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.
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.
The successor of Obodas was apparently surnamed Aeneas and this is the Arabian king who figures in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 11:32; compare Acts 9:24). The Aretas, here mentioned, is the father-in-law of Herod Antipas, who divorced his wife to marry Herodins, the wife of his brother Philip (Matthew 14:3; Mark 6:17; Luke 3:19). Josephus (Ant., XVIII, v, 1,3) gives us a circumstantial narration of the events leading up to and following the conduct of Antipas. Coupled with a boundary dispute, it occasioned a bitter w ar between the two princes, in which Antipas was completely overwhelmed, who thereupon invoked the aid of the Romans. Tiberius ordered Vitellius, proconsul of Syria, to make war on Aretas and to deliver him dead or alive into the hands of the emperor. On the way, at Jerusalem, Vitellius received intelligence of the death of Tiberius, March 16, 37 AD, and stopped all warlike proceedings (Ant., XVIII, v, 1,3). According to 2 Corinthians 11:32, Damascus, which had formerly belonged to the Arabian princes, was again in the hands of Are tas, when Paul escaped from it, not immediately after his conversion, but on a subsequent visit, after his Arabian exile (Galatians 1:16,17). It is inconceivable that Aretas should have taken Damascus by force, in the face of the almost omnipotent power of Rome. The picture moreover, which Josephus draws of the Herodian events, points to a passive rather than an active attitude on the part of Aretas. The probability is that Cajus Caligula, the new emperor, wishing to settle the affairs of Syria, freely gave Damascu s to Aretas, inasmuch as it had formerly belonged to his territory. As Tiberius died in 37 AD, and as the Arabian affair was completely settled in 39 AD, it is evident that the date of Paul's conversion must lie somewhere between 34 and 36 AD. This date is further fixed by a Damascus coin, with the image of King Aretas and the date 101. If that date points to the Pompeian era, it equals 37 AD, making the date of Paul's conversion 34 AD (Mionnet, Descript. des medailles antiques, V, 284-85).
Henry E. Dosker