The online Bible teaching ministry of John Brand

Paul in Arabia

In Galatians 1:17, and only in this verse, Paul tells us that he “went away into Arabia”.  It’s an enigmatically brief reference and raises a number of questions; such as when did this happen, what does he mean by Arabia, what was he doing in Arabia and how long was he there for?

It’s putting together the bits of a jigsaw like this that make studying the details of Scripture so fascinating, not to mention even fun!

1. When did this happen?

The first piece of the jigsaw

  • Paul was converted on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9), in Syria, and went into the city as directed by God and was baptised, probably by Ananias (Acts 9:18)
  • He spends “some days” (Acts 9:19) with the disciples in Damascus and immediately begins a teaching and preaching ministry among the Jews in the city (Acts 9:20)
  • We can date all of this in AD 33 for the following reasons.
  • Galatians 2:1 tells us that Paul, Barnabas and Titus went to Jerusalem “after fourteen years”.
  • The question is, fourteen years after what?’ 
  • If it’s fourteen years after the first pre-conversion visit mentioned in Galatians 1:17, then this would make it AD 50, the year of the Council of Jerusalem, and would mean that the meetings Paul refers to here in Galatians 2 are the meetings of that Council
  • However, the ways Paul speaks about these meetings don’t really reflect what we know about that Council as it is recorded in Acts 15.
  • Also, Paul says that he went “because of a revelation” (Galatians 2:2), which would tie in with Acts 11:27-30, where Agabus prophesies a forthcoming famine and Paul and Bananbas are commissioned to take relief to the brothers in Judea.
  • That would mean that the “after fourteen years” refers to his conversion which fits the timeframe well since this famine relief visit almost certainly took place in AD 47.

The second piece of the jigsaw

  • Acts 9 goes on to tell us that “When many days had passed” (Acts 9:23) there was a plot by the Jews to kill him and that, as his enemies were watching the city gates day and night in order to prevent his escape and kill him, Paul was lowered down in a basket from the city wall.
  • This concurs completely with Paul’s own record of events in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33.  “At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped his hands.”
  • By the way, note the name of King Aretas as we will meet him again shortly!
  • The “many days” of (9:23) is in contrast with the “some days” of (9:19), and suggests that the occasion of his escape from Damascus, took place after the period of time he spent in Arabia, following which he returned to Damascus (Galatians 1:16-17).
  • That would then make sense of the link between Acts 9:25 and 26 which read as if Paul made his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem following his escape from Damascus.
  • So, converted in AD 33, Paul spends a short time of “some days” in Damascus before heading to Arabia for an unspecified period of time.  He then returns to Damascus where his life is threatened and he escapes and travels to Jerusalem; the passing of “many days” being a reference to the best part of 3 years.  We have now reached AD 36 when Paul travels to Jerusalem, having spent 3 years in Arabia, bookended by stays in Damascus.

2. What does he mean by Arabia?

We need to begin by stressing that we must apply good principles of interpretation and ask what was in the mind of the biblical writer – in this case, Paul – when he uses a word.

In Paul’s day, Arabia (aka Arabia Petrea) was a huge area that that bordered Palestine to the south and east.  It was, in fact, the kingdom of Nabateans, a formerly nomadic Semitic people who had their own language, kingdom, and deities. Their capital city was Petra, situated in what is today southern Jordan, and the famous spice road passed right through here helping to make the Nabateans a very prosperous people.   Indeed, today, the city of Petra is the number one tourist attraction in Jordan.

We have no idea how far into Arabian territory Paul may have travelled, and it needn’t have been very far since even the surrounding desert countryside of Damascus would have been classed as Arabia.

King Aretas, who Paul referred to in 2 Corinthians 11:32-32, had extended the dominance of his kingdom to include parts of Syria, hence his ability to require the governor of Damascus to arrest Paul and have him killed.  And that fact helps us address the third of our questions raised by Galatians 1:17 –

2. What was he doing in Arabia?

You see, why would the Nabatean king even have known about Paul, never mind wanted to arrest and kill him?  The most logical answer to that question is that, as he did “immediately” in Damascus (Acts 9:20), Paul didn’t hesitate to teach and preach wherever he found himself, even in the Gentile Nabatean kingdom of Arabia, the very thing God had saved him and commissioned him to do (Acts 9:15).  Not only does he waste no time in getting down to business, neither does he have to wait long for the first taste of “how he must suffer for the sake of [Jesus’] name.” (Acts 9:16).  No doubt enraged by Paul’s preaching about Jesus in his kingdom and without his permission, King Aretas orders his arrest and death.

I have often spoken of Paul’s three years of one-to-one teaching and training experience in the Arabian wilderness, taught by the Master himself, and that is, undoubtedly true in general terms.  However, to be more balanced and accurate, we shouldn’t picture Paul living as a desert hermit, cut off from much of civilisation, waiting on God and learning his theology firsthand.   I have no doubt that Paul did spend much of his time in times of solitary study and prayer, but it would appear that actually he got what is, even today, considered to be the best model of training for ministry – on the job as well as in the classroom. 

4. How long was he there for?

The simple answer is that we don’t know.  What we do know, from Galatians 1:18, is that three years after his conversion, Paul went up to Jerusalem.   During those intervening three years he spent “some days” in Damascus immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:19), followed by almost certainly a lengthy period of time in “Arabia” (Galatians 1:17), and then another indeterminate period of time in Damascus when, “after many days” he made his escape (Acts 9:25).

And Finally

Let me throw one more conundrum into the mix while we are on these post-conversion activities of Paul.  As we have said, the natural reading of Galatians 1:18 is that his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem took place three years after his conversion and he spent 15 days in the city visiting Peter and meeting James, but “none of the other apostles” (Galatians 1:19).

However, that is not without its problems either, because in Acts 9 we read that Paul “attempted to join the disciples [in Jerusalem].  And they were all afraid of him…..But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.” (Acts 9:26-27).  

Clearly Scripture cannot and does not contradict itself, so there must be a nuanced meaning to the words of either Luke in Acts, or Paul himself in Galatians.  My own view is that Paul’s words are so dogmatic and unequivocal that his account must be the starting point and that what Luke might be telling us in Acts 9 is that “the apostles” to whom Barnabas brought Paul were Peter and James specifically, and that the other apostles were either ‘out of town’ or among those “afraid of him”.   We can’t, it seems to me, be more specific than that.

So, here is my best attempt at putting all the accounts together:

  • AD 33:  Paul is converted and spends “some days” in Damascus
  • AD 33 – AD 36: Paul is in Arabia
  • AD 36: Paul returns to Damascus and then is forced to escape and travel to Jerusalem where he spends 15 days
  • AD 36: Paul’s life is again threatened (Acts 9:29) and he is safely escorted out of Jerusalem by “the brothers” (Acts 9:30) and taken to the port of Caesarea, from where he is sent to his hometown of Tarsus.

Now I need to work on a full timeline of the whole of Paul’s life and ministry!