Zacchaeus, the Chief Tax Collector – What does this mean ?

Who is Zacchaeus? His name is a form of Zechariah, which means righteous one. We find him only in Luke’s Gospel account, and then only in Luke 19. We are able to understand that he at least heard about Jesus, if he hadn’t already met him. He is a short man, and, because he cannot see Jesus passing by, he ran ahead of the disciples in order to climb a tree and thereby get a glimpse of Jesus over the heads of the crowd, as Jesus and his disciples passed by. One has to wonder what this is all about. It seems from the text that the Lord looked for him, because he says he must stay at his home overnight, as though he had a prior appointment with him.

In Luke 19:1 we are told that Jesus had entered and passed through Jericho. At this time (Luke 19:2) Luke introduces Zacchaeus to his readers. Zacchaeus is a chief tax-collector. We are not told in the narrative what it meant to be a chief tax-collector, but we are able to add meaning to Luke’s narrative by defining Zacchaeus’ office from history.

“Large-scale bankers included tax farmers (publicani) doing private business. Among their customers were government officials in the provinces who cashed government bills of exchange with them.” [James S. Jeffers: “The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era”; page 24]

“During the late Republic, when most of its provinces were added, Rome used private enterprise to handle tasks such as tax collection. Companies formed by the second rank of Rome’s aristocracy, the equestrian order (senators were forbidden to engage in this kind of enterprise), would bid for the right to collect taxes in a certain province. The highest bidder would then send out his agents, called publicans (publicani) or tax-farmers (so called because they raised tax revenue for Rome like a farmer raised crops), to make the collections. They were named for the Roman public treasury (publicum). They had to collect enough money to cover their bid before they could begin to make a profit, and Rome did not limit the amount they could collect over their bid. The Roman general, Pompey, after his conquest of Palestine used local officials as their tax collection agents.”

“…Zacchaeus, called a “chief tax collector”, may have been the contractor for the revenues of Jericho and may have supervised a number of collectors. At the least he supervised a collecting district. Most of the New Testament publicans, like Levi / Matthew (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27), were lesser officials. Levi, for example, may have been a local customs official, collecting taxes for a local treasury rather than for Rome. They might have their “place of toll” located where the residents could not easily avoid them: by city gates, on public roads or on bridges. Levi’s post at Capernaum probably was near the sea on the important trade route entering Galilee from Damascus.” [James S. Jeffers: “The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era”; page 144-146]

I believe that Jesus’ Parable of the Pounds (Minas in some translations) as told to us in Luke 19:11-27 is modeled after Zacchaeus’ office as a chief tax-collector. He may have had to go to Rome (the ‘far country’ alluded to in the parable) to bid on or formally receive the territory he wished to govern and collect its taxes for the Emperor. He would have had several publicans executing his office as tax collector, because such a responsibility couldn’t be accomplished by a single man. Publicans would need to have been stationed at key points like city gates and, in the case of Jericho, at the bridge or ferry across the Jordan River that connected Mesopotamia to the highway leading through Jericho to Egypt. Taxes, right-of-passage, currency exchanges and business and private loans were responsibilities of the chief tax-collector, who executed those duties through his publican servants.

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