May 11, 2008

Redating Paul in Damascus

This was almost a comment/footnote under the last post, but it turned into a post of its own! So now call it Part Three in this Series on Damascus.

I wrote "The Damascus Story" over two years ago, and dated it as posted, "February, 36 AD". I have since felt the need to revise that, but not before I can do intense scrutiny of the years 34-38.

Now, since I have been reviewing my notes on all this recently, I'll just have to take a stab at this redating project now, while I'm thinking about it!

It does seem like the most likely date for the battle of Gamala (if a full scale battle is even what it was) is still summer 36 AD, because it happened while Antipas was away at the Euphrates with Vitellius & the Parthians. So if Paul fled Nabatea AFTER that attack (see May 3rd post), then he couldn't be in Damascus again until late summer or early autumn, 36.

As I said, I'll look at that later. This summer maybe. But for now I'll make a few key points towards a tenative conclusion on this date.

Point One: Aretas' military forces can't be anywhere near Damascus after spring of 37 at the latest. News of Tiberius' death arrives at Pentecost that year, and by that time Vitellius was already near Jerusalem with a Legion or two. The Nabateans had, of course, retreated...

Point Two: I firmly believe Paul may have seen the Lord and gone blind as early as February of 34 AD. (Details I'll have to share someday, based on events in 33. But not yet.)

So these are the boundaries. Paul's time in Arabia has to take place between February 34 and February 37. Of course, that might be the "three years" right there. Maybe... But that brings me to...

Point Three: Saul(Paul) has to sail from Caesarea to Tarsus BEFORE Jerusalem hears the news about the christians in Antioch. Now, I've got a strong hunch that it was Vitellius' servants - who naturally shared all kinds of gossip with Herod Antipas' servants when the Governor was the Tetrarch's guest at his Jerusalem Palace [or townhome] - that it was THOSE SERVANTS at Pentecost in 37 AD who first brought the news that Antioch had a gentile christian church.

((See, Jerusalem didn't get a whole lot of DIRECT contact with Syria, generally! Ancient grudges ran that deep and there were no needs for going that far. But if just anyone, anytime could have delivered that news to Jerusalem, then why did it take more than three years to get that news down there? That's why I think it had to be Vitellius' visit that brought the news.))

To be more specific, then: if Saul leaves Damascus AND sails from Judea (both) BEFORE Pentecost [May 12] of 37, then Saul has to sail in September 36 or April/May 37. And I have a hard time imagining Saul lasting all winter long in Jerusalem when he was surely quick to make enemies. Not to mention Saul couldn't have spent so many months in Jeru when years to come would prove Paul was so little known by the saints there.

And finally, Point Five: It was still most likely LESS than three full, chronological "years". (IE, less than 36 months.) Therefore, I still like the general point made in the story about months and "years". I might revise the dialogue someday, but FOR NOW, it does still show the possibility that Paul COULD have been in Arabia for a mere 25 months and still called it "three years". Not that I'm trying to preserve "wiggle room"! ;)

Now let's see, can we put all that together?


If I had to guess tonight, I'd say Saul got saved before Passover in 34, fled Damascus and spent two Passovers in Nabatea, fled TO Damascus in August of 36, and almost just as quickly fled FROM Damascus for the second time in the same month, 36 AD! After that, I'd guess it didn't take Saul very long at all to get in major hot water in Jerusalem... so he can still sail out of Caesarea by mid to late September and easily make it to Tarsus before the end of sailing, mid-October. (Lots of ships sailed that direction so late in the season. Going up the coast in August/September was much safer and easier, weather wise.)

By the way, this scenario gives Paul three Passovers AND three summers, for as much as 32 months in Arabia, total. Hmmmm...

Anyway, that's what I'd guess tonight. ;)

But like I said... I need to look at it more closely this summer! :)


Terry Holdredge said...


I'm writing a story set in Damascus in 34 A.D., and could benefit from some cultural details such as local industries, religious sects, municipal turmoil, and the citizens' assessment of Roman rule. Your kindness is appreciated.


Bill Heroman said...

Hi, Terry. It might not take long to exhaust the well of what I (think I) know about Damascus. Let's see...

I know they had a wall! ;) I know they had at least one synagogue and a large population of Jews. There were probably some Arabs living there too, but the famous "Ethnarch" was most likely NOT a local official there. Damascus was briefly controlled by the Nabatean Arabs at one time, about a hundred years before Christ. But in Paul's day the city remained an autonomous, if tax-paying, part of the Roman province of Syria. The southern region of which is known as "Coele-Syria".

I believe modern Damascus claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world today. I've never studied their local history, but their population must have become hellenized sometime after 323 BC and they would have come into Rome's orbit not long after 100 BC. I think Pompey took Syria officially in the 60's BC.

It's probably fair to suppose the "Damascenes" ran their own city on something like a Greek style, but I don't know the particulars of their government (or local deities). Try looking up a book called cities of the Eastern Roman Empire by AHM Jones, for starters, but I'm sure there are better sources for Damascus specifically.

As you can probably tell, my area of focus is in chronology. Math teacher, you know. ;) But I did spend quite some time working on another ancient city, so I definitely appreciate the task you've set up for yourself.

One more thing: the "citizen" group within Damascus was probably less than 10% of the pop., if it was like other Greek-style cities. That makes them the way-upper class, and their "assessment of Roman rule" would very likely have been positive, generally. Rome provided stability, which always helps the rich get richer and stay in power! ;)

I wish I knew more. And I'd love to know more about what you're doing. If your story is about Paul in Damascus I'm afraid you may beat me to it - I may be a couple of years away from 34 AD. But we'll see... ;)

Feel free to drop me an e-mail some time. All the best.


Bill Heroman said...

See, Jerusalem didn't get a whole lot of DIRECT contact with Syria, generally! Ancient grudges ran that deep and there were no needs for going that far.

This may be embarrassingly wrong. A gentleman's comment elsewhere has directed me to Josephus' War 7:43ff. "The Jewish race... is particularly numerous in Syria..." It goes on to say that the Jews in Antioch were treated very well after the Maccabbean era [sometime after 164 BC]. In this passage, Josephus was writing about 67 AD but I can't imagine 40 years previously was much different.

Wherever I picked up that bit, therefore, it needs serious revision at least.

But the next part still sticks out and demands... something!?!

But if just anyone, anytime could have delivered that news to Jerusalem, then why did it take more than three years to get that news down there? That's why I think it had to be Vitellius' visit that brought the news."

Those three years are a problem.

HOW did Jerusalem NOT know about the Gentile church in Antioch for three years?

Keeping at it, until someone else has a better idea...

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