No … “Saul the Persecutor” did not become “Paul the Apostle”

(Abridged version posted at TGC)
(Spanish version available at Coalición por el Evangelio [Spanish TGC])

A ‘sticky’ misconception I keep coming across both in the church world and in the seminary world is the notion that God (or, specifically, Jesus) changed the name of a certain figure of importance that we now typically refer to as “St. Paul.”

In a recent sermon, I heard, “Just like Saul the persecutor can become Paul the apostle, God is gracious to us…”

On an exam by one of my brightest students, I found written, “It is Saul, who is re-named as Paul, who is the primary messenger of the gospel…”

From a church member who came from a Roman Catholic background, I was asked, “Wait…you mean Jesus didn’t change Saul’s name to Paul on the Damascus Road?”*

The problem is that such a view, however common it may seem (just search for ‘Saul-Paul name change’ to find loads of posts on the apparent significance of this event), is not accurate. I hate to ruin the fun.

The Common View

I’m unclear on the origins of this idea—though some industrious person has no doubt studied it—but it seems that this Saul-renamed-to-Paul idea is a clever re-reading of an OT storyline onto that of Paul.

As is well known, God prominently changes the name of two patriarchs:

  • Gen 17:5—”No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
  • Gen 32:28—”Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.

The idea seems to be that something similar happened to Paul when he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road in Acts 9.

Correcting the Misconception

The problem is that there is no scriptural evidence whatsoever to support this idea of a name change for Saul/Paul. Here is a synopsis of the case against the name-change.

(1) Jesus addresses him as “Saul, Saul” in Acts 9:4 during the christophany. There is nothing in the narrative even remotely suggesting that Jesus subsequently changed the name:

Acts 9:3–6Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Gal 1:15–17But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

Missing entirely from both the Lukan account in Acts and Paul’s recollection in Galatians is any mention of a name change.

(2) Ananias addresses him as “Saul” in Acts 9:17 after the conversion. We read, “So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’” No mention of a name change, and he is still calling him Saul after the christophany.

(3) The Holy Spirit himself calls him “Saul” before his first missionary trip. We read in Acts 13:2, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” It would be truly odd for the third person of the Trinity to keep calling this man by his “persecutor” name if, in fact, the second person of the Trinity had changed it to his “apostle” name some 4 chapters previously.

(4) After the conversion experience / christophany, he is called “Saul” 11 more times (excluding when Paul recollects the Damascus Road scene in chs. 22 and 26). This would truly be odd if Jesus had changed the name to Paul.

(5) The decisive shift from “Saul” to “Paul” in Acts happens only once Paul sets off on his missionary journeys away from Jerusalem, specifically at Acts 13:13 (“Now Paul and his companions set sail“). In other words, the person who “changes” his name is not Jesus but actually Luke. But why does he do this?

(6) Saul and Paul were two names for the same person all along. The lynch-pin is found here:

Acts 13:9But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit.

Here we find a person filled with the Holy Spirit—that is, a converted person—being called both Saul and Paul. Not “Saul the terrible person was renamed Paul the Christian” but rather Saul and Paul are dual names of the same person, both before and after his conversion.

As it turns out, “Saul”—derived from the famous first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, to which Saul/Paul himself belonged (Phil 3:5)—is simply the Hebrew name for this person, while “Paul”—a normal koine name—is his Greek name (derived from the Latin surname Paulus).** For someone who was born in Tarsus (Acts 21:39—”no obscure city,” but a fairly prominent Greek-speaking one) but educated under Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3) in a strict form of Pharisaism (Gal 1:14; Phil 3:5–6), this is not unusual at all. Much like many immigrants to English-speaking worlds will take on an Anglicized name on top of their ethnic name, many if not most Greek-speaking Jews in Paul’s day would have a Jewish/Hebrew name and a Hellenistic/Greek name.

The smoking gun is this: when Paul recalls his conversion, he notes in particular that Jesus was “saying to me in the Hebrew language (τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ), ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” (note: the Greek phrase there could refer to Hebrew or Aramaic, but the point remains the same). Paul draws attention to how Jesus was addressing him in his Hebrew name and makes no mention that somehow that name is now abandoned.

In sum, when Saul/Paul begins in earnest his Gentile-focused ministry among primarily Greek-speakers—namely, from 13:9 mentioned above—it is natural for the author of Acts to begin referring exclusively to him by his Greek name. Though he is referred to as “Paul” (not “Saul”) in Jerusalem later on (e.g., chapter 15), this is not all that surprising, since there were Greek speakers there, too. Indeed, the author Luke could be accomplishing a thematic point by this shift from Saul to Paul around chapter 13, given the broader theme of Acts (e.g., 1:8) of the shift of the nucleus of the church from predominantly Jewish-centric Jerusalem (=Hebrew “Saul”) to the Greek-centric “ends of the earth” such as Rome (=Greek “Paul”).

(7) Corroborating evidence. There are a variety of other similar situations in the NT:

Acts 1:23—”Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus“—three names!
Acts 4:36—”Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas“—so even Paul’s best friend Barnabas had a double name (but both appear to be Jewish).
Acts 13:1—”Simeon who was called Niger.”
John 21:2—”Thomas (called Didymus).”

Each of these individuals has 2 (or 3) names and did not undergo a name-change by God.

(A Side Note on Simon Peter)

This misconception about the renaming of Paul is often connected to Peter, where some think a similar name-change-by-Jesus happened. Even for Peter the evidence for this from the NT is somewhat sparse.

“Peter” (Petros) is Greek, and “Simeon”/”Simon” is Hebrew (from the patriarch). This apostle is called “Peter” and “Simon” interchangeably in the Gospels early on (e.g., Matt 4:18, 10:2, 16:16). In Matt 16:18, as is well known, Jesus emphasizes Peter’s name as “Rock” (petra, which is a small pebble in normal Greek), but Matthew still records it in Greek as “Peter” (Petros), consistent with what he has already been doing all along. Hence, there is no record of a name change, but simply word-play on Peter/Petros—as representative of the apostles and their confession—as the “rock” (petra) on which the church is built.

In John 1:42, however—long before the events recounted in Matthew 16—we read how Jesus said, “‘You are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).

Now it is possible at this early stage that Simon was his only name, that Jesus here renames him to Cephas, which is the Aramaic equivalent of Petros (both of which mean “rock” in their respective languages), thus leading to use of the Greek name Peter. If so, we would not expect him to be called Simon later on, but that is not the case; in fact, in John we see him called “Simon Peter” (in Greek) 15 more times. Moreover, in his epistle, this man identifies himself as “Simeon Peter” (2 Pet 1:1), which would be odd if his name were changed from one to the other.

It is more likely that (a) Jesus is adding Cephas—which would be translated to Peter among Greek speakers—as a name for this apostle (an incident which the Synoptics do not record); or (b) that Simon had a dual name all along (Simon among Hebrew-speakers, Peter among Greek-speakers) and that Jesus is adding Cephas as an Aramaic play-on-words. I tend to lean in the direction of the latter option, given the early evidence for Petros in the Synoptics, especially in Matt 4:18, which is parallel to the other phrases listed above for guys with dual names: “Simon (who is called Peter).”

In either case (a or b), the Simon-Peter-Cephas situation forms no basis of comparison for the alleged the Saul-to-Peter name change.

Connecting to the Pew

Why does clarity on this issue matter? Why would I rain on someone’s parade, for whom the notion of a divine name change from Saul (the bad guy) to Paul (the good guy) is a cherished illustration of God’s grace?

Theological ideas that are not actually rooted in Scripture—even if attractive and useful—are ultimately unwarranted. I can imagine how easy it is to draw very powerful applications from the notion that Saul the persecutor met the risen Jesus and was so transformed that Jesus gave him a new name, Paul. That will preach, esp. given how closely connected naming is with identity in the Bible. (Though, I will note, there is no special significance to Paulos in Greek; it’s just a name). However, if there is no biblical evidence for such an idea, then we should not use it. Even if it spoils the fun.

This applies well beyond this situation. Another common one is the false conflation of the wise men with the shepherds at the manger (hint: the wise men were not there at the same time; they found Jesus months later). We can derive the right doctrine but from the wrong text, and we can derive the wrong doctrine from the right text. Neither is helpful in the long-run.

Rather we should endeavor to read the Bible closely and be as faithful to the Scriptures as possible, in all areas. Applications that appear to draw on Scripture, but which on closer inspection are not actually Scriptural—even “neat-o” ones—can even be harmful to someone’s faith, once he/she realizes they are not actually right.

_______________

* Melody, this post is dedicated to you!

** Thesaurus Linguae Graece, for starters, reports over 7,300 occurrences of this name in its Greek corpus.

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64 thoughts on “No … “Saul the Persecutor” did not become “Paul the Apostle””

  1. This article was definitely much more interesting than I had originally anticipated. For the sake of legitimancy though, could you source some materials? In this day in and age where there are trillions of articles with fake information, its important we source our stuff.

    1. Fair point. I wasn’t really intending this to be scholarly (I certainly use enough footnotes in my day job!)—in fact, it was really just a formal version of an email I sent to a church member! I’m not sure citing commentaries would really strengthen the argument, since my point is that we have taken the biblical data—which I’ve cited numerous times, of course—and produced a minor doctrine that simply isn’t there. Thus, my goal was to return to what Acts (and Galatians) *actually say* rather than what seems to have been foisted upon the text.

    2. Ok, now that I’m back at my desk, here’s one quick source that may scratch the itch for now. BDAG—the Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich Greek/English lexicon on the NT—comments on Παῦλος, “from the beginning he bore the Israelite name Saul as well as the Graeco-Roman Paul” (789).

      They cite a fairly old study that looks at much more detail into naming conventions of the Greco-Roman world in Paul’s day (as well as some interesting stuff in the papyri about the use of Saoul vs. Saulos). The conclusion there is the same as mine, though the approach taken is far different (and more rigorous). You can access it here:
      https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B0PKVajrrOv9MFpQYzhVNnUwaTA

      1. Thats awesome! I didnt doubt your information was true either, I just always remember when I was younger sitting in services or reading articles and asking “Okay thats cool but where did you get that from?” And then being asked when talking to others about my faith “Where did you get that from?” So I always love to make a habit of citing sources, even in the simplest ways like at the bottom just putting some links or whatever to help others know that the information came from somewhere haha.

    3. Agree! I usually do that (a quick perusal of my prior blog posts—which no one ever reads anyhow 🙂 —shows my penchant for footnotes. So much so that my wife keeps telling me that my blog posts are too long!) So it’s ironic that this piece, which was almost an afterthought, has apparently struck a nerve (which was definitely not expected!). If I had a do-over, I suppose I’d make it more formal. But then probably no one would read it.

  2. Then why do the Pauline epistles often begin with I PAUL, and elsewhere in the epistles. Luke wrote much later than Paul.

    1. In his epistles, Paul is writing in Greek to predominantly Gentile audiences; hence he would naturally use his Greek name. The dating of Acts is irrelevant to the discussion, though, since the author is clearly a companion of Paul, and Paul himself never refers to any kind of name change.

  3. Just a thought brother…it would be more helpful (less confusing) to readers if the title didn’t make it apparent that your argument was that “Saul” and “Paul” aren’t the same person at all. I saw the title thinking you were saying that there were two distinct people, based on your phrasing.

    1. I also got the same impression when I read the title. Especially the “persecutor” and “apostle” as the qualification for who they are. But it was a very good point you made. Thank you for that.

  4. I like titles that are attention grabbers myself. This one grabbed my attention. I think in pursuit of truth, we should always seek to dispel any traditions that may not be truth. I’ve heard something similar before about the Saul/Paul and it never made sense to me. No wonder, because really this is a case of Yeshua and Jesus, not Abram and Abraham.

  5. A correction: Paul was Latin, not Greek. It is part of his name as a Roman citizen. Every Roman had at least three names: praenomen, nomen and cognomen, e.g. Gaius Julius Caesar. Most likely Paul was a descendant of a freed slave, who would take his former master’s family name. Paulus was the cognomen of one branch of the Sergius clan, for example.

    1. Good point — I should be more precise. Παῦλος derives from Paulus. It’s still technically “Greek” in usage (which was my point), but not in etymology (on which you are correct). My main observation is that even if there were this alleged name-change, there is no intrinsic meaning to “Paul” (Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, as a rough indicator, lists 7,374 instances of it in their indexed Greek corpus), unlike the case for, say, Abram>Abraham and Jacob>Israel (or even Simeon/Peter/Cephas).

  6. What about the Scriptures not ever mentioning angels singing at the birth of Jesus–yet carols & stories of Christmas refer to them singing?

    1. Depends on what you mean by “singing.”

      In Luke 2:13–14, the angelic host appears to the shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth, which is recorded as follows:
      “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising (αἰνούντων) God and saying (λεγόντων), ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!'”

      Granted, the typical Greek words for ‘singing’ (e.g., ᾄδω) are not used here, but the word that *is* used (αἰνέω) is often used in such contexts, so I think something like ‘singing’ in English is an accurate way of describing it. Did they chant? Play music? Have rhythm? We don’t know (and some of that is imposing our modern sense of ‘singing’ onto whatever the ancients counted as ‘singing’). But I don’t think the modern carols/stories are *wrong*.

      (And for what it’s worth, from very early on this ‘Gloria’ of the angelic host has been treated as a sort of early-Christian hymn or song.)

    1. Yes, that would be the implication, I think. As a dual citizen (Jewish and Roman), he would have had at least two names. Very common for that day (as the limited examples I provide for others indicates). As a ‘zealous’ Pharisee in his Jerusalem-based career early on (in Acts), he would have primarily gone by Saul among his Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking peers. When his ministry shifts towards the Gentile world at the beginning of his first missionary journey, he primarily goes by Paul(os) among the Greek-speakers.

      1. “Yes, that would be the implication …” Which is as much an argument from silence as the refuted notion that God changed his name.

        And deeming the use of “Saul” periodically subsequently to Acts 13 as indicative that Paul was also his name previous to Acts 13, holds no more weight than that the use of “Jacob” periodically after his encounter with the Angel of the LORD is indicative that Israel was also his name previous to the encounter.

        Saying that X who was also called Y means that his name was, or was not, always both names is also non-compelling. That can explain either that this is the same person, after a name change/addition, or it can indicate the person has always been known by two names. (In fact, I think the evidence would more strongly imply a change/addition; had he always had two names, there is less likelihood that the fact of the different usage would have to be explained.)

        Was Saul/Paul’s name changed? An argument from silence either way, and both interpretations have circumstantial evidence, but not direct evidence.

        HOWEVER, it is certainly of HUGE value to point the question back to the source document — Holy Scripture — whether or not we find a compelling case for either view. Kudos for that!

  7. Awesome reading, in a world of feeling-appealing articles. Like others, I had some doubts before I started to read, but your case is so well presented, I really did not see the need for outside sources.
    Now, I will like to see someone rebut this, to see what “their side of the story” will be, just for an academic debate.
    God bless!

  8. Excellent post! I shared it on FB. I have been making the same argument, using many of your same points, for decades. I have even contacted (privately) a well known evangelist who made this erroneous point on the radio. (He never replied.) My students will think Greg Lanier is my pen name.

  9. It is interesting to note that Simeon Peter, in his second letter to the Diaspora, recounts the teaching of “our beloved brother, Paul” in 2 Peter 3:15. Could it be that by then he was known only by that name, or was it, perhaps, because he used his name, Paul, in all the letters considered to be scripture?

  10. All good stuff, but I would add that there might be an even greater theolgoical/missiological implication to the “name change” misconception you rightly pointed out.

    Especailly within some cultures, it’s very typical to take on a new “Chrisitan” name upon conversion to Christianity — Saul/Paul is often used as an example of this. There’s nothing wrong with this on it’s own, but it becomes problematic when the new (oftentimes Western) name replaces the original (oftentimes non-Western) name, thereby suggesting that a renunciation of your cultural context is required to become a Christian (an issue that is seen in many areas aside from names). Saul (a Jewish name) going by Paul (a Greek name) actually demonstrates the opposite view, that he cared about contextualization and that the Kingdom is now open to both Jews and Gentiles. If I remember the author I first read this in during seminary, I’ll be sure to comment again 🙂

    Thanks for your article.

  11. Jacob and Israel is an interesting name change. I don’t discern any pattern as to how the scriptures apply which after genesis 32.

  12. Good article…will need to think through this… but this is a helpful examination of the relevant verse. However, you mention that Paul’s name had no etymological meaning. I have always been taught that the name Paul means “little or small or humble” which would reflect the change in Saul/Paul’s attitude from being a proud persecutor of Christ who was part of the Jewish establishment into a humbler servant of Christ who was the apostle of the gentiles.

    1. Yes, that is often postulated, namely, that Paulos (in Greek) “means” small/few/little. That is true of the *Latin* root Paulus (see OLD), but how much value we should ascribe to that *in Greek* is debatable (in Attic, the world pauros does mean something like “small”). As mentioned in a comment above and in the footnote, the name Paulos is used thousands of times in extant Greek corpus. Does it have such significance in the case of Saul/Paul? Unclear. Some point to 1 Cor 15:9 (“least of all the apostles”), but there the phrase is ὁ ἐλάχιστος, which has no resemblance to Paul’s name, though I suppose the conceptual idea could be there.

      In a (somewhat) recent article by David Wenkel (Asbury Journal 66 [2011]), he also mentions this Paulos=small and makes a tentative case about the significance of that. He only cites a different article by Colin Hemer (Tyndale Bulletin 36 [1985]) to back up this Paul=small idea. But in Hemer’s article, nothing is cited at all; he just states it without appealing to a lexicon. Presumably he is just repeating the notion of the Latin etymology. BDAG makes no mention of any significant meaning of Paulos *in Greek*. I’ll need to check the new Brill dictionary to see if they mention anything; LSJ does not.

  13. Yeah, I agree with most of what you write and I wouldn’t build a massive theological castle out of this, but it would seem that there is an etymological meaning for Paul’s name (albeit Latin). Would it be a stretch to assume that Paul, and the original readers of the NT, would know (and likely draw theological meaning from) the name’s Latin etymology, seeing as he was using the name ‘Paulos’ in 1st century Rome?

    BTW I looked back over my notes to make sure i wasn’t just making this up and I first noted the ‘Paul=small/humble’ assertion while in a NT course as a student at RTS =)

    1. I’m not entirely sure that’s how the word “clickbait” is defined.

      M-W defines it thus: “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.”

      Granted, you have to take my word for it here, but given that my blog has been languishing in total obscurity for about four years now, and generates no revenue, and historically has a readership that largely consists of my mom and about two other people—I certainly didn’t “design” this title to generate traffic. Most of my posts are really boring. I have no idea why this one generated a lot of hits other than the fact that Justin Taylor and Challies picked it up. I certainly didn’t expect it, nor did I intend the title to be misleading. The use of the scare quotes makes it pretty clear that I’m making a statement about the language we use to refer to this person.

      I also hope that the content is not of “dubious value.” I could, I suppose, put more cat pictures up.

      It seems, then, that you are operating from a different definition of “clickbait,” which Hamblin describes in The Atlantic as follows: “[many online readers] are now quick to condemn as clickbait any story they find unsatisfactory in headline, concept, subject, or execution. Find an article with a decent number of comments in which no one suggests that it is clickbait, and you have found … an article where the comments must have diverted into an even more heated tangent on race, politics, or gluten.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/clickbait-what-is/382545/)

  14. Nabal, Boanerges and Elymas were other names that bore practical or theological significance in scripture, but each one was explained as such. I don’t find that same explanation regarding Paul’s name.

    1. Lots of ppl in the OT have names with meaning that have clear theological/rhetorical value, and the meaning of the name is not elaborated upon further.

  15. Thanks so much for this. Just a question about Simon Peter. Some suggest that the way Jesus refers to him 3 times in John 21 as “Simon son of John” is intentional, since the only other time Jesus calls him this in John occurs back in John 1:42, where Peter is first called as a disciple. The point, some say, is to have John 1 and 21 function as “bookends” that enclose the gospel and highlight the original calling and subsequent recommissioning of Peter. A nice idea, especially since John’s standard way of referring to Peter is as “Simon Peter,” but does this “bookends” suggestion sound credible to you? Thanks again.

  16. I do like this post, quite a bit. Didn’t realize before that he may have just had a dual name.

    However, I would still say that Saul the Persecutor DID INDEED become Paul the Apostle…

    Saul was a persecutor of the followers of “the way”.
    Paul was an apostle.
    So, while there may not have been an actual before/after name change, it doesn’t change the fact that sail the persecuted became Paul the apostle.

    It seems semantics at best.

    My question is this, was there a point to this blog post? Do you believe that it matters if his name was changed or not? And if so, why does it matter?
    Or, was this just to point out a simple misconception?

    Anyway, I found this post very informative!
    Thank you for taking the time to research and write!

    1. Good question(s).

      My point was simply that there is a view that, in essence, Jesus deleted the name “Saul” and gave him the name “Paul” — as with, say, Abram -> Abraham. I was very simply pointing out that such an episode does not happen in Acts. It was actually quite a modest post before it kinda got out of hand 🙂

      To clarify, the core of my argument (which is not a new one by any means) is that even *after* he was converted and called to be an apostle by Jesus in Acts 9, *he’s still called Saul.* For 4 more chapters covering nearly 15 years! (from 33ish AD to right before the Jerusalem Council in 49/50 AD). So throughout that period, at least in Luke’s mind, he is not “Paul the Apostle” but “Saul the Apostle.” That’s what all his buddies call him; that is what the Holy Spirit calls him; that is what Jesus called him. So I was simply pointing that out — it’s blindingly obvious in Acts, I think — since pastors/laypeople have this fictitious idea that Jesus-changed-the-name-from-Evil-Saul-to-Good-Guy-Paul on the Damascus Road … for which there is no evidence, but, rather, the opposite evidence.

      Or more specifically to your questions. I do not think his name was *changed* at all, or that “Paul” was given to him as a new name. Rather, in Luke’s retelling, there is a *shift in usage* (not a *change*) from his Jewish name to his Graeco-Roman name (cognomen), both of which he had from birth (as other scholars far more intelligent than I have argued — see some of my comments elsewhere above). Why did Luke narrate it in this way? He does not tell us, of course, but (based on the research and writing I’ve done on Luke-Acts [and Paul’s letters]), my sense is that he does so to accentuate the plotline set forth in Acts 1:8: the decisive move of the Jerusalem/Jewish-based early Christian movement to the whole-world/Gentile based movement that it becomes. That shift begins with Paul’s conversion itself, then with Peter/Cornelius, then with Paul’s first missionary journey. And it is *precisely* at that point that the shift from the Jewish name Saoul/Saulos takes place (13:9). Paul is taking the gospel outside Jerusalem to the ends of he earth. As he says in 1 Cor 9:20, among the Jews he behaved like a Jew, but among others he behaved like them; it’s not too unreasonable to apply this to the name he used based on the context he was in (hence, all his Greek letters to mostly Gentile [or mixed] churches read Paulos). People living in multi-cultural situations have done this for millennia.

      1. Dr Lanier,

        Your post has been helpful in clearing up some muddled thinking in my own mind, but while you warn off one inappropriate application in the main blog, doesn’t your comment here suggest a much more challenging and appropriate application? Namely(!) that Saul/Paul’s change of name was part and parcel of his willingness to adapt his identity for the sake of taking the gospel across cultural boundaries. That’s something that many Christians in the multicultural urban West need to be willing to do on a daily basis, and a pattern that should be familiar to Christians everywhere through their partnerships in mission.

    2. Theological ideas that are not actually rooted in Scripture—even if attractive and useful—are ultimately unwarranted. I can imagine how easy it is to draw very powerful applications from the notion that Saul the persecutor met the risen Jesus and was so transformed that Jesus gave him a new name, Paul. That will preach, esp. given how closely connected naming is with identity in the Bible. (Though, I will note, there is no special significance to Paulos in Greek; it’s just a name). However, if there is no biblical evidence for such an idea, then we should not use it. Even if it spoils the fun.

      This applies well beyond this situation. Another common one is the false conflation of the wise men with the shepherds at the manger (hint: the wise men were not there at the same time; they found Jesus months later). We can derive the right doctrine but from the wrong text, and we can derive the wrong doctrine from the right text. Neither is helpful in the long-run.

      Rather we should endeavor to read the Bible closely and be as faithful to the Scriptures as possible, in all areas. Applications that appear to draw on Scripture, but which on closer inspection are not actually Scriptural—even “neat-o” ones—can even be harmful to someone’s faith, once he/she realizes they are not actually right.
      – Greg Lanier

      1. Brian, I wrote this earlier, but is worth repeating: “it would seem that there is an etymological meaning for Paul’s name (albeit Latin). Would it be a stretch to assume that Paul, and the original readers of the NT, would know (and likely draw theological meaning from) the name’s Latin etymology, seeing as he was using the name ‘Paulos’ in 1st century Rome?”

  17. I H Marshall (TNTC) says this: As a Roman citizen Paul would have borne three names, the third of which (his cognomen) would have been the Latin ‘Paullus’; what his first two names were, we do not know. A Roman citizen could have a fourth name (his signum or supernomen) given at birth and used as a familiar name; in Paul’s case this could have been his Jewish name ‘Saul’, which he would use in a Jewish environment. The change in name here to the form which Paul uses in his letters corresponds to his entry into a mainly Gentile environment.

  18. Hello! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new apple iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the fantastic work!

  19. But what about in Corinthians where Paul flat out said he was an apostle and he used to persecute the church? I think that’s the beauty of all of it, God’s grace was used to transform someone who seems too bad to save.
    “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
    ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭15:9-10‬ ‭NIV‬‬
    http://bible.com/111/1co.15.9-10.niv

  20. Now that you have analyzed the scripture as if it were a modern day human-inspired encyclopedia, I would urge you to now look at the scripture as being written by Holy Spirit filled, and led, men of God. Scripture which would then be considered inspired by God. THEN, answer the real question that must be answered concerning the inspired documenting of Saul’s name change to Paul. Why did it occur at that specific point in time in the life of Paul, years after his conversion, in Pamphos Cyprus, before a Roman gentile (the first documented gentile he ever preached to) and Jewish false prophet. That is the story behind the change from Saul to Paul.

    1. Not entirely sure where you are getting the thinly veiled ad-hominem “analyzed scripture as if it were…” criticism. That is certainly not my presupposition, if you read my other writings — quite the opposite, in fact. Either way, I actually agree largely with your point. The way Luke (as inspired by the Spirit) narrates Paul’s life and the shift in the name used DOES reflect the massive transformation that happens upon the outset of Paul’s first missionary journey. In other words, the way the life and mission of Paul is narrated reflects a profound shift from a Jewish-focused ministry (=Saul) to a Gentile-focused one (=Paul). I actually make that very point. But there was no *name change ceremony* or something like that, which was the common misconception I was addressing. So perhaps re-read the piece a bit more closely before indicting my doctrine of Scripture without warrant.

      1. Sorry indeed. Did not mean to criticize in that way. Should have been put forth differently. My point is that any name change in the inspired word is critical to understand. That being said, the change in name to Paul is even more important than a shift in focus.

  21. Maybe a mix up from Gal.
    Acts 13:9 Then Saul, (who also [is called] Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him.
    Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;) But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. (Galatians 1:1, 23 KJV)

  22. I know I am way late to this discussion. I like this article with one caveat. I think that point seven– “Corroborating Evidence”–fails to make the point. Three of the four citations (Acts 4:36, Acts 13:1, and John 21:2) involve ‘nicknames’ which were more descriptors (like calling someone “Tiny” or “Moose”) rather than an alternate name. I think your point is well-made without this section which, to me, is a bit confusing.

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