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 9:3–6—Now 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 1:15–17—But 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 13:9—But 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.