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 …