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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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Regular payments to rulers. Early Israel only paid taxes to support the tabernacle and the priests.

Terms in the Old Testament that refer to taxes were: “assessment,” “forced labor,” “tribute,” and “toll.” Before Israel established a king, worship taxes were the only ones levied from within the nation. Tribute has to be paid, of course, to invaders such as the Philistines. During David's reign, an army was maintained by tribute paid by conquered tribes. Taxes increased under Solomon's rule. Tradesmen and merchants paid duties; subject peoples paid tribute; farmers paid taxes in kind of oil and wine; and many Israelites did forced labor on the Temple. The burden of taxation contributed to the rebellion following Solomon's death (1 Kings 12:1 ). Soon, Israel became a vassal state, paying tribute—a compulsory tax—to Assyria, and, eventually, to Rome.

In the New Testament era, Herod the Great levied a tax on the produce of the field and a tax on items bought and sold. Other duties owed to foreign powers were: a land tax, a poll tax, a kind of progressive income tax (about which the Pharisees tested Jesus, Matthew 22:17 ), and a tax on personal property. In Jerusalem a house tax was levied. These taxes were paid directly to Roman officials.

Export and import customs paid at seaports and city gates were farmed out to private contractors who paid a sum in advance for the right to collect taxes in a certain area. Such were Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1 ) and Matthew (Matthew 9:1 ). Rome apparently placed little restriction on how much profit the collector could take. An enrollment for the purposes of taxation under the Roman emperor brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-7 ). In addition to the taxes owed occupying powers, the Jewish people also had to pay religious duties: A didrachma (half shekel) was owed to the Temple by all Jewish males throughout the world ( Matthew 17:24 ). The second tax was a tithe, 10 percent of everything the soil produced, collected by the Levites.

The Israelites resented most deeply the duties paid to the occupying powers. Many zealous Jews considered it treason to God to pay taxes to Rome. When questioned about paying the poll tax, Jesus surprised His questioners by saying that the law should be obeyed (Mark 12:13 ).

Gary K. Halbrook

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Taxes'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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