Did you ever wonder how Paul first began to understand the circumcision doctrine that so identified Pauline theology? Well, immediately following his heavenly vision, Paul went into Arabia. More than likely he spent some time in the synagogues in various cities he visited there. Paul already knew the Nabataeans were near relatives to the Jews, descending from Ishmael, the son of Abraham by Hagar, Sarah’s slave. He would have found, if he didn’t know already, Nabataeans were more easily won over as proselytes to Judaism there than in other Gentile countries in the empire. Why was this so? No doubt it was because of the Nabataean’s disposition toward the Jewish practice of circumcision. Being descended from Abraham, circumcision was not rejected, as it was in other Gentile countries. It was already practiced, but not under compulsory conditions as in Judea and Galilee. Nabataeans were more or less indifferent toward the practice.
Paul must have reflected upon this while he was in Arabia. Certainly in the 2 to 2 ½ years he spent there, he had time to familiarize himself with the local customs. Meeting Nabataean proselytes and speaking to Jewish brethren there, circumcision would have been discussed and its ease of acceptance among the Gentiles living there as opposed to the Jew’s western neighbors throughout the Roman Empire. What would Paul have thought about this? Here were people who sporadically practiced the act of circumcision—the sign of righteousness—but were they righteous? By Jewish standards, of course they weren’t. For the Nabataeans, circumcision had lost all its significance. Many had the “sign” of righteousness in their bodies, but that is as far as it had gone. If circumcision was merely an outward sign, meant to indicate a spiritual reality, would the physical act be necessary at all? Thus with further reflection, Paul would remember that Abraham was **declared** righteous before the act of circumcision was performed (Romans 4:9-10)!
No doubt it was not a giant leap in understanding for Paul, the rabbi, to see Abraham could then be seen as the father of those who believe—Jews or Gentiles, circumcised or not—because the act of circumcision was merely the “sign” of a deeper spiritual reality.
Paul must have grappled with understanding things like circumcision while he was in Arabia, because from the very beginning of his Gospel—it is there; not so, for the other apostles. Paul had to formulate a foundation for what he would preach to the Gentiles to whom he was sent by the Lord, which we see in Paul’s heavenly vision. Paul may have had some memory of Jesus in Jerusalem and even some idea of the Jesus traditions through disciples he interrogated, but all this was second hand. He had to formulate a clarified foundation for his own mission to the Jews and Gentile sympathizers. This is where his scholarship training at the feet of Gamaliel came into play. It would be only natural for Paul, the rabbi, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to question the practice of circumcision as a godly command, while he was yet in Arabia. There he dwelled among those who often practiced the sign of righteousness without it having any spiritual significance in their lives.
Paul’s Gospel is rooted here. His visit to Nabataea was not so much a mission to the Gentiles as it was a mission for the Gentiles. Paul’s visit to Arabia was in reality a mission to Gentiles, yes, but for himself. And, because of what Jesus taught him through the Gentiles there, he could later conclude he was a debtor to them (Romans 1:14).
In Romans, one of Paul’s final letters, we would find him still preaching the very things he considered in these three years between his heavenly vision and his first visit to Jerusalem. His theology wasn’t gradually understood. It was known, accepted and preached by him from the time he first preached it in Damascus and had to run for his life. It is taught from his first letter to the Galatians to his final letter while in prison at Rome. This was “his” Gospel which he learned of the Lord while visiting Arabia immediately after his heavenly vision.