After Conversion, Did Paul Immediately Begin His Ministry or Go to Arabia?

We have to reconcile Acts 9 with what Paul himself says he did in Galatians 1 after his conversion. Luke says Paul “immediately” began preaching in Damascus after his conversion. Paul says he went “at once” to Arabia and then to Damascus. As T. George writes, “How could Paul have “at once” both preached in Damascus and gone off to Arabia?“[1] Some scholars believe Paul may have spent less time in Arabia and more time in Damascus while some have taken the position that more time was spent in Arabia than Damascus. Both are possible. But what is clear is that if we look at both texts side by side assuming both are true, Paul was in Damascus, then Arabia, and back in Damascus before traveling to meet the Apostles for the first time.

These are the events that probably took place over the course of three years:

  1. Paul was converted
  2. He immediately preached in Damascus. (Acts 9)
  3. He went away into the Arabian desert (Galatians 1) probably for the majority of three years, not failing to preach to any he encountered but using most of this time to spend time with the Lord and re-study the Torah in light of Christ.
  4. He returned to Damascus where he was persecuted before heading to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles for the first time. 

This timeline is consistent with both texts in Galatians and Acts 9. Here are both passages with some of my commentary showing how this is possible:

Galatians 1

15 “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but

[After immediately preaching in Damascus (Acts 9)]

I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18 Then after three years 

[total time after his conversion including time spent in Arabia, unless we take this to mean he spent three years in Damascus in addition to his time in the desert]

I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.”

Acts 9

18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus [not the Apostles]. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. 23 When many days had passed, [The majority of three years in Arabia, and returning to Damascus (Galatians 1:17) ] the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples.

These two scholars say it better than me:

[1] “How could Paul have “at once” both preached in Damascus and gone off to Arabia? This difficulty disappears altogether if we follow the literal sequence of the Greek text and interpret “immediately” as qualifying Paul’s negative statements concerning his postconversion whereabouts. Clearly the point he was making was not that he went immediately to Arabia without doing anything at all in Damascus but rather that immediately after his conversion, he did not go to Jerusalem or consult with the apostles there.” (George, T. (1994). Galatians (Vol. 30, pp. 122–127). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)

[2] “Indeed, Luke stresses that it was at once (eutheōs, ‘immediately’) that he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. According to Galatians 1:17, Saul ‘went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus’, but Luke says nothing about this period in Arabia. ‘After three years’ in Galatians 1:18 could allow for an initial period of preaching in Damascus (Acts 9:19b–22), followed by a stay in Arabia (the Nabatean kingdom on the eastern frontier of Syria), and further ministry in Damascus (Acts 9:23–25), before going up to Jerusalem.” (Peterson, D. G. (2009). The Acts of the Apostles (pp. 312–313). Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. )

So What?

First and foremost, this helps show why so-called discrepancies in the Bible aren’t discrepancies at all. Details are often left out that are considered secondary from the perspective of the author who is trying to make a point, not catalog every detail of history. To quote T. George again, “It is possible to affirm the total truthfulness and accuracy of the Bible in everything it describes without assuming that it purports to be totally exhaustive in every detail.” Paul’s point was that he didn’t meet with the Apostles right away. Luke’s point was that Paul was radically changed and quickly began preaching the message he originally condemned. Most important of all, every so-called discrepancy I’ve ever encountered in the Bible changes absolutely 0% of the main message of the Bible repeated over and over: that God created the world good, that we have all gone astray and are guilty of crimes against our creator, that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, laid his life down on a cross to be both just and the justifier of his people (Romans 3:26), rose from the dead confirming the truth of his message and so that all who trust in him could also be resurrected to eternal life.

Another application that can be drawn from all this is that if Paul needed preparation after conversion for ministry, so do we. Paul had three years of preparation before he began his public ministry to the world, since he was still largely “unknown” during this time. (Galatians 1:22) Even though Paul immediately preached in Damascus after his conversion, he spent three years, likely in prayer and study of the Scriptures before embarking on his famous three missionary journeys that forever changed the world. This is encouraging if we take it to understand that even the Apostle Paul needed some time and preparation for ministry. We shouldn’t be surprised if we need more.

What do you think? Is this helpful, or is this something you already knew?

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