HOW WAS TARSUS “NO MEAN CITY?”
by Shawn Brasseaux
When addressing the chief captain of the Roman soldiers in Jerusalem, the Apostle Paul stated in Acts 21:39: “I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.” In what sense was Tarsus not a “mean” city?
Usually, “mean” is used in the context of cruel or unpleasant. Yet, Paul was not saying, “Tarsus is not a harsh or unfriendly city.” The adjective can also mean “poor quality, lowly.” Adding “no” to “mean,” the implication is Tarsus is “no common, insignificant, or inferior city.” In fact, it was the capital or chief city of Cilicia (southeast Asia Minor, present Turkey).
According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary: “Even in the flourishing period of Greek history… a city of some considerable consequence. In the civil wars of Rome it took Caesar’s side, and on the occasion of a visit from him had its name changed to Juliopolis. Augustus made it a ‘free city.’ It was renowned as a place of education under the early Roman emperors. Strabo compares it in this respect to Athens and Alexandria. Tarsus also was a place of much commerce. It was situated in a wild and fertile plain on the banks of the Cydnus. No ruins of any importance remain.”
In calling his birthplace “no mean city,” Paul was arguing he could not be dismissed as some “uneducated country bumpkin born and raised in the middle of nowhere.” He was a free Roman citizen from a major city in the Empire, and he desired to address the Jewish people in Jerusalem. The chief captain ultimately granted him permission, and Paul delivered that famous speech that convicted apostate Israel and landed the Apostle in prison (see 21:40–22:30)!