The term "publican," or "tax collector 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). The taxation systems of the antique world were elaborate and complicated. These tax collectors, the "publicans" of the New Testament, had considerable latitude in some of the fees they set, which lent itself to considerable corruption, and corresponding resentment.
They were widely known for their graft (cf. Luke 3:12-14, 19:8). Their taxation programs were oppressive. 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 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. The New Testament indicates that the Jews considered tax collectors as in the same category with "sinners" (Mat. 9:10-11; 11:19; Mk 2:15-16; Lk 5:30; 15:1), "harlots" (Mat. 21:31-32), and "Gentiles" (Mat. 18:17). The rabbis viewed them as on a level with "highwaymen and murderers" (Edersheim, p. 57).
There are several compelling apologetic points in the New Testament that may be drawn from what we shall call "the publican factor."
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 (Mat. 9:10), ate with them (Mat 9:11), and was a "friend" to these despicable people (Mat. 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 hero [Jesus of Nazareth] as a disreputable character that fraternized with the commonest dregs of first-century society?
Matthew, the apostle (Mat. 9:9), abandoned his tax business to follow the Savior. What a potentially disruptive element this could have been. First, because of the apostle's vocation. But second, particularly in view of the fact that Simon the Zealot was also in the apostolic band (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 (Mat. 2:22). To combine a Zealot with a publican was an explosive mix. Certainly the arrangement was not one that likely 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.
There is a 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!
When God wanted to prepare a Gospel record that was especially 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 the publicans than the other two Synoptic writers (Hagner, 742)? What literary charlatan would ever have dreamed of such a scheme?
God can accomplish what would seem so implausible to mere humans. That the divine plan was imminently successful is evidenced by the fact that 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, et al., p. 81).
When all of the relevant passages are 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.
(Excerpts from an older article by Wayne Jackson, find a full updated text at www.christiancourier.com)