Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Saul or Paul

This is something that has puzzled me for a while. We encounter Paul the apostle in the NT under two names: Saul and Paul. A common misunderstanding that I had until recently is this: that Saul the Pharisee changed his name to Paul when he came to faith in Jesus. 

At first glance that seems reasonable because:
a) there is a tradition of name changes that correspond to important moments in a person's life (Abram/Abraham, Jacob/Israel, Simon/Peter).
b) When we first encounter Saul, he's persecuting the church and standing by as Stephen is stoned (Acts 8:1). Later, however, in Acts 13-28 the missionary, apostle is referred to as Paul.
Conclusion: he changed his name when he accepted Jesus as Messiah. 
Sounds reasonable, right?

On closer investigation, however, we find out this is not the case. 
First, Saul is converted or called in Acts 9. He's baptized and engages in apparently a significant period of Christian discipleship and ministry under the name of Saul. In Acts 13:1-3 Saul along with several others are leaders in the church at Antioch when the Holy Spirit sets them a part for the Gentile mission. In Acts 13:6 Saul is called Paul for the first time ("But Saul, who was also known as Paul, . . . ") on the island of Cyprus. For the rest of the book and in all of his letters he is referred to as Paul. So what is going on?

Saul was a Pharisaic Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. If Jewish tradition were followed--and there is no reason to think it wasn't--he was given his Jewish name on the day of his circumcision. So Saul was his Jewish name, the name of Israel's first king. 

But Saul was a Roman citizen as well which means that he needed a Roman name. Perhaps Paul was taken because it was a family name or the name of someone who helped provide citizenship to his family, we don't know. But the name Paulos in Greek means something like "little fellow." 

So when Saul is around Jews, he uses his Jewish name. But when Saul is around Greeks and Romans, he uses his Roman name. In Antioch where the Jewish population of Christ-believers was significant it made sense that he'd use his Jewish name. But during the Gentile mission, he encountered primarily, well . . . Gentiles. So he used his Roman name then. 

I am not sure of the significance of all this. Probably nothing. But it has bugged me for a while and I am glad to be getting a little clearer.

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