Question: "Why, when, and for how long was the apostle Paul in Arabia?"
Answer: In any biography the author, by necessity, leaves out many events. Even a lengthy work like the 16-volume, 10 million-word biography of Winston Churchill by Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert, which is said to be the longest biography of modern times, will still leave out much more than it records. So, when we read the New Testament, which is relatively short, we do well to remember that the human authors have been highly selective, mentioning only a very few events in the lives of the characters. Paul’s time in Arabia is one such event that receives only a couple of brief mentions, without which we would know nothing of it at all. We can only speculate on the “why,” “when,” and “how long” of Paul’s time in Arabia based on the data we have.
It is important to determine what is meant by the term Arabia. In modern English, Arabia would refer to the Arabian Peninsula where Saudi Arabia is located. However, in the first century the designation could also refer to the Syro-Arabian desert, farther north, which includes portions of modern-day Syria and Jordan (The Ancient Arabia Languages and Cultures Project at the University of Oxford).
In the book of Galatians, Paul emphasizes that he received the gospel from Jesus directly and not from the other apostles. As evidence, he offers the following information in Galatians 1:11–20: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 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. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.”
Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, which is in Syria (Acts 9). After he saw the Lord, he continued on to Damascus. Acts 9 goes on to mention Paul’s ministry in Damascus and how he preached Christ and how the Jews planned to kill him. As his enemies were watching the city gates to prevent his escape, Paul was lowered down in a basket from the city wall and then traveled to Jerusalem. Although Luke, the author of Acts, does not mention the term Arabia or a three-year time frame, everything he writes in Acts 9 is consistent with what Paul says in Galatians 1. After his conversion, Paul spent time in Damascus and then went to Jerusalem later. In 2 Corinthians 11:32–33, Paul also mentions this detail: “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.” This final piece of information indicates that the local Jewish leadership had persuaded the Damascene officials to help them capture Paul.
Putting all the accounts together, Paul spent “several days” in Damascus (Acts 9:20–22). From there, according to Galatians 1:17, he left Damascus and went into Arabia, which may mean the surrounding desert countryside. We have no idea how far south into the Arabian Peninsula Paul may have wandered, but we know he later returned to Damascus. Galatians 1:18 says that “after three years” he went to Jerusalem. Because his conversion is the focus in Galatians 1, it is most reasonable to assume that he went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, not three years after returning to Damascus—but, either way, it was at least three years before he ever consulted the apostles in Jerusalem.
Paul was in Arabia (including Damascus and the surrounding desert) for at least three years immediately after his conversion. Some speculate that Paul spent this time in relative seclusion, perhaps living as a desert hermit and sorting out the implications of his new faith. However, the biblical record emphasizes that he immediately began preaching in the synagogues. Acts 9:22 does not present the picture of a man who is just “figuring it out”: “Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” When he left Damascus, with its significant Jewish population, it is reasonable to assume that he did the very thing that Jesus had called him to do—preach the gospel to the Gentiles. This does not eliminate the possibility that he spent solitary time in study of the Scriptures, prayer, and contemplation as he probably did throughout his life. Even in prison near the end of his death, he asks Timothy to bring “my scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). However, the point in Galatians 1 is that Paul already had a vigorous apostolic ministry before meeting with the apostles in Jerusalem, and from Acts 9 this ministry started immediately. For three years he spread the gospel in Damascus and in the surrounding countryside (see the helpful discussion in The Epistle to the Galatians: The New International Greek Text Commentary by F. F. Bruce, Eerdmans, 1982, p. 97).