Taxation in the New Testament

by | Mar 16, 2023 | Poimenas

With tax day looming in the United States, many Americans are lamenting the annual process of filing and paying income taxes to federal and state governments. Bible readers may even equate Uncle Sam today with Caesar of the first century. Some taxpayers may question the validity of taxation, wondering whether it is appropriate to file or if it would be acceptable to practice some sort of civil disobedience. Others file their returns with a less-than-honest picture of their income situation. With regards to how believers should treat taxation, as with any topic, one should seek what the Scriptures have to say.

Throughout the Gospels, the Word of God reveals numerous interactions between Jesus and tax collectors. Several Gospel accounts even address the payment of taxes. In the passage on governing authorities in Romans 13, the apostle Paul gives instruction regarding taxes. Accordingly, the subject of taxation is an important topic in the New Testament.

As the authors of one NT survey textbook note, “The NT takes place during . . . a period characterized by the rule of Roman law, providing it stability; the ‘Roman peace’ (pax Romana), providing a climate conducive for the construction of roads and the unification of the empire; and general prosperity and affluence.”[1] Consequently, an understanding of taxation in the Roman Empire proves instructive for the NT reader. It should be noted, however, that such a study is not without its own challenges. Richard Cassidy helpfully notes, “The subject of Roman taxation is a difficult topic area in its own right, and a study of Roman taxation in Judaea and Syria is made even more difficult by the paucity of official tax records. Nevertheless, by drawing upon the relatively extensive data that exists for Roman Egypt, it is possible to establish that [certain] civil taxes . . . existed in Egypt and are plausible for Judaea.”[2] As a result, this study will begin with a review of the purpose for and types of taxes in the Roman Empire.


In the current cultural environment, both in the U.S. and abroad, the subject of taxation is familiar to most citizens. Anyone earning a paycheck notices the withholding of taxes to be submitted to the government, primarily to fund the expenses of local, regional, and national governments.

Operating a country or running an empire requires resources. Rome was no exception in this regard. As James Jeffers notes, “An empire the size of Rome required large and continuous streams of revenue to function . . . Although Rome had gained great wealth through its wars of conquest before the time of Christ, by the first century A.D. taxes had become its principal source of income. Its limited military conquests during this era brought in far less booty than in the preceding century.”[3] As expected, maintaining the Pax Romana was not a cheap endeavor. Richard Bauckham adds that “the taxation the Romans levied was required for the maintenance of the Empire’s military power and bureaucratic structure, in other words for the peace and security with which the subjects of the Empire were blessed by Roman rule.”[4] Accordingly, taxes served to fund the operations of the government, very similar to the present day. In addition, the emperor used tax revenue “to pay for his building projects and personal needs back in Rome.”[5] In this regard, taxes supported the initiatives of the government’s leader, which, again, is not dissimilar to the present day.

At this point, one can conclude there is reasonable justification for taxation in the Empire. What, then, is the link to the background of the New Testament? F. F. Bruce explains that after Archelaus was expelled to Gaul in AD 6, “Judaea received the status of a Roman province of the third rank, to be governed by a prefect appointed by Augustus from the equestrian order. Such a province was liable to pay tribute to the Roman state, and so a census was held . . . to assess the annual amount which the new province could reasonably be expected to raise.”[6] Thus, Roman taxation comes to the land of the Jews. Readers of the NT see the impact of this development within the discussion of taxes and the disdain for tax collectors. Before addressing such issues, it is important to describe the types of taxes in the Empire.


The Roman Empire charged numerous taxes to fund the various local and provincial expenditures. Some were direct for individuals, such as a tribute tax, and others were indirect, such as customs or tolls.

With regards to direct taxes, Everett Ferguson explains, “The main tax in every province was the tributum soli, a tax on agricultural produce paid by those who occupied the land; owners of other forms of property were liable to a tributum capitis (a head tax; cf. kensos or census in Matt 17:25; 22:19).”[7] The head tax, which typically was based on the results of a census that was used to ascertain who was subject to the tax, was “levied on men ages fourteen to sixty-five, and on women twelve to sixty-five.”[8] According to Bruce, “the tribute consisted mainly of a tax on landed property, calculated on the estimated annual yield in crops and cattle, together with a tax on personal property of other kinds.”[9] A modern-day example of a direct tax is the annual property tax that homeowners are required to pay directly to the government.

With regards to indirect taxes, “These were customs or tolls on imports and exports and on goods passing through a province, road money, bridge tolls, and harbor dues (Mt 9:9; Mk 2:14; Lk 5:29). [In addition], Caesar Augustus introduced several new taxes during his rule: a 1-percent sales tax, a 4-percent tax on the sale of slaves and a 5-percent tax on inheritances (except those from close relatives) over 100,000 sesterces (about $4 million in modern times).”[10] A modern-day example of an indirect tax is the sales tax that consumers pay on product purchases. The retailer collects the sales tax at the time of purchase and then remits it to the government. The consumer “indirectly” pays the tax to the government through the retailer. The cost of the required sales tax for the retailer is passed on to the consumer at the time of purchase.

The concept of a tax model including both direct and indirect taxes that existed in the Roman Empire also exists in many countries today. Similar to many taxpayers now, taxation presented significant issues for Jews in the first century. The study now turns to such matters.


The reluctance to fulfill one’s obligation in paying taxes is not unique to the present day. First-century Jews can empathize with such a disposition. Since Jews (certainly in the province of Judaea and elsewhere in Israel) were subject to Roman rule, they were required to pay taxes as well. Taxation presented two significant issues for the Jews – one ideological and one economic. In addition, the tax collectors were reviled in society.


Given the history of theocratic rule for the Jews, there were ideological challenges associated with paying taxes to a different authority. Bauckham explains, “Since the revolt of Judas the Galilean in AD 6 (Acts 5:37), when the tribute to Caesar was first imposed on Judaea, there had been Jewish opposition to Roman taxation not only on economic, but on religio-political grounds. The Zealot argument was that Israel and her land belonged to God, and God alone was the legitimate ruler of His people. Caesar had no rightful sovereignty over the people of God. Taxes paid to Caesar were an acknowledgement of his lordship, a token of submission to slavery, and should therefore be withheld.”[11] For centuries, Israelites identified God as their sovereign ruler. What would it say about their loyalty to Yahweh if they submitted to the authority of a civil leader? As Bruce notes, “The payment of tribute to the Romans was incompatible with Israel’s theocratic ideals.”[12] This payment became “the most likely basis of popular support for revolt against Rome.”[13] This ideological challenge was a significant contributor to the negative view of taxation.


The economic toll of taxes on the Jews was a significant concern. Bauckham notes that “taxation was especially burdensome for Jews, because in addition to these civil taxes [from Rome] they were also liable to the theocratic taxes imposed by the Jewish religious authorities.”[14] Such religious taxes included “a half-shekel temple tax to finance the construction and maintenance of Herod’s temple. They also paid tithes on produce to support the priests in Jerusalem. All Jews outside of Palestine were required to send their temple tax to Jerusalem.”[15] Additionally, after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Rome enacted a new tax on Judaea. Sara Mandell states, “It was customary for the Romans to impose a war indemnity upon conquered or rebellious nations, and Judaea was no exception . . . The Didrachmon, as a war indemnity was a specific and limited form of taxation. Justification for its imposition required only the fact that Judaea had rebelled against Rome.”[16] Considering these various taxes imposed on the Jews, it is no wonder they would revolt against this economic responsibility. This economic challenge was an additional contributor to the negative view of taxation.

Tax Collectors

In the U.S. today, the acronym “IRS” (Internal Revenue Service) engenders feelings of dread and disdain. Given the ideological challenge and financial burden of taxation on the Jews, tax collectors, like the IRS, understandably would not have been popular in society.

During the first century, tax collectors were “local residents . . . who collected revenues for the Roman authorities and thus were despised by their fellow citizens as traitors.”[17] In light of the ideological challenges associated with Roman rule, this perspective is understandable. Why would anyone want to be friends with one who works for the enemy? But this was not the only reason that many had contempt for tax collectors. Jeffers explains, “Besides being victims of the universal dislike for paying taxes, their work offered opportunities for extortion, which clearly many took (Luke 3:12-13). Since paying taxes to a foreign power was hateful and commonly seen as unlawful (Matt 22:17), the publicans were regarded as traitors to their nation and willing tools of their oppressors. In addition, because their work required constant contact with Gentiles, they would have been considered ceremonially unclean.”[18] The tax collectors sometimes were referred to as ‘publicans’ based on the name for the Roman public treasury.”[19] Many times in the Synoptic Gospels the text links tax collectors with “sinners” (Matt 9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1) or “prostitutes” (Matt 21:31), indicating the severe public scorn for the profession. In one of His parables, Jesus tells of the Pharisee who gives thanks that he is not like “this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). The New Testament clearly reveals that tax collectors were disfavored in the first century.


A study of taxation in the New Testament is incomplete without examining Christ’s teaching on the subject. The Synoptic Gospels provide two instances where Christ directly addressed taxation issues. Given the concerns of the Jews, the audience likely would have had a vested interest in how Christ would respond to any questions regarding taxation.

The Temple Tax (Matthew 17:24-27)

In this passage, tax collectors approach Peter and ask him if Jesus pays the “two-drachma tax.” Bauckham clarifies, “The tax in question here was the temple tax, a half-shekel payable annually by every adult male Jew. It was levied by the temple authorities themselves to finance the public sacrificial worship in the temple in Jerusalem.”[20] Jesus offers a unique response in directing Peter’s attention to the role of kings in collecting taxes. Cassidy avers, “The collectors had seemingly challenged Peter about Jesus’ payment of a religious tax and Jesus responds by delineating a principle that specifically concerns civil taxation and not religious taxation or taxation in general.”[21] Christ does not rule out the payment of such a tax, but does seem to question the practice by suggesting that Peter’s rightful withholding of payment (in stating “However”) would be offensive. Bauckham explains the nuance in Christ’s response in stating, “Jesus’ attitude to taxation in this passage is strikingly negative. If God does not tax His people, the implication is that taxation is, to say the least, a less than ideal instrument of government. Jesus does not deny the right of earthly kings to tax their subjects, but He does suggest that in this respect their rule is not at all like God’s.”[22] Nevertheless, Christ instructs Peter to pay the tax on His behalf. There is wisdom in this approach. As Cassidy notes, “Seemingly, Jesus instructs Peter to pay the tax out of regard for the existing conditions. He appears to judge that, under the existing conditions, a refusal to pay the tax would have the effect of ‘leading them into error,’ or the effect of ‘giving offense to them.’ The likelihood of such an outcome is enough to persuade Jesus that the preferable course of action is to comply with the collector’s request.”[23] Thus, a peaceful, respectful member of society submits to the governing authorities so as not to create unnecessary controversy.

The Tribute Tax (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17)

In these parallel passages, Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus to try to trap Him in asking whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. It is likely that this was a tribute tax, which is one of the direct taxes charged by the Roman Empire. In His response, Christ simply determines that it is appropriate to pay to Caesar what belongs to him or what is owed to him. Bauckham helpfully suggests, “The imposition of taxes on subject nations is quite unlike the rule of God . . . But on the other hand, Jesus did not deny Caesar’s right to levy taxes. God’s law permits it because human government without taxation would be impossible.”[24] In this second narrative on Christ and taxation, Jesus again does not give instruction to withhold the payment of taxes. This may not have been a popular response, but it is instructive with regards to the proper response.

It is important to remember that Christ was a teacher, and He had to set the record straight on a number of matters. In the passages referenced here, He does not deter His followers from paying taxes. In the first instance, He instructs the disciples to pay the tax so as not to offend the authorities. In the second instance, He instructs His audience to pay what is owed.


In examining Christ’s responses to questions of taxation, there are two important takeaways for the NT believer. The first regards the responsibility to obey the government. Christ taught of a peaceful submission to those placed in authority, regardless of whether the tax was legitimate. The apostle Paul even later affirms the responsibility of believers to respect and honor the governing authorities that God has set in place, including the payment of taxes (Romans 13). Perhaps more important than the actual payment of taxes is the believer’s approach to paying taxes. Christopher Bryan observes, “The striking fact is that the gospels do not contain so much as one example of a saying of Jesus that attacks the system as a system.”[25] Thus, taxation can be considered a reasonable responsibility of governments. As Christians, we have an opportunity each year to be positive witnesses for Christ in the way we respond to annual taxation. Though our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20) and we are not of the world (John 17:16), we remain in the world with a chance to impact the world for Christ. If we have a negative attitude towards a reasonable responsibility of a law-abiding citizen, what message do we communicate? May we be found to be peaceful citizens who are aware of our witness at all times.

The second lesson regards our treatment of those delegated to collect taxes, whether individuals or institutions. A search for the word “tax” in the New Testament (ESV) returns thirty-five occurrences. Interestingly, the majority of these occurrences are in reference to “tax collectors” (22 such references) and not the tax itself. The New Testament narrative shines a brighter light on the tax collectors than the taxes, and the revelation in the narrative is that these individuals were viewed negatively in society.

As believers, our treatment of tax collectors should follow the example of Christ, who displayed a countercultural approach. He dined with them (Matt 9:10; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:30) and portrayed them in a positive manner (cf. Matt 21:31; Luke 18:9-14). He even called a tax collector (Matthew) as one of His apostles. He treated with compassion those whom the society of His day treated with contempt. As Jeffers notes, “Some Jews complained bitterly about Jesus’ association with publicans (Lk 7:34; 15:1-2), but Jesus found the tax collectors willing to hear His message and refreshingly free from hypocrisy (Lk 18:9-14). Publicans were attracted to Jesus because He showed Himself ‘a friend of tax collectors’ (Lk 7:34; 15:1-2).”[26] May we as followers of Christ similarly be found to be friends of those who are reviled in society.


The subject of taxation has been a prevalent one for several millennia. Citizens bemoan the economic toll of submitting money to governing authorities, while at the same time benefitting from the resources that the taxes provide. This study has revealed a glimpse of taxation in the Roman Empire, especially as it regards the social and economic impact on the Jewish culture of the New Testament period. The relevance for today is found in Christ’s response to questions of taxation – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt 22:21). Believers are called to submit to governing authorities, and taxation is no exception. Believers also are called to love one another, and this includes those who have been entrusted with the responsibility to collect any taxes owed. May this study be a reminder of the sovereignty of God, Who has installed leaders over His people. May all Christians heed the call to be positive witnesses for Christ in all arenas of society, even, for those in America, on April 15th.


[1] Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (2d ed.; Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 86.

[2] Richard J. Cassidy, “Matthew 17:24–27 – A Word on Civil Taxes,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41 (1979), 576.

[3] James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 142–43.

[4] Richard Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (2d ed.; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 76.

[5] Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, 143.

[6] F. F. Bruce, “Render to Caesar,” in Jesus and the Politics of His Day (ed. Ernst Bammel and C. F. D. Moule; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 253.

[7] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3d ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 95.

[8] Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, 143.

[9] Bruce, “Render to Caesar,” 253.

[10] Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, 144.

[11] Bauckham, The Bible in Politics, 80.

[12] Bruce, “Render to Caesar,” 254–55.

[13] Bauckham, The Bible in Politics, 80.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, 144.

[16] Sara Mandell, “Who Paid the Temple Tax When the Jews Were Under Roman Rule?”, Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), 230.

[17] Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 1077.

[18] Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, 146.

[19] Ibid., 144–45.

[20] Bauckham, The Bible in Politics, 74.

[21] Cassidy, “Matthew 17:24–27 – A Word on Civil Taxes,” 573.

[22] Bauckham, The Bible in Politics, 75–76.

[23] Cassidy, “Matthew 17:24–27 – A Word on Civil Taxes,” 575–76.

[24] Bauckham, The Bible in Politics, 83.

[25] Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 42, emphasis original.

[26] Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, 146.


Kevin Welch is the Chief Administrative Officer and an elder at The Shepherd’s Church in Cary. He has Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in accounting from Wake Forest University, and a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry degree from Shepherds Theological Seminary.

Doctrines Related to the Bible

The doctrine of Scripture is vitally important to all Christians, for it is through the instrumentality of the Word (preached and read) that God delivers the truth about the Savior who can save us from our sins. It is through the Word (preached and read and obeyed)...

Slavery – Why Does the Bible Allow It?

Why does the Bible allow slavery? At first glance this seems an irredeemable blemish to the goodness of the Bible’s message. Slavery is correctly recognized as one of the great evils of our nation’s history. To many, this provides a significant reason for rejecting...

17th Annual STS Golf Tournament

The 17th annual STS Golf Tournament will be held on May 20 at the Riverwood Golf Club in Clayton, NC. Shepherds Theological Seminary is grateful for those who have been faithful over the years to participate in this event by helping to bridge the gap, as every dollar...

Doctrines Related to the Bible

The doctrine of Scripture is vitally important to all Christians, for it is through the instrumentality of the Word (preached and read) that God delivers the truth about the Savior who can save us from our sins. It is through the Word (preached and read and obeyed)...

Slavery – Why Does the Bible Allow It?

Why does the Bible allow slavery? At first glance this seems an irredeemable blemish to the goodness of the Bible’s message. Slavery is correctly recognized as one of the great evils of our nation’s history. To many, this provides a significant reason for rejecting...

Discipleship is More Than a Sunday Experience

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Discipleship Today (Shepherds Press, 2024) by Dr. Andrew Burggraff.  In the book, he reviews the state of discipleship today, how the church may better reflect Jesus' discipleship methods, and encourages believers to use six...

Current Issues in Trinitarian Studies

Augustine, the great Western theologian and pastor, said: “There is no subject where error is more dangerous, research more laborious, and discovery more fruitful than the oneness of the Trinity [unitas trinitatis] of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”1  ...

A Brief History of Fundamentalism

Back in the 1970’s when I was teaching at a Bible college, one of my students asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, what descriptive terms he should use to describe his ministry views in order for him to be, in his words, “the top dog.” He meant, like “fundamentalist.”...

The Top Ten Attacks Against the Bible’s Historical Reliability — And How to Answer Them

How good is your word? A contract may be defined as an agreement that is intended to be enforceable by law. This is why such agreements are often described as being “legally binding.” Contracts may be written or spoken. Yet, as many of us have learned the hard way, an...