During the Roman era, tax collectors and the manner in which taxes were collected evolved and varied from one region to the next. Here we offer a general picture of the process that will allow us to appreciate the role tax collectors played in the Gospels. Taxes were paid to both the temple and the state, each of which established its own tax code without consideration of the other. First-century Jews paid a religious tithe of their produce, herd, and flock (Lev 27:30-32); they were also required to pay the half-shekel or two-drachma tax for sanctuary upkeep (Exod 30:13; Matt 17:24). The state demanded taxes that included a poll tax levied on males fourteen to sixty-five years of age and females twelve to sixty-five, real estate tax, customs tax collected at road and harbor stations, a tax on produce that amounted to 10 percent on grain and 20 percent on wine, fruit, and oil, a 1 percent income tax, and sales and inheritance taxes.
In the end, Jews of the first century carried a combined tax burden that was near or slightly exceeded 50 percent of their income.
Within certain regions, a portion of these taxes was collected by tax farming. In this case, the state collected bids from enterprising individuals who contracted to pay the taxes owed by a region. The chief tax collector with the highest bid was awarded the contract, and he then hired a second-tier staff of regular tax collectors to do the actual collection from the residents in that region. The state largely remained on the sidelines, allowing the tax farming system to provide the income they demanded.
Tax collectors had always fared a public relations challenge, but the tax farming system and the connotations linked to it really made it difficult for Jewish tax collectors to find sympathy from the general public. They were perceived as dishonest (Luke 3:12-13), and their strong-arm tactics used to collect and even over-collect what was due made them feared.
What is more, and maybe worse, their business required regular contact with Gentiles; thus they were perceived as collaborators with the Romans who occupied the Promised Land. Matthew had personally felt the unpopularity of his position as tax collector. Yet in his Gospel he attempted no repair of the tax collector’s reputation; he lumped them in with abusers of alcohol, gluttons, pagans, public sinners, and prostitutes (Matt 9:10; 11:19; 18:17). END OF PART 1