Bible Archaeology



The city of Tarsus lay on the Cydnus River about 10 miles north of the southeastern coast of Turkey (ancient Asia Minor) in the Roman province of ancient Cihcia. It is clear from Acts 32:27-28, which states that Paul was '"born a citizen" in Tarsus, that Paul's father was a Roman citizen. Paul spent his early years in this city and described himself as a "citizen of no ordinary city" (Acts 21:39). Along with Alexandria and Athens, in the time of Paul, Tarsus was one of the three most important educational centers of the Mediterranean world, providing Paul with an educational environment in which to experience the Hellenizing effects of the Diaspora. His later writings are saturated with Greco-Roman images, which play an important role in his communication and interaction with his Jewish-Gentile environment.

An important international highway which connected the west coast of Asia Minor to Syria-Palestine and points east, ran through Tarsus, passing to the north of the city through the narrow Gates of Issus in the Taurus Mountains. Julius Caesar visited Tarsus in 47 B.C., as did Mark Antony and' Cleopatra six years later.

Tarsus has had only a brief excavation, and nothing significant was found from the Roman period. Material from the excavation is housed at Adana, about 25 miles east of Tarsus. Occasional discoveries by local workmen are displayed in a small museum in Tarsus. St. Paul's Well, a spring in the center of the city, and a gate at the entrance to the city, known both as St. Paul's Gate and Cleopatra's Gate, have no historical or archaeological verification. Roman Tarsus still lies buried perhaps 20 feet (6 meters) beneath the surface of the modern city.

Antioch of Syria

Next to Jerusalem, the Greco-Roman city, Antioch of Syria, played a larger part in the history of the early church than any other single city. It was the focal point of Christianity as it spread beyond the borders of Palestine and into the Diaspora. The apostle Paul headquartered his work in this city, the population of which was probably about 300,000 in the first century A.D. It was here that the term "Christian" was first used for the disciples of Jesus (Acts 11:26).

Antioch lay between the Orontes River on the east and Mount Silpius on the west, an area of approximately 1 to 2 miles. It was surrounded by a wall rebuilt in New Testament times by the emperor Tiberius. Antioch was bustling with activity and excitement during a time of rebuilding when Paul first arrived there about A.D. 43, the year when the city established its Olympic Games. It was a huge cosmopolitan city, where barriers of religion, race, and nationality were easily crossed, a perfect base of operations for a new religion that had begun in the religion of ancient Israel and had been internationalized by Jesus of Nazareth.

Antioch had a large and wealthy Jewish population in the first century. Christian refugees from Jerusalem, Cyprus, and Cyrene came there and quickly interacted with the Jews as well as preaching to God fearing Gentiles, whom Luke simply calls Greeks (Acts 11:19-21), stating that "a large number who believed turned to the Lord" (Acts 11:21).

There are few archaeological remains in the city from the time of Paul. From ancient literary sources we learn that many important buildings were constructed by the Romans for the citizens of Antioch. Beginning in 47 B.C., Julius Caesar built an aqueduct to provide water for residences on the side of Mount Silpius. Some evidence has been found both of these private residences and also of small bathhouses, the construction of which was facilitated by the building of the aqueduct. At the foot of the mountain Caesar constructed a theater in the monumental center of town and an amphitheater near the southern gate. Somewhere, undoubtedly near the town center, he built a basilica for use by the cult of Rome; it is perhaps the oldest in the East. It bore his name and housed a statue of himself. He rebuilt the Pantheon in Antioch, which was in a state of deterioration, and built (or reconstructed) a theater on the slope of Mount Silpius.

A colonnaded street cut Antioch in half, running north to south the full length of the city. Josephus wrote:

And for the Antiochenes, who inhabit the greatest city in Syria, which has a street running through it lengthwise, he adorned this street with colonnades on either side and paved the open part of the road with polished stone. Antiquities 16.148

The emperor Tiberius appears to have built bathhouses in the city, erected tetrapyla (four-columned structures) at each main intersection of the city's streets, expanded the theater, and completed and improved the southern section of the city. In Antioch, however, it is not possible to differentiate the building program of Augustus from that of Tiberius. Augustus visited Antioch twice and commissioned his architect Marcus Agrippa to conduct an extensive building program in the city, funded by the considerable treasure Augustus had found in Egypt after the defeat of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and Mark Antony, the Roman general, at Actium on the western coast of Greece in 31 B.C. Several temples were built by Augustus as well as some other projects that may have been started by him and later attributed to Tiberius.

Antioch was hit by earthquakes often. Two of these occurred in the period with which we are concerned. The first happened on 9 April A.D. 37, during the reign of Caligula (A.D. 37-41), who rebuilt the devastated city. The second earthquake occurred in the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54) and damaged other cities in Asia Minor, including Ephesus and Smyrna.


Paul and his traveling companions, Barnabas and John Mark, began their first missionary journey by leaving Antioch of Syria and sailing to the island of Cyprus, probably selecting Cyprus as the place for their first missionary journey because it was Barnabas' home. (See Acts 4:36 where he is called "a Levite, of Cyprian birth".) They went to Salamis, a city 5 miles from the modern city of Famagusta, and preached there in the "synagogues of the Jews" (Acts 13:5).

Remains of a Roman theater dating to the end of the first century B.C. may still be seen in Salamis near the gymnasium, whose palestra (exercising area), restored by Augustus Caesar, has been excavated and is surrounded by marble columns with Corinthian capitals.

Paul and Barnabas left Salamis and went through the entire island to the west coast town of Paphos (Acts 13:6) which had an excellent harbor. Here Paul converted the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus to Christ. The family of this Roman official had large estates in the area of Pisidian Antioch and Paul's decision to go there next may have been prompted by this official who wanted him to speak to his family (see page 243).

Perga, where Paul entered Asia Minor on his First Journey

Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark traveled from Paphos on the island of Cyprus to Perga, a port city up the Cestrus River from the southern coast of Asia Minor (Acts 13:13). In Paul's time, according to the first century geographer Strabo, Perga was about 7 miles from the coast: "Then one comes to the Cestrus River [modern Aksu]; and sailing 60 stadia up this river, one comes to Perga" (Geography 14.4.2). This clearly shows that sailing up the river was not unusual and implies a landing facility near the city. Whether they landed first at the harbor of Attaha or went directly to Perga, where John Mark left Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem, is unclear. There is no record of Paul preaching here at this time, but he did "speak the word in Perga" at the end of this first missionary journey, when he returned to the city on his way to the harbor at Attalia (Acts 14:25).

Perga today is a 151-acre (62-hectare) site with impressive archaeological remains from the time of Paul that are surpassed only by Ephesus and Athens. Recent work has identified a large Roman forum or marketplace. The city walls and towers, built in the third century B.C., were standing at the time of Paul's visit and are well preserved. In the south wall, there was a gate, shaped like a horseshoe, and this is the most impressive archaeological structure in Perga.

Paul would have entered the city from the south through its twin circular Hellenistic gates to a colonnaded street running north to a gymnasium with an exercise ground (palestra), which had been built and dedicated to the Roman emperor Claudius shortly before Paul arrived. A number of Roman baths existed in the city, and foundations of a temple, probably Hellenistic in date, have been discovered about half a mile south of the city, near the end of the main street. The deity to which it was built is not known. A Greco-Roman type of theater, which would have seated about 14,000 spectators, has been partially excavated, and a well-preserved stadium is still standing outside the wall of the city.

Attalia, the port city for Pamphylia

When Paul left Asia Minor at the end of his first journey, he sailed from Attalia (modern Antalya) (Acts 14:25), a major harbor on the southern coast, which pro-vided excellent shelter from the prevailing westerly winds. Attalia was a part of the plain of Pamphylia, and from here Roman roads led northwestward to Asia and Galatia, westward along the coast of Lycia, eastward through Pamphylia to Tarsus and Antioch of Syria, as well as northeastward to Lycaonia. From such a major intersection Paul would have had no difficulty finding a coast-hopping vessel to Antioch of Syria.

Today little remains from the first century except the large cylindrical mausoleum, which stands on a square base and overlooks the harbor. One of the best local museums in Turkey is located in Attalia, where much of the excavated statuary from Perga is housed. A well-preserved arched gate from the time of Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) leading from the harbor to the city may mark the site of the gate of Paul's time, but this is not certain.

Pisidian Antioch

In addition to Antioch of Syria, discussed above, Paul entered another city by that name on both his first and second missionary journeys in Asia Minor (Acts 13:14; 14:21). It was located in the southern section of Galatia called Pisidia, and is thus referred to as Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14). Acts states that on this journey Paul taught in the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. No significant archaeological discoveries have been found in the last three cities, but recent excavations at the site of Antioch, on the outskirts of the modern town of Yalvac, have produced impressive remains. Antioch had been founded by the third century B.C., and was designated as a Roman colony in 25 B.C. by the emperor Augustus. Significant construction took place between 15 B.C. and A.D. 30, not long before Paul arrived some time between A.D. 47 and 48.

This building activity included a temple to Augustus, parts of which have now been excavated. Portions have been found of a Latin inscription that was attached to the temple shortly before the death of Augustus. This tells of the construction done by the emperor and it was thus in existence when Paul and Barnabas were in the city. Known as the "Res Gestae Divi Augusti," the inscription is of considerable importance for studying the history of that time. Some fragments are now located in the yard of the museum in Yalvac. A copy of the Res Gestae has also been found from a temple in Ancyra (Ankara), and one is known to have been in the temple of the Vestal Virgins in Rome, carved on bronze tablets outside Augustus' mausoleum. It was also reproduced on the stone walls of many temples throughout Asia Minor.

City walls and towers have been found extending almost 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) and encompassing an area of about 115 acres (47 hectares). Portions of the wall date to the Roman period, while other sections were built in the earlier Hellenistic period and the later Byzantine period. Some city streets, a bathhouse, a nymphaeum, and a fourth century church dedicated to Paul have been discovered. Foundations of a triple arched monumental gate are still standing.

Excavators also discovered a theater that had been constructed as a Greek theater in the Hellenistic period and expanded by the Romans. Significant sections of the stone cavea (semi-circular seating area) are still preserved; it would have seated about 5,000 spectators on twenty-six rows of seats. It was standing when Paul and Barnabas were there.

One of the most interesting discoveries in Antioch may provide background to the visit of Paul to this city. A Latin inscription carved into a stone fragment that is now in the yard of the museum in Yalvac has the name Sergius Paulus on it. As we have seen, Acts records that before coming to Antioch, Paul converted this man, who was a proconsul on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:7-12). This proconsul had the same name as Paul (Acts 13:9), interestingly, and the first time that Saul is given the name Paul in Acts is in the account of Sergius Paulus' conversion (Acts 13:9).

It has been erroneously argued that Paul took his new name as a result of his encounter with Sergius Paulus, and with his permission, as a sign of good will. Luke, however, does not state that Paul changed his name in Cyprus, but simply that Saul "was also called Paul." Since this is the first time that the name Paul appears, and since it continues to be used from this point forward, it is to be assumed that Paul himself used his Roman name in his work among Gentiles. The use of his Hebrew name would have been natural while working among Jews in Palestine, but less appropriate now that he was preaching predominately to non-Jews. Paul now assumed the position of leadership on the journey and from this point on

Sergius Paulus inscription from Yalvac museum.

Luke refers to "Paul and his company" not "Barnabas and his company" (Acts 13:13) and to "Paul and Barnabas" (Acts 13:43, 46, 50; 15:2, 22, 35) as often as to "Barnabas and Paul" (Acts 14:12, 14; 15:12, 25).


On the return portion of his third missionary journey, Paul set out from Macedonia after Passover in a hurry to reach. Jerusalem by Pentecost, which took place fifty days later (Acts 20:16). For undisclosed reasons it took five days to sail from Macedonia to Troas, and he had to spend seven days there in order to [be with] the church on the first day (Acts 20:6-7). When Paul left Troas for Jerusalem, he bypassed Ephesus, realizing that if he stopped there he would be detained further by his many friends. He stopped instead at Miletus just to the south. From here he sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus, 28 miles away, to come meet with him in Miletus where he gave them a farewell address (Acts 20:17ff).

Today Miletus sits 6 miles inland, but in Paul's time it lay on the coast. It has suffered the same problem of silting harbors and extension of shorelines through sedimentation experienced by Ephesus and all the cities along the coast.

Miletus Theater

A theater still standing in Miletus contains some of the best-preserved hallways among ancient theaters. Portions of several buildings in the large city still stand, including the base of an impressive monument that Paul would have seen as he sailed into the harbor. The outline of the harbor can still be seen, though it is now silted up several miles inland, and the lions that guarded it are still now partially visible in the sediment.

Among the most impressive remains of ancient Miletus is the marketplace, the foundations of which remain in the city. Its monumental gate was dismantled and transported in sections by the German excavators to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin where it was reassembled and can be viewed today. Paul would certainly have walked through this massive gate.