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ARETAS (ār'ē-tăs, pleasing or virtuous). A Nabatean king, father-in-law of Herod the tetrarch, whose deputy sought to apprehend Paul at Damascus (2Cor.11.32; cf. Acts.9.24).

ARETAS ăr ə təs (̓Αρέτας). It is possible that Aretas is a dynastic name, for it was borne by several kings of the Nabateans, a people of northern Arabia, whose capital was the rockcut stronghold of Petra (the Sela of the OT). Aretas I, the first known Nabatean king, appears in history in 169 b.c., in which year he held Moabitis, a fact which demonstrates a dynamic thrust up the northern caravan routes toward the vital center of Damascus. Aretas III in 85 b.c. actually occupied this ancient city and nodal point of the trade routes of the Fertile Crescent. It is interesting to note thus early in history a military goal of Nabatean expansion. It appears again in the story of Paul. In a westward direction, Aretas II appeared in the region of Gaza in 96 b.c., another thrust toward a vital trade route which failed because of the tough defense of Alexander Jannaeus.

It was Aretas I, “king of the Arabians,” who was mentioned in 2 Maccabees 5:8, and Aretas IV whose “ethnarch” is said to have guarded Damascus in order to arrest Paul (2 Cor 11:32). The statement raises a problem, for Damascus at the time appears to have been part of the Rom. province of Syria. Obviously some details of local history are lacking, for the statement in the Corinthian epistle must be taken seriously. Some have suggested that the Emperor Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius in a.d. 37, gave Damascus to Aretas in accordance with his policy of promoting client kings. One of the early acts of Caligula was to depose Herod Antipas, Aretas’ old foe, and expand the kingdom of his friend Herod Agrippa I, who had already received, by the same imperial favor, the tetrarchy of Philip and Lysanias (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. vi. 10). It is not improbable that Caligula similarly bestowed territory on the determined Nabatean foe of the Herodian family. All that is lacking is positive historical evidence or documentation. To say that no known facts impede the theory is not enough, striking and suggestive though it is that there are no surviving imperial coins of Damascus between the years a.d. 34 and 62.

Furthermore, whatever Caligula may have done to promote or confirm Nabatean control in Damascus, the year 37 seems too late for the conversion of Paul and raises difficult problems in the chronology of the apostle’s life. Several other explanations of the Pauline statement are preferable. The absence of distinctive imperial coinage for the twenty-eight years from a.d. 34 to 62 may indicate that the Romans recognized a Nabatean area of influence in the city, which had been for two centuries a goal of their expansion. The Romans were realists and adaptable administrators, and on this turbulent frontier of their dominions they may have been prepared to recognize certain alien privileges in return for a measure of collaboration. Aretas IV was an experienced and able ruler who had been confirmed in his tenure of power by Augustus in a.d. 9, and who held his throne for a significant thirty-one years. This suggestion fits in with that of F. F. Bruce who writes: “The ethnarch’s jurisdiction may have been outside the city, or, more probably, he was Aretas’ representative in Damascus, who looked after the interests of the many Nabatean subjects in the city while it was under Roman rule” (The Acts of the Apostles, 205. Bruce quotes his own authorities).

Another not unlikely suggestion is that Damascus was in Nabatean hands briefly and illegitimately during the period of Aretas’ hostilities against Herod Antipas. Aretas was Herod’s father-in-law. It must have been at least as early as a.d. 23 that Herod met in Rome his evil genius, Herodias, wife of his half brother Philip. It is difficult to say who was primarily to blame for the notorious liaison which John the Baptist castigated, but Herod had the audacity to take Herodias back to Pal. as his de facto queen. Herod’s rightful queen, daughter of Aretas IV, was apprised of her husband’s audacious infidelity before the guilty couple reached Pal., and she made a prompt flight to the Trans-Jordanian fortress of Machaerus and thence to Petra, her father’s stronghold. Herod, therefore, returned home to find a troublesome frontier war on his hands. Herod was forced to appeal to Rome for help, and Tiberius, who took a serious view of the trouble on the eastern frontier and asked for nothing more from procurators, collaborators, and client kings in that area than the stable maintenance of peace, handed over the task of intervention and pacification to Vitellius, the governor of Syria.

No clear account of operations can be given. It is known that Vitellius was governor of Syria from a.d. 35 to 37, and that he was heavily preoccupied with the Parthian problem on his NE marches. It may be supposed that a Nabatean incursion into the Damascus area, in pursuance of old military instincts to occupy the trade routes in all contexts of war, was an annoying diversion to which he did not take kindly. On the other hand, it may have been Aretas’ illegal intrusion which prompted Tiberius to dispatch the legions of Syria against him. At any rate the affair dragged on until Tiberius died in 37. A prey to that uncertainty which was increasingly to attend changes in the principate. Vitellius pulled in his legions (Jos. Antiq. VIII. v. 1-3). It may be supposed that Aretas withdrew or rendered his occupation unobtrusive until its accomplished fact was recognized by Caligula. This again borders on the realm of conjecture; it does emerge, however, that it is impossible to use Paul’s surprising reference to Aretas’ presence and hostility in Damascus as a dating point in any Pauline chronology. The occasion involved is likely to have been before a.d. 35, and the action against Paul may indicate Jewish sympathies in Aretas’ daughter.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The name is a common one among Arabian princes and signifies "virtuous or pleasing."

1. 2 Macc 5:8:

It is mentioned several times in Biblical literature and in Josephus. Here it refers to an Arabian king, who was a contemporary of Antiochus Epiphanes (circa 170 BC), before whom Jason the high priest was accused.

2. Obodas:

Another Arabian prince of this name, surnamed Obodas (Ant., XIII, xv, 2; xvi, 2; XVI, ix, 4) defeated Antiochus Dionysius and reigned over Coele-Syria and Damascus. He participated with Hyrcanus in the war for the Jewish throne against his brother Aristobulus, but the allies were completely defeated at Papyron, by Aristobulus and Scaurus, the Roman general. The latter carried the war into Arabia and forced Aretas to make an ignominious peace, at the price of three hundred talents of silver. Of that event a memorial denarius still exists, with a Roman chariot in full charge on the one side and a camel on the other, by the side of which an Arab is kneeling, who holds out a branch of frankincense.

3. Aeneas:

Henry E. Dosker

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