This is the second chapter to my book on “Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet.” If you haven’t read the Introduction, which is posted here, I suggest you start there. Subsequent chapters will be posted as they are completed. I welcome suggestions, editorial ideas, and questions. George
Chapter 1 Paul in Arabia
“Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character.” [Alastair McIntyre, After Virtue, 215 – 216}
It is almost impossible to find any specific dates for the life of Paul, except for the hint that comes from one little verse in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians. Paul made the strange claim, at least rare in the Roman Empire, that if he was to boast in anything, he said “…I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” He went on to tell a tiny, but significant, story of his escape from Damascus.
“In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded 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 from his hands.” (2 Cor. 11:32-33)
There is another source with the same basic story. This is one time when the Acts of the Apostles is a more helpful. Even with some important differences with regard to the details Acts described Paul’s escape from Damascus in a basket. Acts places this escape within days of his meeting Jesus while on his way to Damascus. He was called “Saul” and not “Paul” at this point in his story.
“After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” (Acts 9:23-25)
The facts that matter are that Paul escaped Damascus and did so in a somewhat large basket lowered over the wall, most likely at night, though that detail wasn’t confirmed by Paul’s version of the story. Some of the other discrepancies between these two accounts will emerge as our investigation continues. There is one more account from Paul’s own hand that needs to be added, and that is a puzzling geographical reference he made in Galatians.
But 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. (Gal. 1:15-17)
This is Paul’s own story of God’s revelation to him that Jesus was the Messiah as well as his specific call to preach that message among the Gentiles. His reference to having traveled to Arabia, before returning to Damascus, along with the little story in 2 Corinthians are the critical pieces leading us to place Paul in a particular year in the first century—we can know when this happened. This investigation begins with the reference to Arabia.
To the south of Jerusalem and Judea lay a great desert which on a contemporary map includes Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, and parts of Southern Iraq. None of those governments or boundaries existed in the first century, but there were Arab traders, now mostly forgotten, called the Nabataeans, who mostly settled into what we know as Jordon. Over a period extending three hundred years they had become wealthy and prosperous by controlling the north and south trade routes that extended across the Arabian desert up to the ports on the Mediterranean Sea, with Damascus as the key point in that exchange of goods. The Silk Road bringing goods from the Far East also ended in Damascus, as precious silks, spices, and jewelry were carried on ships to Greece and Rome. In Paul’s world, and strangely still in our time, Damascus has remained a city at the heart of great geo-political issues.
Paul’s first journey after his revelation was to Arabia. Why he choose that destination remains a mystery. We can, however, make an intelligent guess that he went to one or both of the important cities in that kingdom in the first century. Most likely he was in Petra the Nabataean capital, but he may have also traveled to the most southern city of Madain Saleh, which is now in Saudi Arabia. Both were cities carved out of sandstone, which have survived through the centuries, today favored by archeologists and world travelers.
Our knowledge of the history of the Nabataeans does not go back very far because they left few written documents, but their magnificent cities carved out of stone are a lasting testimony to their artistic creativity and prosperity. Written records, from other sources, of their story in history date from the mid-third century prior to the birth of Jesus. We even have different pictures of them. One is that they “…were an uncommonly energetic and successful nomadic people.” [Bowersock, Roman Arabia, page 16] Another description was that they were a “sedentary people…given to the acquisition of possessions.” [Bowersock, Roman Arabia, page 16] Maps of the Near East showing kingdoms and nations at the time of the birth of Christ, show the Nabataean Kingdom and that huge desert following various trade routes used by its traders. [NOTE: A suitable map will be helpful here.]
Paul lived at a time when the Nabataean kingdom was seeking to expand it’s territory—probably to have better control over its trade routes. It’s capital was Petra. Called a “rock-bound city” it was located in the cavernous mountains southeast of the Dead Sea. It was an almost impregnable fortress-like city fortunately supplied with a constant stream of water—engineered through a series of manmade aqueducts. There have been many archeological excavations of various Nabataean cities which have “…brought to light a prosperous civilization in that territory which was at its peak by the time of Paul’s visit.” [Betz, Galatians, p. 73] The ancient city of Petra is the most popular tourist attraction in Jordan today.
Paul’s mention of going to Arabia meant he traveled south to the Kingdom of the Nabataeans. In the face an ever-expanding Roman Empire, with Pompey’s army, Judea was conquered by Rome in 63BCE. That army, though, never made it to Petra, and the Nabataeans enjoyed a rare kind of relationship with Roman rule in the century before Paul wandered into its territory to contemplate and understand his revelation of Jesus. He actually may have spent less time trying to understand his revelation, and more time starting his ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles.
It is an intriguing story involving some of those known to us from the gospels including John the Baptist and King Herod. Julius Caesar along with Anthony and Cleopatra play a part as well. For some reason Paul had to escape from arrest in Damascus when it was under the control of the Nabataean king Aretas IV. Putting all these people together in a continuous story requires attention to the political history in the century before Paul was born.
When Alexander the Great died (323 BCE) his kingdom was broken up into various power blocks. All of Mesopotamia in the East and then extending west to Syria composed the Selucid dynasty. That dynasty finally dissolved when Pompey (the Roman General) turned Syria into a Roman province in 63BCE. Horsely called Pompey’s easy victory in conquering Palestine a “….major step in this new phrase of Roman expansion” with Pompey boasting that he had “liberated the cities of Palestine.” [Horsley, “Jesus and Empire” p. 78 in Horsley, The Shadow of Empire.]
The Selucid dynasty is important to our story because of a failed attempt of Antiochus Dionysus (87-84BCE) who attacked the Nabataeans. Through all the years of the Selucid dynasty they had never been attacked. It had remained an independent kingdom. Not only was the army of Antiochus defeated but the Selucid dynasty also lost Damascus, thus giving to the Nabataeans for about fifteen years complete control of their trade routes from the Persian Gulf all the way to the north to Damascus. The Nabataean’s lost control of Damascus when Pompey’s army finally put an end to the Selucid dynasty, but it was clear they never forgot its importance.
With Roman control of Judea and Syria we encounter one of the key figures in this dramatic story who was just a child when Judea was conquered by Rome. His father was Antipater the Idumaean who had been placed in charge of Judea by Pompey. He had then given Galilee to his son Herod. The shifting politics of the middle east were in great flux in that time.
In 40 BCE the Parthians attacked Jerusalem and Herod fled to Rome, where he was a friend of Anthony. The senate named Herod King of the Jews, and provided him an army as the Romans wanted to maintain control over Judea. Three years later, at the age of 37, Herod was the unquestioned ruler of the land.
The assassination of Julius Caesar took place shortly after Herod was named King of Judea. In Rome a civil war was about to erupt primarily pitting Mark Anthony against the adopted son of Julius Caesar, whose name was Octavian. The eruption of that civil war (lasting about ten years) involved the armies of Anthony and Octavian. No one in power anywhere in the Roman Empire could remain neutral. Herod sided with Anthony because he owed his title to Anthony. It was the wrong side to choose, but ultimately not fatal to him.
Octavian defeated Anthony putting an end to the civil war that divided Rome. Anthony committed suicide in Egypt in 30 BCE. We can’t forget that Anthony had a son by Cleopatra, an affair deeply disturbing to most people in Rome. Would her son, an Egyptian come to rule Rome? With Anthony gone Cleopatra knew all was lost. She died by her own hand with the help of a poisonous snake, or so the story goes.
Having backed Anthony the future for Herod was in doubt, but he was skillful as a diplomat, and ready to switch sides. Herod won favor with Octavian. He even received as a gift 400 Galatian soldiers who had formerly protected Cleopatra. [Josephus, Anitquities, AJ, XV, 217] He remained King of the Jews.
We know Herod, especially from Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus as the ruler who was terribly suspicious and afraid for the child born in Bethlehem when the Magi visited him. (Matthew 2:1-1) There’s no secondary confirmation for that story from another source but the historical record is that Herod’s entire reign was ugly and oppressive. Few were sorry to see him die—even though they had to wait a very long time.
Herod’s rule was remembered for its harsh brutality and onerous taxes. Though he claimed to be a Jew they also knew about the many ways he violated Jewish customs and laws. He may have called himself “King of the Jews,” but he never held the affection of many Jews, whether in Jerusalem or Judea. Upon his death in 4 CE, there were riots throughout the land along with many voices crying out for freedom from Roman rule. The next 70 years were marked by this unrest—rebellious actions and voices that finally brought the might of Rome to destroy Jerusalem and its sacred temple in 70 CE.
Emperor Augustus (formerly Octavain) followed the directions in Herod’s will that his three sons would rule over different parts of the Jewish kingdom. Herod Archelaus ruled over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Because of his incompetence his rule didn’t last long. Augustus replaced him with a Roman prefect—an appointed Roman official, namely Pilate. Another son of Herod was Philip who became tetrarch over the territories to the east of the Jordon River and he had control over Damascus.
It is the third son that concerns us. His name was Herod Antipas. He was tetrarch of Galillee. It may not have seemed a significant piece of territory, but it was along the major trade routes which extended up to Damascus. (Southern Syria in our maps today.) Roman armies were stationed in Syria, Judea, Gallilee, and just to the east in parts of modern day Jordon.
To the south was the Nabataean kingdom ruled at this time by King Aretas IV. Their caravans still traveled with goods through the inhospitable desert of the Arabian peninsula, most likely stopping in Madain Saleh and then Petra on their way north to Damascus always passing through Galilee over which Herod Antipas ruled.
The peaceful King Aretas IV was a wise and skillful diplomat who wasn’t above allowing an arranged marriage to preserve the all important trade routes that his caravans traveled. Most likely during the second decade of the first century King Aretas IV permitted his daughter Phasaelis to marry Herod Antipas. Marrying his daughter to Herod Antipas provided a diplomatically valuable tie for the Nabataean caravans to travel north safely. But the marriage didn’t last, and the diplomatic ties were severed. This is where John the Baptist comes into the story.
The daughter of King Aretas IV would unfortunately only be the first wife of Antipas. The details around his second marriage are equal to any of the tales being told in today’s tabloids. We can thank Josephus and the Gospel accounts in Mark, Matthew and Luke for this part of the story. (Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9) Josephus, in particular, seemed to relish the telling of what eventually was the downfall of Antipas. We need to begin with the failure of the marriage to the daughter of Aretas IV. It happened around the year 27 BCE. The account that follows came from Josephus.
About this time Aretas [the king of Arabia Petres] and Herod had a quarrel on the account following: Herod the tetrarch had, married the daughter of Aretas, and had lived with her a great while; but when he was once at Rome, he lodged with Herod, who was his brother indeed, but not by the same mother; for this Herod was the son of the high priest Sireoh’s daughter. However, he fell in love with Herodias, this last Herod’s wife, who was the daughter of Aristobulus their brother, and the sister of Agrippa the Great. This man ventured to talk to her about a marriage between them; which address, when she admitted, an agreement was made for her to change her habitation, and come to him as soon as he should return from Rome: one stipulation of this proposed marriage was that he should divorce Aretas’s daughter. [Antiquities, AJ, 18.109-112]
Word of the intentions of Antipas to divorce Phaeselis came to her while Antipas was still in Rome. To stay in Judea would give Antipas opportunity to have her murdered. In the words of Campbell, “…she was the unfortunate party thrown over so that Antipas could marry Herodias…” [Campbell, An Anchor for Paul’s Chronology, p. 288] Several generals, supposedly, connected to Aretas helped her escape back to the safe custody of her father in Petra. He was understandably incensed at this turn of events, which from any middle-eastern point of view was considered outrageous and immoral—it was a matter of honor as well. He would have to strike back, but would wait for the right opportunity to enact revenge. Aretas threatened to go to war and resolved to seek the defeat of Antipas, but waited for the optimal time to avenge this public insult. Bowersock says that Aretas was “enraged.” [Bowersock. P. 65]
We can presume that Aretas never met John the Baptist, but he most likely heard about this prophet who had dared to expose Antipas. He probably didn’t care that the prophet was decapitated, but he had to be pleased that Antipas had been publicly embarrassed by him. It was the kind of accusation Antipas had to take seriously as it could lead to more unrest among a people easily motivated to rebel. It is generally presumed that John the Baptist was imprisoned in 27ce and murdered the following year..
Death always plays such a critical role in this narrative. Two deaths occurred which gave Aretas a window of opportunity to strike against Antipas. The first death took place in 33ce when the appointed governor of Syria (which included Damascus) died. Then, a year later, Philip, Tetrach of the Decapolis died. This was the moment Aretas choose for his revenge. It would be another year before Rome would send A. Vittellius to govern Syria, but when Vittellius arrived from Rome he choose to take up residence in Antioch, and not Damascus.
Aretas went to war with Antipas in late 36ce and won a stunning victory. Vitellius, the Roman General, who had taken his Roman armies from Antioch was watching from further to the East (the Euphrates region) and didn’t intervene. Campbell said that Vitellius, “…was personally affronted by Antipas and hence doubtless delighted to see him humiliated.” [Campbell, Anchor for Pauline Chronology, p. 294] The people of Galilee were also thrilled to see him defeated.
This conflict involved far more than issues of family honor, as there seemed to be some “naked territorial ambitions” [Campbell, Anchor, p. 289] at work in this as well. For a brief time following his victory Aretas controlled Damascus. Once more the Nabataeans controlled all of the overland junctions from the southern Arabian peninsular all the way to the treasured northernmost city. It all had to do with trade and tariffs. The Nabataeans, now more urban and settled in their life style, probably also treasured the agricultural opportunities near Damascus. But it wouldn’t last.
The Emperor Tiberius died in 37CE shortly after Antipas had been defeated. Things changed quickly for the Nabataean control of Damascus and the surrounding territory. The new emperor Gaius gave to his friend Agrippa the territory around Judea up to Syria. Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great and had been educated in Rome. Even though the details in the history of this event are sketchy at best, it seems that Aretas simply withdrew his forces from Syria and Damascus, rather than risk a war with a Roman army sent to defeat him. He probably left in the Spring of 37.
We can now see Paul’s place in this story. He was probably already living in Damascus during that brief interlude when Aretas and the Nabataeans took control of this important city. Most likely they governed the city, and perhaps the adjacent territory called the Decapolis for the later part of 36ce. The window of time we are discussing might even have been as small as six months.
The significant difference between the two stories of Paul’s escape from Damascus regards the matter of who wanted to arrest him. The account in Acts accused “the Jews” of seeking to kill or arrest Paul, but Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:32, said it was the Nabataean ethnarch of Damascus seeking his arrest. Paul did not tell us when this happened, but in this single verse, we find the clue need to date Paul in one year in the first century.
In Galatians Paul reported that he returned from Arabia and settled in Damascus. (Gal. 1:17) Paul’s trip to Arabia wasn’t that of a tourist, for he lived there long enough that to become a marked man there! The mystery becomes a little deeper.
Why Did the Nabataeans Want to Arrest Paul?
As we put the pieces of this puzzle together we need to remember Paul’s story of God’s call to him was to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.
But 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. (Gal. 1:15-17)
There is so much we don’t know about Paul, but there are clues in what he did tell us. His revelation led him to travel—“I went away at once”—and he became a missionary whose “eyes were on the distant frontier beyond which the gospel had not yet penetrated.” [Knox, Chapters in a Life, p. 89] He didn’t have a crystal ball to see into the future, but he certainly had a powerful “revelation” (apocalypse in Greek) which gave him a passport to become the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul spoke of this call as the time God “was pleased to reveal (apocalypse) his Son to me.” That had come unexpectedly out of the blue. Paul connected that event to a new purpose and direction which shaped the rest of his life. The quote of McIntyre, at the beginning of this chapter, about the unpredictable events that have a teleological character to them seems to encapsulate Paul’s story.
We are left with a question about the length of time that Paul was in Arabia. In the brief passage from Galatians he said “afterwards I returned to Damascus.” It is the next verse that is intriguing. “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.” Even though Paul mentions a three-year span of time following God’s revelation we can only guess at the amount of time Paul spent in Arabia. What is probable is that Paul was waiting on purpose for the right time to visit Jerusalem where he was sure to encounter one or more of the disciples of Jesus.
Even Acts acknowledges that such a visit would be questioned by the disciples. Acts framed Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem happening shortly after his conversion on the road to Damascus. According to Acts 9 Paul was preaching and stirring up trouble in the synagogues of Damascus within days of meeting Jesus. Acts even says “Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22) Acts then describes Paul in Jerusalem, but emphasizes the lack of hospitality. Paul was unable to meet with the disciples who “were all afraid of him.” How different Paul’s account is with the added detail that he stayed in Peter’s house and also visited with James, the Lord’s brother. (Gal. 1;18-19)
The differences between Paul’s accounts of these events and the way they were framed in Acts continue to muddy the waters of this story, but only if we start to think that the author of Acts knew more than Paul did. When Paul said that he went to Jerusalem after three years, what he failed to mention (in Galatians) was that he left Damascus in a basket as he escaped arrest. What he told the Corinthians about his escape, which included the mention of King Aretas, offered the clue for the year in which this happened. What he didn’t tell the Corinthians was that he headed off for a short visit with Peter in Jerusalem. The pieces of this puzzle really fit together. Like any storyteller Paul only shared various facts that were relevant to the particular point he was trying to make. His letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians had few similarities and thus we have to allow for some of these differences to exist.
A few scholars have wondered about Paul’s reference to the three year period which began his ministry. The New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyns noted that Paul “,…speaks of a retreat from human community.” [Martyn, Galatians, p. 159] Martyn called it the “motif of the loner” already mentioned in reference to the gospel that he received which didn’t come from a human source. (Ga. 1:12) If Paul really was retreating from human community, then why would he go to Arabia? Martyn makes no reference in his commentary about this detail, but it is a matter we need to consider. At the same time it is hard to imagine Paul as a “loner.”
Another commentary on Galatians also mentions that Arabia symbolized a kind of retreat for Paul, allowing him time for meditation and preparation for a life of missionary activity. [Cousar, Galatians, p. 27] I remember one preacher suggesting that Paul went to seminary in Arabia, so that for a few years no one would hear from him or about him. That’s all pure speculation as seminaries didn’t exist then.
We can only speculate about what really happened with Paul in Arabia. As one scholar notes all we really have to work with regarding his time in Arabia is Paul’s silence. [Betz, Galatians, p. 74]. Even so he was there long enough to get noticed. He said or did things that brought him to the attention of the ruling authorities who were prepared to arrest him when they controlled Damascus. I agree with Hengel that Paul’s stay in Arabia may have consumed more of those three years simply because “…missionary activity takes time.” [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, p. 65] It also takes time for a community to be formed and develop a common life. If only we had a letter from Paul back to the community of Jesus Messiah people in Petra!
One thing quite clear about Paul’s ministry is that there were few neutral observers. His co-workers were faithful and very supportive, but there were others who had strong disagreements with him. He also didn’t end up in prison, later in his ministry, for example, because he was caught jay-walking in Ephesus. He even started out by persecuting the Jesus Messiah people seeking their arrest. Paul was no milk-toast kind of person. Is it not conceivable that he went to Arabia and there offended some people by his preaching about Jesus Messiah? Something happened that made him a marked man, a designation still in effect when the Nabataeans took control of Damascus.
Paul’s Ministry in Arabia
Most of Paul’s ministry would take him toward the west, but his choice of Arabia stands out because he traveled south to find the Kingdom of the Nabataeans. It is important to note they were the Judea’s closest neighbors speaking a semitic language (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic). He certainly had to know there would be some Jewish synagogues there. According to Jospehus there wasn’t “…a single nation to which our customs have not spread.” [Ehrensberger, Paul at the Crossroads of Culture, p. 127] There are some other details specifically about the Nabataeans that may have made it easier for Paul to share his message about Jesus the Messiah.
While they spoke an Arab dialect it is reported that they corresponded in Aramaic. [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, 49] What’s critical to this analysis is that they honored Abraham and practiced circumcision. There was also a treasured holy mountain in their kingdom which Paul identified when discussing the heirs of Abraham in Galatians. Paul mentioned that Hagar came from Mount Sinai in Arabia. (Gal. 4.24-25; Paul’s second mention of Arabia in this letter.) Paul, the Jew, didn’t locate Mount Sinai in southern Egypt, its traditional location, but in Arabia. Near to Paul’s identification of this mountain was the Nabatean city Hegra, a name connecting it to Hagar in the Abraham story.
By coming to Arabia Paul did not have to learn a totally new language. Hengel insisted that Paul would have found synagogues in Petra and Hegra, though none have been discovered. [Hengel, 59] Typically there were gentiles called “God-fearers” who attended synagogues as well.
Even though Paul’s letters come much later I would be surprised if Paul said it took him a long time to figure out his message about Jesus. It seems that from the very beginning he had a specific missionary strategy. There was Paul’s comment in Romans 15:20 that his plan had always been to preach the gospel where no one else had been. By his own admission, until his call, he had been persecuting followers of Jesus. Maybe he knew that none of those Jesus people were living in Arabia, but they clearly were to be found in Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, and Damascus.
Another clue worth considering with regard to the Nabataeans is the importance that Abraham played in Paul’s understanding of his mission to the gentile world. It almost seems as if Paul decided to follow Abraham with his new life in Christ. “Like Abraham, God’s call of Paul resulted in his living an itinerant life among people who were not his kin.” [Eisenbaum, Paul was not a Christian, p. 174] We know from Galatians and Romans that Paul used the story of Abraham as the frame that placed all gentiles inside of God’s story.
Hengel noted other factors that made Paul’s first missionary journey possible. First of all he wasn’t married with a family to support. There has been much speculation about this aspect of Paul, and it will be considered in more detail with the discussion of his relationship with women. There are scholars who deny that Paul was able to speak Aramaic but Hengel is certain that he could. Paul nearly always called Peter by his Aramaic name “Cephas” and expected Jesus people to know a few Aramaic terms like “Abba” and “Maranatha.” That Paul also went to Syria, where there were some Aramaic communities, adds to this possibility. Lastly he had a trade and could support himself. More importantly that trade may have been his entry into relationships with others engaged in the same work wherever he went. Concerning Paul’s relationship with the Jesus community in Thessalonica, Ascouth believes that “…Paul and the Thessalonians worked at the same trade or trades within the same general area.” [Ascouth, Paul’s Macedonian Associations, p. 174]
The similarity of Paul’s ministry in Thessalonians and his first community in Arabia may have been that both experienced persecution. It’s clear that was the case in Thessalonica because we have Paul’s letter. We can only wonder what happened for Paul to be remembered by the Nabataean authorities, but clearly he’d caused some kind of trouble.
What is hard for us to conceive when we have the freedom to practice our faith as we choose is the contrast with the first followers of Jesus. They were carving out their common life of faith in contrast to the norms of cultic devotion that defined life in the Roman empire. If they were Jews who believed in Jesus Messiah, it meant being a particular sect within first century Judaism. At least as Jews they had some rights to practice their faith under some permissive Roman laws allowing them a degree of religious freedom. That wasn’t the case for the gentile followers of Jesus.
In reference to Paul’s letter to the Philippians the scholar Pheme Perkins reminds us that conversion meant withdrawing from participation in the public events of the imperial cult. It meant that “….they would easily be suspected of subversive activity.” [Perkins, “The Theology of Philippians,” Pauline Theology Vol. 1, p. 93]
We can never know exactly what Paul was preaching when he was in Arabia, but his other letters let us see the clarity of his message. A Jewish messiah had been crucified, raised from the dead, and would return to judge the world. In Arabia he might have said “…so you see, those who believe are descendants of Abraham”. (Gal. 3:7) That seems likely. It was part of Paul’s message as he envisioned communities shattering the barriers that kept people apart from each other. Such mixed communities (Jew and Arab united in Jesus?) may have seemed to King Aretas IV to mark Paul as a “dangerous political enthusiast.” [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, p. 65] Hengel thought that King Aretas may have notified his ethnarch to seek Paul’s arrest: “…the ambitious and suspicious ruler eventually became alert to the unpleasant workings of this strange messianic Jew and notified his ethnarch in Damascus to capture this notorious troublemaker.” [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, p.53.]
Whenever Paul left Arabia and journeyed back north, eventually arriving in Damascus, his reputation went with him. Little could Paul know that the Nabataean army would follow him. Based on his original revelation Paul had to know that there were Jesus people in Damascus. He probably returned to them sometime prior to the arrival of the army of King Aretas IV.
Paul had to be surprised to wake up one morning and see Nabataen soldiers guarding the city. He thought he was safe, but knew of the trouble he would find if he ever returned to Arabia, but now the Nabataeans had come to him. In Paul’s own words their intention was to “seize me.” (2 Cor. 11:33). He just didn’t make a very bold, courageous or glamorous escape.
A Possible Chronology for Paul
This discussion has been based on my research reading the Pauline scholars who have studied Paul’s place in history. John Knox did the seminal work on this topic with publications starting in 1936. Thirty one years later he published a revision of his earlier book Chapters in a Life of Paul. Important work on this topic was done by Gerd Luedemann in Paul. Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology (1984). Two more recent, and most helpful books are New Chapters in the Life of Paul: The Relative Chronology of His Career (2006) by Gregory Tatum and Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography (2014) by Douglas Campbell.
Unlike envelopes stamped with a date by the post office, or the date we place at the top of a letter, none of Paul’s letters have a certifiable date. With a clue to follow from 2 Corinthians and with the help of various Biblical scholars along with those studying ancient history prior to Christ, we are able to place Paul in Damascus sometime around late 36 CE or maybe early in 37 CE.
What amazed me is that Paul was called to know Jesus as Messiah within a few years of the crucifixion. There is another problem, however. Scholars are not certain about the year in which Jesus was crucified. The suggested probable, but not provable dates are either 27 or 30 c.e. If we take the latter as the date (which is just a guess) Paul’s commission to preach Jesus as Messiah came perhaps within three years of the crucifixion. Even if we can’t be certain about the date, we know Paul spent time with his disciples. What follows is a rough chronology that combines the work of a few scholars.
Prior to 34 CE: Paul’s previous life as a Pharisee
Early/mid 34 Apostolic commission
Early 34- mid 36 Activity in the region of Damascus
Activity in “Arabia”
Return to Damascus
Late 36 Escape from Damascus
First visit to Jerusalem, 2.x years after commission
37: Activity in Syria and Cilicia
…second visit to Corinth…
39 “Paul’s independent mission in Europe: Philippi, Thessalonica”
41 “Edict of Claudius concerning the Jews”
Paul in Corinth: 1 Thessalonians
Late 49/early 50 Antioch incident
Second visit to Jerusalem, 13.x years after first
Late 50: [Previous Letter to Corinth]/ activity in Asia
51 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians
Third visit to Corinth
[Previous letter to Philippi], Galatians, Philippians
Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians
Third visit to Jerusalem
This is only a suggested chronology based on the work of Knox and Campbell. I have taken the liberty of including 10 letters that Paul wrote, but that matter is contested within the academy of Pauline scholars. (This is discussed in “Paul the Letter Writer,” Chapter 7)
This chronology depends on this rather long and convoluted story I’ve told. Our focus was on King Aretas IV, the Nabotaean king, who held the territory of Damascus for a very short time. It is a provable date. The rest of the dates in the chronology above rely on the autobiographical comments in Paul’s letters, and the various statements about previous letters, as well as past and potential visits that can be discovered in the letters themselves. At no point does this frame for Paul’s ministry rely on Acts, except for its mention of the basket used for the escape.
A Smelly Basket
Finally, what about that basket? It had to have been well-constructed and sturdy enough to hold a grown man. It most likely had some large handles from which ropes were attached. Maybe three or four of Paul’s friends came to help him. We can only speculate, but it’s possible one of them said to the others. “At least he’s not a big man. I think he’ll fit in the basket. Let’s hope the basket or the handles don’t break.” The handles didn’t break because Paul survived. But what kind of basket was it?
The two accounts differ with regard to the words used for “basket.” In Acts the Greek word is spuris (Acts. 9:25) which was a round basket used “…for storing grain or provisions.” [Zodhiates, ed. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, p. 1308]. Paul in Corinthians used a different word for the basket: sargánē. It’s means “fish basket.” “The σαργάνη [sargánē.] was a plaited or braided basket, primarily used for fish. Fish names were popular in comedy and mime, especially as terms of abuse.” [Welborn: The Runaway Paul, p. 158] Paul might have been telling the Corinthians, “I can still smell that basket to this day.”
Based on Paul’s account in Galatians when he left Damascus, and it most likely was in that basket, he headed off for a fifteen day visit with Peter in Jerusalem. I can imagine Paul telling him about the basket, the sargánē, and Peter saying, “Just like we used in the Sea of Galillee, when Jesus called us to follow him! I will never forget that smell, either.”
What is left unsaid, but which had to be apparent to the Corinthian followers of Jesus who read this letter of Paul were the contrasting images and impressions of this apostle. The one who had preached so boldly of his faith in Jesus seemingly lost his nerve and left Damascus in an inglorious almost shameful way. Crunched up in a fish-smelling basket in the dead of night he was lowered down to the ground, and ran away toward Jerusalem. Why would he even admit to such a cowardly escape into the darkness of that night? He had to know that in telling this story to the Corinthian community that some would be laughing at this picture of a St. Paul who smelled like dead fish.
That basket story isn’t the only picture we have of Paul as a failure, though. He often talked about his weaknesses and clearly admitted that there was “something laughable in him.” [Welborn, Fool for Christ, p. 110] This is the Paul who said that he bore in his body the marks of the cross. In this one snippet of a larger story he admitted to being afraid and having run away from an arrest. It seems so unmanly and about as far away as you can get from a man who proudly stands his own ground and fights for what he believes is right. But the picture of weakness, which Paul saw in his own mirror, is what allowed him to stay faithful to Jesus. It’s just as much a challenge to us to accept this truth about Paul, as it was for those to whom he was writing, which will be come clearer in the chapter on Paul as a fool.
Footnotes to Chapter 1 “PAUL IN ARABIA”
 A curious detail, but not one central to this argument, is that Antipater was married to Doris, a Nabataean. [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, 48]
 The Battle of Actium in 31bce, a naval engagement, was the decisive battle in which Octavian defeated Anthony, and became Emperor over all the Roman Empire.
 In some historical accounts he is known as Herod the Tetrarch
 Note that in this account by Josephus his reference to Herod, is to Herod Antipas, son of King Herod