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The Publican In The Bible

The publican in the bible is a man who was known as a tax collector. He was considered to be a very sinful person, but he also had a deep love for God. His name was Levi and he lived during the time of Jesus Christ.

Levi collected taxes for Rome, which is why he was considered to be such a bad person. He would take money from people and then give it to the Roman soldiers because they demanded it from him.

Levi did not want to do this type of work but he had no other choice since his family needed the money they received from him so they could survive. Levi knew that if he did not pay his taxes then his whole family would be killed by Rome’s soldiers or by himself because he didn’t want his family members harmed by anyone else besides himself.

The reason why I know this story about Levi being a publican is because my friend told me about it when we were talking about how much money she made last week at her job as well as what her goals are for next month’s paycheck (which will be more than this month’s).

Churchgist will give you all you ask on what is a publican, pharisees in the bible and so much more.

The Publican In The Bible

The word publican is an English translation of the Greek word telónés, which means “tax-farmer.” A publican had the job of collecting taxes. In the Roman world, publicans collected additional fees to pad their already-extravagant salaries. In the Bible, publicans were Jews who worked for the hated Roman government to collect taxes from Jewish citizens.

Publicans or tax collectors were despised in every culture. An invading government employed citizens of the conquered nation to do its dirty work. In order to entice men to betray their countrymen, officials promised hefty bonuses to publicans and allowed them to extort as much money from the citizenry as they could get. Because of the corruption inherent in the system and the abetting of the enemy, it is easy to understand why publicans were despised as traitors to their own nation. They could only find companions among other publicans or from within the criminal element, so association with a publican automatically cast suspicion on a person’s reputation.

Jesus’ contact with publicans is one reason why the Jews found Jesus so scandalous. One of the first men He called as a disciple was a man named Levi (Matthew), who was a publican (Matthew 9:9). Matthew soon hosted a dinner for Jesus and many of Matthew’s cohorts (verse 10). This shocked and outraged the religious leaders. Jesus was a rabbi, considered among the elite of religious society who would never even share the same road with such men. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked Him (Luke 5:30). Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (verses 31–32).

Jesus’ calling of Matthew (who later penned the gospel by that name) demonstrates that the Son of God had come for all sinners. No one was too far gone that God’s grace could not reach him. Publicans were considered the worst of the worst, but Jesus singled out a tax collector and added him to His circle of friends. Tax collectors were assumed to be beyond hope and therefore not worthy of forgiveness. But Jesus spent three years shattering those rigid religious opinions.

As Jesus traveled through Jericho, He caused another stir by seeking out a publican named Zacchaeus. Again, the people muttered that Jesus was breaking protocol by entering a publican’s house (Luke 19:7). But the result was a changed life: “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham’” (verses 8–9). To everyone’s surprise (except God’s), Zacchaeus the publican was redeemed, and his faith in Christ resulted in a changed life. Jesus used the occasion to remind everyone of why He had come to earth: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (verse 10).

Jesus made a point of finding society’s worst and elevating them to a status equal to the rest of us. He demonstrated that every human being is worthy of the opportunity to know Him. So He went for the outcasts: He forgave an adulteress (John 8:3–11), healed lepers (Luke 17:11–19), spoke with Samaritans (John 4:7–30), and described the Father as eagerly awaiting the return of His prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). And He made a life-changing visit to one publican and called another one to His inner circle. Choosing Matthew and saving Zacchaeus, both publicans, forever squelched elitism within God’s kingdom (Galatians 3:28). If Jesus can use publicans in mighty ways for His glory, He can use anyone.

Publican Definition

The term “publican,” as rendered in earlier versions (e.g., KJV/ASV), and “tax collector,” as found in later translations (e.g., NIV/ESV), translates the Greek word telones. The term is found twenty-one times in the New Testament and only in the first three Gospel records (the Synoptics).

Publicans were tax collectors and were looked down upon with contempt. Ordinary taxes, such as land taxes, were collected by the Roman officials; but toll taxes for transporting goods were usually collected by Jews under contract with the Romans. These collectors, or publicans, made a profit on the transactions.

Roman Taxation System

The taxation systems of the antique world were elaborate and complicated. When a strong political power conquered a country, they generally farmed out tax collection privileges to contractors (who bid on them for protracted periods of time).

The “tax farmers” then employed local citizens within the subjugated territories to garner the revenue on behalf of the tax corporations. These tax collectors, the publicans of the New Testament, had considerable latitude in some of the fees they set, which lent itself to corruption and corresponding resentment.

Publicans were a dreaded and despised class among the Hebrew people, and for the following reasons.

Publicans were often oppressive and dishonest.

They were widely known for their graft (cf. Luke 3:12-14; 19:8). Their taxation programs were oppressive. William Barclay describes the system vividly.

There was a purchase tax on all that was bought and sold. There was bridge money to be paid when a bridge was crossed; road money to be paid when main roads were used; harbor dues to be paid when a harbor was entered; market money to be paid when a market was used; town dues to be paid when the traveler entered a walled town. If a man was traveling on a road, he might have to pay a tax for using the road, a tax on his cart, on its wheels, on its axle, and on the beast which drew the cart. There was a tax on crossing rivers, on ships, on the use of harbor quays, on dams; there were certain licenses which had to be paid for engaging in certain trades” (61).

The publicans were so distrusted that they were prohibited from testifying in a court of law. Banks disdained their business, and even their charitable gifts generally were refused.

The Jews considered any sort of evasion (including outright lying) ethical in order to avoid paying taxes. It was “situation ethics” at its best (or worst)!

Jewish publicans were considered pagan allies.

The publicans operated in collusion with their pagan superiors and so were considered to be traitors. Too, they frequently had contact with Gentiles, so they were considered unclean. Even to handle a publican’s walking staff made one ceremonially contaminated (Michel, 101).

The New Testament indicates that the Jews considered tax collectors as in the same category with “sinners” (Mt. 9:10-11; 11:19; Mk. 2:15-16; Lk. 5:30; 15:1), “harlots” (Mt. 21:31-32), and “Gentiles” (Mt. 18:17). The rabbis viewed them as on a level with “highwaymen and murderers” (Edersheim, 57).

The Pharisee And The Tax Collector Moral Lesson

There are several compelling apologetic points in the New Testament that may be drawn from what we shall call “the publican factor.” Consider these matters.

Jesus was a friend to the despised.

Jesus Christ is described as being friendly with the publicans. He let them “draw near” to him (Lk. 15:1), went into their homes (Lk. 19:5), sat with them (Mt. 9:10), ate with them (Mt. 9:11), and was a “friend” to these despicable people (Mt. 11:19; Lk. 7:34).

Modern critics allege that the New Testament is an unreliable record — that it attempts to veneer the origin of the Christian movement in a strictly favorable light.

If that is the case, why in the world would the “hucksters” who “fabricated” the Synoptic accounts have described their hero [Jesus of Nazareth] as a disreputable character that fraternized with the commonest dregs of first-century society?

That makes no sense at all. The Jesus-publican camaraderie certainly would not have appealed to the Jewish mind!

Christ lifted up publicans.

There are three cases of individual publican personalities that punctuate the Gospel narratives.

  • There was Matthew, the apostle (Mt. 9:9), who abandoned his tax business to follow the Savior.
  • There is the humble praying publican who adorns Jesus’ parable of “the Pharisee and the Publican” (Lk. 18:9-14), who Christ uses as an illustration to condemn the self-righteous disposition characteristic of many of the Pharisees.
  • Finally, there was Zacchaeus, the chief-publican at Jericho (Lk. 19:1-10), in whose home the Son of God was a guest.

Each of these characters is presented nobly. They are heroes!

Is this the sort of imagery that ordinary journalists would present in attempting to endear Jesus Christ to the common citizen of Palestine? Hardly. It is a subtle indication of the Spirit of God behind the production of the Gospel documents.

Jesus chose a publican.

Consider more closely the fact that Jesus chose Matthew, the publican, as one of his apostles (Mt. 9:9; Mk. 2:14; Lk. 5:27). This could have been a potentially disruptive element for two reasons.

First, Matthew’s vocation and the general reputation of such in the first century certainly could have caused many problems for the Lord’s mission.

Second, the fact that Simon the Zealot was also in the apostolic band was a potential source of internal conflict (Lk. 6:15; Acts 1:13). The Zealots were a Jewish politico-religious sect that arose in those bloody days following the imposition of a Roman governor, after Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, proved to be a disastrous ruler and was deposed (Mt. 2:22).

To combine a Zealot with a publican was an explosive mix. Certainly, the arrangement was not one that likely would be incorporated into a narrative that sought credibility with Palestinian Jews.

In truth, however, it is a brilliant commentary on the transforming influence of the Prince of Peace. In addition, it constitutes another piece of evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament.

Matthew, the publican, evangelist to the Jews

Finally, think about this. When God wanted to prepare a Gospel record that was specially designed to reach the Jewish people, he chose a publican to do it, namely Matthew.

Scholars have long observed the specially designed Jewish thrust of the apostle’s Gospel narrative. But how could such a procedure possibly be effective — especially since Matthew is more derogatory with reference to publicans than the other two Synoptic writers (Hagner, 742)? What literary charlatan would ever have dreamed of such a scheme?

But God can accomplish what would seem so implausible to mere humans. The divine plan was imminently successful. In fact, the “gospel of Matthew was universally received as soon as it was published and continued to be the most frequently cited gospel for centuries” (Carson 1992, 81)


When all of the relevant New Testament information is considered in concert, the “publican factor” becomes a subtle, though powerful, piece of evidence pointing to the sacred origin of the documents that chronicle the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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