The Apostle Paul (AD 5 to 62-64) is credited with authoring 14 of the 27 books of the New Testament (NT) in the first century AD. Based on passages in his letter to the Galatians (4:24-26), it can be inferred that he had some knowledge of the geographical relationship between Mount Sinai and Jerusalem.
Although the “Old Testament” account of the Exodus has been a popular topic of study, the NT references to the Exodus are often overlooked. The NT writers do confirm the historicity of the Exodus, but their discussion of its geography is scanty. The NT mentions Mount Sinai four times (Acts 7:30, 38; Gal. 4:24, 25), the Red Sea twice (Acts 7:36; Heb. 11:29), Arabia twice (Gal. 1:17; 4:25), and Midian once (Acts 7:29).
The most interesting NT comments about Mount Sinai were made by the Apostle Paul in these verses:
Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:24-26, RSV)
Although this passage could easily be glossed over as merely spiritual allegory, two distinctly geographical terms appear in the Greek text that refer to the location of Mount Sinai. Is it possible that these verses reveal ancient insights about the location of Mount Sinai?
The Apostle Paul was a high ranking, learned Pharisee, the Pharisee sect being the strictest of Judaism (Acts 26:5). He was the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6) and was taught the Hebrew law (Torah) by the respected Gamaliel (Acts 22:3, 5:34). He also traveled in Arabia (Galatians 1:17). Given these circumstances, Paul would likely have learned of the general location of Mount Sinai, if it was still known within the Jewish religious hierarchy.
As Paul’s mention of Mount Sinai is rather terse, perhaps he assumed that details of the mountain were still available to his contemporary audience. Conversely, Paul may not have had very much personal information to provide. However, Paul’s sabbatical in Arabia, and his subsequent use of Mount Sinai in the Galatians epistle, hints either of insights gained from his own visit to the area of the mountain or from contact with someone who knew its whereabouts.
This article analyzes two aspects of Paul’s treatment of Mount Sinai in Galatians 4:24-26. (1) The relevance of the phrase “Mount Sinai is in Arabia” in the context of the first century AD geographical knowledge. (2) The potential disclosure of a unique geographical relationship between Jerusalem and Mount Sinai.
Paul may have possessed some unique information about Mount Sinai due to his education and travel experiences. Nevertheless, his statements about Mount Sinai must be evaluated in the context of the rudimentary geographical knowledge ca AD 50, a time in which extensive travel was not routine, and maps, although imprecise, were precious rarities usually reserved for kings and generals.
The Mount Sinai of the Hebrew Exodus was memorialized in the Hebrew records more than a millennium prior to Paul. But, given the political demise of Israel and the cultural upheavals that preceded the NT period, how much of the arcane Exodus geography was still available to Paul and his contemporaries?
In Paul’s day, the world was still dominated by Greek culture, even though the Greek empire had succumbed to Rome in the prior century. Despite Rome’s power, the Greek geographical philosophy and advancements were not eclipsed by Rome. Consequently, in the NT period, amid a backdrop of Latin place names and a growing network of Roman roads, the broad geographical influence of the Greeks still prevailed.
The cultural penetration of Hellenism allowed the ideas and language of the Greeks to supersede those of the Hebrews. A prime example is the ca 250 BC Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, produced in Alexandria Egypt, the Greek center of learning. It made Yam Suph, the Hebrew term for the Sea of the Exodus, synonymous with the Greek idea of the “Red Sea” (Erythra Thalassa). Eventually, the Greek geographical template superseded any residual Hebrew understanding and became the basis for the Byzantine-era Exodus traditions. Those traditions placed the sea crossing at the Gulf of Suez near Egypt and Mount Sinai on the opposite shore within the Sinai Peninsula.
First Century Geography
Some historical geography background is needed to set the stage for Paul’s Mount Sinai reference. The format of the 1490 AD map in Figure 1 can be traced to the Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, whose ca 150 AD work, Geography, was the culmination of 700 years of Greek learning. Although Ptolemy lived a couple generations after Paul, his concepts likely typified the geographical thought in the first-century NT period.
The first thing to note about the Figure 1 map is that “Arabia” applied to areas ranging broadly east, south, and southwest of Jerusalem. Hence, this “Arabia” term carried little geographical specificity. The antique map in Figure 2 shows the same kind of thinking.
The second aspect to note in Figures 1 and 2 is the absence of the Gulf of Aqaba, which was grossly misunderstood until the 19th century AD. Although the milieu of the Gulf of Aqaba hosted much of the Exodus, its absence from geographical thought prevented its from being factored into the geography of Mount Sinai and the Exodus route. The longstanding Gulf of Aqaba obscurity is explained by its isolation, navigational dangers, rough terrain, and lack of freshwater, harbors, and military or commercial utility.
The 17th-century map in Figure 3 shows the ongoing replication of the Greek ignorance of the Gulf of Aqaba with its depiction of the Red Sea as a single shaft of water. There was no bifurcation at its head, no Sinai Peninsula, and no Gulf of Aqaba separating Egypt from, what is now, Saudi Arabia.
Now, here is the importance of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Exodus debate. The chief point of scholarly contention today is whether Mount Sinai was located east or west of the Gulf of Aqaba. In current terms, an eastern location would place it in Saudi Arabia. A western location would place it in the Sinai Peninsula. In antiquity, this east-west distinction could not be made because the geography of the Gulf of Aqaba was unknown. Without this detail, it could only be said that “Mount Sinai was in Arabia.”
Figure 1 reflected the first-century AD Roman tradition of dividing Arabia into three regions: Arabia Petraea (stony Arabia) on the west, Arabia Deserta (deserted or wilderness Arabia) on the east, and Arabia Felicis or Felix (happy or fruitful Arabia) to the south within the Arabian Peninsula. The persistence of this idea is reflected in the map in Figure 4, made 17 centuries after Ptolemy.
In this relatively modern map, the Gulf of Aqaba extends about 110 miles north from the body of the Red Sea, defining the eastern Sinai Peninsula. The head of this gulf and the Mediterranean Sea then define the breadth of the land bridge connecting Africa and Asia.
Based on the 1st century AD concept of Arabia, Paul’s note that “Mount Sinai is in Arabia” only tells us that the mountain was somewhere south of the Holy Land. Gulf of Aqaba ignorance precluded its use to help localize the east-west position of Mount Sinai within that Arabia. Several centuries later, Egyptian Coptic Christians and the religious hermits of the desert arbitrarily positioned Mount Sinai at one of the largest mountains in the Sinai Peninsula.
Reiterating, the region of Arabia Petra, which hosted much of the Exodus journey, is bisected by the Gulf of Aqaba and its rugged coasts. Scholars who were ignorant of this geography, were never forced to position Mount Sinai within Arabia relative to this landmark. However, our modern knowledge of geography now demands that a “Mount Sinai in Arabia” be placed either east or west of the Gulf of Aqaba. This geographical conundrum is the crux of the present-day Exodus debate.
Nonetheless, Paul’s knowledge of the Tenakh (Hebrew Old Testament) would predispose him to to consider Arabia as being far to the south of Jerusalem within the Arabian Peninsula–not within the Sinai Peninsula.
For instance, 1 Kings 10:15 mentions the bounty that came to Solomon secondary to his association with the queen of Sheba: “…revenues from merchants and traders and from all the Arabian kings and the governors of the territories” (underlining for emphasis). This information is repeated in 2 Chronicles 9:14.
Sheba was linked with the Arabian Peninsula, specifically with Saba, or the Sabeans, the most important of the south Arabian kingdoms, whose capital was located at Marib between 1200 BC-AD 275 (Kitchen 1994, 110). Sheba is also mentioned in the Qur’an in surah 27:20-44. Islamic scholars place the Sheba kingdom in south Arabia.
Another example is Isaiah 21:13: “A prophecy against Arabia: You caravans of Dedanites, who camp in the thickets of Arabia.” Dedan was classically associated with the Arabian Peninsula, primarily with at Al-Ula, 270 miles southeast of the head of the Gulf of Aqaba.
There are similar associations in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. “Dedan, and Tema, and Buz, and all that are in the utmost corners, and all the kings of Arabia, and all the kings of the mingled people that dwell in the desert” (Jer. 25:23-24, underlining for emphasis). In Ezekiel’s lament (27:20-22) concerning Tyre, Arabia is named in relation to Dedan, Kedar, and Sheba, areas historically identified with regions east of the Red Sea. Kedar was a son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13) and an Arabian tribe sprung from him (Gesenius 1979, 6938).
Considering these Old Testament references to Arabia, the Apostle Paul would have the historical understanding of an Arabia within the Arabian Peninsula, east of the Red Sea, and far to the south of Judah and Israel. These histories and locations do not pertain to the Sinai Peninsula.
Mount Sinai in Arabia
Here is Paul’s allegory again, with the geographical aspects emphasized:
22 “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. 24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar [Hagar]. 25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. 26 But Jerusalem which is above [Mount Sinai] is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Galatians 4:22-26 KJV)
The key point is that the symbolism in the allegory uses a clever play on words that seems to be based on a geographical reality. That is, Paul uses a physical relationship as the backbone for a spiritual illustration. If the underlying geographical relationship is fictitious, the wordplay and the allegory becomes empty. Thus, I do not believe that the geographical wordplay is accidental or fallacious
Paul’s allegory contrasts the outworking of two covenants, the bondage created by a legalistic adherence to the “Law of Moses” versus the freedom provided through divine grace of the “New Covenant.” By illustration, Abraham’s concubine, Hagar, and her offspring, symbolized a human plan, while Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and her offspring, symbolized a divine plan.
Hagar was symbolically linked with Mount Sinai, where the Mosaic law originated. Jerusalem was subsequently inhabited with the “children” of that law who were in bondage to a legalistic system of works. In contrast, the higher, more heavenly, state of Jerusalem was symbolized by Sarah’s “spiritual children,” who were born of faith and divine grace, not of works of the flesh.
The overlooked geographical underpinnings now need to be identified. A composite of the geographical phrases yields this statement:
“…mount Sinai in Arabia…answereth to Jerusalem…which is above…” (Galatians 4:25-26, KJV)
The geographical vagueness of “Mount Sinai is in Arabia” has already been discussed. Paul merely used this phrase to introduce the general position of Mount Sinai relative to Jerusalem. It must be remembered that the practice of the Hebrews was to view the world from the point of reference of Jerusalem. Amazingly, however, Paul was able to further specify the location of the mountain with just two Greek words.
“Answereth,” the first key term in the KJV, is translated from the Greek word sustoicheo. Its only NT occurrence is in Galatians 4:25. The meaning of sustoicheo carries the sense of corresponding, as in soldiers filing together in ranks (Strong 1990, #4960). Aristotle used “sustoichos,” another form of the word, in the geographical sense of “standing on the same row or coordinate” (Liddell and Scott 2000, 783). Sustoichia, also used by Aristotle, has the meaning of “a coordinate series” (ibid.). Hence, this word was useful for describing linear spatial relationships in geographical or military applications.
Paul’s use of sustoicheo seems to have been intended to refer to the position Mount Sinai relative to Jerusalem. In modern parlance, instead of sustoicheo, we might say that Jerusalem and Mount Sinai were on the same parallel of latitude or on the same meridian of longitude.
Since sustoicheo connotes a physical definition, Paul’s use of it to spiritually relate Mount Sinai and Jerusalem suggests that his word play scheme was based on a physical reality. If his scheme was simply metaphorical, he could have structured it using common Greek words for comparison or likening such as homoioo (Strong 1990, #3666) or parab (ibid. #3846), but these terms do not carry the geographical meaning.
The second phrase, “Jerusalem, which is above [Mount Sinai],” clarified that Jerusalem and Mount Sinai corresponded to the same line of longitude. “Above” is translated from the Greek ano, a word that can also mean “upward” or “on the top” (ibid., #507). It appears in the NT nine times. Of chief interest here is its specific geographical meaning of “on the north” or “northward.” The word was used in this manner by the notable Greek historian Herodotus (Liddell and Scott 1889, 83-84). Paul’s inclusion of ano defined Jerusalem as being north of Mount Sinai on his line of sustoicheo.
With these observations in mind, the geographical concepts in Galatians 4:25-26 can be summarized as follows:
1) Mount Sinai was in the Arabia of Paul’s day.
2) Sustoicheo: Jerusalem and Mount Sinai were on the same line of latitude or longitude.
3) Ano: Jerusalem was north of Mount Sinai.
4) The north-south relationship puts Jerusalem and Mount Sinai on a similar meridian of longitude.
Plotting Paul’s location for Mount Sinai
The map in Figure 5 shows the 35-15’ E longitude meridian that passes just east of the Old City of Jerusalem. Moving southward, the line crosses the mountains of western Jordan, the ancient place of Mount Seir. Long before the Exodus, this region was synonymous with Edom, land that had been divinely granted to Esau, the brother of Jacob (Israel). Several arguments exist for not placing Mount Sinai in Edom, among them the biblical injunction that Esau’s territory was not to be violated by the Israelites.
Rejecting Mount Seir in ancient Edom as a site for Mount Sinai, the meridian eventually comes to the Jabal al-Lawz range, about 215 miles south of Jerusalem. Towering above the other ridges comprising the Lawz range, its 8,000+ foot peak makes it the tallest mountain in northwest Saudi Arabia.
The main Jabal al-Lawz peak is at longitude 35-18.25’ E. The longitude of the Eastern Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem is 35-14.25’ E. The four-minute difference in longitude puts the Lawz peak about 4 miles (7 km) further east. This relationship is uncanny in light of the geographical implications of Paul’s sustoicheo.
The Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37-100 AD) observed that Mount Sinai was “the highest of all mountains that are in that country” (Josephus 1960, 70). If Josephus’ information about Mount Sinai is accurate, his description agrees well with the elevations of the Jabal al-Lawz range.
In recent decades, a mountain within the Lawz range, Jabal al-Maqla, has been proposed as the precinct of the biblical Mount Sinai. Its peak is 4.25 miles SSE of the main Lawz peak as shown in Figure 6.
Jabal al-Lawz is situated east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in a region that was part of the Arabia spoken of by Paul. Based on the records of the ancient Greek and Arab geographers, one can conclude that the ancient land of Midian likely occupied this portion of modern northwest Saudi Arabia. Although the Bible does not state that Mount Sinai was in Midian, a spatial proximity is implied. For example, Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 recalled that, after Moses had fled from Egypt to Midian, he encountered the burning bush in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. Following this experience, Moses left Midian to return to Egypt (Exodus 4:18).
Ironically, this position due south of Jerusalem is seen in a number of antique maps, such as in Figure 7. The modern annotation on this map shows a line extending south from Jerusalem, which crosses over Madian, an old term for Midian. “Mont Oreb” (Horeb) lies just to the east, “St. Catherine” (the monastery at the traditional Mount Sinai) is further east. “Sinai Mont” is still further to the southeast. Oreb and St. Catherine are located in Arabie Petree (pink), while Madian and Mont Sinai are shown in Arabie Felice (Felix).
As discussed above, the absence of the Gulf of Aqaba precluded the automatic positioning of these Mount Sinai places within the Sinai Peninsula. The representation of maps like this raises the question as to whether Mount Sinai was, in more ancient times, thought to be due south of Jerusalem, rather than southwest within the modern Sinai Peninsula.
In Galatians 4:22-26, the Apostle Paul used an allegory based on a geographical reality to present a spiritual lesson. Within that allegory, a play on words using the geographical terms sustoicheo and ano suggests that Paul understood Mount Sinai to lie somewhere to the south of Jerusalem. Although it cannot be ascertained exactly how Paul gained this information, one could infer that it originated from Jewish traditions and/or from his own sabbatical experiences in Arabia. In order to evaluate these points objectively, Paul’s statements need to be judged on their own merit, not according to the usual Exodus traditions that place Mount Sinai within the Sinai Peninsula.
Butler, Samuel. 1851. Map: Egypt and Arabia. London: Longman & Co.
Gesenius, William. 1979. Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, trans. Samuel P. Tregelles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Josephus. 1960. Josephus Complete Works, trans. William Whiston. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
Kenneth A. Kitchen. 1994. Documentation for Ancient Arabia. Part I. Chronological Framework and Historical Sources. The World of Ancient Arabia Series, vol. 1. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press.
Liddell, H. G., and Robert Scott. 1889. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Liddell and Scott. 2000. Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Musil, Alois. 1926. The Northern Hijaz: A Topical Itinerary. American Geographical Society Oriental Explorations and Studies No. 1, ed. J.K. Wright. New York.
Nordenskiold, A.E. 1889. Facsimile-atlas to the Early History of Cartography with Reproductions of the Most important Maps Printed in the XV and Xvi Centuries, 1970 reprint. Trans. Johan Adolph Ekelof and Clements Markham. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Krause.
Strong, James. 1990. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Copyright 2003 and 2016 Glen A. Fritz