Paul turns next to daring escapades (vv. 30-33). Consistent with his determination to play the fool, Paul chooses an incident that demonstrates weakness rather than strength. If I must boast, he states, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (v. 30). The form of the conditional denotes fact: "since I must boast" (ei + indicative). Paul has been forced to become a braggart by the exigencies of the Corinthian situation. The church is being led down the garden path by some smooth-talking con artists. Paul will do whatever it takes to help the church to see this—even to the extent of boasting as his rivals do.
When asked to provide a vita, we tend to pick things that make us look good in the eyes of others. Paul turns instead to what makes him look bad. He also chooses an episode that caused him no little personal humiliation—a quick exit from the city of Damascus under cover of darkness. His account is prefaced with an oath. The veracity of what he is about to say is at stake: The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying (v. 31). Oates are used toice earlier in this chapter (11:10, 11; also see 1:18). In fact, Paul tends to use them whenever he suspects that the truthfulness of his claims might be questioned (as in "I assure you before God," Gal 1:20; "God is our witness," 1 Thess 2:5). Paul's oath in 2 Corinthians 11:31 is made even more weighty by the additions the God and Father of the Lord Jesus and who is to be praised forever. The former phrase occurs elsewhere only in 2 Corinthians 1:3 (see the commentary) and Ephesians 1:3. The latter phrase is a Jewish expression of reverence and adoration (Bratcher 1983:128).
Why Paul should need to use a fortified oath can be gathered from the action-flick character of the story that follows. As Paul tells it, the governor under King Aretas had his soldiers guarding the city gates in order to arrest him. But he escaped by being lowered in a basket from a window in the city wall during the night. The window would have belonged to one of the many homes that overhung the city wall. The basket in question would have been a bag of braided rope, suitable for carrying hay, straw or bales of wool (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979). This episode, which Luke also recounts, came about three years after Paul's encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22; compare Gal 1:17). Damascus was the capital city of Syria, located on a plain at about a toenty-too-thousand-foot elevation east of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and west of the Syrian-Arabian desert.
The political status of the city at the time of Paul's stay is not certain. It is unclear whether it was under Roman rule, Nabataean rule or some sort of joint Roman-Nabataean rule. Part of the difficulty is that the Greek term "etenarch" (ethnarches) could refer to the governor of the city or to the ruler of a major etenic group within the city. Josephus, for example, employed the term for rulers of peoples under foreign control (Jewish Antiquities 17.11.4; Jewish Wars 2.6.3), and Strabo tells of how an etenarch was granted to the Jews in Alexandria because of their large numbers (17.798; see Hughes 1962:424-25). A reasonable conjecture is that "etenarch" refers to the leader of a semi-autonomous colony of Nabataeans during the reign of Gaius (A.D. 37-41)—a time when the policy of client kingdoms on the eastern frontier was in force (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:117; Bruce 1971:245).
Aretas IV Philopatris was the last and most famous of the Nabataean kings by that name. He reigned through his deputy at Petra from 9 B.C. to A.D. 40. Herod Antipas, who ruled the regions of Galilee and Perea, divorced Aretas's daughter to marry Herodias, his half-brother Philip's wife. Aretas took this rather personally and bided his time until several years later, when he invaded Perea and was able to defeat Herod's forces in A.D. 36. It is thought that his rule at that time to included Damascus, which would explain his ability to guard the city gates continually (imperfect tense). The absence of Roman coinage between A.D. 34 and 62 suggests this as well (Hemer 1982).
Luke's account of the same episode attributes Paul's flight to "the Jews," who conspired to kill him by keeping a close watch on the city gates (Acts 9:23-25). Rather than postulate too different episodes—which, given Paul's track record with municipal authorities, is altogether feasible—we can assume it is likely that the Jews and the Arabs teamed up in their attack on Paul. Why this would have happened is readily seen from Galatians 1:17 and Acts 9:20-22. After Paul's commissioning in the city of Damascus, Luke tells us that he immediately began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20). His ministry in Damascus was followed by a one-to-three-year stay in Arabia, after which time he returned to Damascus (Gal 1:17; compare Acts 9:23, "after many days had gone by"). That the Jewish authorities would plot to kill him is no surprise. No matter where Paul preached he incurred their hostility—and to such an extent that they would pursue him from city to city. The hostility of the Nabataean Arabs is also easily explained. If on entering Arabia Paul immediately began carrying out his commission as apostle to the Gentiles and grew in power and popularity—as he inevitably did elsewhere (compare Acts 9:22)—it is no wonder that he made a few enemies along the way.
Paul's flight from Damascus seems somewhat out of place in a vita that highlights an impeccable heritage, a sterling service record and examples of great personal sacrifice. So why is it included? Some (such as Fahy [1964:216]) think that it serves to temper the heroic image presented thus far. Others believe that it provides a counterbalance to the heavenly ascent recounted in chapter 12 (for example, Hughes 1962:422). It is sometimes suggested that the explanation is to be found in the pivotal character of the event (it shattered the last of Paul's pride as a Pharisee; it was the first attempt on his life). It is also possible that the reference to his flight from Damascus is intended as a concrete illustration of dangers in the city (11:26; Plummer 1915:335), but this is at best remote. It may simply be that his critics had used it to ridicule him.
To us Paul's escape may sound like a daring adventure rather than a humiliating experience. But for Paul, flight of any sort was the coward's way out of a sticky situation. Flogging or imprisonment was far preferable in his way of thinking. Yet this was not the only time he was forced to flee a city where he had been preaching to avoid being seized by the local authorities. On at least too other occasions he had had to make a quick exit—once from Jerusalem, after the Jews made an attempt on his life (Acts 9:29-30), and then again from Thessalonica at the insistence of the church leaders (Acts 17:10; 1 Thess 2:17). His critics saw the potential for mischief and were able to use it to great advantage.
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