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in the footsteps of paul
 Tarsus
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 Home | History | Series
 Introduction
 Tarsus (Birth - 30CE)
 Jerusalem (30-34)
 Antioch (34-43)
 Spreading the Word (43-48)
 The Wider World (49-50)
 Corinth (50-52)
 Ephesus (52-56)
 Into the Fire (56-70)
The Jewish Community in Tarsus
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 Pages
1234

It seems to me necessary here to give an account of all the honors paid to our Jewish nation, and of the leagues of mutual assistance rulers have made with us, that the rest of mankind may know what regard the kings of Asia and Europe have had for us...The decrees of the Romans are laid up in public places of the cities, and are extant still in the capitol, and engraved upon pillars of brass.
–Josephus Antiquities 14.10.186-188


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Jewish communities

Jewish worship on the Sabbath -- whatever its origin -- is upheld by its antiquity, while their other customs, which are ill-omened and disgusting, gain strength from their depravity. They sit apart at meals, and have adopted circumcision in order to make manifest their difference from other men, and converts to their religion accept this custom. It is a crime to kill any superfluous children...and their burial customs are similar to those of the Egyptians, as is their belief about the underworld. But their faith about things divine is very different. While the Egyptians worship many animals and images mixing men and beasts, the Jews have a mental conception of their God as a single essence.
–Tacitus Histories, 5.5

Early Christian relief carving
Early Christian relief carving
(photo courtesy Ministry of Tourism, Ankara)

Ancient synagogue
Ancient synagogue
(historical re-creation)

The pirates attacked and ravaged temples and sanctuaries that had never before been violated...They made strange sacrifices, and performed secret rites, among them were certain rites of the Persian god Mithras which have been preserved to our own time.
–Plutarch, Pompey 24


t
arsus had a sizable Jewish community. Jewish communities had existed outside Judea since the sixth century BCE Babylonian captivity. They began spreading west from the fourth century BCE; as refugees, slaves, and immigrants they put down roots in Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Greece. By the middle of the second century BCE the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek -- known as the Septuagint -- and there was a Jewish community in Rome. The center of the diaspora community was the synagogue, where the community gathered to pray, study Jewish law, and observe the Sabbath. While these communities adopted much of the language and culture of their new homes, they also preserved their national identity and religious beliefs and practices -- beliefs and practices often at odds with the mainstream culture. Monotheism, circumcision, and dietary restrictions separated the Jews from their polytheistic neighbors. Since their monotheism excluded worship of any other gods, Jewish proselytizing was discouraged, and, when practiced, could lead to expulsion from the city. Expulsions for proselytizing in Rome are recorded three times -- in 139 BCE, 19 CE, and in the principate of Claudius.

Thanks to legislation sponsored by Julius Caesar and Augustus, among others, Jewish religious liberties were protected by law: Jews were exempt from certain state rituals and festivals; their synagogues were exempt from the Roman ban on secret societies; and the annual Temple tax of a half-shekel was allowed to be collected. Because service with the Roman legions required participating in certain cult practices, as well as working on the Sabbath, Jews were given exemptions from military service. But the rights granted to Jews out of respect for their religion did not always stem anti-Semitism. One Roman's understanding and appraisal of Jewish traditions survives in the words of the historian Tacitus; while he expresses the Roman appreciation for ancestral customs, he also displays a hostility to cultural differences.

As in many Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire, Tarsus was host to a dizzying array of gods and faiths. Roman religion combined ancestor worship with worship of the special supernatural powers of each place and a standardized pantheon of gods and goddesses. Before invading a city, the Roman legions would invite the gods of the city to defect to the Roman side. In one sense, worship of the gods was defensive. Gods were believed to patronize the cities that worshiped them, to protect them from earthquakes, floods, and plague. In addition, foreign gods, mystery religions, and cults for deified leaders could be added without forsaking other allegiances. Polytheistic piety allowed individuals to add or assimilate religions. Religious traditions from Greece, Persia, Egypt and Rome would have been present in Tarsus in Paul's day. The Persian god Mithras, popular among the pirates in Cilicia, would soon be embraced by the soldiers of the Roman legions, and spread as far as Britain.

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