For many decades the description of the early Nabataeans provided by Hieronymus of Cardia as a nomadic people who did not build houses, drink wine, or engage in any form of cultivation has been accepted quite literally by most scholars. This was in contrast to the fact that Hieronymus' stylized description of their lifestyle is a well-known theme in Greek and Roman ethnographic literature and demands critical evaluation. Thus, according to the standard view, the Nabataeans maintained a semi-nomadic lifestyle, supplementing their income as middlemen in the long distance trade of aromatics between South Arabia and the Mediterranean.

The epigraphic and historical evidence, as well as the archaeological research carried out at Petra and in the Negev, paint a different picture; that is, one in which the Nabataeans were settled and building houses in Petra as early as the late fourth century BCE and were ruled by kings who commanded armies and built forts in the Arabah and the central Negev in this early period. Their military organization was effective enough to drive Macedonian invaders out of their territory twice in the late fourth century BCE.

In view of a growing body of evidence regarding the sedentarization of the Nabataeans at the beginning of the Hellenistic period or possibly earlier, the advanced state of their material culture in the Late Hellenistic period now appears to be the result of a natural incubation period over an extended period of time and not a sudden development around 100 BCE.