Ancient Tax Collector
Painted Illustration of a Publican or Tax Collector

Illustration of a Publican in his Office

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 benefits.

The Publican

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 collectors.

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 highest bidders.

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 hear him."
 

Publican in 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).  Read Full Article

Publican in 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). Read Full Article

Biblical Definition of Publican in 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 balsam trade.
        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 public opinion.
        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 11:19).  Read Full Article

Publican in 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.  Read Full Article

Also See:

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

 

Heart Message 

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 chains:

"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!

 


Relevant Bible Verses The Bible mentions the "publicans":

Matthew 5:46 - For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

Matthew 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.

Mark 2:15 - 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.

Luke 5:29 - 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 with them.

Matthew 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 children.

Matthew 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.

Matthew 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.

Luke 7:34 - The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!

Luke 5:30 - But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?

Luke 7:29 - And all the people that heard [him], and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.

Matthew 9:11 - And when the Pharisees saw [it], they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?

Luke 19:2 - And, behold, [there was] a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.

Luke 15:1 - Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.

Matthew 5:47 - And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more [than others]? do not even the publicans so?

Luke 3:12 - Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?

Mark 2:16 - 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 sinners?

Matthew 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.

Matthew 10:3 - Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James [the son] of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus;

Luke 18:13 - 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.

Luke 5:27 - And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me.

Luke 18:11 - 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.

Luke 18:10 - Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

 

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