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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

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a collector or receiver of the Roman revenues. Judea being added to the provinces of the Roman empire, and the taxes paid by the Jews directly to the emperor, the publicans were the officers appointed to collect them. The ordinary taxes which the Romans levied in the provinces were of three sorts:

1. Customs upon goods imported and exported; which tribute was therefore called portorium, from portus, "a haven."

2. A tax upon cattle fed in certain pastures belonging to the Roman state, the number of which being kept in writing, this tribute was called scriptura.

3. A tax upon corn, of which the government demanded a tenth part. This tribute was called decuma. These publicans are distinguished by Sigonius into three sorts or degrees—the farmers of the revenue, their partners, and their securities; in which he follows Polybius. These are called the mancipes, socii, and praedes, who were all under the quaestores aerarii, that presided over the finances at Rome. The mancipes farmed the revenue of large districts or provinces, had the oversight of the inferior publicans, received their accounts and collections, and transmitted them to the quaestores aerarii. They often let out their provinces in smaller parcels to the socii: so called, because they were admitted to a share in the contract perhaps for the sake of more easily raising the purchase money; at least to assist in collecting the tribute. Both the mancipes and socii are therefore properly styled τελωναι , from τελος , tributum, and ωνεομαι , emo. They were obliged to procure praedes, or sureties, who gave security to the government for the fulfilment of the contract. The distribution of Sigonius, therefore, or rather of Polybius, is not quite exact. since there were properly but two sorts of publicans, the mancipes and the socii. The former are, probably, those whom the Greeks call αρχιτελωναι , chiefs of the publicans; of which sort was Zaccheus. As they were superior to the common publicans in dignity, being mostly of the equestrian order, so they were generally in their moral character. But as for the common publicans, the collectors or receivers, as many of the socii were, they are spoken of with great contempt, by Heathens as well as Jews; and particularly by Theocritus, who said, that "among the beasts of the wilderness, bears and lions are the most cruel; among the beasts of the city, the publican and parasite." The reason of the general hatred to them was, doubtless, their rapine and extortion. For, having a share in the farm of the tribute, at a certain rate, they were apt to oppress the people with illegal exactions, to raise as large a fortune as they could for themselves. Beside, publicans were particularly odious to the Jews, who looked upon them to be the instruments of their subjection to the Roman emperors, to which they generally held it sinful for them to submit. They considered it as incompatible with their liberty to pay tribute to any foreign power, Luke 20:22 , &c; and those of their own nation that engaged in this employment they regarded as Heathens, Matthew 18:17 . It is even said, that they would not allow them to enter into their temple or synagogues, nor to join in prayers, nor even allow their evidence in a court of justice on any trial; nor would they accept of their offerings in the temple.

It appears by the Gospel that there were many publicans in Judea at the time of our Saviour. Zaccheus, probably, was one of the principal receivers, since he is called the chief of the publicans, Luke 19:2; but St. Matthew was only an inferior publican. The Jews reproached our Saviour for showing kindness to these persons, Luke 7:34; and he himself ranks them with harlots, Matthew 21:31 . Some of them, it should seem, had humbling views of themselves, Luke 18:10 . Zaccheus assures our Lord, who had honoured him with a visit, that he was ready to give the half of his goods to the poor, Luke 19:8 , and to return fourfold of whatever he had unjustly acquired.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Publican'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​p/publican.html. 1831-2.
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