This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Luke's silence on Paul's illegal preaching in Arabia

I will argue here that Paul made converts in Arabia and got into trouble with the civil authorities there. I will show that this explains the strange omissions in Luke's account.

I propose the following:

Paul was converted/called on the road to Damascus. He visited the city, but soon left to preach in Arabia, where there were no other Christians. He made disciples but, having got into trouble with Aretas's administration, he returned to Damascus with some of those disciples. The Jews conspired with Aretas's governor to try to capture Paul, but he escaped with the help of his disciples.

Paul visited Jerusalem after his stay in Arabia and Damascus (Gal 1:15-18). Acts 9:26 tells us that the believers there doubted that his conversion was genuine. He cannot have preached for an extended period of time in Damascus or made converts there because the news of this would surely have reached the Jerusalem church via the Christian network, and they would not have doubted him. Therefore the converts that Luke mentions in Acts 9:25 must have been acquired by Paul in Arabia, not in Damascus. This is confirmed by the strange phrase, "his disciples". Converts in Damascus would have belonged the the church there and would not have been called "his disciples". I have benefited from Mark Goodacre's astute observations on this phrase but I disagree with his conclusions. The phrase makes perfect sense if these people were converted through Paul's solo preaching in Arabia. Gal 1:17 also supports the view that Paul had no Christian associates in Arabia, since Paul's purpose here is to explain that he had no opportunity to inherit his gospel from anyone.

We then have three silences to explain: Acts does not mention
  • the conversion of the "his disciples"
  • Paul's visit to Arabia
  • The role of the ethnarch of Aretas in the plot against Paul (2 Cor 11:32-33)
The simplest explanation is that Paul had got into trouble with the civil authorities in Arabia. It may well have been illegal to preach in Arabia, for this would explain why there was no existing church there. In any case Paul's trouble with the authorities in Arabia explains why Aretas's ethnarch wanted to seize him. It also explains Luke's silences. It is well known that Luke down-plays conflicts between the church and the civil authorities. While it is often assumed that Luke wanted to convert those who were loyal to the empire, I think his motive was different. He knew that his text could easily fall into the hands of the civil authorities, so he had to be careful not to write anything that could be cited as evidence that the Christians were trouble makers. In any case, Luke's silence about Paul's stay in Arabia, the conversions there, and the conflict with Aretas's ethnarch are fully to be expected if Paul's activity in Arabia had been deemed illegal.

It cannot be proved, but I suspect that Luke, and much of his intended audience, were fully aware of Paul's visit to Arabia and his conflict with the authorities there. This would certainly explain why Luke includes the phrase, "his disciples". The difficulties associated with the phrase disappear if Luke expected his audience to know about the controversial visit to Arabia.

Other similar silences in Acts
As I argued here, the Jews in Achaia, in collaboration with the Roman authorities, had Paul's collection declared illegal. This explains why Acts does not mention it.

By combining information from Acts and Paul's letters we can infer that Jason was a believer who got into trouble with the politarchs in Thessalonica, and that he persisted in his support of the church (probably after being forbidden from doing so). Luke, however, was understandably reluctant to spell this out. He was therefore silent about Jason being a believer, and he calls him by his other name, Aristarchus, when he mentions him subsequently (see here).

Similarly, Luke does not reveal (to informants) that Gallio had approved the beating of Crispus. Instead Luke uses Crispus's new name, "Sosthenes", thus baffling his unintended audience.


  1. Any thoughts on Luke's silence of Paul's preaching in Illyricum?

  2. Interesting question, Stephen. How extensive was Paul's preaching in Illyricum? The more extensive it was, the more problematic Luke's silence becomes. Also (on most chronologies) there cannot have been many months between Paul's arrival in Macedonia (mid summer?) and arrival in Greece (~January?) for his three month stay there. But if Paul's preaching in Illyricum was not extensive, it becomes harder to explain how he could say that he had no further place in the regions (Rom 15:23).

    Perhaps the authorities threw him out of Illyricum. This would explain Luke's silence, as well as Rom 15:23. Another possibility, of course, is that the people in Illyricum were unreceptive to Paul's message, but Luke does record Paul's relative failure in Athens.

  3. Well done. Stand up and take a bow. I never noticed "His disciples" before. OK back to work. Thanks, Larry Carmichael

  4. Thanks, Larry.

    I've just noticed an interesting paper on Arabia by Martin Hengel

    He writes:
    "according to contemporary opinion, not only Syria but also Arabia belonged to the promised land of Abraham and to King David's greater kingdom, and therefore to the coming Messianic kingdom." (p61)

    "A Jewish prophet of entirely new eschatological teachings about the crucified Messiah, who, risen from the dead, is about to return to establish his kingdom and sit in judgment, must have seemed like a dangerous political enthusiast to the king [Aretas], who was suspicious of Jewish claims to power" (p65).

    From this it seems that Aretas would have had good reason to make it illegal to preach about Jesus in Arabia.

  5. And his disciples took him by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem he attempted to join the disciples but they are all afraid of him for they did not believe he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists; but they were seeking to kill him. And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea and set him off to Tarsus. (Acts 9:25-30)

    And (Ananias) . . .said, The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; and you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now, why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name. When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, 'Make haste and get quickly out of Jerusalem, because they will not accept your testimony about me. And I said, 'Lord, they themselves know that in very synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in thee. And when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I also was standing by and approving, and keeping the garments of those who killed him.' And he said to me, 'Depart; for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.' (Acts 22:14-21)

    But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and I still was not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. (Galatians 1:15-23)

    My conclusion: Paul either had a very poor memory, was mentally ill, or lied about what he did in the weeks, months, and first few years after his conversion experience on the Damascus Road. Yet, Christians base their belief in the Resurrection, the pinnacle event of their faith, on this man's testimony, which in his own words, was a "heavenly vision" of a talking, bright light...along with the writings of four anonymous first century authors, writing decades after the alleged event, in a foreign language, in far away foreign lands, for purposes we do not and will never know.

    That isn't evidence, folks. That is speculation, superstition, and fantasy.