno Domini

At the beginning of the Christian era the Idumean Herod was king of Judea, which included practically the entire country as it had been in the time of David. After his death, Archelaus became ruler of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, under the title of ethnarch. In the year 6 A. D., he was banished to Vienne, in the province of Gaul, and his dominions were annexed to the province of Syria. Thus it was that the southern part of Palestine was ruled by governors, among whom were Pontius Pilate, Felix, and Festus. These were under the supervision of the Roman legate for Syria, and they made Caesarea their capital, visiting Jerusalem only occasionally. Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Philip received Batanea, Trachonitis, Auranitis, Gaulanitis, Panias, and Iturea, and resided at Scythopolis, later at Caesarea Philippi. At his death his territories were included in the province of Syria, and in 37 given to Agrippa.

Roman rule

The Romans, in the case of Judea, followed the same policy which they had employed toward their other provinces and tributary countries. They made it a point not to interfere with the religion of a people nor to hinder any religious usages, so long as they did not conflict with the glory of Rome. But the laws of Rome had to be enforced, and Roman garrisons were stationed in the principal cities, that of Jerusalem occupying the tower of Antonia, adjacent to the Temple. The adjustment of religious differences was in the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities, but punishments of a civil and criminal nature were in the hands of the government, including the sentence of death pronounced upon the basis of a religious transgression. The presence of Roman soldiers was always deeply resented by the Jews, and especially by the Pharisees, as an unjustified encroachment upon ancient liberties.

Temple tax

The greatest difficulty, the chief point of contention, between the Jews and the Roman government lay in the question of taxes. The members of the Jewish Church, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, John 7:35, felt the obligation of maintaining their elaborate form of worship as a heavy burden. The voluntary contributions, the oblations and offerings, did not afford sufficient revenue for the upkeep of the Temple and for the payment of the many priests and Levites, and so assessments had to be levied upon every member of the Church. The annual Temple-tax imposed upon all those that were numbered was, at the time of Jesus, half a Shekel, or a double drachma, about 60 cents [Luco note: About $10 in 2023 according to US Inflation Calculator], Matthew 17:24,27.

Roman taxes

The collection of taxes for the Roman government was in the hands of the equestrian order. The members of this order, in turn, sold the privilege to prominent men in the provinces, who, after figuring a good profit, turned the matter over to the tax-gatherers proper, all of whom were just as anxious to turn a penny to their own account. The result was a system of robbery which left nothing to be desired for thoroughness. Unjust valuation, extortion, blackmail, was the order of the day, and the people had to suffer. The Talmud distinguishes two classes of publicans, the tax-gatherer in general and the custom-house official. The former collected the regular dues, which consisted of ground-, income-, and poll-tax. Here was opportunity for unjust exactions, since the ground-tax amounted to ten and even up to twenty, the income-tax to one per cent. But the cruelty of the system became especially apparent in the case of the custom-house official, for there was tax and duty upon all imports and exports, on all that was bought and sold, bridge-money, road-money, harbor-dues, town-dues, etc. A merchant’s journey was rendered anything but pleasant when he had to expect to unload all his pack-animals, open every bale and package, and have his private letters opened.

Tax collectors

At the time of Jesus a decree of Caesar had changed the system of tax-gathering somewhat by having the taxes levied by publicans in Judea and paid directly to the government. But this change did little to ease the burden of the people, and only made the publicans more unpopular, as being the direct officials of the heathen power. And it mattered little whether the publican was “great,” like Zacchaeus, Luke 19:2, and employed substitutes, or “small,” and stood at the receipt of custom himself, Matthew 9:9. The publicans, though for the most part members of the Jewish nation and Church, were disqualified from being judges and witnesses, and were quite generally treated as social outcasts, on a level with the open sinners.

[Schaller, Book of Books, 123-127; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIV, chap. IV; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1, 514-519]