The Nabataean kingdom in Arabia of the Hellenistic–Roman era stretched from the Ḥaurān in southern Syria to the northern Hijaz in the Arabian Peninsula. In the west it extended from the Jordan rift across the Negev of southern Palestine all the way to the Suez, including the Sinai Peninsula, completely bordering Judea on the west and south. In the east, its territory extended at least to Jauf (ancient Dumah al-Jandal) in the center of the Syrian desert and perhaps beyond (Josephus, Ant. 1.220–221). Although the territory of the kingdom was vast, the Nabataean urban centers were few. The capital of the kingdom was Petra (Semitic Raqmu; Josephus, Ant. 4.161), in the south of modern Jordan.

Its rediscovery by Europeans began with the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt in 1812, but archaeological work began only a century later, sporadically between World Wars I and II, with a burst of activity in the 1950s but dramatically only since the 1980s. What has been exposed primarily dates from the first century B.C.E. to the sixth century C.E. After the annexation of the Nabataean kingdom in 106 C.E., the Romans shifted the capital of the province of Arabia to Bosra in the Syrian Ḥaurān, where there were extensive Nabataean villages and settlements. Elsewhere, the urban centers were few. Damascus, Gerasa, and Philadelphia (modern Amman) in the Decapolis must have had a sizable Nabataean community; and there were a string of settlements in the Negev of Palestine—Oboda, Mampsis, Nessana, Sobata, and Elusa, leading to the Mediterranean ports. In the far south, the most important Nabataean urban settlements were Humayma in the Hisma Desert and Hegra (modern Madaʿin Salih) in the Hijaz, where excavations have revealed an extensive community. At the latter site, three dozen Aramaic tomb inscriptions ranging from ca. 1 to 75 C.E. provide important information about the population and their architectural construction. Elsewhere, the kingdom was dominated by small towns and villages, rural shrines, and farmsteads, which were quite numerous: over 1,000 Nabataean sites have been catalogued, identified mainly from the distinctive Nabataean painted fine ware.

The Nabataeans utilized Aramaic as a public language but Arabic as a private language. The epigraphic evidence indicates they were polylingual, speaking and writing in other languages, as indicated by Aramaic–North Arabian bilingual texts, Nabataean North Arabian texts in proto-Arabic, and an increasing number of Arabic loanwords, primarily of a funerary or legal nature. There are approximately 8,000 Nabataean Aramaic texts, scattered across the kingdom; but the majority are concentrated in the Sinai and the southern frontier, with only a little over 1,000 from the heartland and very few from Transjordan or the Negev. A handful have been found across the Mediterranean, from Sidon in Lebanon to Rome in Italy, including the Aegean at Rhodes, Delos, and Miletus.

The origin of the Nabataean kingdom is obscure, but the Nabataeans appear in 312/11 B.C.E. as already centered at Petra (Hieronymus of Cardia in Diodorus Siculus 19.94–100), and the royal dynasty can be traced back to at least several anonymous kings of the third century B.C.E. This means that the well-attested kings of later periods—Aretas I (r. ca. 170–ca. 168 B.C.E.), Aretas II (r. ca. 120–96 B.C.E.), Obodas I (r. ca. 96–85 B.C.E.), Aretas III (r. 85–62 B.C.E.), Obodas II (r. 62–59 B.C.E.), Malichus I (r. 59–30 B.C.E.), Obodas III (r. 30–9 B.C.E.), Aretas IV (r. 9 B.C.E.–40 C.E.), Malichus II (r. 40–70 C.E.), and Rabbel II (r. 70–106 C.E.)—simply represent the first monarchs who can be documented by their name. The “Aretas the ruler of the Arabs” (2 Macc 5:8) who appears in 168 B.C.E. is probably the “King Aretas” mentioned in a Nabataean inscription from Elusa.

In addition to references in Greek and Latin authors, slightly over 100 Nabataean Aramaic texts are dated to the reigns of the kings in the Aramaic corpus, which provide the paleographic basis for dating the other texts. The first biblical reference to the Nabataeans is in 163 B.C.E., when the Jewish Hasmonean brothers Judas and Jonathan had a friendly encounter with the Nabataeans in the Ḥaurān (1 Macc 5:25–27). After Pompey’s eastern expedition, the Nabataeans under Aretas III and his successors became a client state of Rome, which for the next century and a half became a major player in eastern affairs, until the kingdom was annexed as a province in 106 C.E. Afterward, the Nabataeans disappear from the historical record, although there are traces of their survival linguistically. The deified Nabataean king Obodas was still being worshipped at Avdat in the Negev in the third century C.E.

Petra and the Old Testament.

The notoriety of Petra from the biblical perspective is that it is the traditional location of the burial and tomb of Aaron, the brother of Moses, on Mount Hor, on the border of Edom (Num 20:22–28, Deut 32:50). The site is identified with Jabal Hārūn, some 3.1 miles (5 km) southwest of Petra (Josephus, Ant. 4.4.7). A Muslim shrine (welī) allegedly marks the spot, some 4,166.7 ft (1,270 m) above sea level, where an Arabic cenotaph indicates that this is the location of Aaron’s remains. The site was the focus of the Finnish Jabal Hārūn Project between 1997 and 2005, which exposed the ruins of a large Byzantine monastic complex dating from the fifth to the tenth centuries C.E. A papyrus from Petra dated to the mid-sixth century C.E. also alludes to “The House of our Lord the Saint High Priest Aaron.” The complex was constructed over a previous Nabataean settlement from around the first century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. There is an Iron-Age settlement located on top of Umm al-Biyara overlooking the city, but no similar finds are known at Jabal Hārūn. A paved Byzantine road led west from the Wadi Araba past the settlement on its way to Petra. Although Petra lies in the center of Edom, it also is near its western border.

Arabia and the New Testament.

In the New Testament, the Nabataeans and Arabia appear infrequently but punctuate the narrative at important junctures. The Magi (Greek Magoi, “wise men” or “astrologers”) from the east rendered homage to the child Jesus in Bethlehem by presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:1–12). The earliest attested interpretation of the homeland of the Magi was Arabia (Justin, Dial. 78.1; Tertullian, Marc. 3.13), the land of “frankincense and myrrh” (cf. 1 Clem 25.1–2), evoking connections of Sheba/Saba in south Arabia (Isa 60:6, Ps 72:15). It even has been suggested that all three gifts of the Magi were spices, namely, frankincense, myrrh, and balsam. In epigraphic south Arabian a word homographic with gold is dh, used also to designate a kind of incense, so that “gold” (zāhāb) in Isaiah 60:6 and Psalm 72:15 may refer to “incense.” Whatever the case, the Greek text of Matthew has no such ambiguity.

In Josephus and other sources of the Roman era the ethnic term “Arab” frequently designates the Nabataeans, and it has been proposed the Magi should be identified with the Nabataeans. In contrast, later Christian tradition identified the homeland of the Magi as Persia (Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 1.15; Origen, Cels. 1.58–60; cf. John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 6.2), as did the earliest artistic Christian representations of the Magi, even expanding on the tradition, providing a number (three), names, and status for the Magi and transferring them into royal figures (Balthasar, i.e., Belshazzar as in the Book of Daniel; Melchior, Aramaic for “the king is my light”; and Caspar or Gadaspar, a Parthian name). The astrological nature of the account and the large Babylonian Jewish community perhaps made Parthia the preferred homeland of the Magi, but later Christian traditions have a confusing array of different traditions about the identification of the Magi.

A more explicit possible biblical reference to the Nabataean realm is the Jews from Arabia mentioned in Acts 2:11. The papyri from the Cave of Letters indicate there were several Jewish women from the village of Mahoza, just southwest of the Dead Sea, in the Nabataean kingdom, who had married Nabataean Arabs and even drafted their legal arrangements in Nabataean Aramaic in the last years of the Nabataean king Rabbel II, beginning in 93 C.E. and extending into the second century B.C.E. But there were also Jews elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. For example, there are four Jewish cemeteries in Aden, at the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, where some 200 epitaphs have been discovered, although fewer than half predate the nineteenth century C.E. but with dates according to era that appear to begin in antiquity. A rabbi from Himyar in Aden was buried at Beth-Shearim in Galilee in the third century C.E., so an earlier date for some of the Aden inscriptions remains possible. As a result, the Jews from “Arabia” at present at Pentecost in Jerusalem in Acts could be from various areas of Arabia, not just the Nabataean kingdom.

Paul and Arabia.

A third reference to “Arabia” in the New Testament is connected to the ministry of the apostle Paul, where immediately after his conversion at Damascus in ca. 33 C.E., he indicates that he “went away at once into Arabia,” before returning again to Damascus (Gal 1:17). The precise location of the ambiguous “Arabia” is disputed, with a string of proposals identifying the area as the environs of Damascus (Justin, Dial. 78.10, places Damascus in Arabia); Bosra and the towns of the Syrian Ḥaurān; the Decapolis cities in Arabia (Pliny, Nat. 5.74), such as Gerasa (Jerash) and Philadelphia (Amman) in Transjordan; and the Nabataean capital at Petra and/or Hegra (Madaʿin Salih) in the Hijaz. The alleged purpose was to preach to the “god-fearing Jews” in the synagogues of Nabataean Arabia, particularly at Hegra (Medaʿin Salih), which was just south of Midian and Mount Sinai. Others suggest that by “Arabia” Paul means Mount Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula (cf. Gal 4:25), which was also part of the Nabataean realm, where it is argued Paul spent time on the Mountain of the Torah in solitary meditation, wrestling with the message of the new Torah of the Gospel. Both are attempts to fill the void with a precise location and purpose and are not without problems.

The thrust of Paul’s later missionary activity was west, not east, the scope of which he characterized as from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Rom 15:19), without any allusion to a missionary campaign in Arabia. What lends credibility to a missionary program in Nabataea is that on his return to Damascus in ca. 37 C.E., the ethnarch of King Aretas (IV) attempted to seize him, forcing him to escape through a window in the city wall (2 Cor 11:32–33), implying he had aroused the anger of the Nabataean authorities. The ethnarch has been viewed as the head of a Nabataean trading colony in the city, but the incident indicates he was a governor (strategos) in charge of the entire city, not just the quarter where the Nabataeans resided. Whatever the case, Paul’s account of the episode stands in contrast to that recorded in Acts 9:23–25, where it is the Jews of the city who were hostile to Paul; and it is clear they represented a sizable part of the population (cf. Josephus, J.W. 2.560, 7.368). The incident occurred while Paul was staying at the house of Ananias at Damascus.

The medieval Arabic tradition indicates that the location of the Nabataean quarter at Damascus is in the northeast quarter of the old city of Damascus, between the East Gate (Bāb Sharki) and St. Thomas Gate (Bāb Tūma), precisely where the Ananias chapel is located, adjacent to the old city wall. Nabataean control of the city has been associated with the emperor Gaius Caligula’s (r. 37–41 C.E.) rather liberal policy of assigning the client kings various territories in the east, and Aretas IV is known to have presented his father Germanicus with a golden crown in ca. 18 C.E. (Tacitus, Ann. 2.57.4). In addition, Nabataean influence was considerable in the region, with even a Nabataean administrator (strategos) known at Dmeir just east of Damascus (CIS 2, 161). The death of Aretas IV in 40 C.E. provides the terminus ad quem for Paul’s visit to Damascus, a rare instance where Paul mentions a public official in his letters.

In regard to Paul’s possible missionary program in Arabia, the evidence of Jews in the Nabataean realm is minimal. A graffito from the Siq at Petra mentions a man named ʾBYW, who has been interpreted as Jewish (the patronym is DNYS, “Dionysios”). However, the name ʾBY appears in both pre-Islamic (Safaitic) north and (Qatabanic) south Arabian texts, and the Arab name ʾUbaiy also is fairly common. In addition, one of the more than 35 inscribed “Nabataean” tombs at Medaʿin Salih (ancient Hegra) is for a “Shubaytu son of ʾAliʿu, the Jew,” dated to 42/43 C.E., who was evidently married to a local Nabataean woman and perhaps involved in the caravan traffic with south Arabia. In addition, there is a Nabataean sun dial from Madaʿin Salih inscribed in Aramaic with the possible “Jewish” name “mnšʿ son of ntn.” There are some Jewish graffiti at al-ʾUlā (ancient Dedan) near Hegra in the Hijaz, but these appear to date to a later period, long after the Nabataean kingdom had been annexed by Rome. Far more important are the archives of Babatha and Salome Komaise, daughter of Levi, from the so-called Cave of Letters in Nehal Hever, two Jewish women from the village of Maḣoza in the Roman province of Arabia southwest of the Dead Sea, formerly part of the Nabataean realm. But there is no evidence for synagogues anywhere in the Nabataean realm.

The Nabataeans and the Herodian dynasty.

Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.) may be of Nabataean ancestry as his mother Cypros/Cypris was from a “distinguished Arab family” and his Idumaean father Antipater was friendly with the Nabataean king Malichus I, whom he entrusted with his children when campaigning against the Hasmonean Aristobulus (Josephus, Ant. 14.121–122). By this time, the Idumaeans and Arabs had been interacting for centuries. In Herod the Great’s reign the situation changed, and the Nabataeans were frequently in conflict afterward with the Herodian dynasts. After Antony and Cleopatra stripped away part of the Nabataean kingdom in 34 B.C.E. (Josephus, J.W. 1.361–362, Ant. 15.96; cf. Plutarch Ant. 36; Dio Cassius 49.32.5), they instigated Herod to lead a war against the Nabataeans in 32/31 B.C.E. (J.W. 2.37–85, Ant. 15.96–103, 123–60). Sometime between 12 and 9 B.C.E., Herod conducted a successful campaign against Arab brigands in the Ḥaurān who were supported by the Nabataean vizier Syllaeus, and afterward he established an Idumaean military colony in the Trachonitis (Ant. 16.283–285). After Herod’s death in 4 B.C.E., the Syrian governor put down a Jewish rebellion aided by Nabataean auxiliary troops who participated “because of their hatred for Herod” (J.W. 2.68–76, Ant. 17.287–290). In ca. 29 B.C.E., Aretas IV conducted a campaign against Herod Antipas, after the tetrarch divorced his daughter (probably Shaʾūdat) and married Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip the Tetrarch (Ant. 18.109–116). During the Jewish Revolt, the “Nabataean” Arab and Syrian auxiliaries of the emperor Titus are characterized by “murderous brutality and hatred of the Jews,” in stark contrast to the Roman legionaries (J.W. 5.556). These long and deeply seeded hostilities seem to preclude any large-scale Jewish communities or colonies in the Nabataean capital or any of the major Nabataean towns.

In contrast, there is some evidence for the presence of high-ranking Nabataeans in the Herodian realm. The Nabataean vizier Syllaeus was at the Herodian court, where he became involved in a romantic affair with Herod’s sister Salome and wished to marry her until Herod required him to be initiated into Jewish customs. Syllaeus’s noteworthy response was “he would be stoned to death by the Arabs” if he converted to Judaism (Ant. 16.225). The incident makes unlikely the existence of any Jewish colonies in Nabataea, and the animosity of the Nabataeans to the Jews only increased under Aretas IV and his successors. Afterward, Syllaeus even was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Herod with several other Arabs who also apparently resided in Judea or its environs (Ant. 17.55–57). Beyond these episodes, the evidence of Nabataeans in Herod’s realm is purely circumstantial. There are no Nabataean Aramaic inscriptions known from Judea; but Nabataean coins appear at 45 sites in Palestine, primarily in the region of the Dead Sea, and Nabataean pottery appears only at some scattered sites in Judea and in the northern Negev. Pseudo-Nabataean pottery from the Herodian period, perhaps produced at Jerusalem, appears at a number of Herodian sites, including Jerusalem, Jericho, Herodium, Masada, Qumran, and Sepphoris, although for the most part the finds may reflect the presence of units of the Nabataean army who served with the Roman army during the Jewish Revolts.

The Herodian dynasty’s protrusion into Nabataean territory also is reflected in North Arabian inscriptions by the indigenous population in the region. In 24/23 B.C.E., Augustus (r. 29 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) gave Herod the districts of Trachonitis, Batanea, and Aurantitis in the southern Ḥaurān (Josephus, Ant. 15.343–348, J.W. 1.398–400); and this region was later given to Philip the Tetrarch (Ant. 17.319). This protrusion of Herodian territory into southern Syria appears to be reflected in some North Arabian Safaitic texts discovered in the black basalt desert in northeast Jordan that refer to the Herodian dynasts and Roman officials of the early Roman imperial era, including Herod the Great and/or Herod Antipas, Philip the Tetrarch, and King Agrippa (I or II), as well as unspecified Roman administrators. Several texts refer to a conflict with the “Jews,” who plundered and apparently set fire to a shrine, perhaps of Baalsamin at Sīʾ in the Ḥaurān, the deity invoked by the inscribers of the texts. The event may be connected with the revolt of the Arabs in the Trachonitis during the reign of Herod the Great in 12–9 B.C.E. Another text is dated to the year “Herod engaged in war,” and another text more explicitly refers to the “war between the Nabataeans and Jews,” which could refer to any of the conflicts between 32 B.C.E. and 29 C.E.

The Herod at stake could also designate Herod Antipas (r. 4 B.C.E.–39 C.E.), who is normally referred to as just “Herod” in the New Testament (Matt 14:1–12, Mark 6:14–29, Luke 13:31–32). He was the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea in Transjordan, and apparently tried to seize his brother Philip’s territory in the Syrian Ḥaurān after his brother’s death in 34 C.E., where Nabataean interests were also at stake. Other inscriptions are dated to the year that “the people of the Ḥaurān complained to Caesar [i.e., the Roman governor] about Philip” and another text refers to “the year that Philip died.” The “rebellion against King Agrippa” in another text could be either Agrippa I (r. 41–44 C.E.) or perhaps Agrippa II (r. 50–ca. 94 C.E.), perhaps alluding to the First Jewish Revolt. Although the texts are from the basalt desert east of the Ḥaurān, the overwhelming impression is that they reflect a population residing within Nabataea.

Archaeology and Petra.

The extensive construction program by Herod and his successors during the Augustan era has been viewed as a stimulus for the erection of temples and civic architecture in the Nabataean capital during the reign of Aretas IV. The most substantial remains are three temples located in the city center. Directly across from one another are the Temple of the Winged Lions to the north of the Wadi Musa, the so-called Great Temple to the south of the Wadi Musa, and Qasr el-Bint farther to the west, all allegedly constructed in the reign of Aretas IV. The most striking parallel with the Southern or “Great” Temple, constructed in the last quarter of the first century B.C.E., is the Temple of Augustus at Samaria-Sebaste and perhaps Caesarea Maritima, contemporaneous constructions. At both Samaria and the Petra Southern Temple, there is a large staircase leading to a large forecourt, with the temple elevated on higher ground. The sculptural remains at the Temple of the Winged Lions and the Southern Temple are impressive. The lions at the former and the elephant-headed capitals at the latter are especially striking and unique, suggesting the exotic nature of the kingdom. Adjacent to the Southern Temple to the east is a paradeisos, a large pool and garden complex, a feature typical of Hellenistic royal capitals. The magnificent Qasr el-Bint Temple at the end of a colonnaded street with its elaborate stucco decorations and architectural technique suggest it may have been constructed sometime late in the reign of Aretas IV or certainly by the mid-first century C.E. In similar fashion, excavations in front of the Khazneh (Treasury) indicate it must be dated to late in the reign of Aretas or perhaps even slightly later.

It is also clear that these constructions were accompanied by other monumental constructions in the Augustan era, located on the southern side of Wadi Musa along the later paved Roman street. A number of sculptural fragments were discovered in a structure southwest of the gate leading to the main temple at Qasr al-Bint and in the temenos (temple enclosure) vicinity that suggest constructions commemorating certain victories. The first is a weapon frieze or panoply. There are also a few fragments of another relief depicting a Nereid riding a triton accompanied by a small Eros holding the bow of a ship and another showing only the tip of a sea monster. And, finally, another set depicts Eros carrying garlands and scrolls, suggesting the prosperity of the kingdom. The remains of the friezes have been dated stylistically to the last quarter of the first century B.C.E. or the beginning decades of the first century C.E. This date immediately suggests the victory of Augustus at Actium in 31 B.C.E. and the actia celebrated by the Nabataeans, although the evidence for this is not until after the annexation of Nabataea. In at least the reign of Philip (244–249 C.E.), Bosra was celebrating the Actia Dusharia, commemorating Augustus’s victory at Actium and the Nabataean chief deity Dushara, but there are no earlier traces of its celebration within Nabataea.

There also are earlier architectural remains at Petra and its vicinity. The extensive eyewitness report of Athenodorus of Tarsus embedded in Strabo (Geogr. [779]), probably to be dated to the late 60s B.C.E., already reflects a rather sophisticated and cosmopolitan society. Archaeological excavations in the Civic Center and Greater Petra reveal traces of the earlier Hellenistic settlement. A Nabataean temple in the village of Wadi Musa adjacent to Petra was constructed over an earlier Hellenistic phase. In the Civic Center, a sondage (trench) just 16.4 ft (5 m) northwest of the monumental gateway leading to the temenos of Qasr al-Bint, exposed a wall that supported a colonnade, suggesting it was part of a portico or stoa. The foundation pottery was Nabataean ware belonging to ca. 50–25 B.C.E., whereas the upper levels dated to ca. 25–1 B.C.E. In addition, the wall blocked an earlier large aqueduct that ran northwest from the so-called Great Temple to the Wadi Musa. The aqueduct was filled with Rhodian jar handles, suggesting a late Hellenistic construction but sometime earlier than the colonnaded wall. The Monumental Gate and temenos area are products of the postannexation period, probably Trajanic in date.

Farther down the colonnaded Roman Street, adjacent to Parr’s Trench III of the 1960s, another sounding in 2007 exposed the remains of a wall extending some 49 ft (15 m) with the remains of a Hellenistic domestic settlement, marked by Hellenistic black-glazed ware and anonymous Nabataean coins, probably from the last part of the third century to the late second century B.C.E. More dramatic are the excavations in front of the Qasr al-Bint Temple, which exposed beneath the temenos pavement two early stratigraphic phases that date from the fourth century to the second century B.C.E., based on coinage, imported pottery (Greek black-glazed ware and Rhodian amphorae), and radiocarbon dates. The Hellenistic constructions exposed are rather simple domestic dwellings, but the renovation of the areas and the later constructions may have destroyed traces of a more civic nature.

Other earlier constructions are found at nearby Baidha, 4.3 miles (7 km) north of Petra, where excavations of a long sandstone promontory revealed a courtyard with a covered colonnade adjacent to a cryptoporticus. The Corinthian columns used in the structure are decorated with the heads of gods and humans; of 31 heads, 12 are male and 16 female, with the others being unidentifiable. Pseudo-Ionian capitals in the structure are decorated with elephant heads and horned lions, and there are fragments of lions, goats, and boars, perhaps from a frieze. The divine and zoological atmosphere of the complex is interpreted as a Dionysian thiasos (group of banqueters). On the basis of the Nabataean ceramics and coins associated with the complex, it is thought to have been constructed around 50 B.C.E. and to have functioned only until about 30/20 B.C.E., essentially in the reign of the Nabataean king Malichus I and during the time of Cleopatra and Antony, whose Ptolemaic regime was identified with Dionysos. The 130 elephant-headed columns of the Great Temple at Petra and the friezes of winged lions from the temple just opposite it across the Wadi Musa to the north are dated to the reign of Aretas IV, but the exotic fauna of these temples have parallels in the earlier reign of Malichus I. The complex illustrates the impact of Ptolemaic Egypt and Hellenism on the Nabataean realm. Inscriptions from Wadi Musa (ancient Gaia) in Greater Petra indicate that the Dionysiac cult was more widespread among the Nabataeans than previously assumed.



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David F. Graf