The class designated by this word in the New Testament were employed as collectors of the Roman revenue. The Roman senate farmed the vectigalia (direct taxes) and the portorin (customs) to capitalists who undertook to pay a given sum into the treasury (in publicum), and so received the name of publicani. Contracts of this kind fell naturally into the hands of the equites, as the richest class of Romans. They appointed managers, under whom were the portitores, the actual custom-house officers, 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 name pubicani was used popularly, and in the New Testament exclusively, of the portitores. The system was essentially a vicious one. The portitores were encouraged in the most vexatious or fraudulent exactions and a remedy was all but impossible. 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. It was the basest of all livelihoods, and you can find more about that here on st-takla.org on other commentaries and dictionary entries. All this was enough to bring the class into ill favor everywhere. In Judea 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. In addition to their other faults, accordingly, the publicans of the New Testament were regarded as traitors and apostates, defiled by their frequent intercourse with the heathen, willing tools of the oppressor. The class thus practically excommunicated furnished some of the earliest disciples both of the Baptist and of our Lord. The position of Zacchaeus as a "chief among the publicans," (Luke 19:2) implies a gradation of some kind among the persons thus employed.
Main reference: Smith's Bible Dictionary (1860s)
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