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This word means two things. (It does not mean a member of the public.)

  • in modern British English, the owner, manager or keeper of a 'public house' - or pub.
(A public house is a building where any member of the public (subject to the Licensing laws) may be lodged or 'entertained', usually for the short term. Nowadays the 'entertainment' is always understood to involve alcoholic drink. The most usual name, in colloquial English in the UK at any rate, is pub.)
  • In the Authorized Version of the Bible, a publican was a collector of taxes, or a tax farmer. This is derived from the Latin publicanus, which meant the same.
Because 'publicans' in the New Testament worked for the Roman Empire, conquerors and rulers of Palestine, they were regarded as traitors, and were despised by the people. Publican became a term of abuse, and OED records its meaning 2. as "A person regarded as a heathen; a person cut off from the Church, an excommunicated person. Also in extended use." (It explains this as "With reference to Jesus's injunction to treat an excommunicated person as ‘a heathen and publican’ (Matthew 18:17).").
This may be illustrated by Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke's Gospel 19 9-14, translated in the Authorized Version as "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 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."