Studies in Bible Backgrounds Tarsus And The Apostle Paul -- By: Sherman E. Johnson
BSP 10:2 (Spring 1981) p. 51
Studies in Bible Backgrounds
Tarsus And The Apostle Paul
[Sherman E. Johnson is Visiting Professor of New Testament at the Lexington Theological Seminary.]
WHEN PAUL WAS ACCUSED of bringing Gentiles into the Temple in Jerusalem, and arrested because of the ensuing riot, he explained to the tribune commanding the Roman cohort that he was a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, “no mean city.”
Perhaps it is only by accident that in Paul’s letters preserved to us he never mentions his native town. Our information comes from the Book of Acts. After Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, a Christian named Ananias was told to go into the street called Straight and inquire for a man from Tarsus named Saul (9:11). Paul then was baptized and went to Jerusalem to meet the apostles, who brought him to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus (9:30). Some time later, Christianity came to Antioch in Syria, and because of such great success there Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Paul and brought him to Antioch (11:25–26). The great missionary journeys to Cyprus, Asia Minor and Greece begin after this.
There is one other reference to Tarsus. When the Roman tribune allowed Paul to speak to the mob, he told them of his conversion and began with the words, “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated
BSP 10:2 (Spring 1981) p. 52
according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day” (22:3). The three words, “born,” “brought up,” “educated,” are a regular formula known elsewhere in literature and suggest that Paul while still small was brought to Jerusalem by his parents, spent his childhood and youth there, and received something like an education under one of the most famous of rabbis.
Paul certainly claimed to be a Pharisee, a member of the tribe of Benjamin and a Hebrew born of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5); that is, both he and his parents spoke Aramaic. But there is a slight puzzle here. Although his letters show much acquaintance with Jewish tradition, his thinking and methods of argument are only partly Jewish, and he obviously had some Greek education. Should we take the statement of Acts quite literally and suppose that he spent all his younger years in Palestine? Perhaps the family returned to Tarsus from time to time.
“No insignificant city.” Present-day Tarsus is...
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