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Taxes in First-Century Palestine

Tyrian shekel

As the saying goes, two things are certain—death and taxes. This was as true in first-century Palestine as it is today.

What taxes did people in first-century Palestine pay?

People in Palestine in the first century CE were subject to a variety of taxes. Direct taxes levied by the Roman state included land taxes (tributum soli) usually paid in kind and based on a property’s total valuation or a percentage of the property’s agricultural yield. Rome also levied head taxes (tributum capitis) on eligible individuals, paid in cash. Rome assessed direct taxes through periodic censuses, like the 6 CE census by Quirinius (incorrectly dated in Luke 2:1-7).

Indirect taxes—which either went to Rome or benefited the province, city, or tax district where collected—were prevalent. Sales taxes, tolls, and duties on transported goods, for example, were paid in cash at city gates, port city harbors, markets, village fairs, and toll stations along trade routes. The gospels name two toll collectors: Jesus’s disciple Levi (Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32; called Matthew in Matt 9:9-13) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).

In addition to other tithes, Jews paid the temple tax (Exod 30:11-16; Neh 10:32-33). This tax, of one half-shekel paid annually in silver coinage (namely, Tyrian shekels), subsidized the Jerusalem temple’s sacrifices and upkeep. Set at one half-shekel and required for Jewish men beginning at age twenty (Exod 30:13-14; Philo, Spec. Laws 1.77; Josephus, Ant. 18.312–313), it amounted to two Greek drachmas or two Roman denarii and was probably roughly equal to two days’ wages for a hired laborer (Tob 5:15; Matt 20:2). After the temple’s destruction in 70 CE, Vespasian converted the temple tax into a poll tax that was to be paid to Rome (see Matt 17:24-27).

Was the tax burden in first-century Palestine oppressive?

We often hear of how excessive taxation oppressed the people of Palestine. Taxes were certainly burdensome. Indirect taxes accumulated and raised the cost of goods. Collection methods benefited local elites and so widened inequality. Abuses in collection did occur. Occasionally, Roman governors demanded payment from their subjects to fund personal interests or specific political, military, or social needs. Such irregular exactions, like Pontius Pilate’s use of temple funds to build aqueducts in Jerusalem, were invariably detested and incited violent backlash (Josephus, B.J. 2.175–77; A.J. 18.60–62).

But we need not overstate the case. The temple tax was a small flat tax that Philo says all could afford, even the very poor (Spec. Laws 1.139–140). Jews worldwide paid it in droves. Other taxes varied in their extent, with age, gender, residence, landowning status, and participation in agriculture and commerce determining the total one paid. Remissions occurred, provincials had legal recourse to combat abuses, and the overall tax burden did not differ substantially from earlier periods—and may have been less. Moreover, Jews in Palestine abhorred Roman taxes mainly because they were owed to a foreign power. God had promised this land to Abraham’s descendants (Gen 12:1-7). The land and its products thus properly belong to God, not Rome (see Mark 12:13-17; Matt 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26). Taxes in Roman Palestine were not as burdensome as is sometimes made out to be.

  • Ruiz-Gilberto

    Gilberto A. Ruiz is an associate professor in the Theology Department at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. His research focuses on examining the New Testament writings, especially the gospels, in light of Second Temple Judaism and life in the Roman Empire, and on biblical interpretation that foregrounds the experiences, social concerns, and identities of contemporary readers, especially from minoritized perspectives and Latinx perspectives in particular.