The Bible on Taxes

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The biblical traditions constantly engage and reflect the structures and daily realities of aristocratic-controlled empires. Empires employ a proprietary theory whereby ruling elites claim a material share of all things: land, production, traded goods, and labor. The payment (often in kind) of taxes, tributes, rents, and forced labor by peasants to local and foreign elites ensures a continual source of wealth. Peasants who usually seek to supply their own needs locally are thereby forced to produce a “surplus.” Taxation does not benefit the common good. Rather, it supports the privileged lifestyle of elites. Taxation exerts control over land, its production, and those who work it, maintaining a hierarchical societal structure benefiting a few at the expense of most.

The biblical documents refer to varying forms of taxation. Claiming control of land (Gen 41:41), the Egyptian pharaoh exacted 20 percent of the crop to offset famine among his own residents (Gen 41:33-36) and nations (Gen 41:57). Subsequently, Egypt imposed another form of taxation on Israelites, that of forced labor. Israelites were forced to work “in mortar and brick” and in the fields (Exod 1:12-14). During Israel’s monarchy, Assyria took tribute from Israel (2 Kgs 15:20) and from Judah after Assyria invaded Judah in 701 bce (2 Kgs 18:13-16). A century later, Egypt exacted tribute from Judah, forcing Jehoiakim to tax the land to meet Pharaoh Neco’s demands (2 Kgs 23:28-35 ). Babylon exacted tribute after taking Jerusalem in 597-587 BCE (2 Kgs 24:13).

Israel and Judah not only paid taxes to empires, they themselves exacted forced labor from conquered Canaanites (Deut 20:11; Josh 16:10; 17:12-13; Judg 1:28-35). King Solomon taxed the people. He established twelve districts to sustain the king for a month each by taxation (1 Kgs 4:7-19, 22-28). Solomon also conscripted labor from Israel (1 Kgs 5:13), taxed merchants and trade (1 Kgs 10:15), and received tribute from nations (1 Kgs 4:21; 10:15 b). When the people protested the harshness of such demands, his son and successor, Rehoboam, increased taxes, causing Jeroboam to lead a revolt. The division of the kingdoms resulted (1 Kgs 12). Previously, when the people had demanded a king, Samuel had warned that harsh taxation was inevitable (1 Sam 8:11-17).

Under Persian rule, taxation and the means of collection were extended. King Ahasuerus, the Persian emperor (486-465 BCE), taxed “the land and . . . the islands” (Esth 10:1). His successor, King Artaxerxes, levied “tribute, custom, or toll” as direct sources of royal revenue (Ezra 4:13), exempting, though, Jerusalem temple personnel (Ezra 7:24). Under Nehemiah, governor of Judah from 445-433 bce, these taxes, along with forced labor to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, were harsh, requiring some to mortgage fields and vineyards (Neh 5:1-5; 9:36-37). Moreover, Persian-appointed governors of the province of Judah collected another level of taxes comprising food, wine, and money for themselves, though Nehemiah declares he did not do so (Neh 5:14-19).

Under the Ptolemies and Seleucids, tax collecting took a different form. Instead of the king’s officials collecting taxes, they were contracted to local elites for collection (Josephus, Ant. 12.154-55). This system profited rulers in guaranteeing levels of payment, as well as elites who collected and pocketed a surplus. Taxes included tribute, and salt, crown, and crop taxes (1 Macc 10:29-31; 11:34-35 ).

Initially, the same system continued when Rome established power post-63 BCE. By the 1st century CE, the system seems to have been modified. Some taxes, probably land and head taxes, were paid directly to officials employed by governors or to local councils. Tolls on transit and distribution collected at city-gates and seaports were contracted to tax collectors. Zacchaeus is described by the unusual term “chief tax collector,” suggesting that he perhaps owned collection rights on transportation tolls around Jericho, and supervised local collectors (Luke 19:1 ).

The Roman historian Tacitus attests the central role of taxation in the Roman Empire. He narrates unrest about taxation during the emperor Nero’s reign (54-68 CE). Nero considers the abolition of indirect taxes on transportation of goods. His advisers “praise his magnanimity” but point out “that the dissolution of the empire was certain if the revenues on which the state subsisted were to be curtailed” (Tacitus, Ann. 13.50).

In addition to Roman taxes, there were other layers. King Herod (39-4 BCE) taxed agrarian production (Josephus, Ant. 15.303) and purchases and sales (Josephus, Ant. 17.205). Herod Antipas (4 BCE-39 CE) collected similar taxes and tolls in Galilee. The Jerusalem Temple required the “first fruits” tithe paid in kind (Neh 10:32-39 ), and a tax of a half-shekel paid by males twenty years and older, including Jews in the Diaspora (Exod 30:11-16 ; Josephus, Ant. 18.312). It is difficult to predict exact levels of taxation. Estimates range between ca. 20-50 percent of peasant and artisan production was removed through taxes, a significant and damaging amount for those living near subsistence levels.

“Tax collectors” appear often in the Synoptic Gospels, though not in John’s Gospel. The criterion of multiple attestation indicates Jesus’ association with them (Mark 2:15-16 ; Q: Matt 11:19 and Luke 7:34 ; L: Luke 15:1-2 ). In Galilee tax collectors worked on behalf of Herod Antipas, not directly for Rome. Several features mark their presentation in the Gospels. Tax collectors are frequently associated with excessive collection. John the Baptist instructs repentant toll collectors not to collect excess (Luke 3:12-13). The wealthy Zacchaeus recognizes that he has defrauded or exploited people (Luke 19:8). Further, tax collectors were socially despised and regarded as “sinners.” This unspecified term seems, in part, to express unacceptability of a group (Matt 9:10; 11:19 ; Mark 2:15 ; Luke 5:30-31; 7:34; 15:2). Matthew links tax collectors with “Gentiles,” suggesting social distance (Matt 5:46; 18:17). The term sinner also indicates morally unacceptable behavior. A Pharisee associates tax collectors with “thieves, rogues, adulterers” (Luke 18:11 ). Matthew’s Jesus links them with prostitutes (Matt 21:31). The crowd grumbles when Jesus goes to the home of Zacchaeus, “a sinner” (Luke 19:7). Yet tax collectors are often responsive to Jesus’ ministry. Levi abandons his toll-collection booth to follow Jesus (Matt 9:9; Luke 5:27-28). A tax collector cries out for God’s mercy (Luke 18:13). Zacchaeus receives salvation by receiving Jesus and making fourfold restitution to the poor (Luke 19:8-9).

Jesus’ followers had to cooperate with Rome’s tax requirements. Rome regarded refusal to pay as a denial of its sovereignty. Josephus has Agrippa declare that Jewish nonpayment of tribute to the governor Florus in 66 CE is an “act of war,” whereas its payment would clear them of the “charge of insurrection” (J.W. 2.403-404). Refusal to pay often brought a military response (Tacitus, Ann. 3.40-41; 6.41). New Testament writers do not endorse violent resistance. As often happens with powerless groups, they mix cooperation with disguised and self-protective protest.

In the difficult passage Rom 13:1-7, Paul declares God’s sanction of ruling authority and the requirement of obedience. Yet he had previously described the world as corrupt (Rom 1:18-32 ) and under God’s judgment (Rom 8:18-25 ; compare 1 Cor 2:6-8 ), an emphasis he repeats in Rom 13:11-12 . In the previous chapter, he instructed Jesus’ believers not to conform to this world (Rom 12:1-2 ). Paul’s instruction to pay taxes (Rom 13:6 ) seems to be a matter of pragmatic survival while recognizing elsewhere God’s purposes that would deny to tax payment the claim of Rome’s ultimate sovereignty. Sovereignty belongs to God. Perhaps contextualized by unrest in the 50s because of Nero’s taxes (Tacitus, Ann. 13.50-51), Paul protectively warns believers to cooperate and pay. A refusal might provoke reprisals against Rome’s Jewish community, including Jewish believers, already vulnerable to anti-Jewish sentiments.

Similar ambivalence involving cooperation yet disguised as critique is evident in Jesus’ instruction about taxes: “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:13-17). Jesus’ instruction cleverly combines apparent deference to Rome with a subversive agenda. He employs ambiguous, coded, and self-protective speech to uphold paying a coin bearing the emperor’s image (contrary to the Decalogue), while also asserting overriding loyalty to God. “The things of God” embrace everything since “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps 24:1). The “hidden transcript” says the earth does not belong to Caesar despite Rome’s claims of ownership (the “public transcript”) that the tax represented.

But instead of prohibiting payment, Jesus orders payment of Caesar’s things to Caesar. The verb give or render literally means “give back.” Disciples are to “give back” to Caesar a blasphemous coin that, contrary to God’s will, bears Caesar’s image. Paying the tax literally removes this illicit coin and its illegitimate claim from Judea. As much as Rome sees, the tax is paid; compliance is expressed. But Jesus’ instruction reframes the act. “Giving back” to Caesar becomes a disguised, dignity-restoring act of resistance that recognizes God’s all-encompassing claim.

Jesus gives another instruction about taxes that also hides yet expresses resistance. Jesus instructs Peter to pay the half-shekel tax with a coin found in a fish’s mouth (Matt 17:24-27 ). The tax under discussion was paid, prior to 70 CE, to the Jerusalem Temple. But after Jerusalem’s defeat in 70, the emperor Vespasian co-opted it as a punitive tax on Jews paid to Rome (Josephus, J.W. 7.218; Dio Cassius, Rom. 65.7.2). He used it, insultingly, to rebuild and maintain the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome, thereby reminding Jews not only of Rome’s superior power but also of Jupiter’s superiority to the God of Israel. Jesus’ conversation with Peter in Matthew’s Gospel, written post-70 CE, concerns this tax. Matthew’s Jesus reframes an action intended to humiliate by attributing to it a different significance that dignifies the dominated and attests God’s sovereignty, not Rome’s.

Jesus reminds Peter in Matt 17:25-26 of the well-known taxing ways of kings and emperors. Everyone pays taxes except the rulers’ children. Not paying the tax is not an option because it will bring reprisals (Matt 17:27 a). Instead Jesus instructs Peter to catch a fish and find there the coin to pay the tax.

The key to understanding Jesus’ instruction lies in the Gospel’s previous scenes involving fish. Twice, in Matt 14 and 15, Jesus has exerted God’s sovereignty over fish, multiplying small fish to feed crowds. Contrary to Rome’s claims that the emperor rules the sea and owns its creatures, expressed by taxing the fishing industry, the Gospel asserts that the sea and its creatures belong to God. They are subject to God’s sovereignty. God supplies the fish with the coin in its mouth. Disciples are to pay the tax. It appears to Rome that they are submissive and compliant, but for disciples the tax coin has a special significance. Supplied by God, it testifies to God’s sovereignty. The tax that is supposed to enact and acknowledge Rome’s control is reframed to witness to God’s reign. Paying the tax is an ambiguous act, an expression of hidden protest.

Bibliography: Warren Carter. “Paying the Tax to Rome as Subversive Praxis: Matthew 17:24-27 .” Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (2001) 130-44; John Donahue. “Tax-Collectors and Sinners: An Attempt at Identification.” CBQ 33 (1971) 39-61; K. C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman. Palestine in the Time of Jesus (1998); James Scott. Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990).


This article has been adapted from The New Interpreter's® Dictionary of the Bible. A diverse group of 900 scholars from 40 countries contributed 7100 fresh new articles with 8400 entries including persons, places, things, theological concepts, and much more. The complete five volume work is included with a subscription to Ministry Matters.

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