The Aretas puzzle seems hardly a puzzle at all, not at first. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions that during the reign of a king named Aretas, the apostle fled Damascus dramatically, by being lowered in a basket over the city wall.
Who was Paul’s King Aretas?
If we accept the “standard model” of Christian origins, particularly its timeline that Christianity began during the fourth decade of the Common Era, then there’s only one plausible candidate: Aretas IV, king of the Nabateans. After ruling for approximately 50 years, he died in 40 CE. That’s within a decade after Paul’s conversion according to the consensus view.
The reign of Aretas III had ended about a century before the death of Aretas IV, and there was no Aretas V, so far as we know. Therefore, Aretas IV is the king Paul mentioned, done and dusted.
The puzzle is to suppose that someone didn’t already accept the standard model of Christian origins, and was trying to estimate a date for this incident from Paul’s letters, non-Christian sources like Josephus, and physical evidence alone. Why not Aretas III? He actually ruled Damascus for a time (we have coins to prove it), while Aretas IV never did, so far as we know. Why couldn’t Paul have been fleeing from that earlier Aretas?
Well, maybe he could have been …
The Nabateans were an Arab desert-dwelling people. Their prime holdings swept out an arc from just south of Judea to the east of it. In the time of Aretas IV, Damascus was no longer Nabatean territory, but Nabateans were still active in the region, now dominated by Rome, its clients, and its autonomous allies. Most notably, as late as the mid 30’s, Aretas IV had militarily defeated Herod Antipas, client ruler of Galilee and points southeast, the slayer of John the Baptist.
What we read in Paul’s letters
In 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, Paul wrote,
In Damascus, King Aretas’s ethnarch kept watch on the Damascenes’ city, in order to arrest me. I was let down in a basket through a window by the wall, and escaped his hands.
This snippet is likely to be a mere cue to remind Paul’s first readers of an entertaining adventure tale that he told and retold to many audiences at generous length. There’s no surprise, then, that the terse passage raises many questions for us moderns.
Having just told us that his scene is laid in Damascus, why does Paul make a point of contrasting a Nabatean man (King Aretas’s ethnarch) with the Damascene people? Was there something unusual or remarkable about the one keeping watch on the others’ city?
What is an “ethnarch” in this context? The Greek word might mean a princely ruler (King Herod the Great’s son, Herod Archelaus, had once been Rome’s ethnarch in Judea, for example), or merely a tribal chieftain instead. Similarly, in what sense was this ethnarch King Aretas’s man? Was he a royal appointee, or an independent agent like a modern bounty hunter, … or what?
The Greek word for “guarding” is also vague (phroureo). It could mean keeping tabs on the whole city, as might be routine law enforcement for Aretas III. Or the same word could mean watching only the city gates, in hopes of espying Paul leaving the city to enter territory where the Nabateans could snatch him up at their leisure. That would be a plausible scenario under Aretas IV.
Ancient Damascus is said to have had only seven gates to monitor, and surveillance could occur without the watchers doing any violence to Paul within the city itself. The watchers might even be posted outside the wall. A widely used reference on Greek usage (link) explains the “gates only” possibility. The different version of Paul’s Damascus basket story found in Acts 9:24 emphasizes that Paul’s enemies concentrated their search for him at the gates. Paul doesn’t say otherwise in his version.
Why would a Nabatean King want to arrest Paul? The only hint we get from the apostle about that is in Galatians 1:17-18. Immediately after his conversion, Paul didn’t confer with people,
… nor did I go up to Jerusalem … but I went away into Arabia. Then I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem …
The Greek construction is ambiguous whether the “three years” is the interval between his conversion and his visit to Jerusalem, or instead that he spent three years in Damascus after being in Arabia for an unspecified time.
We can’t be sure it’s the same journey in both letters, but the Nabateans are Arabs, and in the standard model of Christian origins, Aretas IV could easily have been alive for three or more years after Paul’s conversion. Perhaps the inexperienced Paul crossed paths with the Nabateans and somehow offended them, then fled to an independent but Roman allied Damascus, and finally had to figure out how to get past some Nabateans when he wanted to leave.
Then again, without the standard model, an inexperienced Paul could have offended Aretas III’s Nabateans easily enough, maybe finding himself trapped in a Nabatean Damascus.
So, Third or Fourth?
It is reasonable to say that the confident scholarly consensus about Paul’s king being Aretas IV strongly derives from a more general consensus about the correctness of the standard model of Christian origins. There is no place for Aretas III there, and there is no other Aretas besides number IV in sight.
That Paul’s story leaves some opening for us to consider Aretas III is no crisis for the standard model. If Paul had said that Damascus was under the control of his Aretas, then that would be a difficulty, but he didn’t. If Paul had said that Aretas’s henchman could arrest him inside the city, then that would be hard to explain, but Paul didn’t. The risk Paul mentions ripened just when he left the city.
Even without reliance on the standard model, it seems to your obedient correspondent that Aretas IV is at least slightly more likely than his predecessor to be Paul’s Aretas.
First, Paul plainly did somehow offend Nabatean sensibilities. His mysterious offense(s) probably occurred somewhere on the right side of the map, or else beyond its margins.
Under Aretas III, unless the offense happened only in Damascus itself, it is hard to explain why Paul would flee to a Nabatean stronghold, when there was so much non-Nabatean territory nearby (i.e. the left side of the map). Conversely, Paul says his Arabian travels were wider-ranging than just a visit to Damascus. It is hard to explain why he would seem to maintain good behavior everywhere except where he was in the worst possible tactical situation.
Even if he spent Galatians‘ ambiguous “three years” in Damascus, then Paul would seem to have maintained good behavior there (or else been in hiding) for a good long while, after some unspecified interval of good behavior elsewhere in Arab territory.
In contrast, under Aretas IV, the offense would seem to have occurred on Nabatean territory, that is, not in Damascus. Under those circumstances, flight to a non-Nabatean Damascus sounds like a plan, even if it turned out later that the Nabateans moved resources to bottle him up there. Too bad that Paul ran into his own personal Inspector Javert, but the plan made sense, and it worked out well in the end.
Second, in such a brief rendering of the tale, why does Paul tell us twice that it happened in Damascus? Under Aretas IV, it is legitimately remarkable that a Nabatean would surveil a non-Nabatean city, explaining Paul’s remark. Under Aretas III, would not Paul more likely have written, “In Damascus, King Aretas’s ethnarch kept watch on the city in order to arrest me,” and say no more? At the least, Paul distinguished in black letters what was the Nabatean king’s from what was the Damascenes’.
Just to be clear, the standard model’s timeline contributes more to the accepted interpretation of Paul’s basket story than Paul’s story contributes to confirmation of the standard model’s timeline. Nevertheless, the story does fit snugly into the standard model, and thereby makes some small contribution toward justifying the widespread confidence in that model’s timeline.
Paul probably converted sometime in the 30’s CE. The Aretas he offended was probably Aretas IV.
A recent discussion of these same issues from a different perspective can be found online at
Map credit: adapted from the graphic by Nichalp – his own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
License terms available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/
Image: Detail of illustration from the Ottheinrich Bible, 16th Century, by Matthias Gerung