TAX COLLECTOR (τελώνης, G5467). The term is found only in the synoptic gospels—nine times in Matthew, three in Mark, and ten in Luke.
The word is incorrectly tr. “publicans” in the KJV. The publicani (Lat.) were wealthy men who paid for the privilege of collecting taxes in certain localities. They were often Romans, although it would appear that the Jew Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2-10), who is called “chief tax collector” (ἀρχιτελώνης, G803), was a publicanus.
These tax farmers employed local Jews to do the actual collecting of the taxes or tolls for them. It is the latter who are indicated by the term τελώνης, G5467. Therefore, “tax collector” (RSV) is preferable to “publican” (KJV).
The taxes levied by the Rom. government were many and varied. There was first of all the poll tax (tributum capitis). This had to be paid by every male over fourteen and every female over twelve (the aged were exempt). There was the land tax (tributum agri), which was payable in kind. Both of these direct taxes were collected by Rom. officials in Pal.
In addition, there were many forms of indirect taxation. Charges were made on all imports and exports, including the transportation of slaves. These were collected by the τελῶναι of the gospels. They examined goods and collected tolls on roads and bridges. There was also a market toll in Jerusalem introduced by Herod.
Schürer thinks that the customs raised at Capernaum, in Galilee, went into the treasury of Herod Antipas (I, ii, 67-68). In senatorial provinces, the Rom. senate took the money. Judea, however, was an imperial province, and the revenue collected went into the coffers of the emperor. This is the basis of the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 22:17; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:22).
As already noted, Luke 19:2 mentions a “chief tax collector” at Jericho. Josephus (Jos. War II. xiv. 4) speaks of a certain John who was a tax collector at Caesarea in a.d. 66 and evidently a prominent Jew.
As a class, the tax collectors were hated by their fellow Jews. This was almost inevitable. They represented the foreign domination of Rome. Their methods were necessarily inquisitorial. That they often overcharged people and pocketed the surplus is almost certain. In the rabbinical writings they are classified with robbers. In the synoptic gospels they are bracketed with “sinners” (Matt 9:10; 11:19; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:30; 7:34). This shows the common attitude of the Jewish people toward them. They were considered to be renegades, who sold their services to the foreign oppressor to make money at the expense of their own countrymen.
Jesus recognized this common attitude. He said “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt 5:46). At the same time He rebuked the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. He declared: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (21:31). In saying this, Christ was not condoning the sins of either group. What He was asserting was that there is forgiveness for even the worst sinner who will repent. The refusal to repent of their self-righteousness was the crowning sin of the Pharisees, as Jesus vividly pictured in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
Christ’s acceptance of repentant tax collectors is shown not only by His treatment of Zacchaeus, who became one of His followers, but also by the fact that He chose a tax collector, Matthew (Levi), as one of His twelve disciples. When Matthew gave a farewell feast to his former associates—prob. to introduce them to his new Master—the Pharisees asked the disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:11). Jesus’ reply revealed the nature and purpose of His mission. He said: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt 9:13). Christ associated with sinners, that He might save them.
Bibliography E. Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Eng. tr. 1897-1898), I, ii, 65-71; I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1st series (1917), 54-61.