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The island nation of Cyprus lies in the extreme northwest region of the Mediterranean Sea. It points like a finger at the Gulf of Iskenderun, and that gulf is the absolute northwesternmost corner of the Mediterranean. About 50 miles to the west of the Gulf of Iskenderun are the ruins of the ancient city of Tarsus, the birthplace of Saul of Tarsus, a.k.a. the Apostle Paul.

map of 

Tarsus region
The red star above indicates the location of the ruins of ancient Tarsus.

The area I am describing is today a part of Turkey, but in the time of Paul the area was called Asia Minor. It was a region that had been heavily developed by the Greeks, especially during the time of Alexander the Great, and then by the Part of the Tarsus-Damascus-Jerusalem road. Romans. It was the jewel of the Eastern Roman Empire, with many important cities where there were large Jewish communities. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (the seven cities mentioned in Revelations) were all important cities of Asia Minor, linked by well-made Roman roads, boasting of enormous temples, theaters, libraries (only the famous library at Alexandria was larger than the library at Pergamum), other public buildings and services such as both public and private postal services, and even the world's first hospital. Tarsus was another "big-league" city in the wealthiest and most developed part of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Paul was "a city slicker."

Yes, Paul was a Jew, but obviously he was not a citizen of the more primitive Roman province of Judea. He was not a poorly educated country boy or working class laborer. He was a Tarsian, and Tarsus was several hundred miles to the north of Judea. It was in the southeast part of Asia Minor. People travelling to Judea from Tarsus journeyed east to the border between Asia Minor and Syria; they then turned south and travelled along the Roman-built Damascus-Jerusalem Road which ran the whole length of Syria, passing near Lake Galilee and on down into the city of Jerusalem. (This is, of course, the same road to Damascus where Paul's conversion took place. It is also the road down which the Roman legions had travelled to annex Judea to the Empire.)

Speaking of roads, the Roman Empire had about 53,000 miles of high class paved roads connecting all of their major cities. Some of those roads are still in good enough shape that they are still in use today. Acording to Civil Engineering, the journal of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. system of interstate highways is only about 47,000 miles long. We need about 6,000 miles more of interstate highway to match the Romans in length of paved major roads.

ruins of ancient Tarsus surrounded by the modern city

Paul's family must have been a very prominent family in Tarsus because they were already Roman citizens nearly a century before citizenship in the Roman Empire was granted to all residents of Tarsus in 66 A.D. In fact, some scholars say that it was probably Mark Antony himself who granted Roman citizenship to Paul's father or grandfather between 41 B.C. and 31 B.C.

(Shakespeare and Hollywood both get it wrong when describing the first meeting of Antony and Cleopatra. Their first meeting took place in Tarsus around 41 B.C. and Cleopatra's famous barge trip was up the Cydnus River at Tarsus, not up the Nile River at Alexandria. Tarsus in Asia Minor was the scene of Cleopatra's early romance with Antony, not Egypt. Evidently Tarsus was a luxurious enough place to attract two of the biggest celebrities of that day and time. In any event some scholars think that Paul's father or grandfather was given Roman citizenship as a reward for unknown services that he rendered to Antony at Tarsus. It is even suggested that Paul's relative may have helped obtain naval grade sail-cloth for re-fitting Antony's fleet while he lingered at Tarsus making love to Cleopatra. Whatever the case, we know that Paul claimed to be a Roman citizen by birth and that he practiced the trade of tentmaking.)

There is an even more important reason to think that Paul came from a prominent and wealthy Tarsian family. As a young man Paul was sent all those miles away down to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, the most famous and influential rabbi of Paul's day. This was roughly equivalent to sending a bright youngster from Mountain Brook to Harvard or to Princeton.