The Influence of Tarsus

Geography plays an important part of any person’s life and Saul Paul is no exception. Unlike Jesus, Saul was born in one of the most important cities of the world, ranking behind Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. This free city and metropolis was the capital of the province of Cilicia located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Saul was proud that he hailed from “no ordinary city” (Acts 21:39). He lived in Tarsus until he turned thirteen and returned to this city to live in his mid-thirties and stayed until he was about fifty.

It seems that Saul was born in Tarsus a few years after the time of Christ’s birth. Various dates between A.D. 5 and 10 have been suggested for his birth. At the time Jesus was playing in the streets of Nazareth, Saul was playing in Tarsus. The two boys seemed likely to have totally diverse careers. Yet, by the mysterious arrangement of God’s providence, these two lives, like streams flowing from opposite watersheds, were one day, as a river and tributary, to mingle together. A thousand years of history lay behind the city of Tarsus and its population approached a half a million people in Saul’s day. With the assurance of rights of citizenship, many Jews took up residence at Tarsus in 171 B.C.

Tarsus, with the Mediterranean at its feet, was a great port. Set in the flowering Cilician plain, with the river Cydnus flowing through the city, the snow-covered Taurus mountains at its back, streets, buildings, its university and temple made the city unrivaled in the East.

Tarsus was a jewel for merchants, philosophers, and the footloose rich who traveled tirelessly in pursuit of the sights. Here East and West met in the most cosmopolitan city of the Roman Empire. The best of Greco-Roman civilization was enjoyed. Its citizens were bilingual, speaking Latin, Greek and Aramaic. In comparison to the rest of the world, its inhabitants were generally wealthy and enjoyed self-government.

Tarsus was not only the center of commerce, but also a seat of learning. It was one of the three principal university cities of the period; the other two being Athens and Alexandria; and it was said to surpass its rivals in intellectual eminence. Students from many countries were to be seen it its streets, a sight that could not but awaken in youthful minds thoughts about the value and aims of learning.

Tarsus left its mark on Saul, equipping him to be a lover of the cities of the Empire. Whereas his Master avoided Jerusalem and loved to teach on the mountainside or the shore of the lake, Paul was constantly moving from one great city to another. Antioch, Ephesus, Athens, Corinth, and Rome were the capitals of the ancient world and the scenes of his activity.

Jesus’ words are suggestive of the country, and teem with pictures of its still beauty or toil. Paul’s words, on the other hand, are impregnated with the atmosphere of the city and are alive with the tramp and hurry of the streets.

In Tarsus, the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile did not extend to every detail of life. For instance, Saul did not find it inconsistent with his Jewish scruples to witness the public games, which he afterwards used so effectively as illustrations. Although rigid in doctrine and life, flexibility also had been entrenched in his character from living in a cosmopolitan city where people of all races got along. Yet, Paul did have much to unlearn from his theological hair-splitting indoctrination in Jerusalem before he could write:

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22).

The eleven apostles, who grew up in Palestine, would find it much more difficult to associate with Gentiles and abandon the old ways. Therefore, Saul was better prepared for God’s calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles. He spent most of his thirty years as a Christian in lands where Greek culture and civilization met him at every turn.

In addition, Saul’s cosmopolitan background and training are reflected in his threefold theology: Hebrew, Greek and Christian. His letters, however, show that his thought and theology were Jewish at the roots— drawing heavily on the OT Scriptures. Even if his letters and the Book of Acts had not told us that he belonged to the sect of the Pharisees and had received rabbinical education, we would infer it from his theology. Paul wrote in letters in Koine Greek (the common language).

Flax was grown in the fields around Tarsus. In the bitter mountain-cold, rough long hair grew on the Cilician goats. Both flax and goat hair made the linen, tent, and sailcloth on which Tarsus built its fortune—perhaps even the fortune of Saul’s family, for many scholars believe that his father, a Pharisee, was a rich man. Most of the Pharisees were men of some wealth and status in the community. Membership in this religious group required considerable financial resources to carry out all the member’s obligations.

Pious Jews, rich or poor, taught their sons a trade to protect them from charity. Saul had been taught the trade of weaving, tent and sail making. This trade served him well in later years.

Saul’s father was a Roman citizen. Whether his father, through birth or made a Roman citizen for some deed, valor or for money is uncertain. In any case, Saul was born a Roman citizen of the Hebrew race.

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