A Suspected Interpolation in 2 Corinthians
by Sid Green (September 12, 2003)

"The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised for ever, knows that I am not lying. 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." 2 Corinthians 11:31-33, NIV.

The Background

In his recently published work, "Interpolations in the Pauline Letters" William O. Walker, Professor of Religion at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, shows that the existence of interpolations in the genuine Paulines is to be expected simply on a priori grounds. [01] However, the accusation that the Church tampered with Paul’s letters is hardly new; in the second century a war of words raged between the Marcionite Gnostics and the proto-orthodox strand of Christianity. Marcionites alleged massive interpolations into the Pauline letters, while their opponents countered with the charge that the Marcionites had excised quantities of genuine Pauline text. Walker points out that our own religious or other convictions are no basis for deciding in favour of one or the other. [02] Interestingly, Valentinian Gnosticism, equally keen to show Paul as their Gnostic founder, disposed of the supposed interpolations by exegesis.

Paul’s letters were certainly collected for Christian use by someone, and were probably assembled into volumes. More than one letter has been used to make up 2 Corinthians for example, and many regard 1 Corinthians and some others as being similarly constructed. We might therefore expect the survival of an occasional manuscript copy of a letter prior to its being included in a volume, but none are known. Walker finds this suspicions, and the remarkable degree of agreement between all the known manuscripts of the letters - much closer than we find in the surviving manuscripts of any other NT material, gives him further cause to be doubtful. [03]

Walker implies that the collector of the various epistles was the most important editor, and he deals with a variety of suspect passages, but omits any investigation of the passage quoted above. This text has long perplexed me, and I shall seek here to cast some light on it, noting emphatically that I am not attributing my own views to Walker except as stated.

General Considerations

The Paulines are the earliest of the various books of the NT but were included very late in the unofficial canon of Christian writings, having been collected in the first quarter of the second century. I think it inevitable that many issues raised by the late assessment of the Pauline letters vis-à-vis the (by then) accepted gospel stories, would have led to ‘adjustments’ by the first editors, and Walker deals convincingly with some major examples.

I am convinced that the answer to the New Testament riddle lies in history, and that Paul and his writings, and the people he mentions, are all essentially historical. Neither Paul nor any other early writer however knows of any ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ nor even of any ‘Nazareth.’ At the same time, no references to the ‘Nazoraioi’ - the sect of the ‘Nazoraeans’ are to be found in Paul or other early NT books. While the much later Acts of the Apostles gives the definition of ‘Nazoraioi’ at 24:5, and shares with the gospels the prolific use of the term, it shares too, excepting this single occurrence, the desire to represent it as meaning ‘from Nazareth.’ [04] If Paul was indeed a leader of the ‘Nazoraioi,’ as Acts proposes, then it is extraordinary that there is no suggestion of any such a word in anything written by Paul or any of his near contemporaries. He mentions neither being associated with the villagers of Nazareth, nor with any religious sect of troublemakers. This reminds us that at the time of collection Christianity was highly organised and at war with the Gnostics, with a unique opportunity now presenting itself for removal of any references that might call into question the bulk of the material introduced for the first time in the gospels.

Paul’s ‘Lord’

Paul believed that ‘the Lord’ had been resurrected, and that many had seen him in his resurrected form, but nowhere does he suggest that any of these people knew or had seen the Lord while he was living. Paul’s ‘gospel,’ or ‘good news,’ was quite simply that this resurrected person was the Messiah, or ‘Christ,’ whose resurrection held out the hope of bodily resurrection for all men at the ‘end of the Age.’ The arrival of the Christ was of course the sign that the end was imminent.

Along with a small number of other critics I strongly suspect that Paul considered the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ - revealed to us in modern times by the Damascus Document and by the Dead Sea Scrolls - to have been the long-since-dead but recently-resurrected ‘Lord.’ This is not to say that the Teacher was Jesus, since the evangelist set his Jesus story in the era of Pontius Pilate, whereas the Teacher lived more than a century earlier. The conspicuous silences by Paul, and by all other early writers, of any detail of the Lord’s life story have been much debated. The matter is best explained as being simply because the Teacher was historically too far in the past for biographical details to be generally known, while the Jesus of Nazareth of the gospels was still in the future.

Nazoraeanism, as followed by Paul, originated in Palestine, among sectarians who expected the resurrection of the Teacher and came to believe that it had happened. Emerging Christianity was based on the gospel stories, written later in the Diaspora, so the editors of the letters would have been alert to possible conflicts. There would be some who knew the letters before collection, so changes could not be made too freely. Silences in Paul’s genuine writings, although today seen by many as extraordinary, were for the most part left unrectified since a silence cannot in itself cause a conflict. Letters to deceased individuals however could not be disavowed by their alleged recipients, and the Gnostics, along with most modern scholars, denounced the Pastorals, which were a wholesale condemnation of Gnosticism, as sheer forgery.

The editors of the collected letters had to identify Paul’s ‘Lord’ with the gospel Jesus, as the gospels never refer objectively to Jesus in this way, reserving for God Almighty the term ‘the Lord’. Accordingly, for clarification, the editor appended ‘Jesus’ and sometimes ‘Christ’ to numerous examples, the resulting permutations becoming well-known Christian liturgy, even when alien to gospel usage. [05]

If changes were made, and Walker shows that they were, the incompatibilities we see today between gospels and the writings of Paul are the residue of a range of confusing issues that the collector of the epistles attempted to deal with. It was a unique opportunity, because by the end of the first quarter of the second century Christianity was widespread and there would be no second chance. Changes made at the time of collection would persist in every subsequent copy as the material proliferated throughout the Christian world. Once released therefore it is probable that no further wholesale amendments were attempted and it suffered only from the usual activities of scribal ‘correctors.’ This would account for the high degree of uniformity among the various manuscripts of Paul’s letters.

Paul’s "Damascus"

Most scholars and laymen with knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Damascus Document, (CD,) will know that a community of sectarians exiled themselves from the temple cult in its Hasmonaean form, and sojourned in the ‘the land of Damascus.’ We can be certain that this place was not Damascus the Syrian city, because the CD explains by means of a commentary - or ‘pesher’ - on a passage taken from the book of Amos, that the words of Amos are to be seen as an allegory.

"I will exile the tabernacle of your king and bases of your statues from my tent to Damascus" CD 7:15, (The CD is here quoting Amos 5:26-27,) translation Geza Vermes.

The ‘pesher’ - shows that the Amos text is to be seen as relating to the circumstances of the sectarians themselves.

"The ‘books of the law’ are the ‘tabernacle of your king’, ‘the congregation’ is the ‘king’, and the ‘books of the prophets’ are ‘the bases of your statues.’ [06]"

It is extremely unlikely therefore that the ‘Damascus’ of the sectarians was the Syrian city. Taking this text as predictive of their own condition, the name of Damascus became, symbolically, the name of their place of exile. This can only mean that we have to consider two separate locations for ‘Damascus’ when we encounter it in anything written in that era.

So, where was the Damascus of the CD?

Many scholars opt for Qumran, but there is a strong counter argument that suggests a great deal of wishful thinking by the earlier Scroll scholars. Some would propose a more general area near the Dead Sea, the home of the Essenes according to Pliny, but there is scarcely a scholar to be found who would suggest that ‘Damascus’ is here intended to mean the Syrian city. Michael Wise however believes that it may have been the land lying between that city and the border of Judaea. He notes incidentally that from 95-64BCE Damascus was the capital city of Coele Syria, a short-lived and rather small kingdom, dominated for part of that time by Aretas III of the Nabataeans. [07] The ‘Land of Damascus’ therefore might mean the country of which Damascus was then the capital. Wise’s opinion, whether right or wrong, introduces a historical matter that may be seen as significant as we investigate further.

From sources available since the 1950s, we can say that the group of Essenic sectarians who venerated the Teacher had been led by him to this other ‘Damascus’ where he was captured by ‘the Wicked Priest’ and executed. [08] These sectarians were the ‘Guardians’ or ‘keepers’ (‘of the Law’) - ‘Shomerim’ in Hebrew - which is the origin of the name of the Samarians who shared the conviction that their role in protecting the Hebrew scriptural heritage was unique. The term is used persistently throughout the sectarian writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in Aramaic, the spoken language of that time and place, the word was ‘Natsarraya’ which transliterates perfectly into the Greek as ‘Nazoraioi’ meaning ‘Nazoreans.’ The Nazoraioi are unambiguously identified in Acts 24:5 as the group persecuted by Paul until he became one of them.

Acts of the Apostles is one of the last NT works to be written, while the Paulines are the very earliest, yet Acts must have been written only shortly before the Pauline letters were collected. We can be reasonably sure of this because we see that the author has an incomplete knowledge of Paul’s life story as revealed by the letters. Naturally, the possibility therefore exists that where differences occur the letters are the more accurate of the two records. This would likely be true if we could be sure that no one had tampered with either record, but no such certainty exists.

Everyone knows that Paul was on his way to Damascus to apprehend members of ‘the Way’ when he was converted to the belief of the ‘Nazoraioi.’ Nowhere does Acts specify any detail that would oblige us to accept that Paul’s ‘Damascus’ was the Syrian city, but 2 Corinthians 11:31-33 emphatically does so.

Acts 9 says that Paul was armed with writs from the High Priest as he started his journey, but on the basis that the High Priest had no authority whatsoever outside the boundaries of Judaea the Damascus in Syria is not credible as Paul’s destination. But if ‘Damascus’ were in Judaea we would expect its inhabitants to be Jews, and not Nabataeans. On this point Acts has something to say:

After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket. Acts 9:1-30, NIV.

Acts, knowing nothing of any Nabataeans under King Aretas, is aimed at a gentile readership, and so describing the inhabitants of a Jewish location as ‘Jews’ is not especially controversial.

Upon publication, the Damascus Document, and later the Scrolls, suggested to modern scholarship an obviously close affinity between the sectarian community that wrote and used them and the group that Josephus calls ‘Essenes.’ Although it is fashionable these days to be wary of the word ‘Essene’ used too freely in these connections, the majority of scholars understand the sectarians of the Scrolls to have been Essenes. From the writings of Josephus it is known that any convert to the belief of those ‘Essenes,’ would undergo a process of induction lasting for three years, and this is in substantial agreement with the Scrolls. [09] If we are on the right track therefore, we might expect to learn that having sought out the Nazorean enemy at their ‘Damascus,’ and having then been converted, Paul would need to stay at ‘Damascus’ for three years before being accepted as a full-fledged member. The first chapter of Galatians has this to say on the matter:

"…nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days." Galatians 1:17,18, NIV.

Motivational Considerations

Why would it be desirable, early in the second century when the Pauline epistles were being collected and circulated for Christian appreciation, to attempt to deceive people about the nature or whereabouts of Paul’s ‘Damascus?’ Acts of the Apostles, written only a few years earlier, declares quite openly that the Nazoreans are the religious sect to which Paul became converted, so any decision to deny such an association was decided quite shortly after Acts was written. No NT writer could have known that the ‘other’ Damascus would be forgotten, remaining unknown until its rediscovery in 1896, but suppression of any mention of it, or of the ‘Nazoraioi’ themselves, suggests that it was desirable to lose the connection. Christians of almost all denominations conspire to translate the frequent references to ‘Nazoraios’ as ‘of Nazareth’ so that Jesus the Nazorean becomes ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Oddly it is a fundamentalist bible translator, Darby, who refuses to fall in with this. [10] Acts 24:5 escaped because Paul could not have been the leader of the villagers of Nazareth; the switch in meaning simply doesn’t work in this instance and the reference had to be either ignored or removed. Fortunately for posterity, the former option was chosen.

Acts was written therefore somewhat before implementation of a policy to exclude the Nazorean connection from Christian history. However, the author aims to portray Paul as a senior Nazorean leader, equal to, or perhaps even greater than Peter, and information that would go against his purpose he certainly does exclude. His objective would be impossible to sustain if Paul were seen to be at the bottom of the ladder, a novice under training at Damascus, while Peter was obviously at the summit of the sectarian hierarchy. Accordingly the author of Acts brings Paul straight back to Jerusalem after his conversion, to chat with Peter on equal terms, and he manages to lose the three years by inventing an episode where Paul is bundled off to Tarsus for his safety. This is strong reason to suppose that the author of Acts was unaware of much of the Pauline material, or that the letters were not yet generally known and he did not expect them to be circulated.

The interval between the writing of Acts and the Paulines being collected for circulation was the time when the Nazorean heresy was about to be written out of Christian history. The fact that Acts was almost unknown for more than a century after its appearance seems to have helped it to escape the attentions of the Christian censors. [11]

However, although the Nazoreans are identified in Acts as being the sect that later came to be called ‘Christians,’ in the Christian era their belief is identified as heretical. Jerome, for example, writes of them:

"these Minaeans are commonly called Nazoraeans, and they believe in Christ, the Son of God. . . But while they will be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor Christians." [12]

By that time of course it is likely that few Christians would be conscious of the history of the origin of their own beliefs, now entirely re-oriented to conform to the stories from the Diaspora that we call ‘gospels.’ While the heresies deplored by the second and third century Church were essentially Gnostic in some form, the sectarian writings of the Scrolls display a dualism that is also characteristic of that tendency. This points to Nazoreanism as the source of Christian Gnosticism, and so, as it seems to be the source of Christianity itself, it gives a good indication that the ‘Orthodox’ Christian tendency arose from a Gnostic milieu, and not the other way around.

Given these circumstances, to be descended from Nazoreanism was not something in which Christians would take any pride, since to admit it would be to concede that Christianity had evolved from a belief that was officially seen as a heresy. Although this is certainly exactly what happened, it is also clearly something that the leaders of the Church would be loath to admit, since the official line was, and still is, that Christian belief has been unerringly consistent since the beginning.

If we now suspect that the purpose of the 2 Corinthians passage was to remove evidence of Paul’s association with the ‘Damascus’ where Nazoreans were known to flourish, then we must next look at historical evidence to confirm it.

Some Historical Considerations

The quotation from 2 Corinthians above is due much respect, because it seems to be the only source of the historical ‘fact’ that in Paul’s lifetime the city of Damascus was a possession of the kingdom of Nabataea. Historians, as well as critics of both the believing and unbelieving varieties, have simply accepted this supposed fact, even though the author of Acts was apparently ignorant of it. Yet the matter has caused some head-scratching, with much effort to explain away the many problems that such an idea raises. A footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV,) for example, gives a note for 2 Corinthians 11:32 as follows:

"Aretas IV was king of Nabataea, southeast of Palestine. Apparently Damascus was under his jurisdiction at the time of Paul’s escape."

The ‘apparently’ betrays the somewhat timid tone of a claim that I believe to be unsustainable. The author(s) of those footnotes also comment upon the mystery of Acts 9:2, where Paul proceeds to Damascus to arrest members of ‘the Way’, armed with the writ of the High Priest, who had no authority outside Judaea as already stated. To explain away this inconsistency the footnote writer(s) offer us this:

"The Way, i.e. the true way of the Lord, was one of the earliest names for Christianity. Those who belonged to it at Damascus were probably from Jerusalem; the empire granted the Jews the right to extradite offenders."

No source other than Acts itself justifies such an explanation, but the Dead Sea Scrolls contain numerous references to the sectarians as ‘the Way’, exactly as the author of Acts describes the Nazoreans on six separate occasions. The author of these NRSV notes avoids any acknowledgement of this, but sees no difficulty with Damascus being under Nabataean jurisdiction for the purposes of 2 Corinthians, and under the juridical power of imperial Rome insofar as Acts 9 requires it, complete with a highly convenient Roman extradition treaty. I do not need to dwell further on such flagrant inconsistency.

As to the powers of the High Priest, I am not the first to detect the dilemma posed by the account in Acts, yet it is surprising how few commentators recognise its importance. When Pompey annexed Judaea, 63BCE, the High Priesthood lost its secular authority and High Priests lost royal power and status. Hyrcanus II and the High Priests who followed him had no foreign policy powers and they ceased to be kings. Hyrcanus’s nephew and immediate successor, the usurper Antigonus, briefly defied Roman authority, declaring himself king, for which affront he was executed by Mark Antony in 36BCE. The subordination of High Priests to Roman authority was absolute, and traditional religious jurisdiction over Jews was permitted only within Judaea itself. We can be certain that the Romans would deal severely with any High Priest who assumed secular powers ultra vires.

The idea that having successfully expelled thousands of ‘Way’ believers (Acts 8:1), the High Priest would risk everything to send a gang to Syria – a Roman province – to bring them back, (Acts 9:2) is simply absurd. That he would equip the gang with signed warrants, thus incriminating himself, to arrest, kill or kidnap people because of religious disagreement, is too ridiculous to merit discussion. Even the most conservative Christian commentators, such as Jerome Murphy O’Connor, reluctantly admit that this is an insuperable objection to the account given in Acts. He prefers to say that the author of Acts must have been mistaken,[13] rather than to speculate about an alternative location for Damascus. If it were the ‘Damascus’ of the sectarians who believed in the resurrected Teacher however, then the whole story makes perfect sense. Yet Christians, whether scholars or not, are virtually unanimous in pouring scorn on the idea that Paul was concerned with ‘the other’ Damascus, and insist that he was in Syria, pointing to 2 Corinthians 11:32 as a circular ‘proof.’ Here we read that Damascus was ruled by the Nabataeans under King Aretas, yet Paul’s religious ideas, while offensive to religious Jews, offered no threat to the Nabataeans and no plausible motive has ever emerged for a Nabataean attempt on Paul’s life.

Syrian Damascus was a cosmopolitan city, but the dominant social and political tendency among the population was Hellenistic, not Nabataean. Any one group of any persuasion however, finding itself dominant in such a milieu, would need tact and diplomacy, rather than religious intolerance, in order to preserve social order and the flourishing commerce that was the city’s raison d’être. If the Nabataeans were such a dominant group, to demonstrate overt, lethal intention towards a minority belief that neither threatened them nor gave offence to their own religious ideas, seems to be a most ill-advised course of action.

I believe the forger’s intention was to relocates ‘Damascus’ into Syria, by the simple addition of four words or so to the Greek written by Paul. Having relocated ‘Damascus’ at what is, chronologically, the earliest opportunity in the NT, further mentions - in whatever Christian writing - would require no further indicators for readers to know that this was the Syrian Damascus and not some place that may have been the cradle of Nazoreanism.

Still the most important question must be: Were the Nabataeans in control of Damascus anyway? Because if they were not, then interpolation becomes more certain, and more sinister. If Damascus could not possibly have been under Nabataean rule, then it is inconceivable that Paul, who lived there for three years, believed otherwise. The interpolation is then certain, and the purpose can only be to deceive us.

Murphy O’Connor somehow calculates that the Nabataeans gained control of Damascus in 37CE, following the death of the Emperor Tiberius, [14] but admits that there is no record of it. On the other hand Josephus tells a different story. He records the total defeat in battle of the Roman-appointed tetrarch, Herod Antipas, by none other than Aretas IV of Nabataea in 36CE, following which affront to Roman authority, Vitellius, the governor of Syria, received orders from the Emperor Tiberius to take Aretas, dead or alive. The order was not carried out however, but only because Tiberius died in 37CE. It seems extraordinary that in that same year the pariah Aretas, saved by the bell - or by the serendipitous demise of the Emperor and the insouciance of Vitellius, should immediately become so well regarded as to have a key city in a Roman province ceded to him.

It is true that Vitellius probably disliked Antipas, [15] and was therefore possibly relieved to be able to ignore the command of his deceased emperor, but that would not in the least motivate him to reward Aretas with sovereignty over Roman territory. The death of Tiberius caused no reversal of policy towards Antipas and Aretas, or we would have some historical record of it. Even if the positions of the antagonists were reversed by the death of the emperor, the reward to Aretas would be subtracted from the territory of Antipas, rather than from that of Imperial Rome. Other territories were certainly gifted by the Romans to tribal leaders who had been loyal or useful, and the gift recorded, but it was always land or cities from vassal states and territories. If the empire would ever cede any of its own territory it would surely be by means of a boundary change, not a problematical award of a key city in the interior of an important province.

We should also note that the city in question was strongly Hellenised and a prominent member of the group of cities that had formed an alliance, uniting a swathe of territory know as the Decapolis. The purpose of this alliance was specifically to form a union against predatory Arabian raiders, which is exactly how the Nabataeans were perceived by their neighbours. To cede Damascus to the Nabataeans therefore would be to introduce certain strife into the Roman province. In summary, to cede an important strategic city in the heartland of a Roman province to a manifestly undeserving barbarian king, would have been a gross misjudgement of a kind that the Romans were not inclined to make.

In some difficulty here, Murphy O’Connor notes (without endorsing them) a trio of scholars who suspect that any Nabataean presence in Damascus was restricted to a trading mission, possibly organised as a colony. [16] Supposedly, this colony would have had a Nabataean governor whose authority did not go beyond the management of his own people. Again, one wonders how Paul’s views could have turned such a theoretical trading mission into a death squad, risking everything to bring about the demise of a zealous believer in something that posed no threat to themselves.

Further useful evidence has been available for a century and a half from Emil Schürer. He noted the wealth of numismatic material marking the reign of Aretas IV and comments in a footnote that the "coins of Damascus, with images of Augustus, Tiberias and Nero do not favour the assumption that it was part of the Nabataean kingdom." [17]

An Historical Error

What then did the alleged interpolator think the situation in Damascus might have been? He would certainly have working his mischief in the Diaspora, and probably during the process of collecting the Pauline epistles for circulation. [18] He would have been looking back on the time of Paul as history, but this interpolator was no historian. In fairness to him, a disciplined approach to historical recording and research is a remarkably modern concept. Our supposed interpolator, almost certainly looked on times past indiscriminately, as a child today looks upon ‘olden days.’ He knew for certain that King Aretas had been the ruler of Damascus, but unfortunately he chose the wrong King Aretas and the wrong era of history.

Because the interpolator assumed Nabataean control of the city, acceptance by uncritical Christians of the historical accuracy of the assertion has simply followed. It certainly is a fact that at the time of Paul’s Damascus experience, in the late 30s CE, the king of Nabataea was Aretas, this being Aretas IV. It is also a fact that during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, about 150 years earlier, Damascus had been under the control of the Nabataeans, and at that time, when Syria was not yet under Roman rule, the king of the Nabataeans was Aretas III. [19] In my view it is a safe bet that our interpolator mistook one Aretas for another and thus exposed himself to possible ridicule, escaping this ignominy only because Christians, unwilling for two millennia to doubt a word of what they read, have obligingly re-written history for him. Against all reason and in the absence of a shred of evidence his faux pas interpolated into Paul’s epistle has been accepted and promoted as genuine history, so that otherwise reliable historians now tell us uncritically that Aretas IV controlled Damascus. In doing so they may possibly be quite unaware that apart from 2 Corinthians 11:33 itself there is simply no evidence for such a belief.

Some may find it incredible that a Christian forger could make such a crass error. In fact, in the absence of any form of historical method, this type of error was not uncommon. Of the many errors made by Josephus for example, some are of exactly this kind. Book 14, chapter 8 of ‘Antiquities,’ deals with the era of Hyrcanus II, the weakling Hasmonaean ruler whose rivalry with his much tougher brother, Aristobulus, led to the ignominious annexation of Judaea by the Romans. Josephus describes the issuing of a decree by the Roman Senate heaping all kinds of benefit, gifts and praise upon Hyrcanus II, in a treaty of mutual assistance. As Josephus’s translator, William Whiston, painfully observes in footnotes, the entire tale belongs in the reign of Hyrcanus I, who was John Hyrcanus, the son of Simon Maccabaeus a century or so earlier.

It looks remarkably likely that someone with faulty historical knowledge carried out this suspected interpolation, using his mistaken understanding in the service of the church. Nonetheless his success in introducing an historical misunderstanding that has endured for almost two millennia is remarkable, and it will likely continue to be accepted as truth by those who prefer the story the way the interpolator tells it, regardless of any historical considerations.

We must remember also that the interpolation that I am alleging has served its purpose, leading Christian believers away from suspicions of sectarian Jewish origins for their beliefs. The residue of that Christian success remains however, uncomfortable but inescapable: there is simply no justification for alleging Nabataean sovereignty over Damascus. Nor is there an even slightly plausible rationale for Rome to cede this city to a king who was condemned less than a year earlier by the Emperor himself as an enemy of Rome. If we seek contemporary evidence for the Nabataean possession of Damascus in Paul’s era we shall come up empty; we shall find nothing but the 2 Corinthians passage itself.

The Contextual Evidence Suggesting Interpolation

I believe the contextual evidence strongly supports a claim of interpolation. It will obviously help to have a copy of the entire text to hand, 2 Cor 11, verses 16 through 33, in order to see how the interpolation has been made.

Firstly we must note the incongruous positioning of the suspect text within the passage as a whole. For this we need to begin at v.16 of chapter 11 of 2 Corinthians to see the way that Paul builds up his presentation. He starts, vv16-18, by saying that he intends to do some boasting, since others feel able to boast, then so will he.

His Corinthian readers, he says in vv 19-21, tolerate the boasting of others and so might as well listen to some of his, and he can match their boastings with his own.

In vv 22-23 he compares himself rather favourably with these other boasters, showing that he can outmatch their claims.

From v 24 until v 27 he relates a list of his hardships, his adventures and his sufferings; floggings, shipwrecks, imprisonment - all suffered for his faith in his belief. It is an impressive list, underlined by an oath that he is not lying at v 31. This is not unknown in other epistles - Paul does swear that he is not a liar on two other occasions - so we can accept that he is saying here that the list of his travails may sound far-fetched, but he is not shooting a line.

At this point he is about to embark on a new boastings theme - the visions of the Lord that he has been privileged to experience, but before this he throws in the ‘Damascus’ experience, relating his risky but successful departure from Damascus. Chronologically this was his first adventure, and while not trivial, it was less dramatic than those where he failed to escape and was actually caught and stoned, or given a severe flogging. It is more than a little odd therefore that he tells the story of his ‘moonlight flight’ from Damascus not as the first but the last example in the list, and on the wrong side of the underlining oath of truthfulness. He thus restarts, if only briefly, the theme that he had just completed and underlined. The implication of the oath can now be seen somewhat differently. It may seem as if it applies not to the list of adventures just related, but to the single adventure coming up next. The implication of this would be that he offers the Damascus escape as the most severe of his many trials, and the least believable, when it was obviously neither of these things.

Having noted the illogical position of the suspected interpolation we must look at the words themselves, to see what more they can tell us.

There can surely be no argument that the Essenic sectarians were associated with a location within Judaea that they called ‘Damascus.’ If a Christian interpolator wants us to believe that ‘Damascus’ here is the Syrian city, not the sectarian base somewhere in the Judaean wilderness, how has he led us in that direction? Into this short sentence the interpolator has crammed every possible pointer to the Syrian city, and we must deal in turn with each of the indications he gives.

We note that the governor is ‘under Aretas the king’. There was only one king named Aretas in that era - and that is Aretas IV, the king of Nabataea. Even if we assume that Aretas IV was indeed the ruler of Damascus, a clever interpolator may have been well advised to add nothing more, having made his point. We must question however, the likelihood of anyone describing the governor of the city in such terms. If the Nabataeans ruled Damascus at that time, however improbably, to Paul it would have been a simple fact of life, since he lived there for three years. Any other contemporary observer would also simply accept it as the current state of affairs in his day. We would find it odd, for example, if General MacArthur found it necessary to say that Japanese forces he confronted in the Philipines were ‘under Hirohito’. A future historian however, or perhaps a biographer of MacArthur, in an environment far removed from knowledge or memory of World War II, and wanting to be certain that readers understood the political facts, might find it a helpful qualification. To the Corinthians, to whom Paul’s epistle was addressed, the identification of the would-be assassins requires an explanation of some sort, but Paul gives none.

This interpolator surely over-eggs this pudding. The citizens of Damascus in Syria were ‘Damascenes’ rightly enough, but the inhabitants of the sectarian camp in Judaea were not, as it was inhabited by those who may have been identified by various names. Among such descriptions might be Essenes, followers of the Way, the Ebionim, the Sons of Light, the Saints, the Church of God or even, in simply a generic way, Jews. Thus, the two places may share a common place-name but their respective inhabitants are properly differentiated, and this useful differentiator was not to be allowed to go to waste. We must ask however why our supposed interpolator mentions ‘the city of the Damascenes’ in the same sentence as ‘Damascus?’ The words ‘of the Damascenes’ are glaringly superfluous. Who else would the writer expect to be the citizens of Damascus? Would anyone say "When I was in New York I took a tour around the city of the New Yorkers"?

A final requirement is to ask whether the suspect sentence as a whole was invented, or if it was simply amplified or modified. I think we can guess that the basis of the story was in the autograph of the epistle, and that, as already stated, the interpolator relocated it to immediately after the swearing of the solemn oath. This was to make the oath appear to be primarily an endorsement of the interpolation. I think it very likely that the essential elements of vv 31-33 were part of the original list, appearing just before v 24, and that the interpolator relocated it to its present position where he added the additional detail. I believe that Paul really was at Damascus for three years and he really did have to flee for his life. This is how I think the passage was adapted to its Christian purpose:

"In Damascus the governor, [under Aretas the king,] was guarding the [city of the Damascenes] (with a garrison,) desiring to seize me; but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands."

Assuming the most economical approach, the interpolation requires the addition of only five - or possibly only four - Greek words to provide the understanding given by the words in the square brackets above - [ARETA TOU BASILEOS] and [POLIN DAMASKENON] respectively - and no changes at all to the grammatical construction. [20] Note that there is no word for ‘garrison’ in the Greek text; the translators of the NIV having added it for clarification.

Additionally the question arises of who the ‘governor’ may have been in the Essene camp, since the interpolation as I suppose it to be has not disturbed the word ‘ETHNARCHÉS.’ This word has royal connotations and Murphy O’Connor himself points out that ‘Strategos’ would be the term expected for a Nabataean governor. There is no contemporary translation into Greek of the sectarian Scroll material of course, but the novices, or ‘Sons of Dawn,’ were under the direct supervision of the ‘Mebaqqer’ and he would certainly be the one who would feel obliged to seek to kill an apostate blasphemer. [21]

The fact that Acts has, in broad terms, the same story of the escape from Damascus is a factor to be weighed in judging if the interpolation consists only of these few words, and that the sentence is otherwise authentic. Acts includes the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in no less than three places, admittedly in a most inconsistent manner, but it is doubtful that this was pure invention and did not come from something the author had heard about Paul’s adventure. Yet had he seen the 2 Corinthians statement in its current form, he would hardly have omitted the Nabataean information.

Murphy O’Connor is highly sensitive to the possibility of Paul having been in Qumran rather than Syria, and he is at pains to show the impossibility of such an idea. [22] He makes an attempt at a threefold refutation:

Assuming as a certain fact a Nabataean rather than a Jewish attempt on Paul’s life, he points out that sovereignty in the Qumran area was Roman, not Nabataean. The circularity of this approach will be obvious from the foregoing discussion.

Taking also his own proposal that ‘Damascus’ as a codename for Babylon is a certain fact, he offers it as a nail for the coffin lid of the Qumran connection. This approach is equally invalid unless he could show unanimous or majority scholarly support for his proposal. In fact he names only a single commentator who has expressed any agreement with his proposal. [23]

Finally he claims that relevant passages, 2 Corinthians 11:33 and Acts 9:24-5 make it clear that Damascus is surrounded by a wall pierced by several gates, thus supposedly precluding the possibility of Qumran being the location in question, on the basis of archaeological evidence. The passage from 2 Corinthians is our suspected interpolation of course, and Acts adds nothing except for the information that there was more than one gate in the wall, of which Murphy O’Connor makes much.

Of course the walls of Qumran no longer stand, and so cannot be observed, but it is not to be overlooked that it was destroyed before Acts of the Apostles was written, the gentile author of which almost certainly never saw it, either before or after its destruction. It is interesting however that a significant scholarly minority denies altogether any connection between Qumran and the Scrolls discovered in nearby caves. Norman Golb, a principal spokesman for this minority, also uses archaeological evidence to show that the building at Qumran was a fortress of the Hasmonaean defence system, rather than a seminary for quasi-monastic sectarians. This blend of opinion and archaeological interpretation seems to be totally at odds with the assertion made by Murphy O’Connor. Whether Golb is right or wrong, the archaeological evidence clearly allows enough latitude in interpretation to permit one to see the site as the ruins of a fortress. It should not be a surprise therefore to find more than one gate set in high walls. That the walls were pierced by windows here and there, set high enough to deny access to an enemy, and thus to necessitate being lowered by a rope, would also be unsurprising. Note however that I am not here proposing that the Qumran building was necessarily the site of Paul’s adventure, but only demonstrating how poverty-stricken is the case made against it by those desperate to protect a traditional belief at any price.


There are more points that could be mentioned about Paul’s expedition to Damascus, but I think I have aired enough of them to show that the official story is unsustainable. The crucial facts thrown up by this matter may best be expressed as follows:

If Paul spent three years in the Damascus in Syria, and if that city was not a possession of Nabataea, then it is inconceivable that Paul could have believed that it was. Someone else must have added the crucial wording that makes it appear that Paul was in a Damascus ruled by Nabataeans, on the assumption that this was the case for the Syrian Damascus. The first question is ‘Why would this be done?’ The most plausible motive is to dissuade us from making any connection between Paul and the ‘other’ Damascus. But this raises only another ‘Why?’

I am confident that over a wide range of NT subject matter, historical method will eventually reveal something much closer to the truth than the bogus explanations from churchmen that have been accepted unquestioningly for so many centuries.


Emil Schuerer The History of the Jewish People Schuerer
in the Age of Jesus Christ
T&T Clark 1973 edition

G.A. Wells Acts of the Apostles: A Historical Record Wells
South Place Ethical Society, 2000.

Geza Vermes The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English Vermes
Penguin Books 1998

Jerome Murphy O’Connor Paul - A Critical Life O’Connor
OUP 1996

Michael O. Wise The First Messiah Wise
Harper San Francisco 1999

William O. Walker Interpolations in the Pauline Letters Walker
Sheffield Academic Press 2001


[01] Walker, pp 26-43

[02] Walker, p. 52

[03] Walker p.51

[04] In the Greek ‘Nazoraios’ is always ‘Nazoraios’ of course, even if it is translated into other languages as ‘from Nazareth.’ The general gospel redaction that implied this notion did so by introducing the prepositional form ‘Iesous apo Nazaret’ at strategic points in some gospels and in Acts, to give weight to the absurd explanation given in Matthew 2:23, thus ensnaring most translators in the muddle that perpetuates the ‘Nazareth’ fiction.

[05] ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ for example is a form found in no gospel.

[06] CD VII:15 trans. Vermes, 1998, p.133

[07] Wise p.137.

[08] Some have argued that the fate of the ToR after capture is less certain.

[09] Josephus specifies a first year of probationary status, while the scrolls are unspecific about the duration of this initial period.

[10] Darby gives ‘Nazaraean’ for ‘Nazoraios’ and ‘Nazarene’ for ‘Nazarenos’ The confused/distorted allusion to Judges 13, seen in Matthew 2:23, evokes from Darby the equally confused - and unique - ‘Nazaraene.

[11] Wells - noting that Chrysostom could say in the early fifth century that many Christians were even then unaware of the existence of the book of Acts.

[12] Jerome, ‘Letter to Augustus.’

[13] O'Connor, p.66

[14] O'Connor, p.90, see also p.6

[15] Schuerer p350

[16] O'Connor, p.6, and footnotes

[17] Schuerer p.582

[18] William O. Walker p.154 et passim. He mentions other scholars who believe that major changes were made to the Paulines at the collection stage.

[19] Josephus, Antiquities B13, 15:2, and see also Whiston’s footnote, number 42 which is of passing interest. Whiston cites 2 Corinthians as evidence of Nabataean possession of Damascus,apparentlyy assuming that it was uninterrupted from Aretas III through to the time of Paul’s experiences there.

[20] In my view ‘Polin Damaskenon’ either replaces a word describing what ‘Damascus’ actually was for Paul, e.g. ‘buildings’ or ‘village’ etc., or ‘Polin’ is original and only ‘Damaskenon’ - ‘of the Damascenes’ - has been added. (‘Polis,’ meaning city, is frequently used in the NT to mean any habitation of men.)

[21] Ref ‘Sons of Zadok’ at www.didjesusexist.com to see why Paul might perceive the ‘mebaqqer’ to be a quasi-royal figure.

[22] O'Connor, p.69

[23] Fitzmyer in his ‘ Responses to 101 Questions on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ p. 30 mentions O’Connor’s ‘Babylon’ proposal, but adds ‘…but the exhortation in the first part of the CD seems to refer rather to the situation in Judaea itself." Vermes also mentions it (Vermes, p.63,) but describes it only as ‘a suggestion.’