🔼The name Tarsus in the Bible
When Paul (still named Saul) converted, he went first to Damascus, and then to Jerusalem where he debated the Hellenized Jews with such zeal that they sought to kill him. This prompted the other disciples to ship him off to Caesarea and then back to Tarsus, so that the church could grow in peace (Acts 9:30-31). A while later, Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Paul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch (Acts 11:25).
But Tarsus was not simply a place to hail from. "Being from Tarsus" marked the quality of one's education; a scholar from Tarsus would have a distinct intellectual background, different from a scholar from Jerusalem or Alexandria, just like in our modern world a scholar from Harvard would be expected (or suspected) to focus on different aspects of a field than a scholar from the university of Bagdad or one from the university of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, he addressed the Roman commander in Greek, which showed that he was a learned man who flatteringly assumed that the commander knew his languages as well. The commander immediately concluded that Paul was not the Egyptian rabble-rouser he somehow figured he was, and Paul quickly added his flash-résumé: he was a Jew, a Tarsean (Ταρσευς), a citizen of no average city, and he wished to address the crowd (Acts 21:39).
Likewise, when the Lord called Ananias to find the blinded Saul in Damascus, he said, "Seek in the house of Judas [or the house of Judah] Saul, by name (ονοματι onomati; i.e. by reputation or title) a Tarsean (Ταρσεα)," which also obviously reflects Saul's academic background rather than his place of birth.
Note how this habitual reference to the city where one received one's training also explains the nature of the ministry of Jesus the Nazarene. The name Jesus was a very ordinary name and Nazareth was an inconsequential hamlet. In other words: in a world where academic credentials were everything, the Messiah turned out to be John Doe.
🔼Tarsus; splendid city and prominent academy
The city of Tarsus is six thousand years old and still exists; it sits just twenty kilometers inland on the southern coast of modern Turkey, almost precisely in between Turkey's east and west borders. It probably started out as a Hittite settlement, but due to its strategic location was annexed by all the major empires: the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Seleucids. The latter established a Jewish colony at Tarsus around 170 BC, which formed their own "tribe," as per the local customs, and this was the Tarsean-Jewish tribe Paul came from (in addition to being from the Israelite tribe of Benjamin — Romans 11:1).
In Paul's time, Tarsus was the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, the eastern part of the south-coastal region of Asia Minor, which, amidst much political and military ado was annexed by Pompey, the same general who conquered Judah and who was instrumental in ending the Roman Republic (see our article on the name Caesar). Emperor Augustus personally made sure that Tarsus was peaceful, and in the wake of that the Tarseans established a university, which became a major center of Stoic philosophy, and according to the Greek historian Strabo, surpassed the great institutions of Athens and Alexandria in zeal for knowledge (XIV.v.12) Paul has an encounter with the Stoics of Athens in Acts 17:18, where they appear together with some Epicureans.
Purists like to point out that it can't be proven that Paul received a liberal education during his formative years, but along a high likelihood of it, readers of Paul's work easily recognize the strong influences of (or at least agreements with) Stoic philosophy and ideals of government, as well as the perks of having a dual citizenship (Philippians 3:20); the benefit or even virtue of being fluent in worldly affairs as well as in heavenly affairs. Paul's great success in the gentile world may possibly not have stemmed from his ability to quote Jewish writings, but rather pagan ones: Epimenides (Titus 1:12), Aratus (Acts 17:28), Titus Maccius Plautus (Acts 26:14, read our article on the name Caesar), not to mention his obvious ease with the works of Homer and Hesiod (Acts 28:4, see our article on the name Dike).
A persistent misconception has Jewish sages mumble about cloven hoofs and Sabbaths and such, but in reality Jewish wisdom (Hochma) was all about practical skills and practically applicable theory — while a mastery of agricultural techniques secondarily necessitated theoretical considerations of the observable cosmos, etcetera — and very little about the kind of speculative excursions the Greeks were known for. According to the Talmud, the region of Cilicia was known for its production of "cilicium," which was a coarse cloth made from goat-hair from which tents were made. And apparently, among his many acquired skills, Paul counted tent-making, which turned out to provide a viable day-job for Paul when he was in Corinth, buddied up with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:3).
🔼Etymology of the name Tarsus
It's not clear where the name Tarsus comes from. Some suggest it might be derived from an ancient Hittite or Hurrian hammer-wielding deity called Tarku (said to be identical to the Semitic Hadad and northern European "impetuous Thor", says Donald MacKenzie in Myths of Babylon and Assyria, 1915).
Josephus believed that Tarsus (Ταρσος) was the same as the city called Tarshish (תרשיש and Θαρσος) in the Old Testament (Ant.i.6.1). Many of his contemporaries held the same belief; in 1876 an early-Christian era monument was unearthed at Tarsus that depicts Jonah being gobbled up and spewed out by the great fish (American Journal of Archaeology.5.1, 1901, page 51-57). But apparently the philological link between Tarsus and Tarshish is not as obvious as it seems (which neither refutes nor confirms the proposed identicalness of Tarsus and Tarshish; many scholars today place Tarshish in Spain).
Since nobody knows and everybody is guessing, here's what we here at Abarim Publications surmise:
The first century historian Dio Chrysostom felt that both the city and its name were Phoenician (Or.33.40). On Phoenician coins the city was often called תרז (Taraz or Tarza), which draws our attention to:
- the fact that the name Phoenicia (modern Lebanon, proverbially known for its cedars) comes from the Greek word φοινιξ (phoinix), meaning palm — and the palm-tree represented immortality and victory throughout the ancient world;
- the noun תרזה (tirza), which denotes a kind of tree, possibly a cypress, and which may or may not have something to do with the noun ארז ('erez), meaning cedar:
Here at Abarim Publications we're pretty sure that the name Tarsus denoted some kind of hefty tree. Whether Tarshish and Tarsus are the same town in a geographical sense we can't say with any kind of academic certainty, but if they are not in a symbolic sense (just like the name Babylon may apply also to Rome or Egypt), we would expect somebody in the Bible, and particularly the author of the Book of Jonah, to submit this in a helpful footnote (something like: "and Jonah fled to Tarshish, which is not the same as Tarsus, as you might logically expect").
Both Jonah and Paul experienced moments of truth at sea during a storm — Jonah trying to get to Tarshish and Paul trying to get to Phoenix (same word, meaning palm; Acts 27:12) — and both attracted the attentions of monstrous carnivores (Jonah the great fish and Paul a venomous snake; Acts 28:3). Jesus would give no sign than that of Jonah (Matthew 12:38-41), who was the only other prophet from Galilee (2 Kings 14:25, John 7:52); after three days Jonah was vomited up when he exclaimed that "Salvation is from YHWH" (which compacted forms the name Jesus; Jonah 2:9) and after the same three days Jesus resurrected and commissioned Paul, who, just like Jonah, became a missionary to the gentiles (since Jonah's Tarshish is rumored to have been in Spain, Paul's desire to go just there is rather ironic - Romans 15:24-28).
After Jonah made the rounds in Nineveh, he went up on a hill and made a shelter (reminiscent of the secondary meaning of the root ארז, 'rz, and obviously Paul's tent-making skills) to review the goings on in the town below. Then YHWH made a plant grow for Jonah to sit under, and, after it withered (the Hebrew word for worm is the same as that for purple; the Phoenicians were famous for their purple trade), compared it to the city of Nineveh in which people suffered because of their ignorance (Jonah 4:11, also see Luke 23:34). This by itself is a phenomenal statement for two reasons: (1) Jonah was written probably during the Assyrian occupation and reflects an unprecedented sense of humanism, and (2) it shows that the author understood human cultural evolution to be subject to the same natural law that made plants grow, which was also several centuries ahead of its time. Paul says it this way: "So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow" (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Trees are natural shelters and symbolize skills, scientific theories and entire systems of belief, which are wonderfully helpful things until one actually believes that one's knowledge is going to save one, or bring one closer to the divine (which is what Gnosticism teaches, in violation of Genesis 2:16-17).