Problem: Paul started preaching, or went to Arabia
Verses: Acts 9:8-20, Galatians 1:15-17; Status: Serious

Paul (also known as Saul) famously experienced a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and immediately became a follower of Christ. But accounts seem to differ over what he did next. These passages are Acts 9:8-9 and 18-20, written by Luke:

Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (ESV)

[Three days pass]

And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." (ESV)

However, Paul himself later wrote about what happened. This is Galatians 1:15-17:

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 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; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (ESV)

So, Acts tells us that Paul "immediately" started preaching, whereas Galatians says that he did not consult with anyone until after he had gone to Arabia.

However, I'm not sure this is a real problem. From the context (especially Galatians 1:11-12) it's clear that what Paul is stressing is that he did not receive the doctrines of Christianity from any human source. So he is really saying that he did not consult with any Christian. The fact that he started preaching immediately does not contradict this; indeed, his whole point is that he was able to preach without being taught by other Christians.

A more difficult issue is that Galatians says that Paul went to Arabia after his conversion, whereas Acts says that he immediately started preaching in Damascus. However, Galatians (as translated by the ESV) does not explicitly say that he went to Arabia immediately. But other translations do; e.g. the 1984 NIV does. There is a disagreement over where to place the word "immediately". Comparing various translations, it seems to me that Paul is really saying:

"My immediate action was not to consult anyone, nor to go to Jerusalem to speak to the apostles, but rather to go to Arabia"

The KJV translation brings this out quite well.

In order to solve this problem, one might suggest that Paul immediately went to Arabia, then returned and started preaching. For example, the Berean Bible Church website tells us:

Based on what we read in Galatians 1:17, the trip to Arabia was evidently made after Paul had received food, but before he spent several days with the disciples at Damascus.

However, Acts says that he immediately started preaching in the synagogues, which surely means immediately after his conversion - any other reading is completely unnatural. So this solution doesn't work.

As an alternative, one might suggest that Paul immediately started preaching, but his trip to Arabia happened soon afterwards - soon enough that it could also be called "immediate". I think this is a bit of a stretch.

Updated: 2009-01-30

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