September 9, 2009

Dating Paul's Conversion

IF the Arabian (Nabatean) King Aretas ever occupied Damascus, it would have been before 37 AD. It could not have been after. Ogg missed this. Jewett missed this. Bowersock pointed it out in 1983 and few have acknowledged it since. The historical context is vital to Pauline chronology AND to the chronology of the earliest church in Jerusalem.

Here's the very-skinny. In 20 BC, the Kingdom of Zenodorus was granted to Herod the Great even though it had been promised to Nabatea. The Nabateans made trouble in Trachonitis until Aretas betrothed his daughter to Antipas (c.1 BC/1 AD) and Philip managed to forge good relations with the Nabateans in his Tetrarchy. But Antipas broke the treaty when he married Herodias (28/29 AD) and Philip's death (33/34 AD) filled the old Kingdom of Zenodorus with an absolute power vacuum.

Tiberius (undoubtedly with, through or by proxy of Macro, the new Praetorian Prefect after Sejanus) officially annexed Philip's Tetrarchy into Provincia Syria. But Syria had been suffering from a power vacuum of its own. The Proconsul Lamia was an absentee Governor for ten years until Pomponius Flaccus [not to be confused with the Egyptian Prefect hated by Philo] arrived in 32. But Flaccus died in office in 33 and Tiberius (and/or Macro) sent L. Vitellius in 35, more than a whole year after Philip and Flaccus had both died.

Presumably, Vitellius was to establish the new status of Philip's Tetrarchy, but Vitellius had his hands full immediately with conflict on all sides. Dealing with the Parthian invasion of Armenia occupied Vitellius' first two summers while the Governor also sent one of his four Legions to help Cappadocia against a mountain tribe of Cilicians. Meanwhile, Herod Antipas had taken the liberty of sending his own small army to occupy the strategic fortress-city of Gamala in the Golan Heights. But while Antipas was at the Euphrates making peace with the Parthian King Artabanus, the Nabatean army took Gamala and crushed Herod's army.

By early 37, Vitellius was marching south, but purposely dawdled, resenting Antipas for taking credit about the Euphrates treaty in a letter to the Emperor. Tiberius (and/or Macro) had ordered Vitellius to avenge Antipas, but Vitellius lingered in Jerusalem after Passover until news arrived of Tiberius' death. At that, the Governor took his Legions back north. Gamala had already been reclaimed (officially for Syria) and Aretas had long since retreated. And just by coincidence, almost simultaneously, in Rome, the new Emperor Caligula (and his chief advisor, Macro) were appointing Antipas' nephew, Herod Agrippa, as the new King of the old Kingdom/Tetrarchy.

According to our records, Aretas did not attack or press through Trachonitis under Agrippa. It is extremely doubtful that Aretas could have managed possessions from the other side of Agrippa. And Aretas was somewhere in his 60's already, at least. He had been king since 9/8 BC. Two years after Caligula made Agrippa King of Trachonitis and the Golan, Aretas died, in 39 AD.

That's the whole skinny. Now here's the point.

It had long been assumed, by a very poor reading of 2nd Corinthians 11:32, that Aretas must have been granted Damascus by Rome, and the next argument went that since Tiberius sent Vitellius after Aretas, it must have been the nutsy Caligula. These arguments required skepticism of Josephus on Gamala as the point of battle, since the Golan was not an official "boundary" between Antipas and Aretas. But Josephus said Gamala, so the territorial issues must go back to the old grudge over Zenodorus. Only Bowersock (Roman Arabia, 1983) makes complete sense out of Tacitus, Josephus and Paul on this issue.

My own tiny contribution to this conversation is that Macro alone should be enough to debunk the old argument that Caligula suddenly did an about face from Tiberian policy. For all practical purposes, Macro was running the Empire in all twelve months of 37 AD, besides which Caligula never showed any interest in foriegn policy, except for the Temple worship fiasco in 39/40. Caligula merely gave his 'uncle Herod' a Kingdom as a reward for his friendship in recent years. Herod's Kingship, of course, is another issue the old arguments failed to deal with. If Caligula had wanted to give Damascus to anyone, it should have been Agrippa.

The Conclusion: Paul's "three years" in Arabia must end before winter of 36/37 and therefore his conversion must be dated to 33/34.

The Challenge: If we also take 33 as the year of Christ's Passion and Pentecost, what does that do to our view of the earliest church in Jerusalem? Tentatively clinging to 30 AD, which has become increasingly difficult to defend in recent decades except by appeal to tradition, seems to be motivated in some cases by a bias towards keeping Acts 1-8 in a long stretch of years. I think it was less than four months, but that's a story for some other time...


Eddie said...

Hi Bill,

As I view the account of Paul’s conversion, I believe a 34 CE understanding lacks the necessary background proof. As you point out Vitellius wasn’t in a hurry to carry out the Emperor’s orders. He had a score to settle with Antipas and probably enjoyed every moment he delayed moving against Aretas. The problem, as it applies to your chronology, is Aretas was never pushed back by the Romans. Vilellius, upon hearing of Tiberius’ death immediately took a census of loyalty from the Jews and sent his army home.

As for Herod Antipas, he remained the ruler of Damascus on paper until he was removed by Caius in 39 CE, but he could hardly contest Aretas’ presence in the city, because his own army had been soundly defeated by Aretas not long before the death of Tiberius. He didn’t have the power to chase him away. It wasn’t until Agrippa was made ruler in the place of Antipas, that Aretas would have had to leave. Whether he left voluntarily or at the demand of Rome was probably of no real consequence to him, since his dispute was mainly with Antipas. Formerly, he had understood through his “diviners” that someone of authority either Tiberius or Vitellius, himself, would die and thereby keep the Roman forces from entering Petra [Josephus; Antiquities; 18; 5; 3].

Frankly, I don’t see Aretas running away from Vitellius, as you seem to believe. Vitellius probably secretly supported Aretas, because of his own dispute with Antipas. Every day that he was not ordered to remove Aretas was a day of satisfaction in that he was not compelled to help Antipas, whom he viewed as a personal enemy.

As for me, Paul’s conversion in 36 CE makes much more sense, and the peace of Acts 9:31 that was experienced by the church had to do with Caius’ sending Petronius to set up a statue of himself at Jerusalem. The Jews were on the brink of war with Rome. They ceased perusing the Hellenistic Jewish believers in Jesus because this was a much more important matter to them. Anyway, that’s how I see it. :-)


Bill Heroman said...

Aretas was never pushed back by the Romans

He most certainly was. Vitellius got Rome's army as far south as Jerusalem before he began dallying. So whether or not we call it "running away", Aretas absolutely withdrew. Check your sources.

Herod Antipas, he remained the ruler of Damascus

Excuse me, whaaaat? Where are you getting that Antipas (or any other Herod, for that matter) EVER had any possession over Damascus?

the peace of Acts 9:31 that was experienced by the church had to do with Caius’ sending Petronius

You've no grounds whatsoever for equating those two references. Acts 9:31 ties that "peace" specifically to Paul's exit from Judea. Besides, there was plenty of peace before Petronius arrived, as there was after Caligula died.

I'm sorry, Eddie, but you're imagining things and you've not researched carefully enough.

Do keep at it, and please be encouraged to redouble your efforts. I hope my blunt critique doesn't cool your jets too much, but we must not confuse facts with our own suppositions.

Eddie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eddie said...

Hi Bill,

You are correct. I have been imagining things. I was going on what amounted to poor memory of what I had read in Josephus. I should have researched it to refresh my memory and I didn’t, so this embarrassing blunder is my fault, don’t be concerned over being blunt. Your critique is fine.

That said, let me back-peddle a bit and admit what I believe are my errors and what I am still wondering about. First, Damascus, indeed, was NEVER a part of Herod’s territory. I know what I was thinking of when I wrote that, but if you pardon me, I’m just too embarrassed to admit what it was. I should have at least looked at an ancient Bible map. No excuse there.

Concerning Aretas withdrawing, I don’t remember reading that Rome engaged him in any battle while reading Josephus, but I’ll concede he must have at least voluntarily withdrew at some point, since Rome didn’t pursue him.

Now, concerning Acts 9:31, are you saying Paul waged a one-man crusade against the Messianic Jews?

Also, concerning the Aretas’ ethnarch in Damascus, I did a little research and found out that this probably does not mean Aretas was ruling Damascus but refers to a Nabataean trade colony there. This was proposed by E. A. Knauf. Apparently, it was not uncommon for different countries to have these trade colonies at various cities along the trade routes. The ethnarch was not the governor of Damascus, but he was someone with considerable influence and may have had access to some military personal which were sometimes used to guard caravans in route from one place to another. I found this outlook quite interesting. It is part of chapter 5 of “Paul between Damascus and Antioch: the unknown years” by Martin Hengel, Anna Maria Schwemer.

The point is Paul’s reference in 2Corinthians 11:32 does not have to be tied to Aretas’ conflict with Herod cir. 36 (37?) CE.

Have a good day,


P.S. I tried linking the book, but I am doing something wrong, and it isn't happening. You may find the book here:

Unknown said...

I'm coming into this very late (and it's my first comment on this site ever) so please extend me buckets (bushels?) of grace if I'm out of line.

As I understand it...
The peace that the church experienced is referenced as occurring after Saul left Jerusalem but I'm not sure it was because he left. It may be (he does seem to have this effect on Jerusalem when he turns up and starts "debating' the Hellenistic Jews there). It may not. But isn't this the same time that Herod Agrippa leaves for Rome to express his support/devotion to Cauis, and (shortly after) Pilate is removed from office. Both were notorious for their cruelty and laxness in regard to the cruelty of the Jewish leaders and the persecution of anyone who was out of favour with the Chief Priest and the Temple priests.

By the way, you may notice that I refer to him as "Saul". That's because that's what the man was called at the time. He's never called "Paul" until immediately after the incident with Elymas before Sergius Paulus at Paphos. The tradition of changing his name to "Paul" after Damascus is quite in error. Even the Holy Spirit refers to him as "Saul" when calling Barnabas and Saul to the specific ministry. And if it's good enough for God, it's good enough for me. :-)

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