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PAUL'S DISPERSION BACKGROUND
We call him the apostle Paul. His mission takes up at least half of Acts, and his epistles dominate our New Testament. If we are to understand him, we must look into his background in order to form as complete a picture as we can of the kind of person he was and of the various influences that shaped him.
We first meet Paul in Acts 7:58 as the "young man" at whose feet those who stoned Stephen laid their coats. One way to characterize him is as a Dispersion Jew. In the time of Jesus and Paul there were millions of Jews who lived in various places throughout the Roman Empire. Of a world Jewish population estimated at from 3 to 8 million, "The consensus seems to be that about two thirds of the Jews lived outside of Palestine." These were significantly affected by cultural influences that were not as strong in Palestine. Paul was born into such a family and had been partly reared in the Dispersion ("the Diaspora").
This characterization of Paul as a Dispersion Jew serves as a convenient means of organizing our study of his background. In this chapter we will explore those influences on Paul that arose especially out of the fact that he was born in and affected by the non-Jewish culture of his world. In the next chapter we will consider those aspects of Paul's background that reflect his Jewish heritage.
We have no authentic biography of Paul. The New Testament gives no account of his life before he appears as a fully mature man at the scene of Stephen's martyrdom. But there is a surprising number of references, in Acts especially, to Paul's background. These provide considerable insight into Paul's experiences between his birth and his conversion.
Two passages in particular, Acts 21:37—22:3 and 22:25–29, provide helpful information regarding the time and place of Paul's birth and rearing, his language, and his standing in the non-Jewish world.
Paul's Birthplace: The Influence of Tarsus
Paul said, "I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city" (Acts 21:39). "No insignificant city" designates Tarsus as no average, or ordinary, city, a city not to be looked down on. He also said that he was born there (Acts 22:3). Paul apparently had a sense of pride about the city of his birth. He regarded it as a city to be taken note of, an important city; he knew that those to whom he spoke would not disagree.
There are at least four reasons Tarsus would have been reckoned important. First was its size. In Paul's time Tarsus probably boasted a population of half a million, packed a little tightly into an area of some eight to ten square miles. Not many cities in the Mediterranean world would have been any larger.
Second was its trade. Tarsus was one of the busy and competitive centers of the Mediterranean's bustling commerce. A little time spent with a map (see the beginning of chap. 4) will show that its location was ideal. Tarsus was positioned on the southern side of that peninsula we call Asia Minor (now the land of Turkey), along the coastal plain of the province of Cilicia. It was a port city, a natural and well protected harbor, a dozen miles upriver from where the Cydnus emptied into the Mediterranean. About twenty-five miles to the north of Tarsus were the Taurus Mountains, rich in the minerals and timber that made trade with Tarsus so desirable. By way of illustrating their zeal for trade, the Tarsians could proudly point to the Cilician gates. They had built that road across one of the passes in the Taurus Mountains earlier in their history; it was reckoned a mighty feat indeed.
In addition to the mountains' resources, the Tarsians also traded in leather goods and cilicium (from the name of the province), a cloth woven from the hair of the black goats that populated the slopes of the Taurus range. "The black tents of Tarsus were used by caravans, nomads, and armies all over Asia Minor and Syria."
A third reason for the importance of Tarsus was its political standing. A city so well situated could hardly fail to be a center of power, and Tarsus had been such a center for nearly a thousand years when Paul was born. In the earlier times of the empires of Assyria, Babylonia, and Medo-Persia, Tarsus was a leading city in Asia Minor. When Alexander's Greek empire was divided after his death, Tarsus was part of the territory controlled by the Seleucids. The famous Antiochus Epiphanes took special interest in Tarsus. He gave it his own name, Antiocheia and made it self-governing (in 171/170 B.C.). It thus had the standing of a Greek city-state and was one of the most important in all of Antiochus's empire.
When Paul was born, Tarsus had passed into Roman control, and still its standing was recognized. The Romans designated many districts as provinces (see further, below), and Tarsus was the capital city of the province of Cilicia. It was also awarded, by the Roman senate, the privileged standing of libera civitas. These Latin words (Latin was the language of the Romans) mean "free city." Such a standing gave the city the right to govern itself apart from the provincial government as well as freedom from major Roman taxes, including duty on trade. It would also have been garrisoned by its own soldiers.
One more reason for the importance of Tarsus should be mentioned briefly. Tarsus was a university city, surpassing even Athens and Alexandria in the general learning of its natives. John Pollock mentions two of the more famous students of Tarsus, Athenodorus (a tutor of Augustus) and Nestor. In old age both of those men returned to the city from illustrious careers in Rome. They would have been alive during Paul's boyhood. However, Paul himself, being the son of a strict Jewish Pharisee, would not have been exposed to the pagan education of those schools.
So Tarsus was a city of recognized significance. One does not have to be very imaginative to sense the kind of awareness Paul would have had if he spent the first years of his life there. He would have become familiar with the sea and with the ships that unloaded cargo at the docks of Tarsus from all over the Mediterranean. He would have heard the strange native tongues of the ships' crews and conversed with them in Greek, the most common language of the empire. He would have observed many travelers from Rome; Tarsus was a favorite vacation spot for highborn Romans. Many people mixed in Tarsus, and Paul could not have avoided being exposed to them and their ways. He would have obtained considerable understanding of the shape and culture of the Roman world and of the heterogeneous peoples that populated it.
In recent years some scholars have cast doubt on these possibilities, arguing that Paul, though born in Tarsus, did not spend any of his formative years there. W. C. van Unnik's little book Tarsus or Jerusalem may be considered the bellwether of this viewpoint. Van Unnik contends that Paul's family moved to Jerusalem when he was but an infant. His argument rests entirely on the meaning of one word (and the punctuation) in Acts 22:3: "brought up." It is beyond the scope of this text to respond to that view except to say that I remain unconvinced. What we know of Paul fits better with the view that he spent a considerable part of his boyhood in Tarsus. In the final analysis van Unnik is forced to account for Paul's "Hellenistic" (Hellen is the Greek word for Greece) awareness as a result of later years in Tarsus (following his conversion), and so the end result is not very different after all. Furthermore, if Paul's parents lived in Tarsus for some period before his birth (as will be seen below), then the subtle influences of Tarsus would have been felt in the home even if the family did move to Jerusalem during his infancy. Regardless, the next chapter will show that Paul's primary background was certainly Jewish; in that respect, at least, van Unnik is right.
When we evaluate the influence of Tarsus on Paul, we have to deal with more than his birth and boyhood there. Paul was a "citizen" of Tarsus (Acts 21:39). Just living there would not automatically make him a citizen. Only the privileged were named citizens of a city; the general population, including most of the working and poorer classes, did not have that standing.
The citizens of a city were responsible for its government, and that was especially important in a city that was libera civitas like Tarsus. Those named citizens were the ones who would assemble to conduct the affairs of the city and make the decisions that affected its corporate life.
Being a citizen of the city, by the way, was not the same as being a Roman citizen. Paul was that, too, as will be discussed below. Certainly the two often went together, but they were two distinct privileges. In the eastern provinces of the empire, being a citizen of a city was often of more practical advantage than Roman citizenship. Paul "thinks of himself first and foremost as a citizen of Tarsus, and only refers to his latent Roman status when it is expedient to do so."
A person who was a citizen of a city was therefore automatically a person of influence. Conversely, the standing of citizenship was usually awarded to those who were more influential. Inasmuch as Paul spent no more than his boyhood in Tarsus, we can be confident that he became a citizen of that city in the same way he got his citizenship from Rome, namely, because his father was already a citizen (see Acts 22:25–29.) This has some fairly strong implications for our understanding of Paul's background. For one thing, it suggests that Paul was from a family of some influence and probably wealth. One thing required for inclusion in the roll of citizens was that one had to own property of certain worth."
For another thing, we can safely assume that Paul's family had lived in Tarsus for a significant length of time before his birth, otherwise it is difficult to explain how this orthodox, Pharisaic, Jewish man (Paul's father, Acts 23:6) had gained Tarsian (and Roman) citizenship.
Long ago Sir William Ramsay offered a theory that would account for this family's privileged standing. Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid ruler, took special interest in Tarsus, renaming it Antiocheia and settling a large colony of Jews there in 171/170 B. C. Under such circumstances that colony of Jews would have been given the large measure of responsibility for the affairs of the city. Such families would have established themselves as being of influence and power in the city, a standing that would continue to be recognized even under later administrations, including the Roman structure. Ramsay suggested that Paul was born into one of these "original" families of Tarsus. If so, then Paul's family had been there for four generations or so when he was born.
Whether or not that is the case, there were probably, as Ramsay suggested, many Jewish citizens in the city. The reason for drawing this inference is that membership in the citizenship assembly carried with it social as well as political implications. The citizens were generally organized into one or more "tribes" that made provision for social and even religious activities together. We cannot imagine an orthodox Jewish family participating in such activities unless there were enough Jewish citizens to have a tribe of their own.
While we are considering Paul's birth place, a word is in order about the date of his birth. As already noted, we meet him first in Acts 7:58 as a young man. The trouble is that this Greek word (neanias) could refer to a person anywhere in the twenty to forty age bracket. All this tells us, then, is that Paul was somewhere between twenty and forty at the time of Stephen's martyrdom in about the year A.D. 33, and even that date may be off two or three years, depending on one's view of the date of Jesus' crucifixion.
There is also the fact that, when writing to Philemon in approximately A.D. 60 (see chap. 7), Paul called himself "the aged" (Greek, presbytes), a word not usually used until a person had reached sixty or so.
One other consideration is that Paul was certainly old enough to be given a leadership role among the Jews by the time of Stephen's death. And leadership was not generally accorded truly young men in our modern sense of that word. Some think that at the time of or immediately after Stephen's stoning Paul was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a question we will examine in the next chapter. If so, according to rules expressed later but probably in force then, he was at least thirty-five.
We can be no more specific. Paul's age at Stephen's stoning was about the same as the date we attach to that year. He was born then about the time we change the dating to the Christian era (A.D.), probably a few years after the birth of Christ. There is a traditional supposition (based on an inference in a sermon attributed to Chrysostom) that he died in the year 66 at the age of sixty-eight; thus he was born in 2 B.C. F. F. Bruce suggests that he was born "probably in the first decade of the Christian era."
Paul's Roman Citizenship
As already noted, Paul was partly reared as a Jew in the Dispersion. The world he was part of is now known as the Graeco-Roman world: Greek in language and culture, Roman in government.
When Alexander the Great conquered that world for the Greeks, in the period leading up to 323 B.C., he deliberately tried to establish Greek culture in the lands conquered. The Greeks believed that their language and culture were superior to all others, and it was part of their mission to "civilize" the world. Even after the Greek Empire was divided, following Alexander's death, the process of enforced Hellenization went on in many places.
Then along came the Romans and conquered that world again. But the Romans did not desire to challenge the established Greek culture. What they wanted was to rule by their legions and collect the taxes. Indeed, the Romans themselves were strongly influenced by the culture of the Greeks in art, philosophy, dress, athletics, and religion. They made Latin the official language of the empire and expected Roman citizens everywhere to have an adequate knowledge of it, but in fact many did not, and Greek was by far the more common language, especially in the eastern provinces. Indeed, "Greek was an official language of the public administration in Syria and Palestine, Latin being normally confined to the internal organization of the army, and to documents affecting Roman citizens." That accounts for the significant differences in the western and eastern parts of the empire in the time of Paul. In the western provinces, Roman culture was stronger; whole communities were granted the status of Roman citizenship. In the eastern provinces, the dominant Hellenistic culture made the process of Romanization much slower.
Roman Emperors During Paul's Lifetime
Paul lived under five Roman emperors. All are sometimes indiscriminately referred to as Caesar.
Octavian, better known as Augustus (31 B.C.-A.D. 14), became the unchallenged ruler after defeating Mark Antony's forces at the battle of Actium, which produced the suicides of both Antony and Cleopatra. He reorganized the Roman government, renouncing dictatorial powers and restoring many of the functions of the senate with himself as princeps (first citizen). The emperor directly supervised imperial provinces, where the largest military contingents were stationed, like Egypt, Gaul, Syria, and Spain. The senate controlled the other provinces, ruled by civil rather than military governments. In practical effect, the emperor was sovereign.
During Augustus's reign, many thought the "golden age" had come. He put down insurrections in various areas, conquered new territories, and consolidated governments: additions included Egypt, Illyricum, Galatia, and others.
Tiberius (A.D. 14–37) was Augustus's stepson. Early in his reign he faced unrest in eastern provinces, including Cappadocia and Cilicia, and more serious problems in Armenia involving the never vanquished Parthians. Most problems he settled with firm diplomacy, but some disturbances (as in Africa, in A.D. 20) required the use of the army. At death, he left perhaps three billion sesterce (150 million dollars) in the treasury.
Excerpted from Paul the Apostle by Robert E. Picirilli. Copyright © 1986 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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2. Paul the Jew
3. The Conversion and Commission of Paul
4. From New Convert to Missionary Traveler
5. The Gentile Mission Expands
6. The Third Missionary Journey
7. Paul the Prisoner
8. The Last Years of Paul