In the previous text we talked about hospitality rules which applied to private families and how they should entertain their guests. On unfrequented roads, where there were not many villages or towns, there were regular khans, or places of lodging for strangers. Like the modern khans today these places were open, and were generally built in a square with the large court in the middle being intended for the beasts of burden or carriages. The rooms for travelers were built around the court square. None of the rooms were furnished, and no payment was expected from the person who used them if they only wanted to use the room with nothing in it. There was a person working there who would provide other necessities for a fee, however. It was probably in one of these places that the Good Samaritan took the man who was hurt on the road. He just left money and they took care of the man. These early “motels” are mentioned as far back as the history of Moses. Below is a picture of a khan and how it might have been set up in early times.
In later times we also read of the oshpisa as a house of public entertainment. These were of Roman origin and you could buy such foods as pickled or fried locusts in flour or honey, Median or Babylonian beer, Egyptian drink, and home-made cider or wine. It was also said that wild noise and games of chance were indulged in by those who wasted their money by riotous living.
Herod employed many secret police and they would go in these places and find out the opinions of the people. As they drank they would talk more freely and less guarded than in other circumstances. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, spies kept close tabs on the people, in the city and in the country. They listened to their conversations and would even draw them into conversation to find out what was going on in their lives and the lives of others around them. Herod himself is said to have acted in that capacity, and to have lurked about the streets at night in disguise to overhear or entrap unwary citizens.
At one time the city seems almost to have been under martial law, with the citizens being forbidden to hold public meetings, have banquets together, or demonstrations. History records what terrible vengeance followed the slightest suspicion of the people doing something they were not supposed to do. An example of this would be the murdering of all the little children at Bethlehem. By doing this Herod hoped to destroy what he thought was the royal line that would try to take his royalty from him. He didn’t understand the role that Jesus would play in history.
In the writings of the Talmud there is evidence that all the genealogical registers in the Temple were destroyed by order of Herod. The Jews retaliated to this heinous deed by an intense hatred of Herod that went so far as to elevate the day of Herod’s death into an annual feast day, on which all mourning was prohibited.
Another thing that greatly infuriated the Jews were the foreign tax collectors. They were all over the country, whether town or country, on quiet side roads or great highways. Everywhere they went they met these tax collectors. They were people who were extremely overbearing and looked down with scorn on other people that they met who were lower in rank than they were. They seemed to have a lot of power in those days to get whatever amount of money they wanted as long as they paid what was due to the government.
The tax collectors were shameless in their dealings with the people and the Jews, especially hated them because they were a symbol of Israel’s subjection to foreign rule. Ever since their return from Babylon after God’s judgment had come upon them, they had pretty much constantly been taxed heavily from foreign governments. In the time of Ezra, they paid to the Persian monarch “ground tax”, probably income tax and property tax; “custom tax”, levied on all that was for consumption or what was imported; and “toll tax”, money to keep up the roads.
Under the reign of the Ptolemies the taxes seem to have been farmed out to the highest bidder, the price varying from 8 to 16 talents. During the Syrian rule the taxes seem to have consisted of tribute, duty on salt, a third of the produce of all that was sown, and one-half of the bounty that was picked from fruit trees; all this besides poll tax, custom duty, and an uncertain kind of tax called ‘crown money’. Under the Herodians the royal revenue seems to have been derived from crown lands, from a property and income tax, from import and export duties, and from a duty on all that was publicly sold and bought, with a tax upon houses in Jerusalem to be added to all this.
As much as these taxes were, they referred to civil taxation and had nothing to do with their religious dues. To be added again to this was the fact that every town and community levied its own taxes for the maintenance of the synagogue, elementary schools, public baths, the support of the poor, the maintenance of public roads, city walls and gates, and other general requirements.
The Jewish authorities in the towns were good leaders, however, and distributed the burden of civic taxation easily and kindly. They put the money to extremely good use, and did not waste any of it. Every bit of it was used for the sole purpose of making the town and community a better place to live. In this respect, they were much more advanced than we are today in most civilized countries. Any person who devoted himself to the study of the law was exempt from these taxes, as they considered this a full time job and the person would not have any other time to go out and make money for themselves. They wanted the Rabbis to be free to study the law so that it could be taught to the people so they would know how to live.
The Roman taxation (during the time of Christ) upon the Jews, however, bore down with a crushing weight. It was very systematic, cruel, relentless, and didn’t take into consideration any special circumstances. In general, all the provinces of the Roman empire, including Palestine, were subject to two great taxes – poll tax ( income tax) and ground tax. All property and income that did not fall under the ground tax was subject to poll tax. For Syria and Silicia, this amounted to one percent. This tax was really two-fold; it consisted of income tax and head money. The latter tax was levied on all persons (bond or free) up to the age of 65. The women started being taxed at age 12 and the men at age 14.
Land property was subject to taxation of one-tenth of all grain, and one-fifth of the wine and fruit grown. The latter was partly paid in product and partly paid in money of what the product was worth. Besides these, there was tax and duty on all imports and exports, levied on the great public highways and in the seaports. On top of that was bridge money and road money, and tax that was bought and sold in the towns.
To avoid any possible loss to the treasury of people getting out of being taxed, Cyrenius, the proconsul of Syria, had taken a regular census to show the number of the population and their means. This was a terrible crime in the eyes of the Rabbis, who remembered that great harm had come to them in times past from doing that very same thing. Another thing that bothered them greatly was that tribute now must be given to Caesar instead of Jehovah. This must have bothered them greatly every time they had to pay a tax that went to Caesar. They knew deep down that when they had followed the one and only God that they had not been levied with all these steep taxes to the civil government. Because of their disobedience to God, now it was like they were taxed double to what they had been when walking in obedience.
The Romans had a very peculiar way of levying theses which kept the treasury quite safe. Senators and magistrates were prohibited from engaging in business or trade; but the highest order, the equestrian, was largely composed of great capitalists. These Roman knights formed joint-stock companies, which bought at public auction the revenues of a province at a fixed price, generally for five years. The board had its chairman, or magister, and its offices at Rome.
These knights were the real Publicani, or publicans, who often underlet certain of the taxes. The Publicani employed either slaves or some of the lower classes in the country as tax gatherers. These are the ones talked about in the New Testament. Since these people were basically nobodies who were given a little bit of power, they went to far extremes to get what they wanted. They hit the people at every turn with exorbitant taxes on every single thing they did or bought. If they traveled, they were hit with a tax at every bridge, along the road, at the entrance to cities, etc.
The law allowed for appealing against them, but it was no use. The judges themselves were the direct beneficiary of the revenues and any court case would have to come before them personally. All the peon collectors knew that they wouldn’t get into any trouble, because the law was on their side, even though they were doing wrong.
Zaccheus was in this job when he met Jesus. He must have been making an enormous amount of money, for he said that if he had taken wrongfully from any man that he would give it back. It was very common in those days to put a fictitious value on property or income. Then they would advance the tax to those who were unable to pay, and then charge an enormous amount of interest so that the person could never pay it off. Then the person would be in private debt to them for practically all of their life. We read in Matthew 18:28 that the debtor tried to get his money by seizing the debtor by the throat in the open street and dragging him to prison.
By the time of Christ, the taxation burdens that had been placed upon the people must have been unbearable. They probably had barely enough to eat on once they paid all their taxes. Even though Palestine was a good distance from Rome, they must have been struggling intensely from all the taxation there also.
It was in this very time of chaos and frustration that Jesus found Matthew, who had to have been extremely corrupted in his human nature. He could not have stayed a tax collector if he had not kept true to their values. This shows in particular how Jesus can take the most corrupted life and completely change it into someone that eventually ended up giving up everything of his fleshly world to follow Jesus. It’s wonderful that Jesus could look past the corrupted, vile exterior of Matthew and see the person that he knew that he was capable of being. We shouldn’t give up on other people, because just from this story it is obvious that God never gives up on them.