I promised to post this a bit earlier in the week. I recently received a copy of Eckhard J. Schnabel, The Missionary Work of Paul (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2008)which as a good section on Paul’s Arabian period (pages 60-64). I cannot recommend this text enough. It is a slimmed down version of Schnabel’s epic 2-volume Early Christian Mission, if one can consider a 500 page book “slimmed.” For this period in Paul’s career, see also Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Paul in Arabia,” CBQ 55 (1993): 732-737 and Hengel and Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch.
After the initial ministry in Damascus, Paul spends a period of time in Arabia. The location of these three years is not modern Saudi Arabia, but rather Syrian Arabia (Edom and Moab), likely within the Nabatean kingdom of Aretas IV. It is possible that the ministry in Arabia is not limited to Arabia, but rather that Paul used Damascus as a base of operations for ministry in Arabia over the three year period. Aretas IV wanted to arrest Paul according to 2 Cor 11:32-33, compare Acts 9:23-25. We know Aretas IV ruled Nabatea from 9 B.C. until A.D. 40.
Nabateans were believed to be descended from Ishmael, while the Idumeans were descended from Esau. The Idumeans were forcibly converted in the late second century by John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean king of Judea. Herod the Great’s mother was a Nabatean princess (Kypros), and Herod Antipas married the daughter of Aretas IV (Syllaios). This was the woman he divorced in order to marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. This marriage was condemned by John the Baptist (leading to his death) and lead to tensions between the Nabatean kingdom and Judea in the mid-thirties. Aretas and Herod Antipas in fact met in battle, Aretas was victorious.
Schnabel has an excellent map of the Nabatean kingdom (62). The northern limit is just short of Damascus and included the ten cities of the Decaopolis all of the territory on the east of the Dead Sea, and included the Sinai Peninsula. Aretas’ territory covered the north-east portion of the modern Saudi Arabian peninsula. Paul’s ministry likely was to the most northern portion of this region, the modern country of Jordan. For details on the Nabatean / Judean conflicts, see Josephus, War, 1.181; Antiquities 14.7.3 (121) 15.6.5 (184); on Salome see 16.7.6 (220).
Paul must have engaged in gentile ministry at this time since he states in Ga. 1:15-17 that he was obedient to the calling of God to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. This ministry must date to about A.D. 32/33, a time when Jew-Nabatean tensions were at their height. It is little wonder that Aretas IV sought to arrest Paul. His ministry would be seen as trying to win Nabateans to a Jewish religious sect