Why did Paul go to Arabia?

One of the more tantalizing aspects of Paul’s early ministry is his “three years in Arabia.” In Galatians 1:17, Paul claims he did not go to Jerusalem immediately, but rather he went to Arabia for a period of time before returning to Damascus. This period of time is not spent in modern Arabia (i.e. Saudi Arabia), but rather the Nabatean kingdom on the east side of the Jordan. As Robert Smith states, the term “Arab” “could be used as a virtual equivalent of ‘Nabatean’ (1 Macc 5:25, 39, 9:35, and 2 Macc 5:8)” (ABD, 1:326).

Jeresh, from Summer
of 2013

Paul gives us some details of these events in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33. While Luke indicates the Jews were plotting against him, 2 Corinthains adds an important fact: The local guard was looking out for him as well. He specifically mentions Aretas IV, the client-king over the Nabateans. During the reign of Aretas IV (9 B.C. – A.D. 39) Nabatean culture was at a high point. The king was responsible for the development of Petra and developed a number of cities along the Petra-Gaza trade route. He controlled territory as far north as Damascus and as far south as northern Arabia. To a certain extent, Aretas IV was the “Herod the Great” of the Nabatean kingdom. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After an initial confrontation with Jews in the synagogue in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in the Nabatean kingdom. This would have included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps even the modern site of Jeresh. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience on the road to Damascus.

But as James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.

Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys. But this period is not a monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.


34 thoughts on “Why did Paul go to Arabia?

  1. I have always found this reference intriguing. Here are some on-line resources on this subject: N.T. Wright, “Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17),” Journal of Biblical Literature 115.4 (Winter 1996): 683-692. [https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jbl/1996-4_683.pdf]; Martin Hengel “Paul in Arabia,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.1 (2002): 47-66. [https://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_2002a_04_Hengel_PaulInArabia.pdf]


    • I almost made reference to the Wright article, so I am glad you brought it up, and with links! Thanks.

      I do not remember reading the Hengel article, but I have read ( and enjoyed) several of his books on the early years of Paul, esp. Paul Between Damascus and Antioch.


  2. I think you’re right that Paul would have been preaching. But considering what he says and what Acts says about his ministry in Palestine after those years, I wonder how successfully. Acts seems to suggest that it was only after being sent home to Tarsus and then falling under Barnabas’s tutelage that Paul’s preaching became successful.


  3. Your premise is incorrect. Paul doesn’t say he stayed in Arabia 3 years. Look more closely at his wording in Gal.1:17-18: “…but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. THEN after three years I went up to Jerusalem…” The 3 years was after he’d returned to Jerusalem. We have no idea how long he was in Arabia (though it had to have been of short duration).


    • Damascus was in the Roman province of Arabia at the time, and the premise is he went to Arabia, the duration could be anything from a brief time up to three years (based on the three years later). The point of the post was “why Arabia?” Not how long…


    • Edward you make a good point!

      Does your research enable you to factually assign a year and month to the following events:

      1) the dating of the Stoning of Stephen
      2) the dating of the Conversion of Saul, thus the time duration between 1 and 2.
      3) after Saul departing Damascus for the 1st time, the amount of time away until Saul returned to Damascus for his 2nd known visit
      4) the dating of the arrival of Saul at Jerusalem for the 15 days

      Thank you


      • There are no dates for any of this. The stoning of Stephen is probably complete fiction. Paul never mentions t and he says he was completely unknown in Judea before he made his first trip there three years after his first hallucination (whatever that was). Paul never says anything about the road to Damascus either. That’s only in Acts (which has three different, contradictory versions).

        Acts is a fictive 2nd Century work with little or no genuine historicity.


      • The time in Arabia is Galatians 1:17, even the most skeptical scholar accepts Galatians as the authentic voice of Paul. 2 Corinthians 11:32 (another one of the core Pauline letters accepted by virtually all NT scholarship) indicates Paul was forced to flee Damascus, which was at that time in the Roman province of Arabia.

        In Galatians Paul claims to have persecuted the church zealously and violently, which is more or less what Acts 7-8 says about Paul. Paul has some sort of experience, something he calls a revelation (Gal 1:12), specifically a revelation of the son (Gal 1:16). Again, we are not far from Acts here.

        Seems like there is enough general agreement to keep one from using words like “complete fiction” (even if you did add probably). How about a “theologically motivated retelling of the story of the early church”? Most history in the first century was motivated by politically, so Acts is no different.


  4. Although Paul was converted in Acts 9 on the road to Damascus, his call happened at a later time. I never differentiated the two of these until reading through TTP, in which it makes it clear that Paul’s call likely occurred after his conversion (33). Perhaps, it could have been during these three years you have mentioned in which he was silent. It makes sense when thinking of how God calls us: normally, it seems that He makes His will known over a period of prayer and study of His word. Either way, as it says in Acts 9:15, Paul was certainly God’s chosen instrument.


  5. I agree with Adam. I believe that God used that time for Paul to be silent so that He could speak through Paul. I understand the want of knowing the exact time and date that Paul spent in Arabia, but the real point is that God chosen Paul for a certain reason. I find it interesting that Longenecker talks about how Paul could have been forced to leave Damascus, but we are not exactly sure why (35). He then returned after he got back from Arabia. So there are a lot of unanswered questions that Paul left behind. We should not be too far off the time line that Paul had during his journey.


  6. Sometimes God takes His time grooming the very difficult ministry of apostleship. It’s a selfless ministry strewn with hardship, persecution, loneliness and lack of resources – always having to rely on God for leading and guidance.
    The desert is a pretty wanton place and no better place to learn survival and develop an intimate relationship with Jesus.


  7. Paul was a man of the law. The message of grace could have been intriguing to him at first. I myself experienced that for a some time in my life as a Christian. Maybe Paul wanted to sought it out, just him and God. Especially the verse in Romans 7:9 where he says” Once I was alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. So I discovered that the very commandment that was meant to bring life actually brought death.”

    I kind of linked it to the fact that Barnabas who is called the Encourager sought after Paul in Tarsus and brought him back to Antioch with him. kind of like what happened to Apollos when he met Aquila-Priscilla — they were able to “give him a better understanding of the Way.”

    And later we see in Acts that Paul is the lead speaker in their 1st mission trip. So he finally had that figured out. But praise God for people like Barnabas.


  8. The clue might be in what has already been mentioned – trade routes!
    If Marcion, an alleged ship owner, had a hand in writing Galatians then it could be he was just on a business trip arranging shipment to the coast of goods arriving from the east. Nothing spiritual or mysterious is implied by the text.


    • This is a great observation, especially in his later travels in Acts, Paul often uses Roman roads linking cities. He may have simple worked the north-south trade route on the east side of the Jordan, the Roman province of Arabia.

      However, “If Marcion, an alleged ship owner, had a hand in writing Galatians” is not at all possible, since Galatians is universally accepted as a genuine Pauline letter and dated as early as the late AD 40s, usually no later than the mid 50s (depending on how one views the meaning of the address to the Galatians). At best, Marcion was born about AD 85, he died about AD 160.

      No way Marcion could “have a hand” in writing any NT book!


      • Can’t really say Bruno Bauer or Van Manen had much impact on subsequent (post Schweitzer) Pauline scholarship. Seems like Papyrus 46 would put to death any suggested date for Galatians in the mid-second century.


  9. Papyrology – 100 yrs between an early date and a late date. Choose your date according to your bias. Very inexact discipline and recognised as such even by those in the discipline.


  10. I have been teaching a class on 1 Kings. Recently, we came to the event with Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah’s message for Israel that day was to convince them that Yehweh is God and that happens to be what Elijah name means as well. Elijah leaves Jezreel in a hurry after Jezebel’s threatens to end his life. All this is going somewhere, a few more details and I will draw a parallel between Elijah and Paul after his conversion. In 1Kings 19, Elijah has traveled to Beersheba and begins to think there is nothing more for me to do, God just let me die. But the Lord gives him food and water for two days and he goes in the strength of that food for forty days to Mt. Sinai. Now in Acts 9:19, we read that Saul took food and was strengthened. He was with the disciples several days at Demascus and immediately proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God. This is where I think Saul left Demascus and went to Arabia. It is hard to determine the length of time he would have been there. But just as Elijah went there to receive a new purpose and mission for his life from God it seems that God might have moved Saul by the Holy Spirit to head to Arabia and Mt. Sinai to have his encounter with the Lord and to receive the ” surpassing greatness of the revelations” spoken of in 2 Cor. 12: 7. Nevertheless, we do know the apostle Paul fulfilled God’s purpose in preaching Jesus of Nazerath as the one and only Son of God . As an apostle, untimely born, your made to wonder if God devoted as much time with the risen Lord and Paul as He did with the other apostles , hence three years in Arabia. Acts 9: 16 also says, with the Lord speaking to Ananias about Saul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” This could have occurred in Arabia as well. When he returned he was well equipped and met every difficulty with the full assurance of faith while continuing to love the Jewish nation, Even willing to be lost eternally to save some.


    • It is possible, however the location of Mount Horeb in Saudi Arabia has yet to be proven. There at least three candidates for the location of Sinai, although two are in the Sinai peninsula. Paul may have visited the site as did Elijah, perhaps for similar reasons. But he did not present his “time in Arabia” that way, and there’s no evidence either way.


  11. I don’t think the details of the exact location of Mount Horeb are important. Where ever it was, it was in “Arabia” of Roman Times—that stretched from the easternmost branch of the Nile in the eastern Delta all the way to what we now call the “Persian/Arabia Gulf.” Thus, IMHO, a trip to Horeb is not out of the question.


  12. I feel Paul’s time in the desert could have been a training period. Remember Christ had spent 3 and a half years with the other Apostles and in that time they were trained and prepared for ministry. Paul also needed that. Later on Paul mentions how Christ had shown him the last supper. He could have been shown all this while in the desert.


  13. I have an old map which shows”desert of arabia” in what is now western Iraq. This was surely part of arabia in Paul’s day. Why not?


  14. First and foremost, it appears that there is an odd conflict in the timeline of Saul’s whereabouts after conversion are. Galatians states that Paul did not consult with anyone about his revelation, especially the apostles in Jerusalem. Rather he immediately went to Arabia and later returned to Damascus. This all took place for three years and then Paul went to Jerusalem and meet with Peter.

    However, Acts 9:19-22 gives a head scratching summary of what happened after Saul was converted. Verse 20 states, “Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days. And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying ‘He is indeed the Son of God’.” Later Scripture states that Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus could not refute his proofs that Jesus was the Messiah (v 22). After Scripture states this it says that some Jews plotted to kill him so Saul with the assistance of other believers was lowered in a basket through and opening in the city wall and headed to Jerusalem to try and meet with the believers there. After Barnabas’ persuasion of the genuineness of Saul’s faith they all went out and proclaimed the Gospel in Jerusalem.

    So I am rather stumped as to what the sequence was for Saul upon conversion. Using Galatians 1:17 He went to Arabia and returned to Damascus. There are two theories why Paul did this. One is that he went for extended prayer, meditation, and learning the Scriptures more so. The second is that Paul preached boldly in Damascus and Arabia. It is true that Arabia would have been the Nabatean kingdom which would seem to disqualify that Paul went to where the Law was initially given at Mt. Sinai. However, Galatians 4:25 would argue against this as Paul states that Mt Sinai is in Arabia. As you have stated it is very possible that Paul went to Arabia (Nabatean territory) and had this “retreat” but meanwhile preached the Gospel and went back to Damascus to preach the Gospel with fellow believers having spent three years in a sort of isolation. I think this is where Acts 9:19-23 comes into place concerning the timeline. It is worth noting that Acts 9:19 says after Paul regained his strength he stayed with the believers for a few days in Damascus and then He left. I believe verse 26 is perhaps a continuation not of the previous verses but what Paul had stated in Galatians 1:17 after his return to Damascus.

    As far as the “why” Paul went to Arabia I do truly believe it is both. I believe that in a way I cannot explain, he did go to Mt. Sinai for extended prayer and all the while proclaiming the Gospel during his three years. This operates as Paul’s “wilderness” season just as did Jesus was led by the Spirit to go into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan and afterwards came out in “the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).

    The New American Commentary states, “A visit to Mount Sinai, while not impossible, may be considered unlikely given its far distance from Damascus, Paul’s home base during his earliest days as a Christian”

    So the commentary goes hand in hand with what you have stated Dr. Long. However, I do not see why this information makes Mt. Sinai improbable due to the distance between Damascus and Arabia in Paul’s day.


  15. Every translation I have found of Galatians 1:17-18 reads that Paul went to Arabia and returned to Damascus and “Then after 3 years” went to Jerusalem. They all infer that he was in Damascus the additional 3 years. Not Arabia.


    • Damascus is a city, Arabia is a region.Similar to saying I was in Chicago for three years, or in Illinois for three years.

      I cite here Eckhard Schnabel’s Early Christian Mission, 2:1033, “Arabia understood as a geographical term, designates the Syrian desert between the valleys of the Jordon and the Orontes rivers and Mesopotamia and the adjacent peninsula to the south between the Red Sea in the west and the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean in the east.”

      More or less the Nabatean kingdom at the time of Paul’s conversion, Schnabel (and many many others) think Paul did some sort of ministry in Nabatea-Arabia (2:1035), and Damascus was “situated at the northern edge of Nabatea (2:1032).


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