Although the Apostle Paul called himself a Hebrew of Hebrews, he was born in a Greek speaking land and was a Roman citizen.
Cilicia: A Roman Province
Paul’s home town was Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia.
Cilicia was the land bordering the Northern-Eastern corner of the Eastern end of the Mediterranean sea. The region is in the South-Eastern corner of Asia-Minor and borders Syria to the South. This is the Southern region of present day Turkey.
Some key points of Cilicia’s history is given below:
- Cilicia was a part of the Hittite Empire by treaty (1300-1200s BC)
- In the Illiad, Homer allied Cilicia with the Trojans (1100s BC)
- The Assyrians conquered Cilicia (9th Centurty BC)
- Cilicia was conquered by Cyrus and the Assyrians and became part of that empire (6-7th Centuries, BC)
- Alexander conquered the region (333 BC) at the Battle of Issus and subsequently Hellenized the region
- After Alexander’s death, the area was contested by the Seleucids and Ptolemies
- Part of Cilicia was conquered by Marcus Antonius in 103 BC
- The remaining portion of unconquered Cilicia was ruled by Pirates until Pompey subdued it in 67 BC, with Tarsus as its capital
Tarsus – No mean city
- “Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city” (Acts 21:39).
- “[Paul said] I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia” (Acts 22:3)
Tarsus was the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia. It is a river port town and has been an important trade city for 2,000 years before Christ. In 41 BC Mark Antony famously met Cleopatra in Tarsus. FF Bruce reports that geographer Strabo’s assessment of Tarsus is that is was a highly educated city in arts, philosophy, and all elements of liberal arts education on par with Athens and Alexandria. Tarsus’ geography made it a wealthy city for trade and it was famous for its woven linens.
Paul was probably from a successful and wealthy family. He was not just a resident of Tarsus, but he possessed citizenship. As a craftsman (tentmaker, see Acts 18:3), it would be unlikely that his family would have the citizenship, so his family may have been successful in business and trade. According to Bruce, it was even more unusual for a Jew to have citizenship because public ceremonies often involved pagan ceremonies – unlikely to be practiced by conservative Jews. Perhaps these paganizing influences were motivators for Paul to be sent to Jerusalem to be trained in the Pharisaic tradition – “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers” (Acts 22:3).
“Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea. And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born.” (Acts 22:27)
- Paul did not earn his Roman citizenship, he was born a citizen, meaning that his father possessed it before him. Paul’s family name and how citizenship was earned is unknown
- Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship in Acts 16 and 22
- Citizenship entitled one to Roman rights/privileges throughout the empire – fair trial and humane treatment
- Paul is a Greek name (Παῦλος). Paul was also called by his Hebrew name ( שָׁאוּל Sha’uwl), which is transliterated into Greek and then English as ‘Saul’.
- ‘Saul’ started to be known exclusively as Paul when he began his Hellensitic/Gentile Mission (Acts 13).
- Paul was bi-lingual: “…as Paul was to be led into the castle, he said unto the chief captain, May I speak unto thee? [The captain] said, Canst thou speak Greek?… Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people. …Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And … he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue…” (Acts 21:37-40)
There are tremendous debates amongst Pauline and Early Christianity scholars on the relationship between Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity. The Apostle Paul is obviously a very important person in these debates. Was Paul trained in classical Greek studies in Tarsus. Was his synagogue a Greek speaking or Hebrew speaking congregation? Modern scholars believe that the line of division between Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews in Palestine was not so black-and-white and that Greek synagogues existed in Jerusalem in Paul’s time. Was Paul a part of one of those? We can only speculate on how Hebrew and how Greek Paul was. We know he was fluent in both languages, that he preached to both Jews and Greeks, that he was all things to all men that he might win some (1 Cor 9:22). The Apostle Paul was a singularly fascinating and uniquely gifted man to spread the gospel of grace and systematize the teaching of the Apostles in the Roman Empire.
He was a scholar, tradesman, traveler, orator, preacher, Roman citizen, and a Hebrew of Hebrews.