Jew-Gentile Relations, Tax Evasion, and Romans 13

by Jonathan McIntosh

James Dunn (Word Biblical Commentary) suggests that Paul’s teaching of “political quietism” in Romans 13 is bound up with the particular tax policies and Jew-Gentile relations that the Roman Christians were dealing with. He writes:

“In Annals 13 he [Tacitus] reports that the year 58 was marked by persistent public complaints regarding indirect taxes. Nero’s initial response was to propose the abolition of all indirect taxes. But the senators warned strenuously about the likely consequences–fall in revenue, and de­ mands to abolish direct taxes as well. Nero relented, but it was generally agreed that tax collectors’ acquisitiveness must be restrained. This report of Tacitus is sufficient to suggest the strong likelihood that in the years prior to 58 the collection of taxes was a sensitive matter within the public domain. Jews, by virtue of their special privileges regarding the temple tax, would be all the more open to charges of tax evasion. And Christians, identified with Jews, would be equally vulnerable in situations where tax collectors were levying additional duties, for example, on shipments and property. Should they refuse or complain and so leave themselves exposed to legal action, even if the tax collector had demanded more than his right? Or should they pay up and say nothing to avoid drawing hostile attention to themselves? It was, after all, only about seven or eight years until Christians were to be hounded as scapegoats for the fire of Rome. Christians might well be advised to “keep a low profile” on such a politically sensitive matter as public taxation. It is not surprising, then, that Paul’s exhortation on Christians’ responsibility vis-a-vis the state should end with firm advice about the payment of taxes (13:6-7; see Comment on 13:7).” (Dunn, Romans, liii)

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