Saturday, 6 July 2013

Tarsus, the home of St Paul

(The follow-on blog in this series on St Paul is here)
St Paul was born in Tarsus, which was situated in what we would now call Southern Turkey in the Roman Province of Cilicia. Now called Terso, in Roman times, Tarsus was a seaport, with busy wharves, situated on a wide bay, facing south, forty miles north of the eastern point of Cyprus. Historically, it is a place of destiny.

In ancient times, the River Cydnus (River Berdan) flowed forty five miles from the ice-capped Toros mountains to meet the sea at Tarsus. The river is chilly, even in extreme heat, which may account for Alexander the Great having nearly died after swimming in it. On the northern edge of Tarsus, the Cydnus still creates the Tarsus Waterfall, a delight when rains have fallen, which may have been the spot where Alexander bathed. These waterfalls must have been part of Paul’s life. They are still an ideal spot for summer picnics, as they must have been, in ancient times.

The River Cydnus also features in Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra. Where the Cydnus flowed into the Mediterranean at Tarsus, Cleopatra appeared sailing in on a barge of gold to seduce Mark Antony. This fatal spot, which inspired through Plutarch these lines is now dry, cultivated fields lying at the south east edge of the Tarsus. Over the last two thousand years, the Cydnus has silted up the bay and coastline so modern Tarsus, which in Roman times was walled and gated, now stands high and dry, twenty kilometres from the sea. .

                                                 The Tarsus Waterfall on the Cydnus

In classical times, interaction with Cyprus, Ephesus, Alexandria and the far East, must have dominated the busy seaport. The Eastern Roman Empire was very advanced, in terms of civilised amenities. Its cities offered street lighting, underfloor heating, Olympic games, mass hysteria over various sporting teams, heated swimming pools and fashionistas.

St Paul was sent home to Tarsus after his conversion, possibly to gaze out to sea. Did he start thinking about preaching Christ crucified in Cyprus? At any rate, Cyprus was the destination on his first missionary journey, with Barnabas , a more experienced Christian, who was a Hellenic Jewish Levite (called “Joseph”) who owned land on Cyprus. Barnabas and Paul later parted company over the trustworthiness of companions. By then, St Paul had become the dominant preacher of the two men.

Like nearby Antioch, the third city of the Roman Empire after Alexandria, the area had been settled by the generals of Alexander with locals, Greek and Jews. This meant that the Jews of Tarsus enjoyed Roman citizenship, by right, delivering to them a kind of advantage or equality, anywhere in the Empire. Being a Roman citizen was used by St Paul at various points, both with the Romans and the Jews.

Paul would have grown up here surrounded by beautiful statues, regarded as idolatry by Hebrews. There was a library, baths, forums, gymnasia and above all pagan temples. The ambience was also intellectual with several well-known Hellenistic philosophers living in Tarsus in the first century. The desire of most of the inhabitants of Tarsus was money, sensual pleasure, fitness and self-indulgence. The Eastern Hellenistic world was particularly decadent, a fact emphasized in “Antony and Cleopatra” and embodied by Cleopatra herself. For a clear picture of it, see Professor Green's fine book "The Hellenistic World". The locals’ religion mixed Syrian gods with Roman deities, creating hybrids like Artemis of Ephesus. Jews would have attended the synagogue which would have shared Judaism with local people. Jesus refers to zealous Jews travelling over seas to make one convert i.e. to bring them into the synagogue where they would hear the Mosaic Law (Ten Commandments). The wealthier Jews would have made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to attend religious Feasts.

As a brilliant 'Hebrew of Hebrew', St Paul was despatched as a young boy to the Rabbinic school in Jerusalem to learn at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel, a follower and grandson of Hillel. No doubt, Paul returned more than once as a teenager to his home, which was a couple of days' summer sea journey from Jerusalem. Gamaliel’s influence and sense later saved the early church from its severest persecutions when he told the Sanhedrin that if God was not in this young movement, it would fizzle out. Perhaps it was intended by the Jewish leaders that Saul would return to Tarsus to lead the synagogue there?

God, however, had other purposes for St Paul: notning less than the conversion of Europe to Christ crucified. This zealous Jew had "soon advanced beyond the Judaism of his day", in more ways than one. It was eventually St Paul who felt sent to the Gentiles and effectively moved Church HQ from Jerusalem to Rome, the centre of the ancient world.

As a postscript, there are suggestions that the prophet Daniel was buried in Tarsus. There have been 'digs' to try to find his tomb there.

Famous ancient Greeks associated with Tarsus were stoics Antipater, Archedamus and Nestor. Other philophosers were Athenodorus and Cordylion. Grammarians Artemidorus and Diodorus. The dramatist Dionysiades came from Tarsus.

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