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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Tarsus

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(Ταρσός)

This city is famous as the capital of Cilicia and the birthplace of St. Paul (Acts 22:3; Acts 9:11; Acts 21:39). It was built on both banks of the Cydnus, in a rich and extensive plain, about 10 miles N. of the coast and 30 miles S. of the vast mountain-wall of Taurus. The river descends swift and cold from the snow-clad heights-ψυχρόν τε καὶ ταχὺ τὸ ῥεῦμα ἐστιν (Strabo, XIV. v. 12)-and Alexander the Great almost lost his life from the effects of an imprudent bathe in its icy water (Plut. Alex. 19). Flowing, 200 ft. wide, through the heart of the city, it entered, some miles down, a lake called the Rhegma-now a fever-breeding marsh, 30 miles in circumference-which served as an excellent harbour for the shipping of the Mediterranean. But the Cydnus was navigable as far as the city itself, and all the world knows of Cleopatra’s pageant on those waters (Plutarch, Antony, 25f.; Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, act II. sc. ii. line 192 ff.).

The great trade-route from the Euphrates by the Amanus Pass joined the one from Antioch by the Syrian Gates about 50 miles E. of Tarsus, and the single road, after traversing the city, turned sharply northward towards the Cilician Gates-a natural pass, 70 miles long, greatly improved by engineering perhaps about 1000 b.c.-which gave access in peace and war to the vast central plateau of Asia Minor. Highways of sea and land thus combined to make Tarsus one of the most important meeting-places of East and West.

The 1st cent. Tarsus, whose most famous son was a Jew, a Hellenist, and a Roman citizen, resembled a composite photograph, in which the Greek type had been superimposed upon the Oriental, and the Roman upon both.

Tarsus is mentioned in the ‘Black Obelisk’ inscription as one of the cities captured by the Assyrian Shalmancser about 860 b.c. (Records of the Past, ed. A. H. Sayce, new ser., 6 vols., London, 1888-92, iv. 47). Under the Persian Empire it was governed sometimes by satraps, sometimes by subject kings. Xenophon (circa, about 400 b.c.) found it a πόλιν μεγάλην καὶ εὐδαίμονα, where Syennesis, king of Cilicia, had his residence (Anab. I. ii. 23). The victories of Alexander the Great changed the face of the East, and Tarsus was one of the many cities that were Hellenized by the Seleucids. Antiochus Epiphanes IV. visited Cilicia about 170 b.c. for the purpose of allaying discontent in Tarsus and the neighbouring town of Mallus (2 Maccabees 4:30 f.), and Ramsay thinks it probable that this king reconstituted Tarsus as an autonomous Greek city, and that, according to the practice of the Seleucids, he planted a colony of Jews there, giving them equal rights of citizenship (ἰσοτιμία) with the Greeks (The Cities of St. Paul, London, 1907, pp. 165, 180). The citizens of Greek towns were divided into ‘tribes’ (φυλαί), each observing its own special religious rites; and, as the individual could not enjoy civic privileges except in his relation to the tribe, there must have been a φυλή of Jews in Tarsus, each member of which could boast of being ‘a Tarsian of Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city’ (Acts 21:39). The far-reaching change which this Antiochus, who was at first no enemy of the Jews, made in Tarsus was commemorated by the new name given to the city-‘Antioch on the Cydnus’-which, however, was soon dropped, as there were already so many Antiochs, and as Tarsus was still essentially an Oriental city. When Pompey reconstituted the province of Cilicia (in 64 b.c.), Tarsus became the headquarters of the Roman governor, but it lost this honour when Augustus formed the great joint-province of Syria-Cilicia-Phœnice (probably in 27 b.c.). Tarsus took Caesar’s side in the Civil War, and in memory of a visit which the dictator paid it in his march from Egypt to Pontus it either received or assumed the name of Juliopolis. The republican Cassius plundered it on that account, but Mark Antony made it a civitas libera et immunis, and Augustus confirmed its privileges. Under a strong and just Roman government, Tarsus was left to the peaceful development of its great resources, and reached the zenith of its prosperity, while its Hellenization now went on apace. Inspired with an enthusiasm for learning and the arts, it established a university, which was not indeed so splendidly equipped as the older foundations of Athens and Alexandria, but, according to Strabo (XIV. v. 12), even surpassed them in zeal for knowledge. At the same time Tarsus developed a higher civic consciousness, and under the benign rule of Augustus’ old preceptor, the Stoic Athenodorus, who received divine honours after his death, and of Nestor, the teacher of Marcellus and perhaps of Tiberius, it for a time realized the Platonic ideal of government by philosophers. T. Mommsen has called Asia Minor ‘the promised land of municipal vanity’ (The Provinces of the Roman Empire, Eng. translation , 2 vols., London, 1909, i. 328, n. [Note: . note.] 1), and it is curious to see how Tarsus, like so many other cities, arrogated such high-sounding titles as Metropolis, Neokoros, Free, First, Fairest, Best. But this was only the defect of her qualities, and all that was highest and worthiest in her life was associated with the intense local patriotism of her citizens.

We have not the means of accurately measuring the effect of such an intellectual environment on ‘Saul of Tarsus’ during his formative years. It cannot be proved that he received a liberal education in his native city before he went to study in Jerusalem. It is certain, however, that Tarsus was one of the great seats of Stoic philosophy, and ‘it is not mere conjecture, that St. Paul had some acquaintance with the teachers or the writings of this school’ (J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians 4, London, 1878, p. 304). It is equally evident that he obtained in Tarsus an insight into civic and Imperial politics, which exercised a profound influence upon his thought as a Christian. He learned to give full value to the words πολίτης (Acts 21:39), συμπολίτης (Ephesians 2:19), πολιτεία (Acts 22:28, Ephesians 2:12), πολίτευμα (Philippians 3:20). He not only enjoyed, like all his compatriots in Tarsus (the συγγενεῖς of Romans 16:7; Romans 16:11; Romans 16:21), the freedom of his native city, but he had the far higher privilege, of which only few of them could boast, of being a Roman born (Acts 22:28). While his Tarsian citizenship availed him little outside the city, his Ρωμαῖός εἰμι-Civis Romanus sum-was a talisman which afforded him protection almost everywhere. And his double citizenship not only was in itself a privilege, but became a fruitful ideal. The thought of a citizen-life worthy of a Tarsian and of a Roman early penetrated his mind, and reappeared by and by in the sublimated form of a civic conduct worthy of the gospel of Christ (πολιτεύεσθε, Philippians 1:27), a conscientious citizen-life led always before God (πεπολίτευμαι τῷ θεῷ, Acts 23:1).

After his conversion St. Paul spent several years in Tarsus and other parts of Cilicia (Galatians 1:21), labouring and learning there in unrecorded ways, and it was in his native city that he was found by Barnabas (Acts 11:25). At the beginning of his second missionary tour he was again in Cilicia, confirming the churches which he had probably founded (Acts 15:41), and he could not avoid Tarsus on his way through the Cilician Gates to Derbe and Lystra (Acts 16:1). His third tour also began with a journey from Syrian Antioch to the region of Phrygia and Galatia (Acts 18:23), no doubt via Tarsus, which he then probably saw for the last time.

Captured by the Arabs in the 7th, and by the Crusaders in the 11th cent., Tarsus ultimately fell into Ottoman hands in the 16th century. It has now a population of 25,000, a congeries of many nationalities.

Literature.-W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, 2 vols., London, 1877, i. 26 f., 59 f.; A. Hausrath, A History of the NT Times, 4 vols., do., 1895, iii. 4 ff.; W. M. Ramsay, The Cities of St. Paul, do., 1907; C. Wilson, in Murray’s Handbook to Asia Minor, do., 1895, p. 184 f.

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Tarsus'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/t/tarsus.html. 1906-1918.

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