East of the Dead Sea and Jordan River valley, south of Philip’s Tetrarchy all the way to the Red Sea, the land of Northern Arabia was called Nabatea by the Jews, Greeks & Romans of Jesus’ time. Here is the story of Nabatea in the days of the New Testament, and how it affected Paul of Tarsus. (See also Acts 9, Galatians 1, & 2nd Corinthians 11:32; Tacitus, Josephus & Dio Cassius; and Roman Arabia, by G.W.B.)
The first Herod’s mother was Nabatean and the Great King almost let his sister marry a powerful Arab named Syllaeus. That rejected groom then waged a secret war against Herod in his eastern territories, lands claimed by Nabatea before Augustus gave them to Herod in 20 BC. The insurgency Syllaeus funded, which lasted from 12 until 9 BC, was ended when Governor Saturninus came to Syria. But Syllaeus, King Obodas’ chief minister, fled to Rome and accused Herod before Augustus. During the year or so before Herod was able to clear his name with the Emperor, Augustus had Saturninus begin a population census of Israel. By the end of 8 BC, Herod was proclaimed innocent, but the census was allowed to continue. In early 7 BC, the Romans had gotten as far as Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.
Meanwhile, Nabatea had a new King, Aretas, whose army helped Governor Varus put down the Judean uprisings after Herod’s death in 4 BC. But Arabian soldiers burned innocent villages along the way, so Augustus sanctioned Nabatea in various ways until 1 BC, a punishment most likely made shorter by Aretas’ betrothing his daughter to Herod Antipas of Galilee. Also during that span, the Herodian Philip took over the lands north of Nabatea, the same disputed territory of Syllaeus’ secret war. However, Philip managed a peaceful rule on the Arabian border, even though his Tetrarchy was half-peopled with ethnic Nabateans.
Herod Antipas married his Nabatean princess some years later but divorced her in 28/29 AD. John the Baptist was imprisoned and later killed for denouncing this move, but the more offended party by far was King Aretas. The Nabatean-Herodian treaty was now dangerously void... and yet Aretas took no action against Antipas while his brother Philip was still alive.
The War over Philip's Tetrarchy:
With incredible timing, Philip the Tetrarch died in the winter of 33/34 AD, mere months after Jesus had died (and risen) and not long since the new cult had been run out of Jerusalem. From Nabatea, King Aretas - who had been raised by the generation of Arabs who’d lost so much land to the Herods - now began operations to reclaim those eastern territories.
As the Nabateans began marching north, Rome was otherwise occupied. Tiberius Caesar was retired on the Isle of Capri and his praetorian prefect Macro (Sejanus' replacement) was running the Empire. The Province of Syria had also gone through a decade of absentee rule by one Governor Lamia, who was followed by Governor Flaccus, who died in 33 (or 34) and who was not replaced until Governor Vitellius, who arrived in Sytria in the year 35. But Vitellius’ attention was immediately absorbed by conflicts in other areas.
Aretas took the advantage of the moment, pressed as far north as the Golan Heights, and captured Gamala – a city of Philip’s now being held by the army (!) of Herod Antipas. Meanwhile, the Galilean Tetrarch himself had been working to gain favor with Vitellius, and got back in late 35 (from negotiating with Parthia on the Euphrates) to find his army destroyed at Gamala. Having already boasted by letter to Tiberius (about his efforts with Parthia), Antipas now spent that political capital by writing to Tiberius about the Nabatean attack. Of course, Antipas wanted Rome to avenge him.
By the summer of 36, Tiberius (via Macro) had ordered Vitellius to attack Nabatea, but the Governor chose to delay the attack (resentful of Antipas’ stealing credit for the Euphrates negotiations) and continued delaying for several months, until word came (in late March of 37) that Tiberius had died. At that, Vitellius turned back north, having advanced his Legions no farther than Trachonitis. Wisely, Aretas’ forces had retreated to within their old borders, and had done so probably before the end of the year 36.
King Aretas may never have expected his land grab to last forever, but the old man settled a debt to his ancestors in making the attempt. Nabatea pushed far enough north that Aretas' countrymen could take pride for at least that duration, and meanwhile (perhaps more importantly) the King himself took vengeance against his daughter’s ex-husband for his offense in disgracing her.
Tiberius’ proxy Macro went on to advise Caligula for about the first year of his rule, but it seems Rome took no further action against Nabatea after Vitellius turned back.
The Nabatean aggression was over and done with. Aretas died in 39 AD. In 106, Rome annexed Nabatea as Provincia Arabia. "Nabatea" was no more.
Paul's "three years" in Arabia:
It was during Aretas’ three year offensive (33/34 to 36/37), that Paul of Tarsus spent something like three Passovers in Aretas’ home country. Having previously fled from the Jews in Damascus, Paul entered Nabatea in early or mid-34 AD. Less than a year after "the" Pentecost, Paul most likely was able to locate and join with the (few?) Arabian Jews and god fearers who had believed after Peter’s message (Acts 2:10-11). Paul, the zealous ex-Pharisee, may have been more ostentatiously Jewish than others in Nabatea, and Paul’s new sense of mission to gentiles must have also made things interesting at some point... especially during a war between Arabs & Jews!
Some kind of conflict in Arabia is most likely what caused Paul to return north - despite the Damascene Jews’ wanting Paul dead - and whatever trouble was that bad could also explain the long distance arrest warrant Aretas’ official was holding. Although the Ethnarch himself may indeed have been a local representative of the Arabians resident in Damascus, nevertheless that official was also Aretas’ direct subordinate (2Cor.11:32). Thus, whatever details we are lacking, the overall implication is that someone in Nabatea wanted Paul brought back to Nabatea. Of course - somehow - Paul was able to escape from Damascus again, probably by the same basket/hole-in-the-wall trick that worked so well the first time.
Because the Damascene Council would have been far more likely to cooperate with such extradition requests before the war, and far less after, and because Aretas is very unlikely to have ordered or allowed a forcible extradition from Syria after Vitellius had swept Nabatea's forces out of the region, we conclude that Paul’s second escape from Damascus must have come prior to 37 AD, and thus Paul’s “three years in Arabia” now appears to mean three Passovers and perhaps a long summer – but no more than 32 months or so, altogether – in Nabatea.
So now to sum up, chronologically.
Year-by-Year Digest (34 to 37 AD):
Paul of Tarsus fell off his donkey sometime very early in 34 AD. The Syrian Governor had just died and so had Philip the Tetrarch. All territory between Damascus and Nabatea had just become leaderless, and with no Roman oversight at the moment. Aretas began taking steps to exert his influence in Trachonitis, and Herod Antipas (with or without Roman approval) occupied Gamala. Paul was in Nabatea (probably Bostra or Petra) by the middle or end of 34.
In 35, Aretas took Gamala while Antipas was away at the Euphrates with Governor Vitellius. So far as we know, this year marks the farthest Aretas pushed north. There is no evidence that Nabatea ever had any control of Damascus in this era, at all. As for Paul, he stayed in Arabia/Nabatea all year - far away from the fighting.
In 36, Vitellius received Tiberius’ order to repulse the Nabateans, but the Governor was busy elsewhere. Aretas probably got wind and began to withdraw late this year. (At any rate, there was no Roman-Nabatean fighting.) Paul fled Nabatea, probably that summer, and escaped from Damascus on his way to Jerusalem. His short stays in those cities preceded a sea voyage home to Tarsus (Acts 9:30), upon which Paul must have embarked before October.
In 37, Vitellius spent an extended personal visit in Jerusalem, before and after the Passover, spitefully forcing Antipas to play host while further delaying his attack on Nabatea. Tiberius died on March 15, and the news reached Jersualem (by relay couriers, surely) a few days after Passover. At that point, Vitellius considered the Emperor’s orders as moot, and turned back to Antioch without bothering to avenge Antipas.
Epilogue - the rest of 37 AD:
The prefect Macro eased Rome’s transition to Caligula (whose first year in power was devoid of his later, infamous lunacy). One of the new Emperor’s first acts was to give Philip’s Tetrarchy to Caligula's own uncle Claudius’ childhood playmate, Herod Agrippa I. Maintaining decades of continuity in Eastern policy, Rome once again placed a buffer state between Petra and Damascus.
Finally - some time after Paul left Jerusalem, most likely while Vitellius and his Antioch staff were lingering during the festival, rumors came to the church there about Christians in Antioch. Soon after, Barnabas was headed for northern Syria, by way of Tarsus in Cilicia...
And of course, that's the start of a whole other story.