Reconstructing Paul’s hidden years in the desert
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 to Christianity, 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)
What 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.
He 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 Christian message, first with the Jews and then with Gentiles (non-Jews). He spoke Greek, the lingua franca of the day. To support himself, he practiced leatherworking, such as making tents. Witherington thinks it likely that Paul did these same things at Petra.
Another biblical 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: “The best bet is that Paul had tried out his 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. Learn more in Ben Witherington’s article “Paul of Arabia? The Apostle’s Early Adventures,” published in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and his historical novella Paul of Arabia: The Hidden Years of the Apostle to the Gentiles (2020). In the latter, Witherington reimagines Paul’s time in the Nabatean kingdom, and Jason A. Myers (Associate Professor of Religion at Greensboro College) provides historical context through “Closer Look” sections.
Subscribers: Read the full article “Paul of Arabia? The Apostle’s Early Adventures” by Ben Witherington III in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.
Paul’s First Missionary Journey through Perga and Pisidian Antioch
What Was Paul Doing in “Arabia”?
This article was first published in BHD on December 17, 2021.
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First, his name was never Paul or Paulus. This was the name given by the Greeks, Latins, and eventually the English/USA. Second, Our Creator’s name is not ‘God’; his name is Yah or Yahweh (YH, YHWH, or YHVH, since there were no vowels in the Ancient Languages). Third, Sha’ul (not Paul) never converted to Christianity. Christianity wasn’t invented [not by Sha’ul or none of the followers (disciples) of Yeshua (real name for our Messiah)] until the 4th century. Christianity was invented by Constantine with the help several ‘bishops’ and the Father of Hersey Marcion of Sinope.. Sha’ul became one of the several followers & leaders of Messianic Judaism. Finally, Yeshua’s followers, including Sha’ul, never utilized the term ‘gospel.’ ‘Gospel’ is short for ‘god spells’ (a deity casting a spell. The term ‘God’ came from how the people of India named their deity: godh).
Very interesting narrative. Is this information accepted throughout the Religious order?