The Ironic Meaning Behind Zacchaeus' Name In The Bible

If you grew up going to Sunday School, you may remember a cute little song you and your classmates sang: "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see." That song doesn't come from a place of making fun of the man; he's actually described in the New Testament as "little of stature" (Luke 19:3, via King James Bible Online). And as the narrative goes on to explain, he really did climb up into a tree to get a better look at Jesus.

This event may seem like a strange footnote in the life and ministry of Jesus, but there's actually considerably more to the story. In particular, Zacchaeus was a tax collector, described as "chief among [them]," and he was quite wealthy. That Jesus befriended him is brimming with deep theological significance, considering that he probably got to his position in life through chicanery and taking advantage of his own people (more on that in a moment). And ironically, his name means the exact opposite of his lifestyle.

Tax Collectors In Jesus' Day

Back in Jesus' day, Palestine was occupied by the Romans and the job of collecting taxes was — to use a 20th-century word to describe a 1st century practice — outsourced to locals rather than managed themselves. As BBC News explains, these tac collectors didn't receive a salary but rather were expected to take some extra from their victims as their payment.

This was problematic for two reasons. First, Jews who engaged in tax collection -– like Zacchaeus –- were seen as traitors, effectively impoverishing their own people for the sake of an occupying foreign government. Secondly, some of them made themselves rich by taking extra taxes: Zacchaeus was Exhibit A.

That Jesus forgave and befriended a tax collector such as Zacchaeus would have been shocking to his countrymen, if not seen as traitorous in itself. But it was also in keeping with Jesus' message of loving your enemy and doing good to those who persecute you (Luke 6:27, via King James Bible Online).

Zacchaeus' Ironic Name

That he screwed over his own people in the name of enriching himself stands in stark contrast to his name. As Learn Religions notes, the name transliterated into English as "Zacchaeus" comes from a Hebrew word that means "pure one" or "innocent."

Sometimes in the Biblical narrative, both in the New Testament and in the Hebrew Bible, a person's name will change following a significant event. For example, Abraham was at first known as "Abram," according to Britannica, but changed it after God told him that he would become the father of a great nation; Abram means "God is exalted" while "Abraham" means "Father of many nations."

Zacchaeus appears to have missed that memo, however. He repaid those he had cheated, according to Learn Religions, but he's still mentioned by his one and only name throughout the remainder of his narrative. Though he's only mentioned in Luke 19, an unverified legend claims that he later became a companion of Peter and later still the Bishop of Caesarea.