Roman taxation (Romans 13)

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In the Roman Republic the regular tax was called the vectigalia, although an extra levy called the tributum could also be raised. The Senate annually set the amount of revenue to be collected. With the expansion of Roman power, however, an enormous amount of wealth poured into Rome from the provinces, and the empire was less dependent upon taxes from its own citizens. Governors raised taxes for Rome from the provinces, enriching themselves in the process. Provincials suffered grievously under this arrangement, but a governor who showed restraint and fairness could earn the admiration of the local people (as did Cicero when governing Cicilia in Asia Minor).

With the establishment of the empire, Augustus Caesar created a regular bureaucracy for conducting the census and collection taxes (see Luke 2:1). The provinces were subjected to both a poll tax and a land tax. The revenue supported the army, the imperial household, government salaries, road maintenance and public work, as well as the dole of grain for the Roman masses.

The actual task of gathering revenues in the provinces was farmed out to private companies of tax collectors called publicani or conductores. These tax collectors accumulated enough money to meet the demands of the state and also to retain a profit for themselves. As the New Testament reflects, publicani were hated by the people (Matthew 18:17, Luke 18:11). Taxation could be heavy and unfair, and the publicani were regarded as greedy traitors serving foreign overlords.

Issues involving taxation appear repeatedly in the New Testament. Jesus Himself paid taxes, although His means of raising the money to do so was unusual (see Matthew 17:24-27; His tax was levied upon the Jews for the upkeep of the Jerusalem temple). The very image of Caesar on Roman coinage (above picture) caused something of a religious dilemma for the Jews, although Jesus considered scruples concerning the matter to be more contrived than sincere (Matthew 22:15-22). Paul, in Romans 13:6-7, was clear that the collection of taxes by a government is legitimate and the payment of taxes by Christians imperative. Set against the backdrop of the Roman taxation of the times, this was clearly a stand based upon principle an not upon popular satisfaction with the system.


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