ReThink everything you thought you Knew

Saul Never Became Paul — The Myth of the Radical Name Change

Article by Kurt Willems

Today, I have something that may be a huge paradigm shift for you.

​You’ve heard the story: Saul became Paul.

It’s a powerful story.

A Jewish man once hell-bent on the destruction of Christianity became convinced that his life was nothing without Christ. The name change from Saul (old identity) to Paul (suffering for Jesus / new identity) is a reminder for many people that our lives are never the same after we embrace Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

On the latest edition of The Paulcast: A Podcast All About the Apostle Paul, I examine the credulity of this storyline. And look, I have some skin in the game on this one. It preaches so well. As a pastor I’ve used this example of transformation many times.

Here’s the problem: it is unbiblical and ahistorical.

​I want to briefly sketch the case out for why Saul never had a name change.
*If you would like a detailed look at this, you will need to head over to the podcast episode.

Perhaps you remember the well-known story of Paul traveling on the Road to Damascus. The author of Luke-Acts tells this story (that Paul recounts in his own way in Galatians 1) with narratival​ gusto. It truly is a powerful story about Jesus transforming and calling Saul. But that is the kicker… it is about Saul. In fact, when Jesus addresses him directly he says: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

And you would think that by the end of this experience that Jesus, or other followers of Messiah, would start saying “Paul, Paul,” but this never happens. In fact, after this event in Acts 9, Paul is referred to as “Saul” 11 more times: without qualification. Nothing in the New Testament says that he dramatically changed his name.

Not even Acts.

The key transition point in Acts comes a few chapters later when Saul and Barnabas are commissioned and sent out as missionaries to the non-Jewish nations / nations-people.

The pattern seems pretty clear. As a rule of thumb, at least in Acts: Paul is Paul in gentile contexts. Paul is Saul in Judaean contexts. There is no moment in the Bible where a name-change takes place (which is completely distinct from Jesus adding the name Peter to Simon).

No wonder his letters all bear the name Paul. These are letters to the nations! They are addressed to gentile-specific contexts with Greek speaking congregations!

So, you may wonder why this matters at all. Fair enough. ​It certainly isn’t to make a major out of a minor. This could easily be perceived as that. But let’s think about names for a minute.When you think of your neighbors that come from other national-contexts (here, I’m assuming you are either American born and/or English-speaking only/primarily), have you ever met someone who had a name that was challenging to pronounce? Perhaps you found such a name difficult to memorize since it was so unfamiliar.

I certainly have. As much as I try, it can be hard to pronounce and remember foreign names.

Paul had a similar situation. He was in a world, much like the North American context, where a great empire had assimilated many cultures (after conquering them, mostly). This forced him to live in 2, if not 3, worlds (perhaps 2.5): his Jewish world, the Greek-speaking Hellenistic world, and the Roman world which had annexed the latter two into their dominion.

Thus, the Apostle had 3 names (more like 2.5 names):

  • Saul: his Hebrew/Aramaic name. The name he most easily recognized and the one that spoke deeply of his Jewish identity. This Jewish teacher took joy in being from the tribe of Benjamin, the same tribe from whom emerged the king he was named after!
  • Paul: his Greek name (Paulos) and his Roman name (Paulus). He chose a close “equivalent” to his Jewish name from the known Greco-Roman names of the time.

Paul’s Greco-Roman name was necessary for navigating the world, one where he was forced into a dual identity. This is not unlike your neighbors who might not be US born (or Canada, UK, etc. since I realize that not all of you are from here) who, for similar reasons forgo their cultural story to anglicize their name or choose a completely different one to navigate the tumultuous cultural waters of dominant culture. ​

Saul’s/Paul’s names speak to a contextual reality: both the power of being named and the dehumanizing forces in our world that seek to un-name people.

I don’t know all of the practical ramifications of this observation, but it should cause us to wonder how the forces of privilege played themselves out against the movement of God in the first century and how similar forces are at work in our own day and age.

Hopefully that gives us all something to think about.

Again, if you want to hear me go deeper on this issue, as well as point to helpful resources on the subject, I invite you to subscribe to The Paulcast itself: iTunes or Google​. ​​
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Painting: Apostle Paul, by: Jan Lievens (circa 1627-1629)

Kurt Willems (MDiv, MA) is the founding pastor of Pangea Church (Seattle), curator of both The Paulcast and Rapture Drill podcasts, blogger at The Pangea Blog (hosted by Patheos.com), and resourcer of an intelligent and humanizing faith at Theology Curator. Check out his next theology coaching cohort for pastors, church leaders, students, and life-long learners.

Saul Never Became Paul — The Myth of the Radical Name Change
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