Damascus is an ancient city lying on the edge of the Arabian desert. Settled by Hittites, it was occupied by the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians and then refounded by the Macedonians and ruled by the Ptolemies, then the Seleucids.
Saul began to minister in the synagogues of Damascus ‘proving that Jesus was the messiah’ (v.22). This must have come as quite a shock to the local Jewish community who thought that he was coming to the city to round up the members of the Jesus sect and drag them back to Jerusalem. So effective is his ministry that the Jews plot to kill him (v.23).
Damascus was a walled city. The Jews were watching the gates, hoping to seize Saul. The disciples took Saul at night and lowered him through an opening in the wall in a basket. Saul escaped to Jerusalem.
Acts vs Galatians
The difficulty with this narrative is that is doesn’t quite square with the sequence of events from this period that we gather from Paul’s letters.
Luke covers the first fourteen years of Saul’s ministry (ca. 34-47 CE) in a mere sixteen verses (Ac 9.19-30; 11.25-26, 30; 12.25). He then devotes sixteen chapters to the final decade of Saul’s life. Since Luke was Paul’s travelling companion for many years, it cannot be lack of source material.
Luke’s purpose in writing his second volume is to chart the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and finally to Rome. Reading his account of Paul’s early years you could be forgiven for thinking that Paul did not start preaching to the gentiles until the incident at Lystra (Ac. 13.46; ca. 47). Paul claims that he began his Gentile mission immediately (Gal. 1.16).
Galatians is probably Paul’s earliest letter, written soon after his first visit to the churches in southern Galatia (ca. 47, some 14 years in the future). In defending the independence of his gospel, Paul gives quite a detailed description of his early movements.
After leaving Damascus, Saul did not go to Jerusalem for three years. Rather he travelled to Arabia and then back to Damascus. It seems likely that it was on his return trip to Damascus that he escaped King Aretas in a basket lowered from the wall (2 Cor 11.30-33).
Here is a picture of Saul’s future in miniature: preach about a crucified messiah; upset the Jews; upset the pagan authorities who dislike civil unrest; suffer and/or flee to escape violence
Gal. 1.16-17; 2 Cor. 11.32-33; ca. 34-36 CE
Tom Wright  speculates that after leaving Damascus, Saul headed south into the Sinai wilderness on a pilgrimage to Horeb, the holy mountain. Following in the footsteps of Elijah. Rethinking what ‘zeal’ looks like now that a crucified man has been raised from the death and the Spirit of God is poured out on ordinary people. He travelled to Sinai, where Moses received the Law and Elijah a new commission.
Wright claims that he is drawing together threads in the text of Galatians. His argument is quite plausible and it makes a great story, but we don’t really know.
The ancient desert kingdom of Nabataea lay on the Arabian plateau on the eastern side of the Jordan. The kingdom included the cities of the Decapolis, with the magnificent rose sandstone stronghold of Petra far to the south, as the capital. The kingdom was at the height of its powers.
Deep enmity existed between Aretas IV of Nabataea and Herod Antipas. Antipas had married the king’s daughter, Phasaelis, but abandoned her to shack up with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. War erupted in 37, resulting in a resounding defeat of Herod’s army.
It was a precarious time to be a Jewish missionary in Arabia. Saul appears to have spent three years there, beginning his ministry among the gentiles. In Arabia.
Did he get as far south as Petra? How did he come to the attention of the king who tried to have him seized in Damascus? Did he stir up trouble in the Jewish population in the Arabian kingdom? We do not know, but it seems probably that it was on his return to Damascus after several years, that Saul escaped the city in a basket.
Gal 1.18-19/Ac 9.26-27; ca. 36 CE
After three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas . . .
Saul was greeted with deep suspicion when he finally returned to Jerusalem. Barnabas apparently set up the visit and calmed the alarmed Jerusalem leaders, arranging for him to stay with Cephas (Peter) for a fortnight.
On this visit he was also introduced to James, the Lord’s brother, but not the Jerusalem church or the other apostles for he was ‘still unknown in person to the churches of Judea’ (v. 22) although Luke says that he ‘went in and out among them at Jerusalem’. Luke, again, probably compresses his narrative.
Saul did visit some of his old haunts, notably the synagogue of the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews), many of whom were probably friends from his previous life in Judaism. He was ‘preaching boldly in the name of the Lord’ and disputing ‘against the Hellenists’, which was a dangerous game. These were the same people who orchestrated the stoning of Stephen.
Not wanting a repeat of that event, the Jerusalem christians took Saul to Caesarea and put him on a boat back home, that is, to Tarsus in Cilicia.
‘into the regions of Syria and Cilicia’
Cilicia is a fertile plain in the northwest corner of Mediterranean at the foot of the Taurus mountains. Tarsus, the capital, was a university town, located at the crossroads of the great east-west trade route, about 12 km from the coast. It had a famous school of rhetoric, dominated by Stoic philosophy, with an elitist minority, the Epicureans. Founded as a Hittite settlement more than a thousand years earlier, Tarsus became a Hellenistic city after the conquest of Alexander.
Saul, it seems, returned to his family and back to his trade, working as a tentmaker, probably in the family business. It is easy for us to forget that Saul was never a ‘professional’ christian such as is common in the church today, sitting at his desk in his study, writing sermons and letters.
Wherever he went, he needed to earn his living, which meant that he spent his days plying his trade. Sleeves rolled up. Working with leather.
It is fairly likely that Saul came from money. He was a citizen of Tarsus, indicating substantial wealth. Citizenship cost almost two years wages. Saul was also a Roman citizen, a highly privileged status inherited from his father or grandfather (Ac 22.28).
Saul was from a devout Jewish family, that was wealthy and influential enough that it could afford to send Saul to Jerusalem at a young age to study under the famed rabbi Gamaliel. With the best rabbinic training that money could buy, Saul became a highly competent scribe. Maybe he was on the fast-track to the Sanhedrin. His later work displays impressive knowledge of the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT).
What did Saul do in these hidden years in Tarsus? Thinking through the faith
He searched the scripture and thought his way backwards from the new reality in which the crucified messiah had been raised from the dead and God’s Spirit poured out upon his people. Are there any clues to this in Torah, in the writings or the prophets?
He thought his way through Israel’s story and God’s own story, which have strangely merged in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is Israel in person, taking upon himself Israel’s failed vocation to complete it. But he is also Yahweh himself returning at last to Zion to rescue his people, and hence make blessing flow to the nations. New creation. New exodus. New temple.
It is the implications for the people of God that were most revolutionary. If Israel’s God is actually the one God of the whole world, as the psalmists and the prophets declared, then when the true king comes, he will be the king of the whole world (Ps 2.7-9; 47.8-9; 72; Isa 11). The hope of Israel is the hope for a new world.
And what will Abraham’s worldwide family look like?
These are dangerous and provocative ideas.
Trying it out
A portable trade, in demand throughout the Roman world, gave Saul the opportunity to travel and preach and it seems likely that he did this around Syria and Cilicia, though we have no record of churches planted. There is a hint in Romans 15.19 where Paul the apostle claims,
17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.
Paul is claiming to have fully preached the gospel from Jerusalem to Croatia, but only in places not previously evangelised. Syria and Cilicia lie within this arc. Other evidence may be found in 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul lists his travail as an apostle,
countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food,[b] in cold and exposure.
Much of this suffering must have occurred during the silent years of ministry in Syria and Cilicia’ because Acts is silent about most of it.
What kind of reception did Saul receive from his family?
We have no definitive answer, but Romans seems to point towards pain and rejection:
9 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,[a] my kinsmen according to the flesh.
Though Paul is writing about his countrymen, his anguish seems a bit too raw. He speaks here of people he knows and loves. It seems likely that his family did not share his faith in Jesus.
Was there a girl? It is highly unlikely that the son of a wealthy Jewish family would not be betrothed. Did he marry when he returned to Tarsus only for his wife to die young? Or did the girl’s family break off the engagement when Saul returned with a head full of objectionable ideas? We don’t know.
In 1 Cor. 12, (written about c. 56 CE) Saul writes of one particular experience where he describes a man being caught up into the third heaven, where he saw things that he cannot talk about. His point is not to fascinate us with a spiritual experience, but to point instead to the importance of humility and weakness.
This event most likely came during Saul’s season in Tarsus, which was no doubt a tough time.
Antioch lay on the banks of the Orontes river, about 20 km inland on a broad fertile plain. It was founded as a Hellenistic city in 300 BCE and became the capital of the Seleucid empire. Captured by Pompey in 66 BCE, it became the capital of the Roman province of Syria, which included Judea, and a major military garrison, the base for four legions.
In Paul’s day, Antioch was the third city of the empire, after Rome and Alexandria, with a population of about 300 000, including a Jewish population of as many as 50 000. The Jews were allowed to practice their religion and Josephus tells us that Jewish faith ‘attracted a large number of Greeks and in a way made them part of themselves.’ (Barnett, 264)
The church at Antioch was a new development. Believers fleeing after the stoning of Stephen, made their way north, settling in the city (ca. 34 CE). The first wave only told the good news to Jews (11.19). Later, ‘men of Cyprus and Cyrene’ arrived in Antioch and began preaching to Greeks. i.e. gentiles, probably the ‘God-fearers’ attached to the synagogues.
The Jerusalem church, as usual, was suspicious and resistant to non-Jewish people entering the community of faith. Yes, they welcomed Peter’s work with Cornelius and his family, but it seems likely that they saw this as an exception, rather than a new rule.
The apostles sent Barnabas who was a trusted member of the Jerusalem community to check things out. As a Cypriot, Barnabas was welcomed by the new church at Antioch. He immediately set to work building up the church, building a multiethnic leadership team of prophets and teachers.
The results were impressive. Immediate growth.
We don’t have a date, but it is likely that Barnabas arrived in Antioch in the early 40s. After a while, he realised that the work was too big, so he set off to Tarsus to find Saul, bringing him to Antioch in c. 44. They ministered together for a year.
Five leaders of the Antioch church are named: Barnabas, the key leader; Symeon called Niger, probably a black man; Lucius of Cyrene is probably one of the unnamed believers who started evangelising Gentiles in Antioch; Manean from the court of Herod the tetrach. Big questions. How did he become a believer? Was he a fugitive from the Jerusalem church? (Ac. 13.1-2).
The Antioch church, not Jerusalem, will be the base from which the mission to the Gentiles heads west towards Rome.
Jerusalem again: The ‘famine’ visit
Gal 2.1-3; Ac. 11.27-30; ca. 47
At some point, the prophet Agabus gave a warning of a famine in Judea. The Antioch church collected relief for the famine and sent it to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Saul. Titus, probably an gentile convert from Antioch, travelled with them.
On this trip, Barnabas and Saul met in private with the ‘pillars’ of the Jerusalem church. Saul laid out ‘the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles’ (Ac. 15.23). The Jerusalem leaders recognised the grace that was on Barnabas and Saul and agreed to a division of labour. Peter, the remaining Twelve and the Jerusalem church would continue the mission among the Jews; Barnabas and Saul would take the gospel to the nations.
Back in Antioch, as the leaders gathered in prayer, the Spirit instructed them to set apart Barnabas and Saul (Ac. 13.3). In Luke’s mind, this is the beginning of the Gentile mission (which Paul thinks he has been doing for more than a decade.
This journey through the early period of Saul’s life illustrates how God develops ministry skills and leadership in stages. Robert Clinton has studied ministry and leadership development and identified the different stages, usually sequential, that all leaders pass through on their way to maturity (or not). His fascinating observations can be found in The Making of a Leader, which I strongly recommend. This links well with the work of various psychologists and sociologists who proposed state theories such as Jean Piaget, (cognitive development), Erik Erikson (psychosocial development) and James Fowler (faith development).
At each stage in our lives, God is doing something in us, developing character, skills or giftedness. Each stage has work to be done and a crisis or ‘test’ for be faced and we don’t get to progress to the next stage until it is complete. This explains why some people’s lives seem to go round and round the same mountain.
This raises a question. In which season of life do you find yourself? What is it that God is developing you in this season?
 N.T. Wright, “Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17),” Journal of Biblical Literature 115.4 (Winter 1996): 683-692. [https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jbl/1996-4_683.pdf];
 Clinton, J Robert, The Making of a Leader, 2012 Revised edition. NavPress.