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
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 (
In addition to other tithes, Jews paid the temple tax (
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 (
- Keddie, Anthony. Class and Power in Roman Palestine: The Socioeconomic Setting of Judaism and Christian Origins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
- Udoh, Fabian E. To Caesar What Is Caesar’s: Tribute, Taxes, and Imperial Administration in Early Roman Palestine (63 B.C.E.–70 C.E.). Brown Judaic Studies 343. Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2005.
- Ramos, Alex J. Torah, Temple, and Transaction: Jewish Religious Institutions and Economic Behavior in Early Roman Galilee. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020.