“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:15-17 ESV)
(1) The “extended solitary reflection” scenario Perhaps, like me, you’ve read suggestions that Paul retreated into sort of a secluded retreat into Arabia for some time to consider the mind-bending, life-altering implications of his new understanding of Jesus after his conversion. Indeed, such a view was apparently once commonly held, and perhaps still is in popular teaching and preaching: “It is commonly thought that Paul went to Arabia for solitary communion with God and reflection on his position in the light of the new revelation.” (Fung, Epistle to the Galatians, 68-69) Such an understanding might be derived from the KJV rendering in Gal 1:16-17 that after Paul was called, “immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood . . . but I went into Arabia.” This wording might been seen to imply that as opposed to “conferring” with “flesh and blood” Paul “conferred” with God in the wilderness instead. Frederic William Farrar, writing in 1879, suggests,
“. . . nothing can seem more natural than that St. Paul, possibly already something of a fugitive, almost certainly a sufferer in health and mind, driven by an imperious instinct to seek for solitude, should have turned his lonely steps to a region where he would at once be safe, and unburdened, and alone with God.” (The Life and Work of St. Paul, vol. 1, 710)
A well-known older commentary on Galatians by Ernest De Witt Burton suggests,
“The only natural, almost the only possible, implication [of the phrase ‘conferred not with flesh and blood’] is that he sought communion with God, a thought sufficiently indicated on the one side by the antithesis of ‘flesh and blood’ and on the other by the mention of the relatively desert land to which he went.” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, 55)
More recently, and with a related though not identical approach, N. T. Wright suggests parallels between Paul and Elijah in violent “zeal”, and understands Paul’s retreat to Arabia (which equals Sinai for Wright, based on Gal 4:25) in terms of Elijah’s discouraged flight to Horeb (= Sinai) in 1 Ki 19:8. “Saul certainly did not go to Arabia in order to evangelize. He might have been doing what a puzzled zealous prophet might be expected to do: going back to the source to resign the commission.” (“Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17),” Journal of Biblical Literature 115 , 687; see critique in Witherington, Grace in Galatia, 101-102).
(2) The “missionary work” scenario In reading through a recent work on Paul as a missionary, therefore, I was surprised to see how matter-of-factly this notion is dismissed:
Paul did not go to Arabia to work through the theological and practical consequences of his conversion. He went to Arabia in order to engage in missionary work. (Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, 60)
Not that I had a strong attachment to the “extended solitary reflection” scenario! But I hadn’t given it much thought, and it appears that majority scholarly opinion is decidedly against it, and has been for some time. In this connection, there is a geographical question as to the referent of “Arabia” (Sinai? desert wilderness? the populous Hellenistic cities of the northern region?), and a chronological question about how the “three years” (in Arabia and Damascus) of Gal 1:18 jibes with the narrative of Acts 9:19ff where no mention is made of time in Arabia. As to the latter question, Schnabel places Paul’s mission work in Arabia after a period of initial preaching in Damascus. As to the former question, Schnabel identifies Arabia thus: “In Roman and in Jewish terminology, Arabia (Nabatea) was the region to the south of the Roman province of Syria; it included Moab and Edom and extended from the Hauran Mountains in the north to the regions east and west of the Gulf of Aqaba” (60). More to the point, “Arabia was not only a desert but a flourishing civilization, particularly in northern Nabatea” (63). It included a good number of cities within easy striking distance of the eastern frontier of Judea, south of Damascus, in the region of the modern state of Jordan.
Schnabel suggests that the “missionary work” scenario is supported by the attempt on Paul’s life referenced in Acts 9:23-25 (highlighting the Jews of Damascus) and 2 Cor 11:32-33 (highlighting the governor of Damascus under King Aretas, the Nabatean king Aretas IV Philodemas). “The aggressive reaction of Nabatean officials who want to eliminate Paul suggests that people had been converted in noticeable numbers, provoking unrest in various cities that caused the intervention of the Nabatean king” (64-65).
Other works supporting the “missionary work” scenario include Schnabel’s longer treatment in Early Christian Mission (2004), 2:1032-45; Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Paul in Arabia,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55 (1993): 732-37; Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years (Westminster John Knox, 1997), 106-26; Martin Hengel, “Paul in Arabia,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.1 (2002): 47-66.