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Luke 19:1-10 relates Zacchaeus’s transformative encounter with Jesus, which had the chief tax collector almost instantly promising to give half of his possessions to the poor, and paying back four-fold anyone he had cheated. In a sermon about that yesterday, it was said that often the last thing to be converted is a man’s wallet, but with Zacchaeus, it was the first thing to be converted!

Given his wealthy status, what might half of his goods amount to, in cash term value, and roughly how much money could he have committed himself to repay to those he had cheated? Can this find a basis in traditional taxation systems of the Roman Empire back then? I'm assuming Zacchaeus, the 'chief' tax officer, was in charge of a group of other tax agents who had to give him their collections so that he pay Rome the annual amount it demanded, leaving the rest as his wages, so the more dishonest he was, the richer he would become.

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    I think this will end up being opinion based as tax collectors weren't paid wages Without knowing how many people he collected from and their wages this is a guessing game. This site says Rome had a very low GDP so maybe not as much as we imagine
    – depperm
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 17:22

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Is there a way of working out approximately how much money Zacchaeus would have given away and given back as restitution?

There is no way to work out even by guessing how much money Zacchaeus would have given away and given back as restitution.

There exists no historical information on this or even Apocryphal stories or pious legends about it.

Zacchaeus simply showed that he was willing to change by offering half of his belongings to the poor and paying back four times as much to anyone he had cheated. This amount was what the Old Testament law demanded as a repayment for dishonesty:

“Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. - Exodus 22:1

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We can deduce from the fact that he was giving away half his income and paying fourfold restitution if he had cheated anybody, that he believed that his gains from cheating amounted to less than one tenth of his total wealth. Otherwise he would not have sufficuent funds to initiate his scheme of restitution.

He said if he had cheated anyone, not that he had definitely done so. We have no knowledge of how the scheme worked in practice. However, if HMRC are anything to go by, it may not have been easy.

If he had cheated people by overestimating tax due, how was that to be measured objectively? Could anyone come and claim to have been overtaxed and simply demand a refund plus fourfold restitution? What proof would be needed? How might it be obtained? If someone had been taxed on an estimated income or production, how to prove that the real value was lower? Or would Zacchaeus have simply paid every claim? The practicalities seem insurmountable.

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  • Interesting points, though he might have viewed his 'goods' as distinct from his cash. Yes, it's impossible to work out even a rough estimate. But we do know Jesus was so delighted at Zac's spontaneous switch to honesty that he said salvation had come to his house that day.
    – Anne
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 13:55

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