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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
PUBLICAN (Gr. τελώνης).—The Roman practice of selling to the highest bidder the task of collecting the taxes and dues of a province or district for a definite period is well known. The persons thus engaged were called publicani, and usually belonged to the wealthy equestrian order. They, in their turn, employed local agents to get in the revenues, who were also called publicani. This lower class are probably the men referred to in the Gospels, wherever they belong to Judaea (or Samaria), except possibly in the case of Zacchaeus, who was ἀρχιτελώνης of Jericho (Luke 19:2), and may have farmed the revenues of that important commercial centre on his own account (but see Ramsay as cited below).
In Galilee the publicans had to collect, not for the Imperial treasury (as in Judaea), but for Herod Antipas the tetrarch. Such an official was St. Matthew (Levi), who was called to be an Apostle from the place of toll (τελώνιον) on the shores of the Lake of Galilee at Capernaum (Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27). And in his house afterwards our Lord met many other publicans of the tetrarchy at a great entertainment.
Whether in the service of the hated Roman Emperor or of Herod Antipas, who was in complete subservience to him, the tax-gatherer was most unpopular with the Jews; for, apart from the obvious liability of the method to abuse, the mere fact of the money being thus raised for an alien power was detestable in their eyes. And no doubt the publicans were often drawn from the lowest ranks in consequence. Hence common talk associated them not only with the Gentiles (Matthew 18:17), but with harlots (Matthew 21:31; Matthew 21:22) and sinners in general (Matthew 9:10-11; Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:30; Luke 7:34; Luke 15:1).
John the Baptist’s preaching attracted many publicans to him, and when they inquired in what they must mend their ways after being baptized by him, his answer indicated that extortion was their besetting danger, as we should expect (Luke 3:12-13).
The remarkable effect that our Lord’s ministry also had upon these men, as in the case of St. Matthew and Zacchaeus (cf. Luke 15:1), is not to be held as implying that He laid Himself out more for them than for other sinners who realized their need of Him; nor are we to infer that, in contrasting them with the Pharisees and scribes, as in the well-known parable (Luke 18:10 ff.), He intended to clear their character altogether from current prejudices and aspersions. Extortion and oppression were as abhorrent to Him in the one class as formalism and hypocrisy were in the other. Both stood equally in need of His salvation (Luke 19:10), but without a consciousness of the need on their part His salvation could not take effect.
Literature.—Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] i. 474 ff.; Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] i. 514 ff.; Ramsay, ‘The telonai in the Gospels’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , Ext. Vol. p. 394bff.; art. ‘Publican’ in DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] and in the JE [Note: E Jewish Encyclopedia.] .
C. L. Feltoe.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Publican'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/publican.html. 1906-1918.