Tarsus is, as Paul says, “no mean city” (not an insignificant or undistinguished city; it is well-known), Acts 21:39. Paul was right. The city’s history is like reading a “Who’s Who” of world leaders throughout the ages.
An important inscription is now located near the remains of the west gate into the city. It states that Tarsus is a “free city.” Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, who ruled from 222 to 235 AD, is credited in the inscription for granting “special responsibilities” and “many special privileges” to “Tarsus.” Mark Antony made Tarsus a free Roman city in 41 BC. Caesar Augustus restored this freedom in 19 BC because one of his teachers was from Tarsus. Alexander the Great made Tarsus a free Greek city in 333 BC.
What did it mean to the citizens to be a “free city”? In the Roman Period to be a “free city” meant all of the tax burdens imposed on a people to fund Rome’s insatiable drive to control the masses and expand the Empire and its amenities were eliminated. Free cities enjoyed good commerce, strong protection, and more opportunities for education and advancement.
“No mean city.” That probably wouldn’t make the short list for a city slogan today. But this is where Paul was born, grew up, and worked. Think with me for a moment. If Paul was ethnically Jewish, then why was he born outside the Promised Land? While you ponder that question, I’ll ask two more. Why was there a colony of Jews in a pagan city like Tarsus? How many generations had Paul’s ancestors lived in Tarsus before his birth?
Wandering among the ruins, I thought about how different Tarsus is from the town where Jesus grew up, Nazareth. Tarsus is geographically in a coastal plain, with river access to Mediterranean Sea. Nazareth is “landlocked” in the hill county. Tarsus was at the convergence of four significant roads. Nazareth was out of the way. Tarsus was “white-collar,” commercial, book-smart, lavish, and global. Nazareth was “blue-collar,” agricultural, street-smart, frugal, and segregated. Tarsus was a Roman “free city” (the citizens did not pay taxes to Rome). Under Rome’s dominion in the first century, Nazareth was taxed.
Yet both cities were used by God. One would be used in preparing the way for the Savior. The other would, unknowingly, help prepare a local boy that once played on its streets, crawled through its sewers, and threw rocks in its well become the man who would proclaim the Savior’s message to the known world.
Do you think God gives this much attention to each and every one of us, including the demeanor of a city?
Too simple? The answer begins long before the first century. Just as God had been preparing “for the fulness of time” through powerful Empires (the Persians, Alexander the Great, Greece, and Rome), He was also preparing to take the Gospel “to the end of the world.” About three hundred years before Jesus Christ was born, Seleucus I Nicantor founded a community (Seleucia Pieria) three hundred miles north of Jerusalem on the coast of what would become Syria.
Who? That’s my point. People with power are merely pawns in God’s hand. But since you asked. Seleucus was one of four generals under Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death dividing his empire also divided the loyalties of the four generals. Antigonus (another general) established his capital a few miles from present day Antakya. Seleucia Pieria, where Seleucus settled, was only twenty miles from Antigonus’ capital. Now add a few years of pushing, name calling, animosity, and fighting between the generals until Seleucus defeats Antigonus at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. Almost as an “in your face” memorial for his victory (thus the surname “Nicanor” which comes from “nike”), Seleucus established Antioch (so named to honor his father, Antiochus I).
This (tongue-in-cheek) “glorious” beginning had three hundred years to become a prestigious jewel of fine culture and high society. But it didn’t. Merrill Unger calls Daphne, one of Antioch’s suburbs, “the playground of license and pleasure for the dissolute city.” From within the midst of all that debauchery and wickedness look what Jesus Christ did there with those who believed in the “simple” answer.
?“And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:2-3).
“God, Jesus Christ” the “simple” answer continues to be the “best” answer 2000 years later.