A Closer Look: Damascus

Both Acts and Paul (Gal. 1:17, which claims that he “returned” there) state that Paul was in Damascus after his conversion (which presumably happened near there; 2 Cor. 11:32) before traveling again to Jerusalem. Many scholars, ignoring Acts, claim that Paul’s preconversion persecution of Christians occurred in Damascus. Against their view, the persecution likely happened in the same place as his advancement in Judaism (Gal. 1:13-14), where he got his Pharisaic training (Phil. 3:5-6), which would almost certainly be in Jerusalem. Until the time of Ignatius, none of our sources specify Jews persecuting Christians as a group in Syria (including Damascus), but rather in Judea (Gal. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:15).

To reach Damascus from Jerusalem (cf. Acts 9:1-3; 22:5; 26:12), one would travel the Great North Road. Damascus was about 135 miles north of Jerusalem, a journey of roughly six days by foot (though it could be covered two or three times as fast by horse). An ancient city, it adopted many Greek and Roman religious customs alongside its older ones. Thus, for example, it completed a massive temple of the Damascene Jupiter (the old Syrian deity Hadad-Ramman), the largest temple we know of in Roman Syria.

Most relevant for Paul’s preconversion persecution of fellow Jews is that many Jews and also proselytes lived in Damascus; Josephus even claims that a generation later Damascus slaughtered ten to twenty thousand Jewish residents. Some estimate that some thirty thousand to forty thousand Jews lived there in this period; in the Middle Ages, estimates of the Jewish population varied from some three thousand (plus four hundred Samaritans) to ten thousand. Luke mentions multiple synagogues here (Acts 9:2,20). It is possible that many Essenes settled in Damascus in an earlier period, although many scholars interpret the Damascus Document’s reference to the city symbolically.

Luke’s claim that Christians already had settled in Damascus is not likely his invention; also, Paul was persecuting Christians in the period during which he was converted in or near Damascus (Gal. 1:13-17). Jewish Christians there eventually would have attracted God-fearers, just as local synagogues in Damascus were doing in large numbers.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more on Damascus, please check out Dr. Keener’s book Galatians: A Commentary.

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