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.