Could Matthew Have Been A Victim of Student Debt?

Some years ago a read a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew that some scholars had noticed that the way that it has been set out was rabbinic in nature that would suggest that the author had studied to be a rabbi as a result some questioned the authorship of the Gospel. Funny how some people are always looking for some reason or another not to believe the truth of Scripture. Their argument is that as tax-collectors were anathema to Pharisees and other religious Jews there is no way that anybody who had trained to be a rabbi would want to become a tax-collector in 1st Century Israel. The flaw in this argument is that there is a possibility that Matthew could have become a tax-collector against his will.
A short explanation about Roman tax-collection is required. Julius Caesar had the bright idea of privatising tax collection throughout the Roman Empire. Basically, a potential bidder would guarantee to supply the Empire with a certain amount of revenue from a province. The successful bidder had to pay the cost of collecting these taxes himself therefore he had to raise more than the Empire received or he would be bankrupt. The chief tax-collector would then sub-contract collection into districts and so on down to the village level. The system could easily be abused, and was with tax-collectors being accused of extortion and lining their own pockets at the expense of others. Roman tax-collectors are often depicted as bullies or thugs using violence to take every last coin. True, tax-collecting would have been unpopular and revenues collected would also need protection from thieves and zealots, but tax-collecting would also require literacy in accounting from where the revenues had come from. Add to this the fact that writing materials were expensive and Hebrew because it leaves out the vowels is more concise than either Greek or Latin anybody who read and write in Hebrew would be a desirable employee for a tax-collector. Though trying to recruit directly from the nearest yeshiva would likely be given short shrift. However, students would have to pay fees, so it is quite possible that a relative might be approached to help out. In turn he might find that he has difficulty paying his taxes, at which point the tax-collector says he is prepared to accept the loan to the student as payment of the taxes and the student becomes indebted to the tax-collector rather than his relative. The tax-collector then asks for the debt to be settled and as the student cannot afford to pay it back in full he finds himself working for the tax-collector and thus become labelled as a “sinner” by his former fellow students and teachers without any hope of redemption in their eyes. The only crumb of comfort had been given by John the Baptist who said that they should only collect what they needed to (Luke Chapter 3). You might have expected him to say that they should leave tax-collecting for the Romans, this might suggest that for them that would not have been an option, which would have been the case if they were indebted to their employers. Matthew’s Gospel contains a lot of Hebraisms which puzzles those scholars who believe that in Jesus’ time on earth the ordinary people would have spoken Aramaic. The answer being that the source materials were written in Hebrew for the economical use of writing materials. While permanent records were kept on papyrus or parchment day to day transactions would have been written on wax covered wooden tablets, such as those found at the site of the Roman fort of Vindolanda, south of Hadrian’s Wall. These would often be used for dictation, and could easily have been used by anyone listening to one of Jesus’ sermons to record his words, though only a limited amount of script could be inscribed on each pair of tablets. Allowing for the fact that Hebrew takes up about half the space of Greek to write, also that someone like Matthew would have been sufficiently skilled as a scribe to write as small as possible then some of the sections within the Sermon on the Mount could approximately fit on a pair of tablets. Matthew records his calling by Jesus (Chapter 9) after the Sermon on the Mount suggesting that he had listened to it. A cynical bystander might have assumed that he was taking down details in order to report Jesus to the Romans. So when Jesus called Matthew at his seat of custom, his other disciples may have thought of him as a quisling, whereas Jesus could see him as someone trapped in a job he did not want to do and was desperate to get out of. Now how many people find themselves in a similar situation today.
David Rose 2015

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About davidgrose

I am a Bible believing Christian, brought up in the Brethren Movement, and now find myself associating with charismatics even though I do not always agree with them. I am in full-time employment. I have interests in history and photography amongst others.
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