Zaccheus Of Jericho

Posted: Sep 19, 2018 11:37 AM

As Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem, we see him move from the confrontation with the rich, young ruler, through some intermediate events and towards a confrontation with another wealthy ruler with whom he had a discussion about fraud.

46 And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging.

(Mk. 10:46 KJV)

Switching to Luke…

NAS Luke 19:1 And He entered and was passing through Jericho.

2 And behold, there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; and he was a chief tax-gatherer, and he was rich….

5 And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, "Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house."…

7 And when they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, "He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner."

8 And Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much."

(Lk. 19:1-8 NAS)

Remember the hermeneutical rules for uncovering the socio-economic dimensions of the Gospels: pay attention to details such as geographical location and occupation. When Jesus confronts Zaccheus, he is on his long march (with some zig zagging) to Jerusalem.  What kind of economy was Jericho? There is a tradition that it was a town of priests.

Here is John Wesley on Jericho:

"From Jerusalem to Jericho - The road from Jerusalem to Jericho (about eighteen miles from it) lay through desert and rocky places: so many robberies and murders were committed therein, that it was called the bloody way. Jericho was situated in the valley: hence the phrase of going down to it. About twelve thousand priests and Levites dwelt there, who all attended the service of the temple." 


It is not clear where that tradition came from; perhaps it arose out of the conflict between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, who was appointed high priest and the two contended over Jericho, but this goes beyond my level of knowledge. This tradition is certainly consistent with the picture that Jesus paints in the parable of the good Samaritan, which is set on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and shows both a priest and a Levite passing by. This counts towards that theory but is certainly not a proof.

We can, however, have more confidence about the occupation of Zacchaeus because the Gospel text specifies that he was a 'chief tax gatherer', an architelanes, a chief over lesser 'publicans' or tax collectors. This would have been very much a man of the state, who would have purchased or inherited his regional tax collection monopoly. They were so hated that rabbinical tradition forbade eating meals with them or even accepting their gifts into the temple treasury.

Corruption was rife, particularly the practice of defrauding taxpayers by unjustly accusing them as an excuse to take all of their property. In fact, the same Greek word which the Gospels use for what Zachaeus repented from, sukophonteo, is only used one other time in the New Testament, also by Luke. It appears in a passage describing John the Baptizer's instructions to tax collectors and soldiers. Sukophonteo is translated below to ‘accuse anyone falsely’:

"12 And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?"

13 And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to."

14 And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.""

(Lk. 3:12-14 NAS)

These two commands are grouped together for the simple reason that the two occupations were grouped together. Publicans were agents of the Roman State and Roman soldiers were their enforcers. When John forbade over-collection by publicans, it is natural that their collection agents would immediately have inquired as to their obligations.

Note that Jesus did not declare that salvation had come to the house of Zacchaeus until he offered restitution for defrauding the poor. That indicates that repentance was necessary, which indicates that he had, in fact, been a defrauder. This makes sense of the fact that Zacchaeus knew which sin to decry.  I think our default point of view has to be that he was defrauding the poor, given how common the practice was and given that John's confrontation with the practice was probably in the same general region in which Zacchaeus was head of publicans.

"Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan…"

(Matt. 3:5 NAS)

David Fiensy of Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy has some very interesting data about Jericho:

The children from 0-19 years of age in the Meiron tombs represented 47 percent of the total. This is roughly the same as the average~ percentage of children of that age in Greek tombs (49 percent) but much higher than for the tombs of Jericho (39 percent, a first-century-CE tomb) and two tombs in Jerusalem (43 percent, also from the first century). 20. Smith et al., "Skeletal Remains ," 110-20. There were 197 individuals in this tomb. Ninety-five of them were under age 18. Seventy percent of the 95 persons were younger than five years.

Child mortality is a grim indicator of relative wealth, and in this case, it shows a Jericho of relatively high standard of living (though not relative to us).  But Meiron in upper Galilee had a 21% higher incidence of minors in the graveyards that have been unearthed, and the typical Greek graveyard had 26% more children in graves. Apparently, Jericho was a prosperous place to live in comparison with upper Galilee or the typical Greek village. But if it was indeed a priest town, much of its wealth would have been extracted from the whole region via the Temple tax and a corrupt (we'll see more of that in the section on the moneychangers) elite. It's no wonder that there was such resentment against the ruling class (as indicated by the popularity of John and Jesus, both of whom excoriated it). The Galileans and other outsiders would have liked their children to eat protein and have a much better chance of surviving into adulthood, but the extractive nature of the political economy system of Judea took food out of their children's mouths and put it into the mouths of the relatively wealthy populace of Jericho.

Zacchaeus was evidently extorting the residents of Jericho, but he was probably only doing to them what they did to the rest of Israel.  Once again, we see Jesus’ confrontations with wealthy elites occur in geographical proximity to the seat of government and in occupational proximity to the corrupt political class.