One of our Bible study folks asked about the reference in The Letter to the Galatians to St. Paul’s time in Arabia. I had always wanted to post something on the topic – and now I have an immediate request to do so. The problem is that we don’t really know a lot of biographical information about St. Paul – at least not in the sense of modern biographies.
In any biography the author, by necessity, leaves out many events. Even a lengthy work like the 16-volume, 10 million-word biography of Winston Churchill by Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert, which is said to be the longest biography of modern times, will still leave out much more than it records. So, when we read the New Testament, which is relatively short, we do well to remember that the human authors have been highly selective, mentioning only a very few events in the lives of the characters. St. Paul’s time in Arabia is one such event that receives only a couple of brief mentions, without which we would know nothing of it at all. We can only speculate on the “why,” “when,” and “how long” of Paul’s time in Arabia based on the information we have – which is not a lot.
One thing we do know that there is a difference between the geographical meaning of “Arabia” now and back in the first century. In modern English, “Arabia” refers to the Arabian Peninsula where Saudi Arabia is located. However, in the first century the designation could also refer to the Syro-Arabian desert, farther north, which includes portions of modern-day Syria and Jordan – a part of the Nabataean Kingdom which extended from Petra north to the walls of Damascus. In the language of first century Judaism, “to the east” did not refer to Persia, but to the Nabataean Kingdom.
St. Paul provides the basic information of what happened after the Damascus road experience:
15 But when (God), who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; rather, I went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus.18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to confer with Kephas and remained with him for fifteen days. (Galatians 1:15-18)
While some academic energy is spent discussing “after three years” as being after the Damascus road experience or after returning to Damascus (v.17), most people wonder, “ok…what was he doing in Arabia.” The majority of commentaries offer that he was preparing himself for his mission, sorting things out, reassessing his understanding of the Covenant and the Covenant People, thinking of the particularism of Judaism and the universal call to salvation, and more – things St Paul describes in Galatians and Romans.
We also have other information provided in the Acts of the Apostles:
19 and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength. He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus,20 and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. 21 All who heard him were astounded and said, “Is not this the man who in Jerusalem ravaged those who call upon this name, and came here expressly to take them back in chains to the chief priests?”22 But Saul grew all the stronger and confounded (the) Jews who lived in Damascus, proving that this is the Messiah. (Acts 9:19-22)
This image is consistent with the St. Paul we likely image – someone who is dynamic and on-the-go. His quiet time was while he was jailed. It would seem that St. Paul, before he met with St. Peter in Jerusalem, already had an active ministry of preaching. But to where?
Certainly Damascus was a candidate. But there is a passage in 2 Cor 11:32 that refers to King Aretas being part of the secular environment that forced Paul to flee Damasus and the surrounding area. Combining all that we know, the most natural reading of vv. 16f. is that Paul went to Arabia in response to the purpose for which the revelation had been vouchsafed, namely, that he might proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. This understanding accords well with St. Paul’s own description of his gospel as having come by direct revelation (v. 12), which should be well considered. Such a prompt response would be thoroughly in keeping with Paul’s Jewish awareness that the revelation entailed the mission and particularly with his character as a man of utter sincerity and intense activity (witness his erstwhile persecution of the Church). That he later had to flee Damascus to escape from the hands of the ethnarch under the Nabataean king Aretas (2 Cor. 11:32f.) would suggest that he had incurred the hostility of that king by preaching to his subjects in Arabia
That’s what we can guess about St. Paul’s “into Arbia.”
And what does all of this have to do with the magi who visited the infant Jesus? Read more here.