Matthew at the Toll Gate-Part 4

Customs Post

The King James Version translation of the calling of Matthew by Jesus uses the word toll gate or customs gate for the place at which Matthew was called.

So, what was a customs post? How much did it collect in customs duties? Who had to pay such customs duties? How did the customs post function? How was a customs post staffed?

First, a customs post was called a portorium in Latin. The customs duty tax was known as tetarte or portoria.

The tax collector, or technically the customs officer, was a publicani, with the special name of portitores.

Publicani were persons under contract to the state. Publicani could contract to supply food, beef, grains, clothing etc. to the legions, or they could contract their services, i.e. collect the taxes. The publicani as a tax collector would pay the tax amount to Rome and then collect the taxes to repay themselves. Thus, the tax collectors viewed themselves as having lent money to the Empire and the collection of the taxes was merely recouping their loan with interest in the collection of the taxes.

Capernaum was on the border, as we have noted, the Jewish tetrarchy of Herod Antipas to the west (in which Capernaum was located) and the predominantly Gentile tetrarchy of Herod Philip to the east. We face squarely the issue of what tetarte a trade caravan would have faced at the portorium at Capernaum.

NB: Eventually, after the death of Herod the Great, his kingdom was divided between three of Herod’s sons:

  • Archelaus, his son by his fourth wife, Malthace, the Samaritan, received the lion’s share of the kingdom; Idumaea, Judea, and Samaria, and the title of Ethnarch (“ruler of the people”; in this case, the Jews, Samaritans, and Idumeans).
  • Herod Antipas, Archelaus’ brother, became Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.
  • Philip I, Herod’s son by his fifth wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, became Tetrarch of the northern part of Herod’s kingdom. St. Luke the Evangelist lists Philip’s territories as Itura and Trachonitis: Josephus gives his territories variously as Batanea, Gaulantis, Trachonitis and Paneas ( Antiquities XVII, 8 : 1) and Batanea, Trachonitis, Auranitis, and “a certain part of what is called the House of Zenodorus” (Ant XVII, 11 : 4). A number of these names refer to the same places, found now in modern-day Syria and Lebanon.If this was merely an internal border, then the tetarte would have varied in amount from 1 to 5 percent, often 2.5 percent. However, if this was viewed as an external border, then the amount would have been higher, much higher, at 12.5 percent or even 25 percent.What are some of the goods, luxury goods, which would have been in a caravan to be subject to customs?
  • On what was the tetarte collected? As regards the articles subject to an import duty, it may be stated in general terms, that all commodities, including slaves, which were imported by merchants for the purpose of selling them again, were subject to the portorium; whereas things which a person brought with him for his own use, were exempted from it. Many things, however, which belonged more to the luxuries than to the necessities of life, such as eunuchs and handsome youths, had to pay an import duty, even though they were imported by persons for their own use.
  1. The Chinese lacquerware
  2. Indian ivory carvings were designed to be attached to wooden furniture
  3. Finished objets d’art, such as bronze statuettes and plaster casts to be used in the manufacture of metal vessels
  4. Glassware vessels from port sites connected to the Indian Ocean trade. [There are cut-glass vessels, mold-blown glass, glass with faceted decorations, colored enameled vessels and vessels with applied molded relief decoration, even bowls of millefiori or mosaic glass. There are pieces in some creative and very appealing shapes, including multi-colored flasks in the shape of fish and boats.]
  5. The finely painted glass beakers, with scenes of people and animals in bright colors, carry some typically Egyptian images, such as the goddess Isis, and scenes of the date harvest. Most famously, the painting on one vase depicts three boats and a tower surmounted by a human figure flanked by two tritons. This was immediately identified as the pharos or lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world. In addition to Egyptian-themed imagery on some of the glass vases, there are also items made of Egyptian materials, including vessels of alabaster and of porphyry, mined in the Roman period in the Eastern Desert, and bronze statuettes of quintessentially Graeco-Roman Egyptian gods (Harpokrates/Horus the Child; Herakles.
  6. Silks
  7. Spices
  8. Salted Fish!

More next week on customs!

Matthew at the Toll Gate-Part 3

The picture above is a view of the excavations which are ongoing at Capernaum. The grey hexagonal building is the church built around Peter’s home.  The white building is the 4th century AD Roman style synagogue.

2.  Geographical Position of Capernaum

But Capernaum is important for our story because of its geographic position. It was a small city on the North shore of the Sea of Galilee right on the highway which went from the Mediterranean coast to Damascus. It was designed according to that period’s urban design of straight lines, which was built parallel to the main Roman imperial highway, the Via Maris, which crossed the village on the northern side.  This road came from Damascus in the north and went to Alexandria in Egypt in the south.   It also had a connection to Caesarea Maritima.  The city position meant that it was a natural place for a customs station. At the customs station, customs taxes were gathered both by stationary and by itinerant officers. Mt 9:9; 17:24; Mr 2:14; Lu 5:27.  Caravans stopped at Capernaum to resupply themselves with produce and dried fish. At the lake shore, where Peter and other fishermen worked, archaeologists discovered a fish sales area.

A little historical background is necessary to understand why the customs post was here.

By the time of Jesus and Peter in the early first century AD, Capernaum was situated on the border of two realms: the Jewish tetrarchy of Herod Antipas to the west (in which Capernaum was located) and the predominantly Gentile tetrarchy of Herod Philip to the east. Because of its new status as a border town, Capernaum’s fishing and farming population expanded to include officials from Antipas’ administration, such as toll/tax collectors (see Mark 2:13–17; Matthew 9:9–13; Luke 5:27–32) and military officers (see Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10). The growing village’s proximity to the lake and a local trade route also brought interregional traffic and may have attracted less reputable elements of society, such as prostitutes and beggars.

Rome had entered an era of vast prosperity in the reign of Augustus. Why?  First time in over a hundred years there is no civil war.  With a few exceptions, there is no war of conquest going on.  Peace brings prosperity.  The vast numbers of provinces added until the beginning of the reign of Augustus were finally filling the coffers of Rome and of Romans with goods, slaves, and money.  Trade is expanding, particularly with India and China.  India is reached both from ports of the Red Sea, as well as overland, while China is virtually only accessed by overland routes.  These overland routes basically funnel through Damascus and then through Capernaum.

Matthew is a toll collector, a specialized tax collector. I will recount more about what it was like to be a toll collector.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the calling of Matthew (Matthew 9:9) by Jesus is as follows:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

The story of Matthew’s calling in Mark (Mark 2:14) is the same as it is in Matthew, except that Matthew is called Levi and one other important detail:

As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

From this I conclude that Levi and Matthew is the same person.  But then who is Alphaeus?

In Matthew 10:2-4, we are given a list of the Apostles of Jesus:

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Thus, Alphaeus is the father of James.  This is also confirmed in Luke 6:15.  But we know from Mark 2:14 that Alphaeus is the father of Levi (Matthew).  Thus, Matthew and James are brothers.

In John 19:25, we read:

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas ( NB perhaps spelled Cleophas), and Mary Magdalene.

Thus Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a sister, also named Mary, who is married to a man, known as Cleopas (or perhaps spelled Cleophas).  Some scholars think that that Alphaeus is the same as Cleophas; Alphaeus being his Greek name, and Cleophas his Hebrew or Syriac name.  If so, then Alphaeus is thus the uncle of Jesus, as well as the father of James and Matthew.

However, Alphaeus may also have been the brother of Joseph.  If so, then in that manner he was the uncle of Jesus, as well as the father of James and Matthew.



Matthew at the Toll Gate: Part 2

  1. What was Capernaum?

It was the center of Jesus’ Activity at the Sea of Galilee.  See Map above; the numbers correspond with list below 

1 Calms a storm from the boat

2 Sends demons into swine

3 Feeds 5,000 men

4 Walks on sea

5 Feeds 4,000 men

6 Traditional location of Sermon on the Mount

(NB The Sea of Galilee was also called Lake of Gennesaret and Sea of Tiberias.)

Capernaum  is the most often named city in the N.T.  It was of sufficient size to be always called a “city,” Mt 9:1.  It had a busy port for the many fishermen who had lived there. Capernaum was mentioned in Roman and Jewish sources.

Jesus traveled there from Nazareth, to the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali, and found his first disciples, Andrew, Peter, and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John. (Matt 4:13-22). Jesus taught in their synagogue (Jn 6:24-59). Jesus resided for a time at Peter’s house in Capernaum, teaching and healing the sick (Lk 4:31-41). Once He had left, He rebuked the city for their unbelief (Lk 10:15). Capernaum grew larger at the time of Jesus (early Roman period, 1st C AD), reflecting this growth a synagogue was built in the center of the village.

Recently there have been excavations that have uncovered the 2-story synagogue.  (This is from an era later than Jesus, but below this synagogue, they have found another smaller synagogue which is from the 1st century AD.)  The later one was of a beautiful ornamented style cut in limestone, rather than the typical black basalt seen around the area, and was 65 feet long. The carved stone ornamentation depicted stylized plants, fruits, 5-pointed stars, geometric motifs, and even mythological figures. Their were also dedicatory inscriptions written in Aramaic and Greek.

Today, near the synagogue, there is an octagonal Byzantine church with a mosaic floor built upon the site believed to be the house of Peter. Recent excavations beneath this church has revealed houses dating back to the first century. Some believe that one of these houses could very well be the house of Peter.
As to the synagogue, the Bible tells us that a Roman centurion built a  synagogue for the  Jews.  Luke 7:1-5. His servant was later healed from severe palsy by Jesus  Matthew 8: 5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. As expected for such a sacred building, it was found at the highest point in town.

Only a few hundred feet from the synagogue, the stone house of the disciple Peter has also been found at Capernaum. Jesus may have lived with Peter while staying in Capernaum. In the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the house apparently became a house-church. Centuries later, Christians honored the site by building a church here. It was destroyed in a later conquest of the city.

Archaeologists have excavated both the church and the earlier house below. Excavations revealed one residence that stood out from the others. This house was the object of early Christian attention with 2nd century graffiti and a 4th century house church built above it. In the 5th century a large octagonal Byzantine church was erected above this, complete with a baptistery. Pilgrims referred to this as the house of the apostle Peter.

Literary sources and recent archaeological discoveries make the identification of the house of St. Peter in Capernaum virtually certain. The house was built at the very end of the Hellenistic period (first century B.C.). In the second half of the first century A.D. some peculiar features set apart this building from all the others so far excavated in Capernaum. Here, in fact, the pavements received floors of lime several times. Interesting enough, many pieces of broken lamps were found in the thin layers of lime. …One hundred and thirty-one inscriptions were found. They were written in four languages, namely: in Greek (110), Aramaic (10), Estrangelo (9) (A Sematic language which flourished during the 1st half of the 1st century AD.), and Latin (2). The name of Jesus appears several times. He is called Christ, the Lord, and the Most High God. An inscription in Estrangelo mentions the Eucharist. There are also symbols and monograms, namely: crosses of different forms, a boat, the monogram of Jesus. The name of St. Peter occurs at least twice: his monogram is written in Latin but with Greek letters. In another graffito St. Peter is called the helper of Rome. A third inscription mentions Peter and Berenike. This Peter, however, might be the name of a pilgrim. On several hundred pieces of plaster, decorative motifs appear. The colors employed are: green, blue, yellow, red, brown, white and black. Among the subjects one can distinguish floral crosses, pomegranates, figs, trifolium, stylized flowers and geometric designs such as circles, squares.