John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 20

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 20

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Although we may know little of the early life of Saul, and the exact character of his early training, as well as his precise position in life, must be left very much to conjecture, we have at least the satisfaction of knowing the nature of the scenery on which his eyes continually rested, and amid which his early days were spent. Some may despise this source of pleasurable emotion, in contemplating the home and cradle of a great man; but natural sentiment refuses to recognize the indifference which cold philosophy inculcates; and so long as that sentiment impels men to traverse sea and land in order to look upon the scenes of great events, and the homes and haunts of illustrious men, Tarsus will, for Saul’s sake, be a spot of interest to us.

Cilicia, of which Tarsus was the capital, was the province of Asia Minor nearest to Syria, being separated therefrom on the east only by the mountains of Adana. It was a plain, backed to the north by the great mountain range of Taurus, and open on the south to the sea, or rather to the gulf of Cilicia, which, by a breadth of fifty miles, separated this coast from the island of Cyprus. Tarsus stood in about the midst of this province, nearly two leagues from the mouth of the river Cydnus, which was navigable to the city. This river, now called the Kara Su, or Black Water, then flowed through the midst of the city, but now only passes near to it.

Strabo says that Tarsus was founded by an Argive colony that went with Triptolemus in search of Io. But this is simply absurd; for Io, the daughter of Inachus, must have lived at least eighteen centuries before our era; whereas, according to the Parian marbles, Triptolemus quitted Eleusis only 1409 years before that epoch; and even apart from this anachronism, which brings into connection persons four centuries apart, what credit can be given to a story in which two such fabulous persons as Io and Triptolemus are made to play the principal parts?

The origin of the name of Tarsos is by another Greek writer (Dionysius Periegetes), connected with another fable, and affords no bad specimen of what Sir William Drummond calls “the dauntless effrontery of the Greeks in tracing foreign names to their own language.” In that language, tarsos signifies the bone of the hand or foot, and may, consequently, be put by synecdoche for either one or the other. Taking advantage of this figure of speech, Dionysius informs us that Tarsus was so called because it was there the horse Pegasus left his hoof (his tarsos) when Bellerophon fell from him!

Although we are bound to reject the tradition reported by Strabo, it is not to be doubted that a Greek colony had, from very remote times, been established at Tarsus. Grecian learning and philosophy appear to have flourished there; and Strabo mentions some of the distinguished men who were natives of the place, and it was immediately after the time of this geographer that the great apostle of the Gentiles was born at Tarsus.

It has already been stated, that the inhabitants did not possess the general right of Roman citizenship till considerably later than the time of Saul; but that yet there was no reason why a native of Tarsus should not, on other grounds, be a citizen of Rome. It is mentioned by Suetonius that many strangers, professors of the liberal arts, and teachers of the sciences, were made Roman citizens by Caesar. Now it happens that Tarsus connected itself conspicuously with that great man, and the inhabitants received so many favors from him, and were so greatly attached to him, that they even changed the name of their city, as Dion Cassius assures us, to Juliopolis. This renders it likely that Caesar bestowed the Roman citizenship on many persons belonging to Tarsus. This rank could, as the Roman lawyers assure us, be conveyed by inheritance, or even by will; and thus Saul, though a Jew by birth, may have inherited the right which he claimed.

It used to be a somewhat favorite notion, that Tarsus was the Tarshish so often mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures; but it is now generally admitted that there is no ground for that conclusion.

Tarsus was a large, populous, and wealthy town, and hence Saul himself justly calls it “no mean city,” Act_21:39. It was eminent not only as a seat of learning, but of commerce; and although there are few existing remains to avouch its ancient importance, its extent at least is evinced by the fact that the Cydnus, which flowed through the midst of the ancient city, is, in the nearest part, a full mile from the modern town. The place remained of considerable importance so late as the time of Abulfeda, at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries; for this great geographer describes it as a large place, surrounded by a double wall, and as being then in the hands of the Armenian Christians. It is now a Turkish town, greatly decayed, but still of some relative importance, and carrying on a somewhat active commerce. It exports large quantities of cattle to Egypt; it collects the cotton of the district and sells it to the merchants of Smyrna, who export it to Europe. Grain is very plentiful; and in 1845, when there was dearth all over Syria, Tarsus was able to supply its neighbors with many ship-loads of wheat and barley. The modern town contains some very fine buildings and mosques, and is entirely walled in with massive masonry; but both the exterior and interior are filthy in the extreme. The climate is mild and agreeable in winter; but is in summer intensely hot and unwholesome. During one week, so late as the middle of October, the thermometer was never below 80°, and was, in the experience of one traveler, sometimes high as 93° in the shade. Hence the inhabitants retire during that season to the mountains. There they live in perfect indolence; and the poor man will rather sell anything he may possess than fail to take his family to the mountains during the summer months. This constant shifting of residence prevents the people from building good houses, either in Tarsus or in the Yaila, as they call their summer quarters.

The inhabitants—Turks, Greeks, and Armenians, are about 6,000 in number, by the latest estimate.

About a mile to the north of the town, the river Cydnus, previously of considerable depth and breadth, falls over a bed of rocks about fifteen feet in height, whence it separates into several small channels, turning mills and watering beautiful gardens; these streams afterwards unite, and so continue to the sea. The plain of Tarsus is bare of trees, but beyond the limits of the cultivated lands, the country is covered with bushes, among which may be observed the myrtle in great abundance and perfection, reaching sometimes to seven or eight feet high, the Vallonia oak, the oleander, the carob, the cassia bush, and many others.

Here, then, whatever of man’s works may have altered among the scenes of Saul’s childhood, “the plain, the mountains, the river, and the sea remain to us. The rich harvests of corn still grow luxuriantly after the rains in spring; the same tents of goats’ hair are still seen covering the plain in busy harvest. There is the same solitude and silence in the intolerable heat and dust of summer. Then, as now, the mothers and children of Tarsus went out in the cool evenings, and looked from the gardens around the city, or from their terraced roofs upon the heights of Tarsus. The same sunset lingered on the pointed summits. The same shadows gathered in the deep ravines. The river Cydnus has suffered some changes in the course of 1800 years. Instead of rushing, as in the time of Xenophon, like the Rhone at Geneva, in a stream of 200 feet broad through the city, it now flows idly past it on the east. The channel which floated the ships of Antony and Cleopatra is now filled up; and wide unhealthy lagoons occupy the place of the ancient docks. But its upper waters still flow, as formerly, cold and clear from the moors of Taurus; and its waterfalls still break over the same rocks, when the snows are melting like the Rhine at Schaffhausen. We find a pleasure in thinking that the footsteps of the young apostle often wandered by the side of this stream, and that his eyes often looked on these falls. We can hardly believe that he who spoke to the Lystrians of the ‘rain from heaven,’ and the ‘fruitful seasons,’ and of ‘the living God, who made heaven, and earth, and the sea,’ could have looked with indifference upon beautiful and impressive scenery. Gamaliel was celebrated for his love of nature; and the young Jew, who was destined to be his most famous pupil, spent his early days in the close neighborhood of much that was well adapted to foster such a taste.” Note: Life and Epistles of St. Paul. By the Rev. W. J. Conybeare and the Rev. J. S. Howson. London, 1853. Respecting Tarsus, see also Mannert’s Geographic der Greichen und Römer; Drummond’s Origines; Barker’s Lares and Penates; Burckhart’s Travels in Syria, etc.; Irby and Mangle’s Travels; Chesney’s Expedition to the Euphrates; Neale’s Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor, etc.