The Apostle Paul in Arabia
Reconstructing Paul’s Hidden Years
In the Desert at Petra
3/11/23 By Tim Buck
The New Testament recounts many episodes from the apostle Paul’s life. Yet it provides scant details about his visit to Arabia. In his letter to the Galatians, while describing his conversion, Paul mentions his time in Arabia:
When God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1:15–17, NRSV)
In the first place, Paul is not referring to the area we today call Saudi Arabia. After his conversion, rather than immediately travel to Jerusalem to be instructed by the apostles, Paul instead went to Nabatean, Arabia, a wilderness desert that stretched East of Damascus down to the Sinai Peninsula. Paul then says, “After three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter” (Gal. 1:18).
During his three years at Petra, Paul made a visit to Damascus (Gal. 1:17) but mainly resided in Arabia under the continuous ‘seminary’ instruction from the Lord. One can only imagine what that experience must have been like. Paul confirms the Lord was his only teacher in his testimony,
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
What else happened in Arabia?
Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary explores these hidden years of Paul’s life in “Paul of Arabia? The Apostle’s Early Adventures,” published in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Although the specifics do not appear in the biblical text, Witherington reconstructs elements of this time.
Witherington clarifies that the region called Arabia in Galatians 1:17 should be associated with Arabia Petrea, or the kingdom of Nabatea. With its capital at Petra, Nabatea flourished for several centuries and remained independent from Roman control during Paul’s lifetime. Witherington thinks that Paul likely spent time in Petra, which was situated on the major trade route that brought spices across the Arabian Peninsula—from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.
Later in his life, when Paul would travel to other Mediterranean cities, he typically sought out the local Jewish community and shared the gospel, first with the Jews and then with Gentiles (non-Jews). He spoke Greek, the language of the day. To support himself, he practiced leatherworking and tent making. Witherington thinks it likely that Paul did these same things at Petra.
Another passage seems to support the idea that Paul preached while in Arabia. In 2 Corinthians 11:32–33, Paul says that King Aretas tried to arrest him in Damascus. This refers to King Aretas IV, who ruled Nabatea from 9 B.C.E. to 40 C.E.
Why would the Nabatean king have known about Paul and wanted to arrest him? Witherington thinks it likely that Paul came to the king’s attention while preaching in Nabatea. It seems likely Paul preached the gospel in Arabia Petrea, and the king wanted to arrest him for promulgating a non-Nabatean religion in his territory without permission.
These reconstructed details give a glimpse of the apostle Paul’s time in Arabia. Since we plan to be in Petra during our upcoming April-May Tour of Jordan and Israel we’ll see if we can learn more about the Apostle Paul’s hidden years in Petra.
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