Paul, a Citizen of No Mean City
Paul is one of ancient Rome’s best known citizens. Though there are hints of Paul’s Roman citizenship in his letters, it is from Acts that the explicit claim is made. The majority of scholars see no reason to doubt Acts on this. But Roman citizenship is not all that Acts grants to Paul. Acts says Paul was born in Tarsus and a citizen of that city. (9:11; 9:30; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3). While Paul's letters are silent on the subject of his birthplace, "there is general agreement today in recognising the reliable historical tradition in Paul's Tarsian origin." Simon Legasse, Paul's Pre-Christian Career According to Acts, in The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting, page 366.
Tarsus continues to thrive today. The modern city sits on the old, discouraging excavation and archeological discoveries of its ancient times. John Polhill provides this history:
Tarsus lies on the fertile Cilician plain in the southeastern corner of modern Turkey. The ancient city was located about ten miles north of the Mediterranean Sea. The river Cydnus flowed from the Taurus mountains located to the north of the city…. At an early stage of the city’s history, the Tarsians dug a channel connecting the lake to the sea, thus providing a spacious protected history. In Roman times the whole area around the lake was extensively populated, and there were settlements northward all the way to the city…. One scholar estimates that in Paul’s day the population of the whole area around Tarsus was ‘not less than half a million.’
Paul and his Letters, page 6.
In Paul’s time, Tarsus was a “free city” of the Roman Empire. It had self-government and an exemption from provincial taxes. The Tarsians were known for the enthusiasim for philosophical pursuits, though they were not a center of education as far as the rest of the Empire was concerned. As a child of Tarsus, Paul would likely have been exposed to Greek philosophy, the theatre and gymnasium, obtained a primary education, encountered proselytes (gentile converts to Judaism) at the synagogue, and become well-versed in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). Polhill, op. cit., pages 9-11. Much of this can bee seen in Paul’s letters, such as his reliance on the Septuagint, his familiarity and interest in athletic games is evidence by his use of athletic imagery (1 Cor. 9:24-27; Phil. 3:12-14), his literary skills, interest in the Gentile mission, and use of classical rhetoric. From what we can learn from Paul’s letters, therefore, his Tarsian citizenship and origins is quite plausible.
There also seems to be no substantial apologetic reason to invent Tarsus as Paul's birthplace. Moreover, unlike Paul’s Roman citizenship, his Tarsian citizenship does not play an important role in Acts (Luke has Paul only mention it twice). Certainly it plays a much less significant role and would be seen as less prestigious than his Roman citizenship. Also, Acts seems intent on reinforcing Paul's connection to Jerusalem where, it reports, Paul was educated. It seems an unnecessary complication to invent foreign origins and then have Paul go to Jerusalem for his education. Thus, though I do not believe Luke engaged in free creation, even if he did there is no good reason to believe he would do so here.
It is quite plausible that a Jew would have been born in Tarsus and/or achieved Tarsian citizenship. There are enough examples of Jews obtaining citizenship in Greek cities to demonstrate that the practice existed. Seleucus Nicator granted citizenship to Jews in the cities he founded, including some in Asia. Josephus, Ant. 12.119. It is also possible that Jews could have purchased citizenship in a Greek city. Athens did this, causing some disapproval, to replenish its coffers. Dio Cassius 54.7.
Moreover, there is specific evidence that Jews could and did obtain citizenship in Tarsus. Although the information about Jews in Tarsus is scant, it seems likely that there was a thriving community there. "The Jews in this area between the mother country and the Tarsus mountains were not only particularly numerous, as Josephus attests, but also very powerful and aware of themselves." Marting Hengel, Paul, Between Damascus and Antioch, page 158. That some of these obtained Tarsian citizenship is supported by explicit historical evidence:
Two epitaths in which Tarsus is mentioned were found in Jaffa: the first relates to a Judas son of Joseph and Tapoevs, i.e. a citizen of Tarsus like Paul in Acts 9:11 and 21:39. The other inscription runs: Here lies Isaac, elder (of the community) of the Cappadocians, linen merchant from Tarsus. The analogy of these later texts to Paul is striking: here are two Jews from Tarsus who settled in Eretz Israel, including one whose work, like that of Paul, was in textiles.
Hengel, op. cit., page 160.
Accordingly, there appears to be no persuasive reason to reject Acts' description of Paul's birthplace as Tarsus or its identification of Paul as a citizen of Tarsus.