No town like his hometown: How St. Paul’s shaped his life

The city of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey, was located on a well-traveled route in the Roman Empire.

The city of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey, was located on a well-traveled route in the Roman Empire.

Gary Michuta

Gary Michuta

God never commands the impossible — although he may command the very difficult.

In all cases, God provides for our needs, and His providence guides and shapes us. There is no clearer example of God’s providential care and preparation of an individual in the New Testament than St. Paul.

After his conversion to Christ, Paul was a powerful instrument for God to spread the Gospel, not only through his various missionary journeys, but also through his writings. No other single New Testament author wrote as much as Paul. His writings make up more than 30 percent of the books of the New Testament.

But how did God prepare Paul to spread the Gospel? One way is found in a seemingly mundane biographical detail: the place of Paul’s birth, Tarsus of Cilicia in Asia Minor (in modern-day Turkey).

Paul’s birth in Tarsus shaped and prepared Paul to be the Apostle to the gentiles in three important ways.

Like the modern-day city of St. Louis, ancient Tarsus was considered the gateway between East and West, which made it ideally suited to expose Paul to various cultures and privileges.

Like the modern-day city of St. Louis, ancient Tarsus was considered the gateway between East and West, which made it ideally suited to expose Paul to various cultures and privileges.

First, Tarsus enabled Paul to receive a superior Jewish education. We know that Paul studied Judaism at the feet of rabbi Gamaliel I (Acts 22:3), a very respected rabbi who is still revered by Jews today. Education was costly in that students had to support themselves during their training. How did Paul support himself? He was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). This was no accident because Tarsus was considered a center for tent-making. The sheep’s wool at Tarsus was particularly well-suited for tent making. Moreover, tent-making was an important and potentially lucrative trade. Tarsus, therefore, supplied Paul with the means to study under Gamaliel and perhaps even fund some of his extensive missionary journeys.

Second, Tarsus also exposed Paul to different cultures. Did you ever wonder why Paul seemed so comfortable debating the pagan Greek philosophers in Athens (Acts 17)? Tarsus again provides an answer. Like the city of St. Louis last century, Tarsus was a gateway city between East and West. This interchange of cultures made it an ideal location for pagan education, including instruction in Stoic philosophy.

At one time, the schools in Tarsus were considered on par or even surpassed those in Athens. As a native of Tarsus, Paul likely rubbed elbows with Stoic philosophers on the streets and became familiar with their view of life, so when the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens wanted to dialogue with Paul (Acts 17:17-18), he was ready and willing.

The third and perhaps greatest gift Tarsus gave to Paul was his Roman citizenship. Roman citizenship was prized throughout the ancient Roman empire because it granted special legal protection under Roman law. Citizens could not be bound or whipped (scourged), nor could they be put to death except when found guilty of treason — and even then they were allowed to appeal to Caesar.

If you weren’t born a Roman citizen, becoming a citizen wasn’t easy; you would either have to serve honorably in the Roman military for 25 years or more, or you would have to buy the privilege, which was very expensive (see Acts 22:28). Paul was neither born in Rome nor served in its military, nor did he buy his citizenship. How did he become a Roman citizen? He was born in Tarsus.

Tarsus was a favored city of the Roman Empire long before Paul. In 67 BC, Pompey made Tarsus the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, and Mark Antony, who was in control over the eastern provinces, declared Tarsus a city free in 42 BC. Caesar Augustus, whose friend and teacher was from Tarsus, favored the city by granting it exemption from imperial taxes. St. Paul’s birth in Tarsus gave him Roman citizenship, which he skillfully used to preach the Gospel to audiences who otherwise could not read, and his citizenship in one instance even saved his life through appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:10-11).

St. Paul could have been born in any city in the ancient world, but God providentially chose Tarsus, a city that supplied Paul with the skills and resources he needed to answer God’s call. How has God providentially shaped your life? What skills and resources has God’s providence provided you to answer His call?


Gary Michuta is an author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.