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But the Roman taxation, which bore upon Israel with such crushing weight, was quite of its own kind--systematic, cruel, relentless, and utterly regardless. In general, the provinces of the Roman Empire, and what of Palestine belonged to them, were subject to two great taxes--poll-tax (or rather income-tax) and ground-tax. All property and income that fell not under the ground-tax was subject to poll-tax; which amounted, for Syria and Cilicia, to one per cent. The "poll-tax" was really twofold, consisting of income-tax and head-money, the latter, of course, the same in all cases, and levied on all persons (bond or free) up to the age of sixty-five--women being liable from the age of twelve and men from that of fourteen. Landed property was subject to a tax of one-tenth of all grain, and one-fifth of the wine and fruit grown, partly paid in product and partly commuted into money. *
Besides these, there was tax and duty on all imports and exports, levied on the great public highways and in the seaports. Then there was bridge-money and road-money, and duty on all that was bought and sold in the towns. These, which may be called the regular taxes, were irrespective of any forced contributions, and of the support which had to be furnished to the Roman procurator and his household and court at Caesarea. To avoid all possible loss to the treasury, the proconsul of Syria, Quirinus (Cyrenius), had taken a regular census to show the number of the population and their means. This was a terrible crime in the eyes of the Rabbis, who remembers that, if numbering the people had been reckoned such great sin of old, the evil must be an hundredfold increased, if done by heathens and for their own purposes. Another offence lay in the thought, that tribute, hitherto only given to Jehovah, was now to be paid to a heathen emperor. "Is it lawful to pay tribute unto Caesar?" was a sore question, which many an Israelite put to himself as he placed the emperor's poll- tax beside the half-shekel of the sanctuary, and the tithe of his field, vineyard, and orchard, claimed by the tax-gatherer, along with that which he had hitherto only given unto the Lord. Even the purpose with which this inquiry was brought before Christ--to entrap Him in a political denunciation--shows, how much it was agitated among patriotic Jews; and it cost rivers of blood before it was not answered, but silenced.
The Romans had a peculiar way of levying these taxes--not directly, but indirectly--which kept the treasury quite safe, whatever harm it might inflict on the taxpayer, while at the same time it threw upon him the whole cost of the collection. Senators and civil officers were prohibited from engaging in business or trade; but the highest order, the equestrian, was largely composed of great capitalists. These Roman knights formed joint-stock companies, which bought at public auction the revenues of a province at a fixed price, generally for five years. The board had its chairman, or magister, and its offices at Rome. These were the real Publicani, or publicans, who often underlet certain of the taxes. The Publicani, or those who held from them, employed either slaves or some of the lower classes in the country as tax- gatherers--the publicans of the New Testament. Similarly, all other imposts were farmed and collected; some of them being very onerous, and amounting to an ad valorem duty of two and a half, of five, and in articles of luxury even of twelve and a half per cent. Harbor-dues were higher than ordinary tolls, and smuggling or a false declaration was punished by confiscation of the goods. Thus the publicans also levied import and export dues, bridge-toll, road-money, town-dues, etc.; and, if the peaceable inhabitant, the tiller of the soil, the tradesman, or manufacturer was constantly exposed to their exactions, the traveller, the caravan, or the pedlar encountered their vexatious presence at every bridge, along the road, and at the entrance to cities. Every bale had to be unloaded, and all its contents tumbled about and searched; even letters were opened; and it must have taken more than Eastern patience to bear their insolence and to submit to their "unjust accusations" in arbitrarily fixing the return from land or income, or the value of goods, etc. For there was no use appealing against them, although the law allowed this, since the judges themselves were the direct beneficiaries by the revenue; for they before whom accusations on this score would have to be laid, belonged to the order of knights, who were the very persons implicated in the farming of the revenue. Of course, the joint- stock company of Publicani at Rome expected its handsome dividends; so did the tax-gatherers in the provinces, and those to whom they on occasions sublet the imposts. All wanted to make money of the poor people; and the cost of the collection had of course to be added to the taxation. We can quite understand how Zaccheus, one of the supervisors of these tax-gatherers in the district of Jericho, which, from its growth and export of balsam, must have yielded a large revenue, should, in remembering his past life, have at once said: "If I have taken anything from any man by false accusation"--or, rather, "Whatever I have wrongfully exacted of any man." For nothing was more common than for the publican to put a fictitious value on property or income. Another favorite trick of theirs was to advance the tax to those who were unable to pay, and then to charge usurious interest on what had thereby become a private debt. How summarily and harshly such debts were exacted, appears from the New Testament itself. In Matthew 18:28 we read of a creditor who, for the small debt of one hundred denars, seizes the debtor by the throat in the open street, and drags him to prison; the miserable man, in his fear of the consequences, in vain falling down at his feet, and beseeching him to have patience, in not exacting immediate full payment. What these consequences were, we learn from the same parable, where the king threatens not only to sell off all that his debtor has, but even himself, his wife, and children into slavery (v 25). And what short shrift such an unhappy man had to expect from "the civil officer," appears from the summary procedure, ending in imprisonment till "the last mite" had been paid, described in Luke 12:58.
However, therefore, in far-off Rome, Cicero might describe the Publicani as "the flower of knighthood, the ornament of the state, and the strength of the republic," or as "the most upright and respected men," the Rabbis in distant Palestine might be excused for their intense dislike of "the publicans," even although it went to the excess of declaring them incapable of bearing testimony in a Jewish court of law, of forbidding to receive their charitable gifts, or even to change money out of their treasury (Baba K. x. 1), of ranking them not only with harlots and heathens, but with highwaymen and murderers (Ned. iii. 4), and of even declaring them excommunicate. Indeed, it was held lawful to make false returns, to speak untruth, or almost to use any means to avoid paying taxes (Ned. 27 b; 28 a). And about the time of Christ the burden of such exactions must have been felt all the heavier on account of a great financial crisis in the Roman Empire (in the year 33 or our era), which involved so many in bankruptcy, and could not have been without its indirect influence even upon distant Palestine.
Of such men--despised Galileans, unlettered fishermen, excommunicated publicans--did the blessed Lord, in His self- humiliation, choose His closest followers, His special apostles! What a contrast to the Pharisaical notions of the Messiah and His kingdom! What a lesson to show, that it was not "by might nor by power," but by His Spirit, and that God had chosen the base things of this world, and things that were despised, to confound things that were mighty! Assuredly, this offers a new problem, and one harder of solution than many others, to those who would explain everything by natural causes. Whatever they may say of the superiority of Christ's teaching to account for his success, no religion could ever have been more weighted; no popular cause could ever have presented itself under more disadvantageous circumstances than did the Gospel of Christ to the Jews of Palestine. Even from this point of view, to the historical student familiar with the outer and inner life of that period, there is no other explanation of the establishment of Christ's kingdom than the power of the Holy Ghost.
Such a custom-house officer was Matthew Levi, when the voice of our Lord, striking to the inmost depths of his heart, summoned him to far different work. It was a wonder that the Holy One should speak to such an one as he; and oh! in what different accents from what had ever fallen on his ears. But it was not merely condescension, kindness, sympathy, even familiar intercourse with one usually regarded as a social pariah; it was the closest fellowship; it was reception into the innermost circle; it was a call to the highest and holiest work which the Lord offered to Levi. And the busy road on which he sat to collect customs and dues would now no more know the familiar face of Levi, otherwise than as that of a messenger of peace, who brought glad tidings of great joy.