Why were tax collectors despised in the time of the Gospels?


In the Gospels, tax collectors almost always get a lot of grief when somebody mentions them. Why is that? Where did their bad reputation come from? Is it just because people don’t like paying taxes? Were they dishonest and took more money than the law said they should?



Publican, in the Gospels, is derived from the publicanus of the Vulgate, and signifies a member or employee of the Roman financial companies who farmed the taxes. From the time of the Republic the Roman State relieved itself of the trouble of collecting the taxes in the provinces by putting up the taxes of each in a lump sum to auction. The highest bidder received the authorization to extort the sum from the province in question. Such a system afforded ample opportunity for rapacious exactions on the part of the company and its officials, and the abuses were often intolerable. On account of these, and more, perhaps, because of the natural though impotent Jewish hatred of the Roman supremacy, those of the Jews who found it profitable thus to serve the foreign rulers were objects of execration to their countrymen. In the Gospel narrative we find them as a class habitually coupled with “sinners” and the “heathen”. The attitude of Christ towards this, as well as other despised classes, was that of an uplifting sympathy. One great reproach cast upon Him by His enemies, the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees, was His friendship for, and association with publicans and sinners; and consistently with this conduct it pleased Him to choose as one of the twelve Apostles Levi or Matthew the Publican (Matthew 9:9).



Just wanted to offer some Biblical support to what the previous poster said…

Judging from the following passages, it seems tax collectors sometimes abused their position and defrauded people, collecting more taxes than was appointed for them to collect.

12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And [John the Baptist] said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” (Luke 3:12-13)

2 And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. … 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:2,8)


It’s true that a) no-one likes to pay taxes, and that b) many Biblical taxmen used their positions to commit extortion.

There was also the issue that c) the taxes were paid in the coin of the hated Romans, requiring moneychanging and further extortion, and d) when Jewish locals hired on as tax collectors, they were reviled as traitors.



The Romans would tell their tax collectors that you need to collect a set amount of money. Anything collected over that set amount, the tax collector got to keep. Anything under that set amount, the tax collector needed to pay himself (or face possible death).

So many tax collectors would squeeze the people so they would make a lot of money. And many would squeeze the people when they were short.

And since the Romans would hire locals to be tax collectors, not native Romans, this made the people view the tax collectors as traitors to their family, friends, neighbors and people.

I pray this helps.

God Bless


This is what I was told, not sure if its what it is, but…

The tax collectors were Jews who were working in cahoots with the non-Jewish government (oppressors) So there were many who considered them to be traitors of the faith, abusing those of the same faith.

I really have not fact checked that, but that was what I was told long ago.


For the same reason tax collectors are despied today.


From what I understand they were dishonest and often cheated people.


Thats exactly what i was going to say. I do not think there has ever been a time when they were not despised though.


I think there was a further reason tax collectors were despised. The attitude was that they were working for the foreign oppressor and had therefore sold out to the cause of freedom.

Traitors if you will.


Did they also get paid by the Romans? Did the extra money they took become extra income, then?


Because the JEWS at the time were an enslaved people under the complete RULE of the Romans, to whom they were obligated [required] to pay taxes.

Hence any JEW [like Matthew for example] that choose to work on behalf of the Romans was rightly seen as a Traitor.

Further it was common for the tax collectors to be cheats and over-charage what ever they could get away with and keep it for themselves:eek:



Reading all this one could see how {at that time period} it was a bit scandalous Matthew the publican, or tax collector was chosen by Jesus to be one of the twelve. It reminds me of a saying a priest once shared with me, “If Jesus doesn’t make you the least bit uncomfortable, you don’t know him.”


Yes, well, Jesus wasn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers. I think he had dinner with a tax collector, too. He publicly rebuked the Parisees and Saduccees. At the risk of sounding like a Capital Obvious here, I think that might also have had to do with why they wanted to put him to death.


According the several priests and scholars I’ve heard talk on this, the Romans did NOT pay them (or paid them very little). The “extra money” they took was their main or sole source of income.


Well, if the Romans barely paid them anything, I wouldn’t hold it against them, so long as they didn’t get greedy there. You obviously need money to live. But with human nature what it is, it doesn’t surprise me that nearly every tax collector got greedy and took more than that. It must have been rough for them.


They did often get greedy.

Plus, if a person couldn’t pay… the tax collector had the legal right to take their home or sell a child into slavery, etc. to get the money out of them.

So they were not just the tax collector, they were also the repo man and a slaver.


Very interesting.


Repo man?


Think of it from the perspective of the guy who owes the taxes, not the perspective of the guy who collects them:

[list]*]You know that the collector takes money off the top to make his living.
*]You look at your tax bill and think it’s excessively large.
*]You conclude – since you want a smaller tax bill – that obviously, the collector must be making a mint off of you.[/list]

So, “human nature” means that you presume that the collector is a crook. :sad_yes:

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