Tax Collectors and Tax Collections in Judea

In the Gospels, the figure of a tax collector appears quite often.  The Greek terms are telones and architelones, whereas, the equivalent Latin term is publicanus.

First let’s look at the terms.  The Greek telones may be translated as a renter of taxes or a farmer of taxes.  This clearly captures the activity at hand.  Under the Roman tax system, a person, usually of the equestrian class could contract to collect the taxes.  The person making the contract, that is a contractor, was called in Latin, a publicanus.  While this term is used in Latin translations of the Gospels, a publicanus was any person making a contract and not necessarily a telones, although by the 1st Century AD, the term publicanus was almost always used in this sense.  The publicanus paid the government the tax allotted to an area, such as a province, and then gained the right to recoup his payment to the government from that area.  Of course, the publican (plural) used their power to extract far more than the amount that they paid to the government.  Thus, the Greek term appears to be very apt, they rented the taxes!

The term architelones is used only once in the Gospels and means the chief publicanus or chief tax collector.  The term telones is used 21 times in the Gospels and is translated variously, once as a collector, five times as tax collectors, and 15 times as tax collections.

Given that the publican was able to extract more than the amount of tax allotted to an area, he became despised and reviled.  However, this is not the only reason for the disdain in which the publican was held.

Often, the publican would offer personal loans to agricultural farmers, secured by their lands.  While these loans were often made to allow the farmer to pay the tax owed on their crops, the farmers also used these loans to secure seeds, farm implements, more land, and so forth.  The collateral for the loans were the farmers’ lands.  If there was a crop failure, then the farmer would be unable to repay the loan, causing the publican to foreclose the loan and repossess the land which was the collateral for the loan.  In this fashion, publicans not only became rich, but also they became extensive land owners who disposed the farmers from their lands.  The farmers might then become tenants farmers on the very lands that they had owned and now had lost, engendering great hatred for the publicans among these disposed farmers.

In Judea, the Jewish farmers had to meet a number of taxes from at least two different sources.  First, the farmer had to pay taxes to the Temple and second to the government.  The Temple taxes were usually two in number:  the tithe to the Levites, God’s representatives on earth, per the instructions of the Book of Numbers, 18:27, which applied six out of every seven years with the seventh year being a year of exemption called the Sabbatical Year (per Leviticus 25:4 calling for the land to lie fallow) ; and the annual Temple Tax of one-half shekel.  The government taxes, imposed by Herod the Great, were onerous.  First, Herod collected the amount which was the Tribute he owed to Rome, on top of that he collected taxes to support his government.  His taxes to support his government were varied and hit all aspects of the economy.  He imposed a tax on salt, fish, as well as custom duties for the shipment of agricultural goods from one place to another within his own kingdom, and other taxes on other sources of manufacturing, including the production of salted fish!

Some scholars have estimated that the taxes in Judea were as much as 28% to 33% of a farmer’s harvest, although one scholar, Richard Horsley, believes it may have been about 40%.  This burden appears to have been the greatest burden borne by peasants in the Empire, as scholars estimate that in other provinces, such as Egypt, the tax burden was between 5% and 12% of a farmer’s harvest.

A Survey of Current Literature

Periodically, I review in this blog publications which I find compelling,

Thus, I start with the National Geographic Magazine, December 2014. In a small article, the gilded chariots of Pharaoh Tutankhamun are finally being given the attention and study which they deserve.  Of particular interest is the fact that the golden panels which adorned the chariots have unusual designs, which may have come from Syria.  Christian Eckman, the metal expert of the team said of the image of a dog and a mythical winged-creature hunting an ibex, which might be on the cover of a quiver: “This is not a motif which is familiar in Egypt.”

Archaeology in the January/February 2105 issue reports of the finding of a wooden toilet seat at Vindolanda. This is a very unique find, because in the past only marble or stone seats have been found.  This wooden seat clearly was greatly used as it is worn.  Researchers commented that the seat, however, is very comfortable.

Ancient Warfare in Vol. VII, Issue 3, covers the early Roman Republic with a multitude of excellent articles.  While the entire magazine is worth reading, of greatest importance is the article entitled: Fetiales and the Law of Nations: How the Romans Justified their Wars.  The author, Mark McCaffrey, demonstrates a complete knowledge of understanding of his subject.  Another very worthy article is The Battle of Lake Regilus, Rome Confirms the Republic.

The most important article of the year, however, is in the January/February 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review and is written by Lawrence Mykytiuk.  Professor Mykytiuk is an associate professor at Purdue University and holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies.  In his article, Dr. Mykytiuk explores the question of the historicity of Jesus.  He reviews in depth the literary documents from a number of sources, including Josephus and Tacitus, which were reviewed by me earlier in this blog, as well as Lucan.   Dr. Mykytiuk disregards the ossuaries which have been found to date as not yet having been verified.  He notes that the names Jesus and James are very common in the era and thus even if they are authentic; the inscriptions may not refer to Jesus the Christ. Having said, he concludes that Jesus was a real person and that there is really no evidence to deny the existence of Jesus.  I will review this article in depth in a future blog.  Needless to say, Dr. Mykytiuk has written a must read article. While I am writing usually about the Roman Empire and Early Christianity, I do not exclusively limit this blog to these topics.







Saturnalia-The Festival of Festivals in Ancient Rome

Religious festivals in ancient Rome were an extremely important part of life. The Roman calendar simply abounds with festivals.   Feriae (“holidays” in the sense of “holy days”; singular also feriae or dies ferialis) were either public (publicae) or private ( privatae). State holidays were celebrated by the Roman people and received public funding.  Although games (ludi) were not technically feriae, when games were held, they were celebrated as  days off work (dies festi).

Marcus Terentius Varro, a prolific author, who was known as the most ‘learned of all Romans’ and who was quoted by Circero, Virgil and others, wrote that feriae were “days instituted for the sake of the gods.” Because religious rites were performed on the feriae, public business was suspended. Everyone, including slaves, were not supposed to work, but were to be given some form of rest. Cicero wrote that people who were free should not engage in lawsuits and quarrels, and slaves should get a break from their labors. Exceptions for essential occupations were made, for example some jobs on a farm might still need to be performed. Some agricultural tasks not otherwise permitted could be carried out if an expiation were made in advance. Another example included work considered vital either to the gods or preserving human life was excusable. Within the city of Rome,  certain priests and the flamens were not even allowed to see work done. However, the pragmatic Romans allowed those who “inadvertently” worked to pay a fine or offer up a  sacrifice, piaculum, usually a pig.

One of the most joyous of all of the festivals was the Saturnalia.  This was festival in honor of the god Saturn. It was originally held on the 17th of December, but later on days were added until it was celebrated for a week, ending on December 23rd or the 24th.  It did not include the day of December 25th, more about which is covered later in this article.  The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn. There was a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned the conservative Roman social norms. For example, as with Sacaea,  masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet, Catullus, called the festival “the best of days.”  The Roman celebration would include masquerades in the streets, magnificent festive banquets, visiting with friends and the exchange of good-luck gifts known as Strenae, that is “lucky fruits.” Finally, Roman halls would be decked with garlands of laurel and green trees, adorned with lighted candles.

Saturn (Saturnus) was the god of sowing seeds. Even though Saturn was an agricultural deity, he ruled over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the bounty of the earth without labor. The revelries of the Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age.  The statue of Saturn at is main temple normally had its feet bound in wool, which was removed for the holiday as an act of liberation.  The Romans would celebrate the festival with cries of “Jo Saturnalia!” (also translated as “Io Saturnalia”).  The interjection “io” is pronounced either as two syllables (a short i and a long o) or as a single syllable (with the i becoming the Latin consonant j and pronounced ).

The remains of Saturn’s temple at Rome, eight columns of the pronaos (porch), still dominate today the west end of the Roman Forum. The temple goes back to the earliest records of the republic (6th century bc). It was restored by Lucius Munatius Plancus in 42 BC and, after a fire, in the 4th century AD. It served as the treasury (aerarium Saturni) of the Roman state.

Although probably the best-known Roman holiday, Saturnalia as a whole is not described from beginning to end in any single ancient source. Modern understanding of the festival has been pieced together from several accounts. The Saturnalia was the dramatic setting of the multivolume work of that name by Macrobius, a Latin writer from late antiquity who is the major source for information about the holiday. In one of the interpretations in Macrobius’s work, Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth.  The Saturnalia is not to be confused with the festival of the renewal of light and the coming of the new year, which was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.

The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries AD, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs probably have influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year.


The Historicity of Pontius Pilate-Part V

One writer of antiquity, Pliny the Younger, who wrote about Christianity, did not mention Pontius Pilate. I include him in this article, because some have argued that the absence of commentary by Pliny the Younger is damaging to the case of historicity of Pontius Pilate.

Pliny the Younger was born Gaius Caecilius Cilo in 61 AD in Novum Comum (Como). His mother, Plinia Marcella, was the sister of Pliny the Elder. He was a lawyer, author, and magistrate. Pliny’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him. He revered his uncle, who at this time was extremely famous, and provides sketches of how his uncle worked on the Naturalis Historia. Both were witnesses to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, during which the Pliny the Elder died, while Pliny the Younger escaped by boat.

Pliny the Elder made Pliny his adopted son and heir under his will.  Under Roman law, when a person was adopted, their clan name was changed to the clan name of the adopting family and their clan name became a “nickname”.  Hence, Gaius Caecilius Cilo became Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, with Secundus, being an additional nickname.

After being first tutored at home, Pliny went to Rome for further education, where he was taught rhetoric by Quintilian, a great teacher and author, and by Nicetes Sacerdos of Smyrna. Although born an equestrian, he achieved entry into the upper class by being elected Quaestor in his late twenties. Pliny was active in the Roman legal system. He was a well-known prosecutor and defender at the trials of a series of provincial governors, including two governors of Bithynia-Pontus.   This may be ironic in that he later became Governor of Bithynia.  He was a friend of the historian, Tacitus, and employed the biographer, Suetonius, on his staff.  Pliny the Younger was known as a connoisseur of writing and collected a number of authors as friends and colleagues.

Why is Pliny important? He wrote hundreds of letters, many of which still survive, that are of great historical value for the time period.

In one letter, Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan as to whether the “crime” of being a Christian was sufficient justification for a capital prosecution of a Christian:

“The method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.”

Trajan assured Pliny the Younger that being a Christian was sufficient for a capital prosecution.

Pliny detailed the practices of a Christian as being:

“They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal—but ordinary and innocent food.”

Unfortunately, while all of this is very interesting and gives us a great deal of information about early Christians, it does not bear upon the question of the historicity of Pontius Pilate. Thus, although Pliny is a great source for information about this age, he does not assist us in the quest to determine the historicity of Pilate.  The lack of a mention, however, of Pontius Pilate does not equate to a conclusion that Pontius Pilate did not exist.  The letter contents do not lend themselves to a discussion of Pontius Pilate.  Nor would a mention of Pontius Pilate have been appropriate.  The letter is an official letter from a Governor of a province to the Emperor asking for guidance on the law.  It would have been very out of place for such an official to mention the infamous governor in such a context, as well as of being of no import to the question being raised.  Further, it would have impolite as well as being apolitical.  Pliny the Younger demonstrated throughout his life the ability to thread the political needle and it would have been out of character for him to make a misstep here.