Did Paul stay in Damascus immediately after his conversion, or did he go to Arabia?

Posted on Jan.28, 2009. Filed in Acts, Galatians. Average rating: 6.3 / 10 (Rate It).

Paul’s actions following his dramatic conversion from persecutor of the Church to follower of Jesus are recorded in both Acts and Galatians. The two accounts differ, however, as to where Paul went following his conversion.

According to Paul’s own account in Galatians, following his conversion he went at once to Arabia:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. [Galatians 1:15-17 (NRSV)]

According to Acts, however, following his conversion Paul (then called Saul) remained in Damascus proclaiming the gospel to the Jews:

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. [Acts 9:19b-25 (NRSV)]

So did Paul stay in Damascus immediately after his conversion, or did he go to Arabia? If he stayed in Damascus, then Galatians 1:17 contains an error. If he went to Arabia, then Acts 9:20 contains an error.

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    Immediately on joining the disciples for several days? It may yet work.

    Re the possible time gap in Acts 9:19: There is an “Εγενετο δε” in there, an “it came to pass”, which I think suggests a gap in the narrative. You might be onto something.

  2. 2

    But the overwhelming consensus in the translations is that it adds nothing to the meaning: I can’t find any translation that bothers to include it.

  3. 3

    Here’s the gist from my lexicon: “periphrastic to indicate the progress of the narrative… usually omitted in translation; older transl. it came to pass“. That’s all I’ve got for you.

  4. 4

    The adverb “Eutheos” (immediately) occurs before the following list:

    1. I did not consult with flesh and blood.
    2. I did not go to the apostles in Jerusalem.
    3. I went to Arabia.

    That seems to imply that either “immediately” applies to all the items on the list or just the first. At first blush, the idea that it applies only to the last (as the NRSV and the NIV translate it) seems perverse.

    I suppose one might argue that it can’t apply to the first two items on the grounds that you can’t immediately not do something except in a silly vacuous sense, such that Paul might as easily have said that he immediately did not write an epic poem or that he immediately did not milk a cow or anything else you like.

    Such an argument probably does show that “immediately” cannot go with all the items on the list. If you try that you end up with this:

    1′. Immediately, I did not consult with flesh and blood.
    2′. Immediately, I did not go to the apostles in Jerusalem.
    3′. Immediately, I went to Arabia.

    When you put it this way, 1′ and 2′ don’t really make sense. But this falls short of showing that “immediately” must go with the last item.

    If you assume that “immediately” goes only with the first item on the list, there is the possibility (presented with varying degrees of clarity by most translators) that the adverb “ou” (not) modifies the adverb “Eutheos”. That is, instead of “immediately, I did not”, you really have “I did not immediately”. So you have this:

    1″. I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood.
    2″. I did not got to the apostles in Jerusalem.
    3″. I went to Arabia.

    1″-3″ say nothing about what Paul immediately did. 1″ does say what he did not do immediately. But that’s all. On this reading there’s not even a hint of a conflict with the claim that he was in Damascus for a while before his trip to Arabia.

  5. 5

    I believe Paul could have his (arabian content) in the spirit thusly and without error abode in damascus as stated. 2 Cor:12. Much of this chapt is out of body translated to written word. As he told Timothy in 2nd letter chap 2:9,,I am bound but the word of God is not bound. It wasn’t then, isn’t now, never will be.

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