We may this evening give our attention to a curious point in the history of Saul’s escape from Damascus, which does not appear in the regular narrative, nor in the apostle’s own reference to it.
We find it in the second of his epistles to the Corinthians. It is here stated that at the time “In Damascus, the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me.” Here the fact that startles us is, that Aretas, a petty king of Arabia Petraea, should be in the exercise of authority, by his officer or ethnarch, in a city not belonging to his proper territory, but under the Roman jurisdiction. Neither Josephus, nor any other writer, speaks of Damascus as ever having been subject to Aretas, and the circumstance seems at the first view unaccountable and even improbable. That the fact is not mentioned by the only one or two writers likely to have noticed it, is not in itself strange, on the principles of historical evidence; and we cannot pretend to produce any testimony on this point. But, in the absence of this, it is something to be able to show from the information we do possess, that it is by no means improbable that Aretas should at this time have had possession of Damascus.
This Aretas is the same king of Arabia whom Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, had so deeply displeased by divorcing his daughter, in order that he might marry Herodias. The injured princess returned to her father; and he, incensed at the treatment she had received, soon commenced hostilities against Herod, and in the last year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 37), had completely defeated his army. Aretas was, like Herod, tributary to the Romans, though in some degree less dependent, and Herod took care to send such a report of the matter to Rome, that the imperial wrath was roused at the audacity of Aretas in waging war with another “protected” sovereign, without the permission or concurrence of the emperor. Tiberius therefore sent orders to Vitellius, the Roman prefect in Syria, to declare war against Aretas, and either take him alive, or send his head to Rome.
But Vitellius cherished a dislike to Herod, and seems to have moved with little alacrity in what was essentially his cause. Indeed, the knowledge that this order had been procured by his representations to the emperor, was alone sufficient to render it distasteful to him.
The reason of his umbrage was this—
There had been a rebellion against the Romans, and great commotions in Parthia. After various attempts to settle these disorders, Tiberius ordered Vitellius to go and contract a league with Artabanus, the king of the Parthians. They met accordingly, each with a guard of honor, upon a bridge thrown for that purpose over the Euphrates, where they concluded the articles of agreement. After this they were splendidly entertained by Herod, who was present, in a rich pavilion curiously set in the middle of the stream—but whether upon the bridge itself, or upon a raft secured in the mid-stream, does not exactly appear. Herod then hastened to send to the emperor at Rome intelligence of the conclusion of this treaty, about which he knew that Tiberius felt much interest, with a full account of all the particulars. His messenger arrived considerably earlier than the one sent by Vitellius with his official account. The emperor therefore replied coldly that his intelligence was stale, for that he had already received all needful information from Herod. Vitellius was much hurt at this; and conceiving that he had been greatly injured in the emperor’s favor by the officiousness of the tetrarch, he cherished a secret resentment against that personage—not the less bitter that he was for the present obliged to keep it in his own bosom. For although Herod had lost the favor of the prefect, he had won that of the emperor, which he valued much more, so that it was not long after this that Vitellius received from Tiberius the order we have mentioned—to employ the Roman forces against Aretas, ostensibly to punish a refractory vassal, but really to avenge the quarrel of Herod Antipas.
However slowly and reluctantly, Vitellius was obliged to move in obedience to this order. At first, it was his intention to march his troops through Judea, as the nearest way to the territory of Aretas; but he was met at Ptolemais by an embassy from the Jews, who implored him to change his plan, as they could not suffer the Roman standards, with their idolatrous images, to be carried through their country. Upon this the prefect, who was a man noted for his courtesy, unwilling to give needless offence, sent the troops across the plain of Esdraelon, and went himself, with Herod and some others, to Jerusalem, to offer sacrifices in the temple, at the feast of the Passover, then nigh at hand. Gratified by his ready concession to their religious scruples, Vitellius was received with every possible mark of respect. On the fourth day after his arrival, news arrived of the death of Tiberius, and the accession of Caius Caligula. Upon this he required the Jews to take the oath of allegiance to the new emperor; and he eagerly seized the excuse of abandoning or postponing the enterprise against Aretas, alleging the necessity of first obtaining the sanction of the new emperor to the orders received from his predecessor. He therefore returned himself to Antioch, and dismissed his troops into winter quarters. Now, seeing how nearly this event appears, so far as can be ascertained, to coincide with, or slightly to precede, the mention of Aretas in the sacred volume, as master of Damascus, what forbids us to conclude, that in the course of the hostilities between him and Herod; upon the Syrian frontier; or on the withdrawal of Vitellius; or, which is still more likely, as soon as he knew what he had to expect, under the orders that general had received, to send him dead or alive to Rome, he gained possession of Damascus, which had belonged to his ancestors, and retained it in his possession during all the reign of Caligula. It had become a matter of life or death to him; and when he saw two legions of Roman soldiers, with numerous auxiliaries, marching against him, he had no alternative but to submit, or to do all that he could to strengthen his position. To submit were death with ignominy; to resist were, at the worst, death with honor; and when the Romans had declared war against him, and were pre pared to hunt him to the death, it was not a time for him to hesitate about making himself master of any city he was able to win, and the possession of which was desirable to him, merely on the ground that it was immediately under Roman jurisdiction. The new emperor had little regard for Herod, and seems to have justified the precaution of Vitellius, by not ordering the resumption of the expedition against Aretas. How long this prince held Damascus we know not. It is likely that the Romans came to terms with him, rather than incur the expense and trouble of a profitless little war; and that then he either relinquished his occupation of Damascus, or was confirmed in the possession of it by the Romans.
It seems therefore to us, that the Scriptural intimation, strange as it appears at the first view, fits very well into the common history of these transactions, and indeed furnishes a hint for the completion of an account of matters, which is left unsettled and imperfect.
The term (ethnarch), applied to the “governor” of Damascus, under King Aretas, may denote either a civil governor or military commandant—probably he was the latter, or perhaps both, the offices being often united, especially in a recently acquired town.
The influence which the Jesus had with him may be explained by considering how much it was his interest to conciliate so important a portion of the Damascene population. Besides, the government of Aretas could hardly fail to be popular with them. They hated the Roman yoke; and in the quarrel between Herod and Aretas, their sympathies were entirely with the latter. As for Herod, in his own dominions he was not much liked, and beyond them, he was detested.