Ancient Tax Collector
During the time of Jesus in
first century Israel, there were publicans and tax collectors who
could walk up to a man and tax him for what he was carrying, and
much more. These tax collectors were hated and despised because they
were usually fellow Jews who worked for Rome. There were many taxes
needed from the provinces to administrate the Roman Empire. These
taxes paid for a good system of roads, law and order, security,
religious freedom, a certain amount of self government and other
Illustration of a Publican in
The publican is from
the Latin word "publicanus", and from the Greek word "telones" which
mean a tax gatherer. The publican is mentioned quite often
throughout the life of Christ. Since Israel was under Roman rule,
and part of a province of the Roman Empire, customs duties were
farmed out to chief tax collectors (publicani). These chief tax
collector's what also farm these duties over to the regular tax
In the eyes of Rome
the provinces were to carry the heavy weight of administering the
Empire. Judea was in the province of Syria and every man was to pay
1% of his annual income for income tax. But that was not all, there
were also import and export taxes, crop taxes (1/10 of grain crop
and 1/5 of wine, fruit, and olive oil), sales tax, property tax,
emergency tax, and on and on. It was actually a Roman official
(censor) who was ultimately responsible to Rome for collecting the
revenue of the province, but he sold the rights to extort tax to the
Most of the time when
the Bible mentions a publican, or a tax collector it is referring to
a regular tax collector (publicanus) rather than a chief tax
collector. The tax collectors were usually Jewish and therefore they
were hated by their own people. When they collected their taxes for
Rome they would turn over the required amount of money, and whatever
they could add on for themselves is what they kept. They were known
to be extortioners of large sums of money. Because tax collectors
were in relationship with Rome, who were Gentiles in the eyes of the
Jews, and hated for their domination, they were treated similar to
the worst kinds of sinners and prostitutes.
Jesus showed much
kindness to the publicans, and he was even mentioned as having had
dinner with them, which in Israel was a sign of fellowship. (Luke 18
and 19). In fact one of his apostles named Matthew (Levi) was a tax
collector, and became an author of one of the accounts of the life
of Christ known as the book of Matthew.
Luke 15:1 - "Then drew
near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to
the Bible Encyclopedia - ISBE
Sufficient cause for the
unpopularity of publicans in New Testament times is not far seek.
Hatred of paying duties seems to be ingrained in human nature.
Customs officials are always unpopular. The method is necessarily
inquisitorial. The man who opens one's boxes and bundles to appraise
the value of what one has, is at best a tolerated evil. In Judea,
under the Roman system, all circumstances combined to make the
publican the object of bitter hatred. He represented and exercised
in immediate contact, at a sore spot with individuals, the hatred
power of Rome. The tax itself was looked upon as an inherent
religious wrong, as well as civil imposition, and by many the
payment of it was considered a sinful act of disloyalty to God. The
tax-gatherer, if a Jew, was a renegade in the eyes of his patriotic
fellows. He paid a fixed sum for the taxes, and received for himself
what he could over and above that amount. The ancient and widespread
curse of arbitrariness was in the system. The tariff rates were
vague and indefinite (see Schurer, HJP, I, ii, 67 f). The collector
was thus always under the suspicion of being an extortioner and
probably was in most instances. The name was apt to realize itself.
The unusual combination in a publican of petty tyrant, renegade and
extortioner, made by circumstances almost inevitable, was not
conductive to popularity. In the score of instances in the New
Testament where publicans are mentioned, their common status, their
place in the thought and action of Jesus, their new hope in the
gospel are clearly set forth. The instances in which our Lord speaks
of them are especially illuminating: (1) He uses them on the basis
of the popular estimate which the disciples undoubtedly shared, to
point in genial irony a reproach addressed to His hearers for their
low standard of love and forgiveness (Mt 5:46,47). (2) He uses the
term in the current combination in giving directions about
excommunicating a persistently unrepentant member of the church (Mt
18:17). (3) He uses the term in the popular sense in describing the
current condemnation of His attitude of social fellowship with them,
and constructively accepts the title of "friend of publicans and
sinners" (Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34). (4) Most significant of all, Jesus
uses the publican, as He did the Samaritan, in a parable in which
the despised outcast shows to advantage in an attitude acceptable to
God (Lk 18:9 ff).
Easton's Bible Dictionary
One who farmed the taxes
(e.g., Zacchaeus, Luke 19:2) to be levied from a town or district,
and thus undertook to pay to the supreme government a certain
amount. In order to collect the taxes, the publicans employed
subordinates (5:27; 15:1; 18:10), who, for their own ends, were
often guilty of extortion and peculation. In New Testament times
these taxes were paid to the Romans, and hence were regarded by the
Jews as a very heavy burden, and hence also the collectors of taxes,
who were frequently Jews, were hated, and were usually spoken of in
very opprobrious terms. Jesus was accused of being a "friend of
publicans and sinners" (Luke 7:34).
Biblical Definition of
Fausset's Bible Dictionary
Only mentioned in Matthew,
Mark and Luke. Matthew leaves the parable of the publican to Luke
(Luke 18:9), because he is the publican from whom it is drawn. In
the New Testament are meant not the "publicani" (never mentioned in
the New Testament) who were generally wealthy Roman knights,
capitalists at Rome, that bought for a fixed sum to be paid into the
treasury (in publicum) the taxes and customs of particular
provinces. Under them were "chiefs of publicans," having supervision
of a district, as Zacchaeus (Luke 19), in the provinces; and under
these again the ordinary "publicans" (in the New Testament sense)
who, like Levi or Matthew, gathered the customs on exports and
imports and taxes (Matthew 9:9-11; Mark 2:14, etc.). The office for
"receipt of custom" was at city gates, on public roads, or bridges.
Levi's post was on the great road between Damascus and the seaports
of Phoenicia. Jericho, Zacchaeus' head quarters, was center of the
Jesus, preferring a publican's house to that of any of the
priests at Jericho, then said to number 12,000, marks the honour He
does to Zacchaeus and drew on Him the indignation of Jewish bigots.
Even the chief publican, Zacchaeus implies, often "took from men by
false accusation" (esukofanteesa, rather "unfairly exacted,"
"extorted"); Luke 3:13 also, John the Baptist's charge "exact no
more than that which is appointed you." Still more odious to the
Jews was the common publican, with whom most they came in contact.
Inquisitorial proceedings and unscrupulous extortion in a conquered
country made the office, hateful already as the badge of God's elect
nation's subjection to pagan, still more so. Most Jews thought it
unlawful to pay tribute to pagan.
To crown all, the publicans were often Jews, in the eyes of
their countrymen traitors to Israel's high calling and hopes; to be
spoiled by foreigners was bad, but to be plundered by their own
countrymen was far worse. Publican became synonymous with "sinner"
and "pagan" (Luke 15:1-2; Matthew 18:17; Matthew 5:46; Matthew
21:31; Mark 2:15-16). The hatred and contempt in which they were
held hardened them against all better feelings, so that, they defied
As the Pharisees were the respectable and outwardly
religious class, so the publicans were the vile and degraded. Hence
the rabbis declared, as one robber disgraced his whole family, so
one publican in a family; promises were not to be kept with
murderers, thieves and publicans (Nedar 3:4); the synagogue alms box
and the temple corban must not receive their alms (Baba Kama 10:1);
it was not lawful to use riches received from them, as gotten by
rapine; nor could they judge or give testimony in court (Sauhedr.
25, sec. 2). Hence we see what a breach of Jewish notions was the
Lord's eating with them (Matthew 9:11), and His choice of Matthew as
an apostle, and His parable in which He justified the penitent self
condemned publican and condemned the self satisfied Pharisee. They
were at least no hypocrites. Abhorred by all others, it was a new
thing to them to find a Holy One "a friend of publicans" (Matthew
Smith's Bible Dictionary
The class designated by
this word in the New Testament were employed as collectors of the
Roman revenue. The Roman senate farmed the vectigalia (direct taxes)
and the portorin (customs) to capitalists who undertook to pay a
given sum into the treasury (in publicum), and so received the name
of publicani. Contracts of this kind fell naturally into the hands
of the equites, as the richest class of Romans. They appointed
managers, under whom were the portitores, the actual custom-house
officers, who examined each bale of goods, exported or imported,
assessed its value more or less arbitrarily, wrote out the ticket,
and enforced payment. The latter were commonly natives of the
province in which they were stationed as being brought daily into
contact with all classes of the population. The name pubicani was
used popularly, and in the New Testament exclusively, of the
portitores. The system was essentially a vicious one. The portitores
were encouraged in the most vexatious or fraudulent exactions and a
remedy was all but impossible. They overcharged whenever they had an
opportunity, Lu 3:13 they brought false charges of smuggling in the
hope of extorting hush-money Lu 19:8 they detained and opened
letters on mere suspicion. It was the basest of all livelihoods. All
this was enough to bring the class into ill favor everywhere. In
Judea and Galilee there were special circumstances of aggravation.
The employment brought out all the besetting vices of the Jewish
character. The strong feeling of many Jews as to the absolute
unlawfulness of paying tribute at all made matters worse. The
scribes who discussed the question, Mt 22:15 for the most part
answered it in the negative. In addition to their other faults,
accordingly, the publicans of the New Testament were regarded as
traitors and apostates, defiled by their frequent intercourse with
the heathen, willing tools of the oppressor. The class thus
practically excommunicated furnished some of the earliest disciples
both of the Baptist and of our Lord. The position of Zacchaeus as a
"chief among the publicans," Lu 19:2 implies a gradation of some
kind among the persons thus employed.
The Tax Collectors
- Bible History Online
Vine's Expository Dictionary - Publican
Strong's Concordance - Publican
Ancient Roman Stone Reliefs
Biblical Definition of Taxes in
Fausset's Bible Dictionary
Taxes in Eastons Bible Dictionary
Taxes in Smiths Bible Dictionary
TRIBUTE (TAXES) in Naves Topical Bible
Sketches of Jewish Social Life -
Taxation and Publicans
Julius Caesar's War Commentaries
The Tax Collector
What kind of story might be behind this placid face making entries into a ledger?
In Israel during Roman occupation he was considered to be amongst the disgusting sinners and most despised. He collected money for the Roman government and was the worst of the worst. His evils are legendary. He taxes who he wants, and legionnaires back him up with brutal power. He retains a sizable percentage for himself.
Does he go about his business with a demonic scowl upon his face? Does he spew forth obscenities and stench with every breath? No. He probably appears just like you and me. He works hard. He has a family. He loves his children. He has pets. He laughs and is fun at parties. He might be a great neighbor, generous at times, and helpful to senior citizens.
Does he think himself quite evil? Perhaps not. Perhaps he sees Rome as a force of great civilization upon a nasty unruly realm.
"What have the bloody Romans ever done for us?", the people rage in a Monty Python skit. "Well, there's the aqueduct...the streets are safe at night...the fresh water is nice... the libraries are helpful, the paved roads...the criminal justice system, the sea lanes are safe from pirates, the literature, art, architecture, buildings, protection..." Israel takes from Rome, but is unwilling to give back for the very saving of their lives. Who knows what barbaric nation would come conquering had not Rome paid treasure and blood for this fragile desert nation?. No merchant could make money without a stable economy, currency, justice system, and enforceable contracts. "All this costs money!" the tax collector demands. If Rome was so evil, why does God allow it to rule over Israel? Besides, what of the lying merchants who rob the people blind?
"It's no good, it's no good!" says the buyer; then off he goes and boasts about his purchase. Proverbs 20:14
"The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight." Proverbs 11:1
Yet one particular tax collector lost his ability to justify himself before God. Perhaps he thought of those he robbed. Perhaps all his collections weren't so 'righteous'. He remembers the widow who lost her home. He remembers the children cast into the streets after he had their father dragged away in
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:10-14
We all have a tale to tell. We all have good within us made in the image of God. We all have evil from our own choices mixed with the wickedness of those who have wounded us and the workmanship of Satan. If you cannot see this about yourself, then you must kneel next to the Pharisee in Jesus' story. None of us will be able to stand before a perfect and holy God in our own righteousness. His glory, power and presence will bring us all to our knees. Sometimes, the tax collector type can see this before the goodish religious person. May we all choose humility and accept the righteousness He provided in the sacrifice of His Son. Such a glorious unspeakable gift!
The Bible mentions the "publicans":
5:46 - For if ye love them which love you, what reward have
ye? do not even the publicans the same?
21:32 - For John came unto you in the way of righteousness,
and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the
harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen [it], repented not
afterward, that ye might believe him.
- And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many
publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and
his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him.
- And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a
great company of publicans and of others that sat down
11:19 - The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they
say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of
publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her
9:10 - And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the
house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat
down with him and his disciples.
21:31 - Whether of them twain did the will of [his] father?
They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say
unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into
the kingdom of God before you.
- The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a
gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans
- But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples,
saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and
- And all the people that heard [him], and the publicans,
justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.
9:11 - And when the Pharisees saw [it], they said unto his
disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and
- And, behold, [there was] a man named Zacchaeus, which was the
chief among the publicans, and he was rich.
- Then drew near unto him all the publicans and
sinners for to hear him.
5:47 - And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more
[than others]? do not even the publicans so?
- Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said
unto him, Master, what shall we do?
- And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with
publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is
it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and
18:17 - And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell [it] unto
the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto
thee as an heathen man and a publican.
10:3 - Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the
publican; James [the son] of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus,
whose surname was Thaddaeus;
- And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift
up so much as [his] eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast,
saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
- And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican,
named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him,
- The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank
thee, that I am not as other men [are], extortioners, unjust,
adulterers, or even as this publican.
- Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and
the other a publican.