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Though many peoples and cultures contributed to the cultural life in Palestine in Jesus' day, the Romans were by far the most powerful. They controlled the land with strong, well-trained armies. The Roman emperor appointed a governor (procurator) who was in charge of collecting taxes and preventing the people from rebelling against Rome. The Romans placed heavy taxes on land, on goods and food that were bought and sold, and on inheritances. They also charged tolls for people traveling through the areas they controlled. The taxes went to support the Roman army and to maintain control of Palestine. Farmers and the poor suffered the most under this system of taxes.
The Romans made contracts with local people in order to collect taxes. These local tax collectors (publicans) would often collect much more than the amount they were supposed to turn over to the Romans. They kept the rest. In Palestine, this led to bad feelings between the Jewish people and their neighbors who agreed to collect taxes for the Romans. Tax collectors were often seen as traitors by the Jewish religious leaders. Some called them sinners, and said they were not welcome to be part of the Jewish people or to worship with them. When Jesus ate with tax collectors and welcomed them (Luke 5.27-32; 19.1-10), he offended those who wanted to keep the tax collectors apart from Jewish social life.