City of Blood: St. Paul in Arabia — A Lenten/Desert Journey, Part 2

For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia —Galatians 4:25.  

In the Scriptures, the desert is the setting for purification, and the mountain is the site of revelation.  Moses led the Israelites through the desert to prepare them to receive the Law, which God handed down on Mount Sinai (Ex 20:1-17) amid peals of thunder and bolts of lightning.  The prophet Elijah, after forty days in the wilderness, heard the whole of creation speak to him in a whisper on Horeb, “the mountain of God.” [1]  In the New Testament, Jesus was transfigured before his apostles on Mount Tabor, where they saw the lawgiver and the prophet amid light and sound from heaven.  This is my beloved Son. Revelation happened again. 

The settings of mountain and desert are traceable throughout the entire Bible.  Most famous are the stories of Israel wandering in the desert and encamped at the base of Sinai.  As part of that tradition, Paul the Apostle underwent a period of purification during forty days in the desert his own revelation on Mount Sinai (see Gal 4:25) to prepare himself to evangelize the world.  As an apostle, or “one who is sent,” he stood apart from the Twelve, who had known Jesus personally before the Resurrection.  For Paul, newly christened, questions remained after the Damascus theophany—God appearing to him with light and sound—and he journeyed into the badlands of Arabia where he discerned the Spirit in a manner more focused and intense than was possible in the city. 

On his journey Paul proclaimed the word in the desert, on the highway, in the caravans, and in the markets of Bostra, Philadelphia, and Petra, where he sat each morning stitching together the black goat hair to fashion his tents, so in demand among the Arabians, nomadic people who populated the entirety of the Sinaitic peninsula.  Who could deny such a truth?  He needed to speak about it.  A recollection came to him from that day in the Sanhedrin chamber when the authorities hauled Peter and John before the court.  Peter had stood before them and said: “It is impossible for us not to speak of what we have seen and heard.”  To become like the other apostles, Paul needed to know what they knew, to receive the truth directly from the Master.   “The gospel preached by me is not of a human origin, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:11-12).   

Multiple dimensions exist in the search for clarity regarding Paul’s sojourn, interiorly and exteriorly.  In my search to understand who Paul was before and after Arabia, I consulted works by Anglican scholars, if only because there appears to be so little written about this mysterious period in Paul’s life.  “A veil of thick darkness, it has been said, hangs over Saint Paul’s visit to Arabia.” [2]  The Reverend George Rawlinson was a 19th-century Anglican canon of Canterbury, England and a professor of Ancient History at Camden University.  Rawlinson wrote a dissertation on Paul and Arabia.  He described and illustrated the external surroundings of the apostle, “from the day when he quitted Jerusalem armed with the High Priest’s mandate to the night when he was let down from the wall of Damascus in a basket.” [3] Rawlinson’s work centers on the terrain of the region and the details of what Paul heard and saw during his journey in the wilderness. 

We don’t know, say most of the commentators, why Paul went to Arabia, or what he did there.  We aren’t even sure which bit of ‘Arabia’ he visited.  Why Arabia?  Some think it was a time of solitary reflection, in preparation for the Gentile mission; others, that it was Paul’s attempt at Gentile evangelism. [4]

Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, a noted Scripture scholar, deals with the motivation that led Paul into Arabia.  According to Wright, Paul, well-versed in the Scriptures, was playing the part of the repudiated prophet, who “thought zealous for the law,” faced a paradigm shift after Christ revealed himself to Paul at Damascus.  Paul, says Wright, is “Elijah, the prophet of the earth.”  In the Bible nothing is arbitrary and times, dates, places, and people are important.  At his word Elijah shut up the sky for three years during which time no rain fell in the land (see 1 Kings 17:1-6).  Paul reports the length of time he spent in Damascus following his return from Arabia as “three years” (Gal 1:18).  And Jesus’s earthly ministry lasted three years.  Elijah on Mount Carmel put to death the Baal prophets and then fled to Mount Sinai to resign his commission as prophet (1 Kings 19:1ff) only God talked him out of it and gave him another directive: “Take the road back to desert near Damascus” (15).   Paul, in imitation of Elijah, did what a puzzled, zealous prophet would do: he returned to the source of Revelation, Mount Sinai, and for Paul, Sinai was a mountain in Arabia (see Gal 4:25).   Paul visited Sinai, accepted his commission, and then returned to Damascus.    

Mountains were familiar to Paul, who grew up in Tarsus, a city in the Roman province of Cilicia, in the shadow of the massive Tarsus Mountain range, with summits as high as twelve thousand feet.  Mount Sinai, at seven thousand five hundred feet, must have seemed like a foothill to Paul.  Wright is viewing Sinai as a spiritual/scriptural destination for Paul; it is hard to imagine that he could have crossed the entire desert of the Sinai peninsula on foot in less than forty days, since it is the setting for the entire desert journey of the nation of Israel over the course of forty years, detailed in eleven chapters in the Book of Numbers.  But the type fits because the apostle saw himself as a representative of Israel, who had acted as zealously in defense of the Law against the Christians as Elijah had acted against the prophets of Baal, or Phinehas, the Jewish man who assassinated a man for consorting with a Midianite woman (Numbers 25:6-13).  Paul in the desert, as crafted by the sacred writers of the Old and the New Testament (himself included) represented the people of God in need of purification and enlightenment and reaching every onward until they were achieved. 

The Bible depicts Elijah as a lonely hero, with no settled home, roaming the countryside, appearing and vanishing suddenly.  In Paul’s mind, Sinai remained the site of the convergence of heaven and earth as proffered by the Fathers Moses and Elijah, two heroes who confirmed the role and reality of God in Paul’s earlier mission.  Moses and Elijah represented the law and the prophets respectively, the fulfillment of which was Jesus, revealed to Paul by the Spirit who led him along each portion of his journey so that he could complete his apostolic education. 

 Of course, this blind spot of the enigmatic Paul’s life will remain hidden forever.   Neither the motive of the visit, nor its duration, nor the entirety of the portion of “Arabia” that he visited are described on the Sacred Page.  Church Fathers John Chrysostom and Jerome regard it as “almost certain” that the object of the Apostle was to preach the Gospel in a region to which it had not yet been introduced.  Paul “hurried forth into the wilds of Arabia, burning to impart to others the good news which had been suddenly burst upon himself.” [5]  “See how fervent was his soul,” Saint John Chrysostom wrote.  “He was eager to conquer lands yet untilled; he forthwith attacked a savage and barbarous people, choosing a lie of much conflict and toil.” [6]  Jerome believed that Paul preached in Arabia and that his success was so great that it provoked the hostility of the Arabian sheik, Aretas, who attempted to have Paul arrested by posting guards at the Damascus gates.        

Paul’s time in the wilderness helped him to get away from the world and to clearly discern the call to apostleship that the Lord wanted him to accept.  If he had immediately accepted the call, then he would have stayed in Damascus and returned to Jerusalem right away.  Rather, he went into Arabia because he had much to discern, much to pray about, and many questions to ask God, and the wilderness was the right place for him to prepare. He had many more mountains to climb.

[1] Horeb and Sinai are synonymous, as the ‘mountain of God,’ and the exact location of either or/ both and remain mysterious.

[2] Rawlinson, Rev. George. The Heathen World and Saint Paul

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wright, N.T., “Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Gal 1:17).” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 115, pp. 683-692.

[5] Rawlins.

[6] Commentary on Galatians.

Father Cordani was ordained to the priesthood in 2011. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MDiv from Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary. He has written for Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register, and Columbia Magazine. Follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tucker.cordani and Twitter @tuckercordani

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