Certainly one of the verses that Pauline scholars have regularly puzzled over is Galatians 1:17. Talking about the time immediately after his Damascus road experience—an encounter with the heavenly Jesus—and his days in Damascus recovering from that experience, Paul says this: “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus” (NIV; italics mine).
Arabia? In the first place, Paul is not referring to the area we today call Saudi Arabia. He is talking about the region that bordered the Holy Land to the south and east, namely the kingdom of Nabatea or, as it was sometimes called, Arabia Petrea (see map).
The Nabateans were neither Greeks nor Romans, but rather a formerly nomadic Semitic people who had their own language, kingdom, and deities. Because the major trade route, the so-called spice road, passed right through Petra, their capital city, located in what is today southern Jordan, the Nabateans became a prosperous people.a They were a rising power in Paul’s day, and their kingdom was independent of Roman control—even though later, in the early second century A.D., it would become part of the Roman Empire.