An officer of the revenue, employed in collecting taxes. Among the Romans there were two sorts of tax-gatherers; some were general receivers, who in each province had deputies; they collected the revenues of the empire, and accounted to the emperor. These were men of great consideration in the government; and Cicero says that among these were the flower of the Roman knights, the ornaments of the city, and the strength of the commonwealth. But the deputies, the under-collectors, the publicans of the lower order, were looked upon as so many thieves and pickpockets. Theocritus being asked which was the cruelest of all beasts, answered, "Among the beasts of the wilderness, the bear and the lion; among the beasts of the city, the publican and the parasite." Among the Jews, the name and profession of a publican were especially odious. They could not, without the utmost reluctance, see publicans exacting tributes and impositions laid on them by foreigners, the Romans. The Galileans, or Herodians, especially, submitted to this with the greatest impatience, and thought it even unlawful, Deuteronomy 17:15. Those of their own nation who undertook this office they looked upon as heathen, Matthew 18:17. It is even said that they would not allow them to enter the temple or the synagogues, to engage in the public prayers or offices of judicature, or to give testimony in a court of justice.
There were many publicans in Judea in the time of our Savior; Zaccheus, probably, was one of the principal receivers, since he is called "chief among the publicans," Luke 19:2; but Matthew was only an inferior publican, Luke 5:27. The Jews reproached Jesus with being a "friend of publicans and sinners, and eating with them," Luke 7:34; but he, knowing the self-righteousness, unbelief and hypocrisy of his accusers, replied, "The publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you," Matthew 21:31. Compare also the beautiful demeanor of the penitent publican in the temple, and the self-justifying spirit of the Pharisee, Luke 18:10-14.