Tax Collectors and Sinners
by Greg Carey
According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus received criticism for dining with “tax collectors and sinners.” But who were these people?
Mark (2:16-17) and Matthew (9:11-13) report this controversy once, when Jesus invites a tax collector to follow him and then dines at the tax collector’s house. Luke develops this one scene (5:27-32) into a theme, adding three other controversies that arise when Jesus dines with sinners (7:36-50; 15:1-32; 19:1-10). Luke gives the impression that sinners found themselves attracted to (and welcomed by) Jesus’s ministry (15:1-2). Luke also adds a parable in which Jesus judges a tax collector as more “righteous” than a Pharisee (18:11-14). In Matthew, Jesus alludes to criticisms that he is “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19, NRSV).
The association of tax collectors with sinners cries out for explanation. Scholars have long debated precisely whom the term sinners designated in the ancient world: most regard sinners as people who habitually behaved in immoral ways or in ways that contradicted widely shared religious observance. We never encounter a clear definition of sinners, a term that almost surely expressed general social disapproval. When Jesus says, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17; Matt 5:45; Luke 5:32), he contrasts the two groups. The category may also have socioeconomic connotations: some biblical passages link sinners to violence and exploitation (e.g., Ps 26:9-10; Prov 1:10-16; Sir 9:11), as does the influential apocalypse 1 Enoch (94:6-9).
But why group tax collectors with sinners? Tax collectors, who gathered tolls and tariffs on agricultural produce and transported goods, were widely unpopular in Roman Palestine, and no ancient source explains exactly why. Perhaps tax collectors were assumed to cheat citizens to their own benefit, as may be the case with Zacchaeus—or so the accusing crowd believes (Luke 19:7-8). People may also have regarded tax collectors as collaborators who necessarily transferred resources from ordinary Jews to Rome. Both considerations likely fueled popular animosity.
The Pharisees, concerned that all Israelites maintain high levels of religious observance, apparently regard it as inappropriate for a righteous person to consort with sinners. The gospels link the Pharisees’ complaints with those of scribes, as if we might identity two such aligned groups. Unfortunately, we know little about the scribes to whom the gospels refer. In any case, popular wisdom warned against the dangers of bad company (e.g., Sir 7:16; 8:11).
Historians debate the significance of Jesus’s association with sinners. Quite a few regard this table fellowship as a distinctive feature of Jesus’s ministry. E. P. Sanders has famously suggested that Jesus alienated his enemies by embracing sinners without requiring their repentance. That is how the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus. Although Jesus did not violate Jewish law in doing so, as some have supposed, one struggles to imagine why early Christians would invent the tradition that Jesus intentionally associated with disreputable people.
Many Christian circles insist that “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23). As a result, many readers struggle with the term sinners being applied to specific persons in biblical literature. The ancients, many of whom regarded sin as universal, nevertheless identified sinners as a discrete minority within the larger population.
Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary
Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary. His research focuses upon literary and rhetorical approaches to the Bible, ancient apocalyptic literature, and the Gospel of Luke. He is the author of Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament (Abingdon, 2016), The Gospel according to Luke: All Flesh Shall See God’s Salvation (Sheffield, 2012), and Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers (Baylor, 2009).
This article explains biblical controversies regarding Jesus’s companionship with sinners and tax collectors.
The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.
Service or a religious vocation to help others.
Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.
Of or relating to a composite picture of a person or group's location within society and class structures.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.