Lit. one who sits by another, an assistant; among the ancients especially an assistant to the king (compare "The assessor of his throne," Dryden, Milton's P.L., Book vi), or to the judge (see Dryden, Virgil's Aeneid, vi.583). Later it came to mean one who assesses people or property for purposes of taxation.
(1) Royal officials in Israel have the general title sarim, "princes," and this general title included the officer who was "over the tribute," who seems to have had charge of the assessment, as well as the collection of taxes. In the days of the later monarchy "the governor of the royal household," "the royal steward and high chamberlain," seems to have held some such important position (Isaiah 22:15; 36:3,22).
(2) The early kings do not seem to have subjected the people to heavy taxes, but we find much in the prophets about the injustice and extortion practiced by these officials on the poor of the land (compare Amos 2:6,7; Isaiah 5:8; Jeremiah 5:28; Micah 3:11). Special taxes seem to have been imposed to meet emergencies (compare 2 Kings 23:35), but it is not clear that anything of the nature of a regular land tax, or property tax, existed in early times; though something of the kind may be referred to in the reward promised by Saul to the slayer of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:25) and the tenth mentioned in 1 Samuel 8:15-17. The kings of Judah, it would seem, made free use of the temple treasures.
(3) Later the Roman government "farmed out" the taxes of the provinces. The publicans, or tax-gatherers of the Gospels, seem to have been agents of the imperial procurator of Judea, instead of direct agents of the great Roman financial companies, who ordinarily let out the business of the collection of the taxes to officers of their own.
During the Empire there was ample imperial machinery provided for the regular collection of the taxes, and the emperor appointed a procurator in each province whose business it was to supervise the collection of revenue. Some Jews found the business profitable, but these were objects of detestation to their countrymen. See PUBLICAN.
George B. Eager
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