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.
- Acts 13.2 cites the Apostle as Saul (without qualification).
- Acts 13.9 tells us that “Saul, who was also called Paul” was full of the Spirit. Saul is used with a disclaimer that sometimes he is known as Paul.
- Acts 13.13 then uses the name Paul without qualification as they sail out to proclaim God’s good news to non-Jewish people-groups.
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.
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.
In Monday’s post, we talked about the nature of the flesh. Here let’s introduce the work of the Spirit in overcoming the flesh. The Holy Spirit’s goal in pointing us to Christ is to replace the destruction of deception (the flesh) with the wholeness of truth. By leading us into an experience of truth, the…
With the coming of Christ, which we celebrate during the Advent season, the Father, Son, and Spirit made a way for us to be incorporated into the triune fellowship. We are placed in Christ through the power of the Spirit. This doesn’t just change how God views us and relates to us. It changes who…
We are transformed as we gaze upon the beauty and glory of God. Paul put it this way, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This occurs as we cease…
About 25 years ago I was traveling on the freeway to somewhere or other and I stopped at a truck stop to get a bite to eat. I sat down at the counter next to this scruffy truck driver who had just started his lunch, and we started up a friendly conversation. Within about fifteen…
Image by humancarbine via Flickr In this second part of my review of Disarming Scripture I will begin to address its strengths and weakness. [Click here for Part 1] There is a great deal in Disarming Scripture that I appreciate. Perhaps the most significant thing is that Flood fully grasps, and effectively communicates, the truth that…
Greg looks at faith and transformation and compares Christianity with other worldviews. http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0462.mp3