Adventures in Arabia: What Was Paul Doing in Galatians 1:17?

In Gal 1:11–17, Paul defended the divine origin of his gospel by recounting when and how he received it from Christ. Along the way, he stated that “he went away into Arabia” (Gal 1:17) but not what he did while he was there. A parallel passage for Galatians 1:17 is Acts 9:10–25, but Luke only tells us a bit of what happened to Paul in Damascus and mentions nothing of Arabia. Here are some suggestions as to what kept Paul busy in Arabia during this time.1

Option 1: Once a zealot for Judaism, the newly converted Paul went to Arabia to study the Scriptures to understand how Jesus was the Messiah and how his life in Judaism had been misguided.

Option 2: Building upon the suggestion above, maybe Paul went to Mount Sinai because he mentions it later as being in Arabia in Gal 4:25 in the midst of a discussion on the Law of Moses (cf. Gal 4:21–31).

Option 3: Wherever Paul stayed in Arabia, Christ personally revealed to him the gospel just as He had done so with the other apostles. If we see two distinct revelations in Gal 1:12 and 1:16―God revealing Jesus as the Christ to Paul (1:16; cf. Acts 9:3–9) and then Christ revealing the gospel to Paul (Gal 1:12)―then this revelation by Christ could have been during Paul’s stay in Arabia. The revelation in Gal 1:12 thus takes place in Arabia in Gal 1:17.2

Option 4: Rather than studying, Paul preached the gospel. This preaching could have been when “many days had passed” (Acts 9:23) between his preaching in Damascus (Acts 9:20–22) and escape from arrest in that city (Acts 9:23–25). If so, Paul preached in Damascus (Acts 9:20–22), continued to preach when he “went away into Arabia” (Gal 1:17), and then “returned again to Damascus” (Gal 1:17), only to flee from being arrested (Acts 9:23–25). Comparing Scripture to Scripture, Paul records this same escape in 2 Cor 11:32–33 and adds that it was overseen by the governor of Damascus who was carrying out the orders of the King Aretas who was, notably, king of Arabia. If the king of Arabia was seeking to arrest Paul in Damascus (2 Cor 11:32–33 with Acts 9:23–25), it was likely because Paul was preaching the gospel while in Arabia in Gal 1:17.

The last option seems best. It matches the timeline of Galatians 1 with Acts 9 and finds support in 2 Cor 11:32–33. Paul probably studied the Scriptures during this time just as he did later in life (cf. 2 Tim 4:13) and maybe even had one or more visions. We are not told one way or the other. But if Acts 9 and 2 Corinthians 11 give us any clues, his primary purpose seems to have been a trip to preach Christ until the threat of Aretas chased him back to Damascus.

  1. Options 1 and 2 are summarized as the views of others by Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 106–07, and Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians (ZENCT; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 102–03. Schreiner and Moo both suggest the last option in this post for the reasons that are given below. []
  2. Morris V. Klock, “Ten Appearances to Paul,” Central Bible Quarterly 18 (1975), 26–27. []

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