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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
PUBLICAN . This term is a transliteration of a Latin word, which strictly meant a member of one of the great Roman financial companies, which farmed the taxes of the provinces of the Roman Empire. The Roman State during the Republic relieved itself of the trouble and expense of collecting the taxes of the provinces by putting up the taxes of each in a lump to auction. The auctioneer was the censor , and the buyer was one of the above companies, composed mainly of members of the equestrian order, who made the best they could out of the bargain. The abuses to which this system gave rise were terrible, especially as the governors could sometimes be bribed to wink at extortion; and in one particular year the provincials of Asia had to pay the taxes three times over. These companies required officials of their own to do the business of collection. The publicans of the Gospels appear to have been agents of the Imperial procurator of JudÃ¦a, with similar duties (during the Empire there was State machinery for collecting the taxes, and the Emperor had a procurator in each province whose business it was to supervise the collection of revenue). They were employed in collecting the customs dues on exports. Some Jews found it profitable to serve the Roman State in this way, and became objects of detestation to such of their fellow-countrymen as showed an impotent hatred of the Roman supremacy. The Gospels show clearly that they were coupled habitually with ‘sinners,’ a word of the deepest contempt.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Publican'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/p/publican.html. 1909.