Paul among the Nabateans


According to conventional wisdom, Paul spent three years in the solitude of Arabia between his conversion and visiting Jerusalem.

It’s assumed he spent the time in prayer and study preparing for his future ministry.

There’s no evidence Paul spent the three years in quiet contemplation. We just assume he did.

Here’s what we do know, according to Eckhard Schnabel and Martin Hengel and FF Bruce:

1. Paul’s missionary work began in Damascus immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:19-22).

He proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues as the Son of God and promised Messiah.

The opposition stirred up by Paul’s missionary work is an indication that his preaching was successful and resulted in a good number of Jewish believers in Jesus.

2. Paul went to Arabia to continue his missionary work in obedience to God’s call (Gal 1:15-17).

Arabia (in the region of modern Jordan) was not just desert, but also a flourishing civilization made up of cities, sea ports and cultivated land.

In the cities of Nabatean kingdom, south of Damascus, there were synagogues that Paul could have used as an entry point.

Paul’s conversion was also his calling to mission. He didn’t suddenly become a missionary years after his conversion. Paul met the risen Christ. He was commanded to preach the gospel and go to the Gentiles. Three years of solitude in the desert does not fit.

Luke never says Paul went “into the desert,” as John the Baptist and Jesus had done. Luke says he went “into Arabia” where there was both desert and civilization.

Paul relates his Arabian visit closely with his call to preach Christ among the Gentiles (Gal 1:15-17). The point he is making to the Galatians is that he began to discharge this call before he went up to Jerusalem to see the apostles. Therefore none could say it was they or any human authority who commissioned him as an apostle to the Gentiles.

When his mission was complete in Arabia Paul returned to Damascus where the representative of King Aretas of the Nabateans sought to have Paul arrested (2 Cor 11:32-33). Why would Nabateans take action against Paul if all he had been doing in Arabia was prayerful contemplation?

Paul’s mission in Arabia had stirred up trouble.

3. Therefore Paul’s missionary career began immediately he was converted.

By the time Paul and Barnabas set off on what we call their “first missionary journey” (Acts 13) they were already seasoned missionaries who had seen both Jews and Gentiles come to faith, and churches established.

Why is this important? Missionary movements mobilize new disciples, like Paul, immediately for evangelism and church planting. They are action oriented. Their leaders learn their theology on their feet.


  1. Posted 14 June, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Steve. It’s hard to imagine Paul sitting idly. I suppose it’s the details of these kinds of events we’ll discover in eternity.

  2. Posted 11 August, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this Steve. I thought to look this subject up online and found your blog. I think it’s a key point to make though not brought up often at all.

    We have the assumption many times that a man called of God must go through a waiting period before he begins any type of ministry. But I too believed Paul was instantly obedient.

    Of course, like us all he continued to grow in grace and revelation and went from glory to glory and faith to faith, but I don’t believe he simply sat and reflected for 14-15 years!

    Yes, we learn theology on our feet. I believe the death of a movement can come through too much reflection and systematic theology without corresponding action on what we already know.

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