Paul and Damascus, Syria


Just image a war between two opposing forces, not a war for material possessions; but a war for the destiny of the human being. One side accomplishes the will of the Supreme Entity with His Only begotten Son and the others do not, one way or another. The others have influenced multiple millions to their deceptive ways and these falsehoods have become apparent in this present age. This has become evident in several biblical stories and understandings. The following is one of them.

The introduction and early travels of Saul (Paul).

When we are first introduced to Saul (Paul), we are told that he is officiating over the stoning of a disciple of the Christ named Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7 and 7:55-8:1). So, it seems clear that Saul was persecuting the early Christians who were in this city. The fear of this persecution forced the Jerusalem Christians to leave and be scattered into the regions of Judea, Samaria and (Galilee). The next encounter is when Saul apparently requests letters to the Damascus synagogues from the high priest. This is done so he will be permitted to bind those believing on the Christ and return them to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).

This is an odd request and leads to the question.

Did the high priest have the authority to grant the request of Saul?

When we try to answer this question, a brief history of Syria and Damascus is required. When Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided among his military generals. Syria, including Damascus was awarded to the Seleucids, but with continuous war for control of the throne; the empire was weakened. Damascus then fell under the control of some Seleucid rebels. In about 84 B.C. the Nabataeans, a kingdom of Arabic-speaking peoples, with its capital at the desert city of Petra went to war with these Seleucid rebels and eventually took possession of Damascus, Syria.

In 63 B.C. the Romans, led by Pompey simply occupied Syria, where a power vacuum existed, and made it a Roman province. At first Pompey allowed the Nabataean king to retain Damascus. A little later, either he or his successor in Syria took Damascus from the Nabataeans and made it a free city. At this time the Romans preferred autonomous city states as the political organization for the areas south of their province of Syria. They created one series of them along the Mediterranean coast in Phoenicia and Palestine. They created another series inland in the desert fringe areas. In the latter area, beside Damascus, there were such city-states as Scythopolis (Beisan), Canatha (Hauran), Gadara, Pella, Gerasa (Jerash), and Philadelphia (Amman). These desert-fringe city-states were placed together in some sort of loose confederation known as the Decapolis (because they numbered ten in all), with Damascus as the capital of this confederation. East of them, the desert caravan trails were still controlled by the Nabataeans. Beyond this, Damascus must have been overwhelmingly a Syria-Aramaic city; with a population largely dependent on the desert caravan trade. It would seem an unlikely destination for Jerusalem Christians trying to escape the persecution. Whatever small Jewish community that may have existed there must have been composed largely of Israelites who had insinuated themselves into the caravan trade and wanted to keep it going. Such a Jewish Community would not have likely been very receptive to any messianic message emanating from Judea. Also, whatever shallow Greek veneer that might have been pasted over Syrian Damascus during the Seleucid period likely disappeared quite quickly when it was lost to the Nabataean Arabs. The Israelites that were there in the time of Paul would not have been influenced greatly by Greek thought. This makes the city all the more unlikely as a point of interest for Paul, both before and after his conversion. There is nothing in his background, as best as it can be sketched out, that connects him with Damascus earlier in his life.

So, the high priest of Jerusalem would have no authority at all to grant the request of Saul to go into Damascus, Syria (a free city) and arrest any Christians Jews that may be there! The reality is: Paul was not on his way to Damascus, Syria when he was called by the Christ! This creates a major problem with the story line that must be researched further.

If Paul was not on his way to Damascus, Syria! Where was he going?

The bible tells us that the Jerusalem Christians scattered into the regions of Judea and Samaria. This is where Paul was headed! The initial region where Paul is requesting permission to apprehend the followers of the Christ is the wilderness area of Perea, just east of Judea! This would make sense because the high priest would have the authority to grant the request of Paul. This wilderness area (Perea) was located just south of the region known as the Decapolis or a confederation of ten autonomous city-states with its capital in Damascus, Syria. This region was also known as the land of Damascus. So, it seems that Paul was traveling east of Jerusalem to Perea where there were many Jewish synagogues.

How Herod Antipas affected the story?

Sometime after King Herod the Great died, one of his sons; Herod Antipas was granted control of the Galilee and Perea regions by Rome. Perea was bordered by the Nabatean Kingdom on the east and south. Sometime early in his reign, Antipas married the daughter of King Aretas IV, ruler of this kingdom. This would make sense and the allegiance secured the borders that Perea had with Nabatea, but like any wise ruler, Antipas built fortified cities along these borders. But, the time came when the attentions of Antipas turned to another woman; Herodias. This woman was the divorced wife of Herod II, half-brother of Antipas. Herodias refused to marry Antipas as long as he was married to Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas. The divorce and embarrassment of Phasaelis (as well as border issues), infuriated the Nabatean king and war was the result. This war began sometime around 36 A.D. and occurred within the eastern and southern areas of Perea. This was not a long lasting war, but Josephus tells us that the army of Antipas was destroyed (Antiq. 18.5). Antipas, who was secure in Galilee; appealed to Rome for help, but the Nabatean King now controlled most of Perea. This leads us to 2 Corinthians 11:32-33.

Why would an Arab King (Aretas) want to apprehend Paul?

This is truly a puzzling question with no apparent reason and answer, except one: Paul was a descendant from the Herodian family line (probably Herod Antipas) and it was not a secret to King Aretas and/or one of his governors. The time period of 36 A.D. to 40 A.D., Damascus, Syria was not controlled by the Nabatean king, but was a free city-state under Rome. So, 2 Corinthians 11:32 cannot be referring to Damascus, Syria, but the region known as the land of Damascus or the Decapolis and the region of Perea. Unfortunately, time and multiple misunderstandings have not been kind to the story. Since the Nabateans had control (mostly) of Perea, when it was realized that a member of the Herodian family was in one of its cities; a detachment was sent to capture that member (Paul). There is, however, a contradiction. In Acts the enemies of Paul are the Jews of the city. In II Corinthians his enemy is the local representative of the king of the Nabataean Arabs. The depiction in Acts must be questioned. It is too obviously a product of later resentment by Christians against the Jewish majority that had eventually rejected them, and it makes no sense in the time frame in which it occurred. The enemy depiction in II Corinthians merits credibility precisely because it has no such easy explanation. It comes out of nowhere. Why would anybody make it up?

What about the professing Christians in the years 33-34 A.D.?

This question is aimed at the reality that there were not many Christians at this time period! Its intent is also to show that few, if any professing Christians were located in Damascus, Syria. In Acts 1, shortly after the Christ had risen; we are told that about 120 disciples were present when Peter is speaking to the group. This gathering was in response to the Christ's requesting that they not leave Jerusalem. These individuals would be considered the leaders (male and female) that would spread the news of the Kingdom of God. It should also be understood that the Christ commanded, during his ministry; that his disciples were not to go into the cities of the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5-7 and Luke 10:1). So, the only region where the true gospel was being introduced was Judea and Galilee. In Acts 2, we are told that about 3000 individuals were baptized on Pentecost. In First Corinthians 15:6, Paul tells us that about 500 disciples had seen the Christ after his resurrection. So, it should be concluded that some of the 3000 disciples baptized, where from areas outside Jerusalem; since it was Pentecost. But, these would be spread through-out Israel and other regions. The conclusion seems clear: of the approximately 4000 disciples of Christianity in the years 33-34 A.D., about 1/3 were located in Jerusalem and about 2/3 located in the remainder of Israel. There could have been some outside of Israel, but not many. Now, it is true that there were many Jews (Israelites) within the surrounding areas outside of Israel. But remember, the initial intent of Paul was to seek out Christians, not obedient Jews! The reality that about 1300 Christians that resided in Jerusalem fled to Judea and Samaria, when the persecutions began; shows just where Paul was headed in search of them (Acts 8:1).

The Damascus Document (suppied materials from outside source)

If we had only Acts to consider, we might well consider that the author of Acts was mistaken as to the Damascus he got from his source material. Perhaps the Damascus that he assumed was the large city by that name was in reality a symbolic name in his source for some other location. There are certainly grounds for such an idea in the so-called Damascus Document, a product of 2nd Temple Judaism that was partially discovered in a Cairo synagogue in 1896 and rediscovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The product of some Jewish sect, it talked about its first members having made a "new covenant" with God in the "land of Damascus". It is possible that the author of the Damascus Document actually meant the city of Damascus or it near surroundings. It is also possible that he meant some location in the area of the Decapolis city-states. Aramaic-speaker might well have referred to the Decapolis territories as the "land of Damascus" since Damascus was the political center of the confederation. However, the most likely explanation is that the "land of Damascus" in the Damascus Document had a purely symbolic significance, based on a sectarian reinterpretation of one or two passages in the Jewish scripture.

For this role, Amos 5: 21-27 fits the bill admirably:

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, when you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings. I will not accept them and will not look upon the peace offerings of your fatted beasts. Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

"Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

"Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your stargod--your images, which you made for yourselves.

"Therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus,"

- says Yahweh, whose name is the God of Hosts.

Now Amos was one of the earliest Hebrew prophets, and in his historical context it appears likely that, if he is prophesising anything, it is the removal of the royal house of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to some land so distant that it is beyond Damascus, as a result of their preferring sacrifices and offerings to real justice and their continuing to allow the worship of false gods.

Sects like the one that produced the Damascus Document, however, had an obsession with reinterpreting passages from Hebrew scripture to force them into prophecies relevant to their own times. In this process, they would readily change the apparent meaning of a passage to suit their own neo-prophetic notions. For them, "Damascus" remains a place of exile in concept. But instead of a place of punishment for unrighteous royalty, "Damascus" becomes a symbol for the place of refuge for righteous people, a self-imposed place of exile.

Another prophecy which may be relevant here is the oracle concerning Damascus in Isaiah 17:1-3, which begins "Damascus shall cease to be a city," and then goes on to predict that Damascus and other nearby cities will become deserted ruins where flocks can lie down and not be afraid. The prophet here was predicting a conquest of the kingdom of Damascus by the Assyrians involving the destruction of its capital city and other cities in the land of Damascus. But the prediction proved only half true. The kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians all right, but the city of Damascus was not destroyed. Passing under the rule of successive empires, it remained a large city. By using the term "land of Damascus" or "Damascus" for their wilderness refuge, the sect that produced the Damascus Document would be providing a complete validation of Isaiah’s prophecy, at least to its own satisfaction. "Damascus" would cease to be a city because for the members of the sect it would now refer to their wilderness refuge, where they—-God’s flock—-could lie down to sleep and not be afraid.

It is going too far to directly connect the early religious movement with the sect that produced the Damascus Document, although such a connection is entirely possible. All that is necessary here is to suggest that, stemming from the Amos and Isaiah passages, "Damascus" became a symbolic term in some spectrum of related sectarian groups for a wilderness location where self-proclaimed righteous people gathered together in an attempt to insulate themselves from the perversions of the prevailing society.

If "Damascus" is understood as meaning symbolically the location of some sectarian wilderness refuge that could be used by the followers of the Christ, somewhere in or near Judaea itself, then the mission of Paul to "Damascus" becomes more logical. Whether his authority to act against the followers of the Christ came from the Jerusalem temple priesthood, the Herodian ethnarch, or the Roman procurator, or some combination thereof, it would be limited to Judaea and/or its neighboring Herodian areas, and thus make some sense. One can easily imagine a scenario where talk by these peoples or by Paul himself about his expedition against the followers of the Christ, in a wilderness refuge called "Damascus" later came to be viewed as an expedition to the large, well-known city of the same name by people who were ignorant of the wilderness refuge.

So, the early travels of Paul can now be laid out.

The training and dedication of Saul in the Pharisaical way, as well as, his Herodian family background allowed the high priest in Jerusalem to use Saul to persecute the early Christians. This persecution forced the Jerusalem Christians to leave the city and flee to the wilderness regions of Judea and Samaria, which would have included Perea. Saul requests permission to seek out those who fled into these regions. Saul travels east of Jerusalem and pushes the Christians further east into Perea, but along the way he is converted. He is taken into a city or town in the Perea region. After a short time, he decides to travel to the mountain of God in Arabia. He then returns to Perea and stays for an extended period. Paul is recognized at some point (by the Nabateans) and a detachment is sent to apprehend him. He escapes as outlined in 2 Cor. 11 and arrives in Jerusalem. He attempts to join himself to the disciples; but they were all afraid of him and believed that he was not a disciple (Acts 9:26). He then speaks boldly in the name of the Anointed and disputed against the Grecians, but they (Grecians) planned a way to slay him. When the brethren realized this, they brought him to Caesarea Maritima and sent him forth to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30).

(Note: We gratefully acknowledge the input of all outside sources to this article)