Acts 21:39

ESV Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.”
NIV Paul answered, 'I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.'
NASB But Paul said, 'I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.'
CSB Paul said, "I am a Jewish man from Tarsus of Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Now I ask you, let me speak to the people."
NLT No,' Paul replied, 'I am a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, which is an important city. Please, let me talk to these people.'
KJV But Paul said, 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.

What does Acts 21:39 mean?

It's not clear why Paul came to the temple. He might have come to teach about Jesus, like Peter and John did (Acts 3:12–26), or to pray (Acts 3:1), or to finish last-minute preparations to help four men fulfill their Nazirite vow (Acts 21:20–27). Most certainly, he did not come to bring Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus, into the temple, as some insisted. Nor did he come to get dragged out of the temple, beaten to a pulp, and arrested by the Roman army (Acts 21:28–36).

Similarly, he is not an Egyptian rabble-rouser, here to lead the peasants in a revolt against the Roman occupation, as the tribune thinks. And, so, when Paul starts speaking proper Greek, the tribune is even more confused (Acts 21:37–38). To reassure the officer, Paul gives his credentials.

Paul was trained in Jerusalem by the famed Pharisee rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). However, his family is from Tarsus on the southern coast of eastern modern-day Turkey (Acts 9:11). Paul is understating Tarsus' importance and reputation. The city was known for its university, and some consider it a more important center of learning than Athens or Alexandria were.

Tarsus was also a Roman colony and a free city, like Philippi. Those born there were Roman citizens with all the rights of someone born in Rome proper. That includes the right to a trial before being chained, beaten, tortured, or executed. This is something the tribune should catch now, while Paul is standing, chained, in front of him, and not later, when he orders the soldiers to tie Paul up and flog him (Acts 22:24–29).

The tribune isn't thinking of Paul's rights, at first. He's trying to figure out why the Jews are rioting in the temple courtyard. Asking the mob led nowhere (Acts 21:34), so he hopes if Paul explains to the Jews, he'll understand, also. Whether because he doesn't understand why Paul's speech is so inflammatory (Acts 22:3–21) or because he doesn't speak Aramaic (Acts 22:2), the tribune remains as confused as before. He falls back on the standard Roman way of getting information: beating prisoners until they comply.
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