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.
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