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The Rise of St. Paul, 37 to 50 A.D.

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On 25 January 37, at the height of the persecution which had broken out with the martyrdom of St. Stephen, on the road approaching the city of Damascus, the arch-persecutor Saul of Tarsus had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ. A month previously, this Saul had assisted personally at the killing of the deacon St. Stephen. Now he was leading an officially authorised arrest party coming to raid the synagogues of Damascus in search of ‘Nazarenes’. Suddenly, just within sight of the city, he was struck to the ground and blinded by Jesus Himself crying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ Jesus knew His man and his moment. For Saul burned not merely with hatred of Nazarenes but also with love of the truth. The fierce persecutor fell to the ground and arose, a moment later, to become His most ardent Apostle. He had just received his first revelation, his first lesson in ecclesiology: assaults on His Church are assaults upon Christ Himself.* 2

This revelation on the road outside Damascus was to be the first of a series of personal revelations by the risen Christ to Saul, revelations which were to climax seven years later, in 44. In this, His first apparition to Saul however, Jesus did not immediately tell him of his mission to the Gentiles. Instead it was to an elder of the church in Damascus, Ananias, that He first revealed about Saul that ‘this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the gentiles and gentile kings’. Thus was Saul immediately taught by Christ to await his call, his vocation not only from God but also from His Church. 3

After his baptism in Damascus by Ananias, Saul retired for a ‘three years’ sojourn ‘in Arabia’. Although the region then called Nabataean Arabia extended south from Damascus as far as the city of Petra south of the Dead Sea, the traditions give no reason to believe he travelled far from the area of Damascus. There was a settlement of Essenes near Damascus, and perhaps it was with a group converted from these fervent waiters for the Messiah that he stayed. 4

In 39, during his third year of prayer and penance for his past life as a persecutor, Saul began to preach in Damascus. His courageous preaching quickly provoked an order for his arrest to be issued by the Ethnarch of the Nabataean King Aretas IX. After making his famous escape from Damascus by being let down over the city walls in a basket, Saul made his first postconversion visit to Jerusalem. 5

Apparently in connection with preparations for his projected invasion of Britain, the new Emperor Caligula in 37 had set about resolving territorial disputes in the East by vigorously parcelling out districts in the region to local rulers. Thus by 38 Aretas IX, King of the Nabataean Arabs since 9 BC, had been given control of Damascus. After a reign of 48 years, this King Aretas died in the winter of 39/40.*

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