In Galatians 4:25, the Apostle Paul identifies Mount Sinai as being in Arabia. He writes: “For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar - for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children –“ (4:24-25 NKJV, emphasis mine). The questions to be asked regarding this passage are:
- “Where was Arabia in the first century AD, and what area did it cover, when the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Galatians?”
- “Where would a Jewish person, living in Jerusalem in the first century AD, understand Arabia to be?”
- “What was the Apostle Paul’s geographical understanding of the term Arabia?”
The short answer is that in the days of the Apostle Paul the term “Arabia” included the Sinai Peninsula and did not correspond just to modern-day Saudi Arabia’s boundaries as some today mistakenly assert. The area of Saudi Arabia was one part of first century Arabia, but not the whole of Arabia. Thus the biblical Mount Sinai, located in the Sinai Peninsula, which in my opinion should be located at Jebel Sin-Bishar (Franz 2000: 112; Faiman 2000; Har-el 1983; Rasmussen 1989: 89-91), was in “Arabia.” The traditional Mount Sinai at Jebel Musa was also located in the Sinai in ancient “Arabia.” So Mount Sinai (either site) was in both the Sinai and in “Arabia,” which overlapped, and there is no disconnect with the Bible, ancient geography, or modern scholarship.
Based on this verse in Galatians, some have insisted that the Apostle Paul is referring to Mount Sinai being in Saudi Arabia, and not in the Sinai. For example, Robert Cornuke, the president of the BASE Institute, states:
“It’s [Galatians 4:25] one of several Bible references plainly describing the location of Mount Sinai. It’s in Arabia. Not in Egypt. Not in the Sinai Peninsula. And how does the Bible define Arabia? In both the Old and New Testaments, Arabia has always been located south and east of Palestine, the area of present-day Saudi Arabia. The Sinai Peninsula, on the other hand, lies south and west of Palestine. The apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, informs us that Mount Sinai is in Saudi Arabia. Not Egypt!” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 170-171; emphasis GWF).
His associate, Larry Williams, basically says the same thing (1990: 70-71), as did Ron Wyatt, who also placed Mount Sinai at Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia (Wyatt 1994; Standish and Standish 1999: 195-200).
A word of caution though, as we have already read, all the Bible actually says is that Mount Sinai is in Arabia, not Saudi Arabia. It is not wise to read into the text that which is not stated, or to simplistically interpret 21st century political boundaries as applicable to a first century biblical text without any substantiation.
Where was Arabia According to the Ancient Sources?
Unfortunately no actual maps of Roman Arabia exist from the first century AD, so we are limited to the accounts of the geographers, historians, and contemporary travelers. As one examines these accounts, it will be seen that the vast territory of Arabia goes from the Nile Delta in eastern Egypt and the Arabian Gulf (Red Sea - Gulf of Suez) on the west, all the way over to the Persian Gulf on the east. It goes from Damascus in the north, to the tip of Yemen in the south. Today, the territory of first century Arabia would cover the areas of eastern Egypt, including the Sinai Peninsula, southern Israel, Jordan, and parts of Syria and Iraq, all of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Gulf States on the Persian Gulf. It is not limited to Saudi Arabia or the northwest quadrant of Saudi Arabia as Cornuke has stated.
Moses never used the word “Arab” or “Arabia” at the time he wrote the Pentateuch. The Book of Exodus thus cannot be used to locate “Arabia” which did not exist yet as a geographic term and so, of course, “Arabia” does not appear in that book of the Bible. The words “Arab” and “Arabia” appear later in the Bible (1 Kings 10:15; 2 Chron. 9:14; 17:11; 21:16; 22:1; 26:7; Neh. 2:19; 4:7; 6:1; Isa. 13:20; 21:13; Jer. 3:2; 25:24; Ezek. 27:21). So the Apostle Paul does not have a Mosaic use of the word “Arabia” in mind when he uses the word in Galatians 4:25, because “Arabia” did not exist in Moses’ day.
The word “Arab” first appears in an extra-biblical inscription from a monolith found at Kurkh from the time of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (853 BC). It describes the coalition of armies led by the rulers of Damascus, Hamath, Israel, and “Gindibu’ the Arab and his 1,000 camels” that battled against Shalmaneser III at Qarqar (Eph’al 1982: 21). Throughout the Assyrian period, various Assyrian kings describe the activities of the Arabs, or desert nomads, in their inscriptions (Eph’al 1982: 21-59).
The first time the word “Arabia” is used as a term for a designated geographical area is in the mid-fifth century BC by the famous Greek historian and traveler, Herodotus (ca. 450 BC). He traveled to Egypt and wrote about his trip in his book, The Persian Wars.
In his monumental work on ancient Arabs, Dr. Israel Eph’al of Tel Aviv University points out that:
“Herodotus, an important source for the demography of the mid-5th century B.C. Egypt and Sinai peninsula, calls the entire region east of the Nile and the Pelusian Branch, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, ‘Arabia’, and its population ‘Arabs’ ([Herodotus, Persian Wars 2:8, 15, 19, 30, 75, 124, 158 [LCL 1: 283, 291, 297, 309, 361-363, 425, 471]).
The Gulf of Suez is called “the Arabian Sea” and the mountainous region [in Egypt] east of Heliopolis “the Arabian mountains” (2:8, 124 [LCL 1: 283, 425]). [In Egypt] Daphnae (biblical Tahpanhes, present-day Defeneh) is described as a border town with a garrison “against the Arabs and the Syrians” (2: 30 [LCL 1: 309]), and the town of Patumus (biblical Pithom) near Bubastis at the approach to Wadi Thumilat as “city of Arabia” (2:158 [LCL 1: 471]).”
(Eph’al 1982: 193-194, emphasis added; the Loeb Classical Library, LCL, bracketed references […] were added by the author).
Herodotus’ description would therefore include all of the Sinai Peninsula in Arabia of his day.
In the mid-third century BC, when Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek (known as the Septuagint, abbreviated LXX) and followed the contemporary use of the word “Arabia,” they referred to Goshen as “Goshen in Arabia” (Gen. 45:10; 46:34; LXX English translation). The Children of Israel resided in Goshen during their 400 years sojourn in Egypt, which is located on the easternmost branch of the Nile Delta connected through to the Wadi Tumilat canal. Though Goshen is part of Egypt (Gen. 37:6, 27; Ex. 9:26), the translators of the Septuagint obviously considered it and the Sinai Peninsula in between the Egyptian Goshen-in-Arabia and what is now modern Saudi Arabia as all part of ancient “Arabia,” of course. The Eastern Nile Delta land of Goshen was Arabia, the Sinai was Arabia, and (Saudi) Arabia was Arabia.
Alexander the Great and the Arabs in Arabia
Alexander the Great went to fight the Arabians in the area of the Anti Lebanon Mountains, also known as Mount Hermon (Dar 1988: 26-27). This is situated in modern day Lebanon and Syria. Alexander the Great fought the Arabs in Arabia, but he was never in modern-day Saudi Arabia.
Flavius Arrianus, better known as Arrian, wrote a book about AD 150 about the life of Alexander the Great. He gave great details about Alexander’s campaign against the Persians. After the Greeks had taken Sidon, Alexander was preparing to move on Tyre. Because of harassment by the Arabs, “Alexander marched some of the cavalry squadrons, the hypaspists, the Agrianians and the archers in the direction of Arabia to the mountain called Antilebanon. Here he stormed and destroyed some places and brought others to terms; in ten days he was back at Sidon” (Anabasis of Alexander 2.20.4; LCL 1:195).
Plutarch (ca. AD 45-120), in his Parallel Lives of Alexander the Great (about AD 120), recounts the same incident by saying: “While the siege of the city [Tyre] was in progress, he made an expedition against the Arabians who dwelt in the neighborhood of Mount Antilibanus” (Alexander 24.6; LCL 7:293).
Quintus Curtius (first century AD) wrote a history of Alexander the Great and also recounts this same incident in these words: “On Mount Libanus also the peasants of the Arabians attacked the Macedonians when they were in disorder, killed about thirty, and took a smaller number of prisoners. This state of affairs compelled Alexander to divide his forces, and lest he should seem slow in besieging on city, he left Perdiccas and Craterus in charge of that work and himself went to Arabia with a light-armed band” (History of Alexander 4.2.24 – 4.3.2; LCL 1:185). After this short campaign Curtius informs us: “And Alexander, on returning from Arabia, found hardly any traces of so great a causeway” (History of Alexander 4.3.7; LCL 1:187). For these historians, the part of “Arabia” that Alexander the Great was fighting Arabs in, was in what is today Lebanon and Syria, not Saudi Arabia.
Josephus, the first century AD Jewish historian, lived in Jerusalem for a number of years before its destruction by the Romans in AD 70. He was well familiar with the topography of the city as well as its walls, towers, and monumental buildings. In fact, he was a contemporary of the Apostle Paul who would understand the term “Arabia” the same way Josephus understood it.
In his Jewish Wars, written sometime between AD 75 and 79, Josephus describes the line of the third wall enclosing the northern part of Jerusalem. He mentions that there are ninety towers on this wall and the most important was the Psephinus Tower:
“… which rose at its north-west angle and opposite to which Titus camped. For, being seventy cubits high [thirty-five meters], it affords from sunrise a prospect embracing both Arabia and the utmost limits of Hebrew territory as far as the [Mediterranean] sea, it was of octagonal form” (Josephus, Jewish Wars 5.159-160 [LCL 3: 247-249]; see also Wars 5.147 [LCL 3: 243], emphasis added, brackets material added by the author).
When Josephus uses the word “Arabia” in this passage, he is not referring to the area of Saudi Arabia, but to the Trans-Jordanian Plateau. If he stood on top of the Psephinus Tower, he would observe first-hand Arabia to the east, as well as the Mediterranean Sea through a saddle in the hills by present-day Abu Gosh to the northwest.
When I was doing graduate work in archaeology and geography of the Bible at the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem in the late 1970’s, I was able to climb onto the roof of a bank building (with permission of the guard), to have a similar view. This bank was approximately 35 meters high and close to where the Psephinus Tower had been located. I observed the mountains of Transjordan to the east (ancient Arabia), but could not see the Mediterranean Sea because of the haze. I have archaeologist friends, however, who have seen the Mediterranean Sea from the top of this building on several occasions. One can also calculate the visibility with the aid of a good topographical map. Josephus wrote this passage from first-hand experience. For him, Arabia included what is today the Kingdom of Jordan.
In the first century AD, the Nabatean kingdom, with its capital in Petra (today in southern Jordan), occupied part of what was known as “Arabia.” Josephus noted on several occasions that Petra was in Arabia (Wars 1.125, 159, 267; 4.454 [LCL 2:59, 75, 125; 3:135]). He also describes the extent of the Nabatean kingdom as from the Euphrates River to the Red Sea (Antiquities 1.220-221 [LCL 4:109]).
Josephus gives a description of Lake Asphaltitis, known today as “the Dead Sea,” in which he mentions that the “length of this lake is five hundred and eighty furlongs, measured in a line reaching to Zoara in Arabia” (Wars 4.482 [LCL 2:143], emphasis added). Zoara is the biblical Zoar and is located in the southeastern portion of the Dead Sea (Gen. 13:10; 14:2, 8; 19:22, 23, 39; Deut. 43:3).
Herod the Great fortified several sites on the border of his kingdom to keep an eye on the Nabateans in Arabia. One fortress was Machaerus (Voros 2012). It is situated on the east side of the Dead Sea because Herod understood how strategic the site was in “its proximity to Arabia, conveniently situated, as it was, with regards to that country, which it faces” (Josephus, Wars 7.172 [LCL 3:555], emphasis added). The territory of Arabia was fourteen kilometers to the south of Machaerus on the south side of the Arnon River.
Another site that Herod the Great fortified was the Herodium, the only building project named after him. The fortress is located a few kilometers to the southeast of Bethlehem in the Judean Desert “on the Arabian frontier” (Josephus, Wars 1:419 [LCL 2:199], emphasis added). From the top of the Herodium, one today can get a splendid view of the territory of Arabia to the east of the Dead Sea, but one can not see Saudi Arabia from the top of the Herodium.
Josephus describes the territory and borders of Perea to the east of the Jordan River. He states that:
“Perea extends in length from Machaerus to Pella, in breath from Philadelphia to the Jordan [River]. The northern frontier is Pella, which we have just mentioned, the western frontier is the Jordan [River]; on the south it is bounded by the land of Moab, on the east by Arabia, Heshbonitis, Philadelphia, and Gerasa” (Josephus, Jewish Wars 3.46-47; [LCL 2:589]; brackets and emphasis added by GWF).
Ancient Philadelphia is located under Ammon, the capital of the modern kingdom of Jordan.
Josephus also mentions the southern border of Judea and states “it is marked by a village on the Arabian frontier, which the local Jews call Iardan” (Wars 3.51 [LCL 2:591], emphasis added). The village of Iardan has been tentatively identified with Arad in the Eastern Negev Basin [LCL 2:590, footnote d]. Arabia would include areas south of Judah, including the Beersheva Basin and the different wildernesses to the south of Beersheva, basically the southern part of Israel today.
This brief survey of Jewish Wars by Josephus demonstrates the first century understanding of the term Arabia. It included more than just the area of northwest Saudi Arabia. His understanding of the term included territory in modern-day Jordan and southern Israel, as well as the Sinai Peninsula, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and part of Iraq. The Apostle Paul would have understood the term in the same way.
Strabo, a Greek geographer from Pontus on the Black Sea (64 BC to ca. AD 25), describes the territory of Arabia in his books on the geography and nature of the ancient world. In his Geography, he states:
“The whole of Arabia Felix (… is bounded by the whole extent of the Arabian Gulf [Red Sea] and by the Persian Gulf). And all the country occupied by the Tent-dwellers and by the Sheikh-governed tribes (which reaches to the Euphrates [River] and Syria)” (Geography 2.5.32 [LCL 1:499]; emphasis added, bracketed material added by GWF).
Elsewhere in his writings, Strabo delineates the eastern border of Arabia as the Persian Gulf (Geography 16.4.2 [LCL 7:307]).
Strabo, who visited Egypt during his lifetime, understood the geography of that area quite well and wrote about it in detail. For him, the western border of Arabia began at the east side of Egypt’s Nile River and the Arabian Gulf (today the Gulf of Suez) and went eastward, thus placing the Sinai Peninsula in first century Arabia (Geography 16:4:2; 17:1:21, 24-26, 30,31 [LCL 7: 309; 8: 71-79 85-87]).
The Apostle Paul would have been familiar with the writings of Strabo and would concur with him that “Arabia” went from eastern Egypt, across the Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula, all the way to the Persian Gulf. This would clearly put the Sinai Peninsula within Arabia of Strabo’s day as well as the Apostle Paul’s day.
Egeria, one of the early church mothers, travelled to the East between AD 381 and 384 and wrote a book about her pilgrimage. She visited Jebel Musa which she mistakenly, in my opinion, thought was Mount Sinai. She also visited the Land of Goshen (Wilkinson 1981: 91-103). She stayed at Clysma, the modern-day Suez City in eastern Egypt at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez, and from there went to visit the “city of Arabia” in Goshen in Egypt (Wilkinson 1981: 100). She wrote, “It gets its name from the region, which is called ‘the land of Arabia, the land of Goshen’, a region which, while it is a part of Egypt, is a great deal better than any of the rest” (Wilkinson 1981: 100-101, emphasis added). Egeria followed the Septuagint reading of Gen. 46:34 in her description of Goshen being in the Land of Arabia.
The Conclusion of the Matter
The ancient sources, both the contemporary and near-contemporary to the Apostle Paul, speak for themselves. When the Apostle Paul wrote that Mount Sinai was in Arabia, he was drawing on the contemporary understanding of the geographical location of “Arabia.” Ancient Arabia would include the territory from the Eastern Nile Delta and the Arabian Gulf (Red Sea – Gulf of Suez) across the Sinai Peninsula to the Persian Gulf. It would not be limited to just the northwest quadrant of Saudi Arabia as the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz would contend.
Based on the above, the ancient historians and geographers differ with Mr. Cornuke’s recent statement that “Arabia has never been in the Sinai Peninsula when Paul wrote this [Gal. 4:25]” (August 8, 2012, AM session, Camp-of-the-Woods, Speculator, NY). Biblical and secular first century geography did include the Sinai Peninsula in “Arabia.” In summary, it seems that the Apostle Paul would have disagreed with Mr. Cornuke’s assertions about Mount Sinai never being in the Sinai Peninsula.
For a more detailed, scholarly, discussion of the ancient sources and related issues, see: Bowerstock 1971; 1983; 1990; Donner 1986; MacAdam 1989; Montgomery 1934; Murphy-O’Connor 1993.
For links to other critiques of Cornuke’s ideas, see: How Accurate are Bob Cornuke's Claims? (off-site link).
This article was revised on January 3, 2014 with additions concerning Alexander the Great.
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About the author
Gordon Franz is a Bible teacher who holds an MA in Biblical Studies from Columbia Biblical Seminary, SC. Since 1978, he has engaged in extensive research in Biblical archaeology and has participated in a number of excavations in and around Jerusalem, including Ketef Hinnom and Ramat Rachel; as well as the excavations at Lachish, Jezreel, Hazor, and Tel Zayit. He has taught the geography of the Bible and led field trips in Israel for the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies, the Institute of Holy Land Studies, and the IBEX program of The Master’s College. He also co-teaches the Talbot School of Theology’s Bible Lands Program.