Saul-Paul’s Stay in Syria (35-38 A.D.)
This great, spiritual Pauline excursus that we have made through the Acts of the Apostles and Saint Paul’s Epistles shows us how important was the Damascus experience in the life and evangelical ministry of Saint Paul. Before undertaking the second stage of the discussion and discovering through his letters the scope of this Pauline phrase, “For to me to live is Christ,” we should like to throw a little more light on Saint Paul’s stay in our region and country of Syria, both in Damascus and (our mother’s district) Hauran, called Arabia or Arab Roman territory by the Romans. Saint Paul says of it in his Epistle to the Galatians, “I went into Arabia.” (Galatians 1:17) Today, this corresponds geographically to the district that lies south of Damascus as far as the present border with Jordan and that was inhabited by the Nabateans, who were from earliest times constituted from Aramean nomads and Arabs.
Saint Paul stayed in Damascus and Arabia for three years after his conversion, as he affirms himself in the same Epistle to the Galatians, where he says, “I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.” (Galatians 1: 17, 18) That means that Saint Paul was baptized by Ananias around the years 36 or 37, as Saint Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, writing of Paul’s missionary activity in Damascus: -
Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; ‘Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?’ But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ. And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: but their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket. (Acts 9: 19-25)
We don’t know exactly the details of Saint Paul’s stay during those years spent in the region. When did he start preaching in the synagogues, proclaiming courageously Jesus’ name? “And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him.” (Acts 9:29) And when the disciples helped him to escape at night, whither did he go and where did he stay? When he returned to Damascus, how much of that three-year period, mentioned in Galatians, did he spend there?
It is certain that Saint Paul was in contact not only with the first Christian community in Damascus, which was of Jewish extraction, but also lived among the non-Jewish nomadic Nabateans, and probably with Nabatean Arab tribes inhabiting the region of the present-day city of Messimieh in the Hauran. He would have certainly shared in their way of life. He worked at his trade of tent-making, an important craft, especially as those people and many others in those times used to live in tents. But he surely spent a very great deal of time on the purpose of his stay, that of meditating on and deepening his vision of the books of the Torah that he probably knew by heart. I doubt that he had any books with him, but he discovered those books with new eyes.
So Paul lived in this region of the Arabian desert, as had the prophets, and like them he was in the school of silence, solitude, and calm, listening under the Shekinah to what God was saying within in him. He went back over the whole of the Old Testament, with the help of his universal cultural background: Pharisaic Jewish, Hebraic-Aramaic Semitic, Roman Latin, Hellenistic Greek and perhaps Arabic too. He recapitulated all the civilizations and cultures mentioned in Holy Scripture with new eyes. He had lost his sight at the gates of Damascus, but after baptism he regained his true sight. In fact, Saint Ananias baptizes him, then delivers a little sermon as preparation for Communion, as is mentioned by Saint Luke, where he says that Ananias went to Judas’ house. (It was on the Via Recta, one of the earliest and most important thoroughfares of Old Damascus, twenty-eight yards wide and a mile long, after the fashion of Roman cities.) Ananias laid hands on Saul, saying, “‘Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.’ And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.” (Acts 9: 18, 19)