When Paul attempted to reconnect with old friends in the Grecian synagogues at Jerusalem, it ended with his having to flee for his life. The brethren in Jerusalem took him as far as Caesarea, where Paul sailed to Tarsus. As one reads the account, it all seems to just naturally flow into the idea that Paul went home to reconnect with family and childhood friends, and thereby more or less nurse his wounded self-esteem. Up to this point Paul had probably preached in Arabia, Damascus and Jerusalem. The result was Aretas’ ethnarch sought to arrest him, the Jews in Damascus sought to kill him, and his old friends at Jerusalem turned against him and also sought his life. What was he doing wrong?
Well, Paul later reminded Timothy that he (Timothy) had known Paul’s manner of life and faith… and that all who wish to live godly in Christ will suffer persecution (2Timothy 3:10-12). During these early experiences Paul was learning to expect persecution. It manifested itself in different ways, but that fact that it would come was unmistakable. So, was it Paul’s intention to nurse his wounds when he went to Tarsus, his hometown, or did he have a purpose in mind? Now we can probably agree, considering Paul’s previous three years, that he had every intention to continue preaching the Gospel. However, my question is this: was there a specific reason for him choosing Tarsus, or was this city merely a random choice. Did Paul have a plan or was he merely reacting to his circumstances?
The Genesis Apocryphon, and ancient Jewish work and one of the seven original documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, describes Genesis 13:14-18 in much greater detail. In fact, Abraham actually walked out the whole parameter of what God promised him. Beginning at the river of Egypt, he walked along the coast of the Mediterranean until he came to the mountain of the Bull or the Taurus Mountains (near Tarsus). Then travelling eastward to the Euphrates and walking along the river until he reached what is today called the Persian Gulf, then back across the Arabian Peninsula to the Nile River where he had begun. The point is that the city of Tarsus had a peculiar place in the land allotted to Abraham.
Josephus tells us that Tarshish, the son of Javan, and grandson of Japhet, the son of Noah (Genesis 10:4) gave the Tarsians their name, and in the 1st century CE was the land of Cilicia in which their greatest city, Tarsus, was located. However, what does this have to do with Paul’s going to Tarsus to preach the Gospel? For this we must turn to Genesis 9:27 where Noah asks God to enlarge Japhet and let him dwell in the tents of Shem (Abraham’s ancestor). This verse is interpreted by Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to mean: “May Yahweh beautify the borders of Japhet! May his sons become proselytes and dwell in the school of Shem.” Indeed there is a kind of play on the call of Jonah and the call of Paul. God called Jonah to preach to Nineveh (Gentiles), instead, however, Jonah decided to run away to Tarshish (Tarsus, according to Josephus), but Paul, instead of running away, actually journeyed to Tarsus in order to fulfill his call from God. The fact is, since the targumist interprets Genesis 9:27 as Japhet becoming proselytes in the schools of Shem, Paul viewed his mission to the Gentiles as particular Gentiles. He saw himself as fulfilling the prophecy in Scripture that Noah claimed would occur. Paul went to the descendents of Japhet in response to the prophecy in Genesis 9:27.
Knowing this, one has to wonder about Acts 11:19-26. We are told in Scripture that the disciples were scattered abroad as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch after the persecution resulting from the death of Stephen. Nevertheless, they preached to Jews only. In Acts 11:20 some disciples from Cyrus and Cyrene finally began preaching to Gentiles at Antioch. Why? What prompted these particular disciples to finally begin preaching to the Gentile quarters at Antioch? Well, if we remember that Paul was already preaching specifically to Gentiles in Cilicia by this time, and Tarsus wasn’t far at all from Antioch, it is not difficult to presume that these disciples followed Paul’s leadership. They heard it was already being done with success, so they followed through on what they had heard of Paul on their own mission field in Antioch, the place where believers in the Way were first called Christians!