April 7, 2010

How Paul Became Spiritual

Why do so many suppose Paul's years in Arabia were spent in isolation with God? Why suppose that time was so key to his spiritual development? Perhaps this is why: Since *my* christian life didn't begin with a three year sabbatical, I've got a built in excuse for not being as spiritual as Paul was!

Why do so many suppose isolation should be more conducive to spiritual formation, in the first place? Perhaps this is why: If we're not able to go be monks and nuns, or at least draw a salary to be a professional christian, then we have another excuse. "I just don't have the time to become a really spiritual person."

Another good way to expose these false cop-outs is HISTORY.

Yes, Moses had Sinai but Moses spent ALL of his years after meeting the LORD in a nearly constant state of community. Compare all the passages that focus on Sinai and it can seem to dominate the whole Pentateuch. But estimate all the hours he spent up on Sinai and it still won't compare to the rest of that 40+ years he spent in the midst of God's people, in-between Midian and Mount Nebo.

Yes, Paul had three years in Arabia, but we've no reason to suppose he stayed by himself while down there. Luke names Arabian Jews among those who found Christ and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. After Stephen was stoned, those Arabian Jews most likely went home to Nabatea (North Arabia) and/or Southern Arabia. If there was at least one Synagogue in Arabia, we have every reason to expect Paul found his way into it and shared Christ there. On the contrary, romantic notions of an isolated experience give us NO cause to suppose Paul would have avoided what Jewish and/or Jewish-Christian communities he came across while in Nabatea.

Let's pan out to a wider perspective.

Paul met Christ about four years before Paul met Christ-in-Antioch. That pioneering gentile church herself had four or five years of experience together when Paul and Barnabas arrived to minister there. Paul was a resident of Arabia for just less than three years, but a resident of Antioch for a decade and a half. It was during Paul's time in Antioch that he got caught up in the heavens (42 AD - 14 years before 56 AD). That experience also came while the whole church was partly focused on saving money for an upcoming famine. So not only was Paul neck deep in community while he had that incredible vision, he was most likely working by day doing his part to add to the funds.

The prayer-meeting when Paul heard the Holy Spirit send him happened eleven or more years after his calling. About twenty years in, Paul was rumored to have healing abilities. Three years after those rumors, Paul actually performed the first healing we know of for sure. Two years later, around spiritual-age twenty-five, Paul survived a viper bite. It most likely didn't take Paul three decades to learn what he said in Colossians... but it did take him that long to be able to say it so well, in so few words.

But now, getting back to Arabia...

Paul undoubtedly DID grow spiritually as a believer during those three years. He undoubtedly DID spend some time alone, but he most likely also spent much time with others. If somehow he didn't find any believers, he might just as well have produced a few. But there's no good reason (that is, apart from respecting traditions that took root after Constantine, in the centuries when official church structure and policy successfully marginalized those who felt driven to pursue a deeper experience of communing directly with God!!!) - *ahem* - NO good reason to think that Paul MUST have gained greatly from isolation, in particular.

As a new christian and as someone whom God's provident hand was directing to great ends, Paul undoubtedly DID grow spiritually while he lived in Arabia. On the other hand, if we could measure such growth, and if I was going to bet money on it, I'd say we have many more reasons to think that Paul probably grew much, much more during his years up in Antioch.

One more quick comparison:

Jesus, you know, grew in favor of God while surrounded by a whole village full of people. In the Lord's case, he was isolated even in a crowd. Moses was also a bit like Jesus in that respect. But Paul was a member of the spiritual christ-ones in Antioch.

We do not learn how to be spiritual from mountaintop or desert experiences. We learn how to be spiritual from communing with God. In my personal experience, that practice happens MOST EFFECTIVELY when it takes place in the midst of our brothers and sisters.



Brian said...


Bill, on this issue, if you are near a theological library, you need to check out Seyoon Kim's book Paul and the New Perspective - much of it is in dialog with James Dunn and the origin and development of Paul's gospel (which, controversially, I blogged about here: http://sunestauromai.wordpress.com/2009/11/12/on-the-develoment-of-pauls-theology/. (as a heads up, I might argue for a difference between growing spiritually and growing theologically though perhaps the connection is mionr, but that is my opinion.

anyways, AMEN, we can't grow spiritually alone but in community though some aone time does help.

Bill Heroman said...

amen right back atcha, esp. on there being a difference btw theology and spirituality!

on theological knowing, your post reminds me of the wealthy person who asked an Italian tour guide how long they needed to develop an appreciation for the culture and history of Rome. The guide responded 'un ora, una vita'. An hour, a life.

Such it was with Paul's apprehension of the Gospel. And with his apprehension of GOD.

So with ours.

Luke said...

Hi Bill! Nice post, dude! I've been enjoying your posts on fb and browsing your site a little. I enjoyed the scapegoat one the other day, too.

So how's it going - are you meeting with anyone these days?

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Luke. Thanks for reading. That means a great deal to me. Nice pic, also. :-)

Unfortunately, Moses also had Midian. And Paul once spent 4-5 years in prison.

I do long to be back in a practical expression of God's house someday. We were visiting Sunday AM small groups this past winter, just to make friends, but that's over for now.

To the work, then...

Luke said...

It sure would be good to see you in that practical expression, bro.

Well, it goes without saying that if you ever find yourself in this neck o'the woods, pop in - we'd love to see you.

The brothers here think of you when we sing "Hallelujah I'm free". You taught us to sing that one "the right way" if you know what I mean ;-).

Bill Heroman said...

Well, good. Then my life truly has mattered. :-)

Luke said...

Oh I wouldn't go that far. ;-)

Ched said...


I thought I might make a small textual comment regarding chronology, though, I know you're not that interested in that sort of thing. :)

In Gal 1:17, Paul writes that he "went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus."

Then comes the "then" of 1:18, where he writes, "Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem . . ."

So, according to the chronology of Gal 1:17-18, the three year period actually comes after a return from Arabia. Thus, he would have spent his three year period prior to his Jerusalem trip in Damascus.

This detail might undercut the idea of Paul's "three year quiet time" in Arabia. He, rather, spent those years in Damascus.


Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Ched. Thanks for keeping up and for dropping by.

I'll grant that the text of Gal.1:18 is a bit less clear than we'd like, but I don't think you can argue grammatically that it necessarily means what you think. It's extremely implausible that Paul lived unmolested for three years in a place where he had to flee twice for his life. And whenever the grammar is less than absolutely certain, we must allow other facts in evidence to affect how we interpret the text.

Again, we have ample reasons to conclude Paul most likely found more time of refuge in Arabia than he did in Damascus. Besides that, 2nd Corinthians 11 mentions a certain number of beatings and other activities unaccounted for in Acts. Arabia is as good a candidate for where we should locate these events as any other (if not even a slightly better candidate, indeed, b/c of 11:32, and b/c Luke met Paul after Arabia).

On your reading, fitting the first Damascus trip AND Arabia into a time *before* an additional three years in Damascus... creates another unknown period to account for... but early Pauline chronology is tight enough after the crucifixion to begin with.

On my reading, however, the phrase "after three years" stands inclusive of everything since Paul's vision on the road... although this also means we don't know precisely how long he spent in Arabia, or how much time (each time) in Damascus.

My best guess is that Paul fled Arabia after the battle of Gamala. At least, that's a known event which might explain why one notoriously outspoken Jew would have found cause to leave Nabatea.

Be that as it may (or not), Paul left at some point, and however many weeks or months he was able to stay in Damascus after that is unknown.

In sum, when we say "three years in Arabia", it was much less than that - probably 30 or 32 months altogether, from his vision to his 2nd Damascus departure. The lion's share of those months, however, looks like it was indeed spent away from Damascus.


To the point of the piece, and the final point of your comment: yes, if Paul spent a significant amount of those three years in Damascus, it would almost certainly NOT have been "quiet time". In Damascus, we should definitely expect to see Paul surrounded by his Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thanks again! :-)

Fenton said...

Why do you conclude that Paul had to flee for his life twice from Damascus? Could not Acts 9:25 refer to the same event as 2 Corinthians 11:32? Or do you think he escaped through the wall in a basket twice?

My thoughts are that he was converted and immediately started preaching in Damascus (Acts 9:19-22), then he went to Arabia for some unspecified period of time and the returned to Damascus (Galatians 1:17-18) and then he had to flee Damascus, let down in a basket (Acts 9:25 = 2 Corinthians 11:32-33).

Bill Heroman said...

Fenton, we know Paul left Damascus twice. I presume the ethnarch of Aretas is not likely to be hunting Paul *before* Paul has been to Arabia, and yet Acts says the Jews of Damascus who were looking for Paul were upset about the preaching he did immediately after his "conversion" experience. The contexts sound different, and they fit two different time periods. I do think there's every reason to believe Paul would use the basket trick a second time, precisely because it worked so well the first time!

Of course I see the logic in your alternate scenario, but it doesn't account for all the data. More importantly, it is unnecessary (and, as I showed, implausible) to suppose the two accounts describe the same escape.

Thanks for thinking with me...

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