During Bible History, publicans were "freelance" tax collectors who operated in their own towns and districts, among their own people, for the occupying Roman government (see Ancient Empires - Rome). There were two classes of publicans, the "chief of the publicans" such as Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2), and the subordinate publicans who worked for them (Luke 5:27, 15:1, 18:10). As well as often being viewed as traitors, some of them were very corrupt, being little more than extortionists, and as such they were generally hated by the public. Not all were that bad, or remained that bad, however; Matthew, also known as Levi, one of The Twelve Apostles, was a publican when Jesus called him.
The original Greek word of the New Testament, pronounced tell-oh-nace is variously translated in English-language Bibles as either publican or tax collector.
"And after these things He went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi [i.e. Matthew], sitting at the receipt of custom: and He said unto him, Follow Me. And he left all, rose up, and followed Him" (Luke 5:27-28 KJV) (see Matthew)
"And as Jesus passed forth from thence, He saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom [see Custom and Tribute]: and He saith unto him, Follow Me. And he arose, and followed Him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto His disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, He said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Matthew 9:9-13 KJV)
"And He spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the Temple [see "My Father's House"] to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14 KJV)
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:43-48 KJV) (see Forgive, And Be Forgiven)
Fact Finder: Did Jesus Christ pay taxes?
Matthew 17:24-27, 22:21
Note: Jesus Christ was a civil and religious taxpayer. The illustration above shows two different denarius coins with both of the Roman emperors who reigned during the time of Jesus, Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar. A coin identical to one or the other of those was the subject of Jesus' well-known "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's"