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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(τελώνης ). The word thus translated belongs only, in the New Test., to the three Synoptic Gospels. The class designated by the Greek word were employed as collectors of the Roman revenue. The Latin word from which the English of the A.V. has been taken was applied to a higher order of men. It will be necessary to glance at the financial administration of the Roman provinces in order to nnderstand the relation of the two classes to each other, and the grounds of the hatred and scorn which appear in the New Test. to have fallen on the former.
The Roman senate had found it convenient, at a period as early as, if not earlier than. the second Punic war, to farm out at public auction the vectigalia (direct taxes) and the portoria (customs, including the octroi on goods carried into or out of cities) to capitalists who undertook to pay a given sum into the treasury (in publicumn), and so received the name of publicani (Livy, 32:7). Contracts of this kind fell naturally into the hands of the equites, as the richest class of Romans. These knights were an order instituted as early as the time of Romulus, and composedt of men of great consideration with the government — "the principal men of dignity in their several countries," who occupied a kind of middle rank between the senators and the people (Josephus, Ant. 12:4). Although these officers were, according to Cicero, the ornament of the city and the strength of the commonwealth, they did not attain to great offices, nor enter the senate, so long as they continued in the order of knights. They were thus more capable of devoting their attention to the collection of the public revenue. Not unfrequently the sum bidden went beyond the means of any individual capitalist, and a joint-stock company (societas) was formed, with one of the partners, or an agent appointed by them, acting as managing director (magister; Cicero, Ad Div. 13:9). Under this officer, who commonly resided at Rome, transacting the business of the company, paying profits to the partners and the like, were the submagistri, living in the provinces. Under them, in like manner, were the portitores, the actual custom-house officers (douaniers), 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 word τελῶναι , which etymologically might have been used of the publicani properly so called (τέλη, ὠνέομαι ), was used popularly, and in the New Test. exclusively, of the portitores. The same practice prevailed in the East, from which an illustration of it has been preserved to us by Josephus. He tells us that on the marriage of Cleopatra to Ptolemy. the latter received from Antiochus as his daughters dowry Coele-Syria, Samaria, Judaea. and Phoenicia; that "upon the division of the taxes between the two kings, the principal men farmed the taxes of their several countries," paying to the kings the stipulated sum; and that "when the day came on which the king was to let the taxes of the cities to farm, and those that were the principal men of dignity in their several countries were to bid for them, the sum of the taxes together of CceleSyria, and Phoenicia, and Judea, and Samaria, as they were bidden for, came to eight thousand talents" (Ant. 12:4, 1, 4). Those thus spoken of by the Jewish historian as "principal men of dignity" were the real publicani of antiquity. In the Roman empire especially they were persons of no small consequence; in times of trouble they advanced large sums of money to the State, and towards the close of the republic they were so generally members of the equestrian order that the words equites and publicani were sometimes used as synonymous (Smith, Dict. Gr. and Rom. Antiq. s.v.).
The publicani were thus an important section of the equestrian order. An orator wishing, for political purposes, to court that order, might describe them as "flos equitum Romanorum, ornamentum civitatis, firmamentum Reipublicae" (Cicero, Pro Planc . 9). The system was, however, essentially a vicious one — the most detestable, perhaps, of all modes of managing a revenue (comp. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, vol. ii), and it bore its natural fruits. The publicani were banded together to support each other's interest, and at once resented and defied all interference (Livy, 25:3). They demanded severe laws, and put every such law into execution. Their agents, the portitores, were encouraged in the most vexatious or fraudulent exactions, and a remedy was all but impossible. The popular feeling ran strong even against the equestrian capitalists. The Macedonians complained, as soon as they were brought under Roman government, that "ubi publicanus est, ibi aut jus publicum vanum, aut libertas sociis nulla" (Livy, xlv, 18). Cicero, in writing to his brother (Ad Quint. i, 1, 11), speaks of the difficulty of keeping the publicani within rounds, and yet not offending them as the hardest task of the governor of a province. Tacitus counted it as one bright feature of the ideal life of a people unlike his own that there "nec publicanus atterit" (Genrm. 29). For a moment the capricious liberalism of Nero led him to entertain the thought of sweeping away the whole system of portoria; but the conservatism of the senate, servile as it was in all things else, rose in arms against it, and the scheme was dropped (Tacitus, Ann. 13:50), and the "immodestia publicanorum" (ibid.) remained unchecked.
If this was the case with the directors of the company, we may imagine how it stood with the underlings. They overcharged whenever they had an opportunity (Luke 3:13). They brought false charges of smuggling in the hope of extorting hush-money (Luke 19:8). They detained and opened letters on mere suspicion (Terence, Phorm. i, 2, 99; Plautus, Trinumnn. iii, 3, 64). Thle injurice portitorum, rather than the porioria themselves, were in most cases the subject of complaint (Cicero, Ad Quint. i, 1, 11). It was the basest of all livelihoods (Cicero, De Off i, 42). They were the wolves and bears of human society (Stobeus, Serm. ii, 34). Πάντες τελῶναι, πάντες ἃρπαγες had become a proverb, even under an earlier regime, and it was truer than ever now (Xenoph. Comic. ap. Dicaearch. Meineke, Frag. Com. 4:596). Of these subordinate officials there appear to have been two classes, both included by us under the general name publican — the ἀρχιτελῶναι, or "chief of the publicans," of whom we have an instance in Zacchoeus; and the ordinary publicans (τελῶναι ), the lowest class of servants engaged in the collection of the revenue, and of whom Levi, afterwards the apostle Matthew, is an example. The former, the ἀρχιτελῶναι , appear to have been managers under the publicani proper, or associations of publicans, already spoken of. They were intrusted with the supervision of a collecting district, and it was their duty to see that, in that district, the inferior officers were faithful, and that the various taxes were regularly gathered in. Their situation was thus one of much greater consequence than that of the ordinary "publican" of the Gospels. They seem to have possessed a much higher character, and many of them became wealthy men. Zacchaeus is the only example of an ἀρχιτελώνης mentioned in the New Test., and it is the ordinary τελῶναι, neither the farmers of the revenues, nor the superintendents whom they employed, but a still lower class of servants, who most interest us. These were not the publicani, but the portitores of the Roman empire, who derived their name from their levying the taxes known as the portoria. The portoria included the duties upon imported and exported goods, and upon merchandise passing through the country — one important source of the wealth of Solomon: "Besides that, he had of the merchantmen, and of the traffic of the spice merchants" (1 Kings 10:15). They included also the tribute or head-money levied from individuals, and the varicous tolls which appear to have been exigible for the use of roads and bridges. They thus extended over a large number of particulars, and, however honorably and gently the function of the portitor had been discharged, it would have been impossible for him to avoid that odium which the tax-collector seldom escapes from the taxpayer. But the office, invidious enough in itself, was in the ancient world rendered still more hateful, as we have seen, by the inquisitorial proceedings and the lnscrupulous exactions of those who discharged its duties. The frightful abuses practiced in conquered provinces by the governors who were sent to rule them are well known to all; but the same system of abuse marked the whole army of officials from the highest to the lowest, only that the lowest came in contact with the great mass of the people, and that their petty interferences and severities must have been felt, under one form or another, by almost all. To such an extent, indeed, did these exactions proceed, even in the very neighborhood of Rome, that at one time the Roman government, as the only means of introducing a remedy, abolished all the import and export duties in the ports of Italy (Smith, Dict. Gr. and Rom. Antiq. s.v. Portitores).
All this was enough to bring the class into ill-favor everywhere. In Judlea 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 (Matthew 22:15) for the most part answered it in the negative. The Galilaeans or Herodians, the disciples of Judas the Gaulonite, were the most turbulent and rebellious (Acts 5:37). They thought it unlawful to pay tribute, and founded their refusal to do so on their being the people of the Lord, because a true Israelite was not permitted to acknowledge any other sovereign than God (Josephus, Ant. 18:2). The publicans were hated as the instruments by which the subjection of the Jews to the Roman emperor was perpetuated, and the paying of tribute was regarded as a virtual acknowledgment of his sovereignty. They were also noted for their imposition, rapine, and extortion, to which they were, perhaps, more especially prompted by having a share in the farm of the tribute, as they were thus tempted to oppress the people with illegal exactions that they might the more speedily enrich themselves. Theocritus considered the bear and the lion the most cruel anmong the beasts of the wilderness, and among the beasts of the city the publican and the parasite. In addition to their other faults, accordingly, the publicans of the New Test. were regarded as traitors and apostates, defiled by their frequent intercourse with the heathen, willing tools of the oppressor. They were classed with sinners (Matthew 9:11; Matthew 11:19), with harlots (Matthew 21:31-32), with the heathen (Matthew 18:17). In Galilee they consisted probably of the least reputable members of the fisherman and peasant class. Left to themselves, men of decent lives holding aloof from them, their only friends or companions were found among those who, like themselves, were outcasts from the world's law. Scribes and people alike hated them.
The Gospels present us with some instances of this feeling. To eat and drink "with publicans" seems to the Pharisaic mind incompatible with the character of a recognised rabbi (Matthew 9:11). They spoke in their scorn of our Lord as the friend of publicans (Matthew 11:19). Rabbinic writings furnish some curious illustrations of the same feeling. The Chaldee Targum and I. Solomon find in "the archers who sit by the waters" of Judges 5:11, a description of the τελῶναι sitting on the banks of rivers or seas in ambush for the wayfarer. The casuistry of the Talmud enumerates three classes of men with whom promises need not be kept, and the three are murderers, thieves, and publicans (Nedar. iii, 4). No money known to come from them was received into the alms-box of the synagogue or the corban of the Temple (Babac Kama, 10:1). To write a publican's ticket, or even to carry the ink for it on the Sabbath-day, was a distinct breach of the commandment (Shabb. 8:2). They were not fit to sit in judgment, or even to give testimony (Sanhedr. fol. 25, 2). Sometimes there is an exceptional notice in their favor. It was recorded as a special excellence in the father of a rabbi that, having been a publican for thirteen years, he had lessened instead of increasing the pressure of taxation (ibid.). The early Christian fathers take up the same complaint. "Publicanus ex officio peccator," exclaims Tertullian; and from thie exhaustless vocabulary of Chrysostom they have heaped upon them every epithet of abuse. See the passages bearing upon this point in Wetstein's note on Matthew 5:46; also Suicer's Thesaurus, s.v. Τελώνης; Grotius, Ad Matthew 18; Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. ad Matthew 18.
The class thus practically excommunicated furnished some of the earliest disciples both of the Baptist and of our Lord. Like the outlying, so-called "dangerous classes" of other times, they were at least free from hypocrisy. Whatever morality they had was real, and not conventional. We may think of the Baptist's preaching as having been to them what Wesley's was to the colliers of Kingswood or the Cornish miners. The publican who cried in the bitterness of his spirit, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13), may be taken as the representative of those who had come under this influence (Matthew 21:32). The Galilaean fishermen had probably learned, even before their Master taught them, to overcome their repugnance to the publicans who with them had been sharers in the same baptism. The publicans (Matthew perhaps among them) had probably gone back to their work learning to exact no more than what was appointed them (Luke 3:13). However startling the choice of Matthew, the publican, to be of the number of the twelve may have seemed to the Pharisees, we have no trace of any perplexity or offence on the part of the disciples.
The position of Zaccheus as an ἀρχιτελώνης (Luke 19:2) implies a position of some importance among the persons thus employed. Possibly the balsam trade, of which Jericho was the centre, may have brought larger profits; possibly he was one of the submagistri in immediate communication with the bureau at Rome. That it was possible for even a Jewish publican to attain considerable wealth we find from the history of John the τελώνης (Josephns, War, ii, 14, 4), who acts with the leading Jews and offers a bribe of eight talents to the procurator, Gessius Florus. The fact that Jericho was at this time a city of the priests — 12,000 are said to have lived there — gives, it need hardly be said, a special significance to our Lord's preference of the house of Zacchlaeus. When Jesus visited the house of Zaccheus, who appears to have been eminently honest and upright, he was assured by him that he was ready to give one half of his goods to the poor, and if he had taken anything from any man by false accusation, to "restore him four-fold" (Luke 19:8). This was in reference to the Roman law, which required that when any farmer was convicted of extortion he should return four times the value of what he had fraudulently obtained. There is no reason to suppose that either Zacchaeus or Matthew had been guilty of unjust practices, or that there was any exception to their characters bevond that of being engaged in an odious employment. Some other examples of this occur. Suetonius (Vesp. 1) mentions the case of Sabinus, a collector of the fortieth penny in Asia, who had several statues erected to him by the cities of the province, with this inscription, "To the honest tax-farmer." See Bible Educator, iii, 193. For monographs on the publicans, see Volbeding, Index Programmantum, p. 52, 67. (See TAX-GATHERER).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Publican'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/publican.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.