When Paul is introduced in the Bible, he is called Saul (Acts 7:58). Six chapters later, while serving with Barnabas in Cyprus, the text nonchalantly mentions that Paul and Saul are synonymous (Acts 13:9).
But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, (Acts 13:9 NASB)No explanation is given for the alias and no one bestows the Hellenistic name on Saul yet for the remainder of Acts, the narrator speaks only of Paul. The only one who calls Paul “Saul” thereafter is Paul himself and only in repetitions of his testimony (Acts 22:7, 13, 26:14). For all intents and purposes, Saul is no more. Along with the new moniker, henceforth Paul’s name is listed first in each missionary tandem in which he appears, stylistically emblematic of leadership.
Saul’s namesake was Israel’s first king (I Samuel 9:17). Though Acts never mentions the fact, the future apostle (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5) and the former king both descended from the tribe of Benjamin (I Samuel 9:1-2, 21, 10:21, I Chronicles 12:1, 29; Acts 13:29). The connection between name and tribe has led some to speculate that the apostle was a distant heir of the king. Richard H. Bell (b. 1954) writes that “perhaps Paul’s family had a family tree which traced their origin through Ulam [I Chronicles 8:39-40] and Saul...Paul/Saul was therefore named after his most illustrious ancestor (Bell, The Irrevocable Call of God: An Inquiry into Paul’s Theology of Israel, 13).”
Counterintuitively, the name change does not coincide with Paul’s dramatic conversion (Acts 9:1-19). It does, however, serve a conscious literary purpose. Stanley B. Marrow (b. 1931) comments that “with the commencement of the apostle’s first missionary journey and at an important turning point in his career, the change of name from the very Semitic ‘Saul’ to the Greco-Roman ‘Paul’ should signal a far more significant change for the history of the world (Marrow, Paul: His Letters and His Theology: An Introduction to Paul’s Epistles, 7).” The name Paul was better suited to the missionary’s new Gentile context (I Corinthians 9:20-22).
Philip R. Davies (b. 1945) also sees a further poetic rationale:
“This replay of the persecution of a ‘son of David’ by a Saul might be thought fanciful; yet such a realisation surely did not escape the Benjamite Saul of Tarsus, nor the author of Acts—both of whom exhibit a fondness for scriptural analogies and precedents—nor indeed other reasonably knowledgeable Jews of that time.” (Rezetko, Lim & Aucker, Reflection And Refraction: Studies in Biblical Historiography in Honor of A. Graeme Auld, 96)Saul, a name reminiscent of royalty, becomes Paul, meaning “small” or “humble”. The name Paul fits with the missionary’s own belief that “I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (I Corinthians 15:9 NASB).”
Is there significance to the timing of the metamorphosis from Saul to Paul in Acts? Have you ever known anyone who changed their name? If you changed your name what would it be? Why? Why do you think Paul changed his name?
Some have conjectured that the apostle opted for a new Hellenistic name in part because his old Hebrew name had developed a derogatory meaning in Greek. Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and John J. Pilch (b. 1936) explain, “The connotation of the Greek adjective saulos (“loose, wanton”), which described the peculiar walking style of courtesans and effeminate males, might have prompted Luke (and Paul) to prefer to use “Paul.” (Malina and Pilch, Social-science Commentary on the Book of Acts, 90).” This would be the equivalent of modern women who had the proper name “Gay” changing it when the term became associated with homosexuality.
Many other reasons have also been given for the transition. Ben Witherinton III (b. 1951) posits the following theories:
This story may suggest that Paul took the name in order to aid in the process of converting another Paul who was a Gentile and a proconsul on Cyprus, Sergius Paulus...Possibly Παυλος should be seen as a nickname, meaning “the small one.”...Wilson, Paul, p. 30, conjectures that Paul’s Roman name was Gaius Julius Caesar on the basis of his family being one of those enfranchised in Tarsus by Julius Caesar or Augustus. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 310)Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) adds, “Lucian of Samosota tells us of men who changed their names to signify a higher social status (The Cock 14; Timon 22) (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina),223).” C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) contributed that “Saul” was the name in the Antiochan source while “Paul” was better known to most (Barrett, Acts1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 609).
Most scholarship (included the luminaries listed above) concurs that despite common belief to the contrary, the shift to Paul was no change at all. Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-28) and the most probable suggestion for his names is that Paulos was one of the three proper names a Roman citizen would have. Malina and Pilch remind, “This verse does not support the common belief that Paul underwent a name change from Saul to Paul. It was common for members of the house of Israel to have two names: a Hebrew one for insiders, a Greek or Latin name for outsiders (Malina and Pilch, 90).” Barrett summarizes, “Paul is an alternative name, not a newly given one (Barrett, Acts of the Apostles: A Shorter Commentary, 195).”
Paul is mentioned by his Jewish name 22 times, all in Acts. As such, Paul never refers to the name Saul in any of his letters. To read Paul’s letters, it is as if Saul never existed.
Do your friends or family call you something different than outsiders? Are you known by different names in different contexts? Do you think Paul’s name served to distance the character from his previous deeds as Saul? Have you known of any person or business who rebranded to evade a bad reputation? What do you call yourself? How, if at all, has your name shaped you?
“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” - sociologist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)