How Did Saul Become Paul?

30 Oct

For the first time Luke refers to Saul by the name Paul in Acts 13:9, and most commentaries believe that Christianity’s great evangelist was given the name Paul at birth and answered to his Roman citizenship, but Saul was given as his Hebrew name. However, this is not necessarily so. Paul’s birth names may not have even come down to us. It is unlikely that a Jew born in Tarsus was given a Hebrew name. In fact, according to Richard Fellows (HERE), archeologists have not uncovered one Hebrew name in Tarsus! Most likely Paul was given the name Saul when he began his studies in Jerusalem as a young lad.

Richard Fellows also argues that, if the name Paul was used for the first time in Acts 13 because he was evangelizing gentiles, why wasn’t the name introduced in Acts 13:1, 7 or even in Acts 11:25, 30—and, for what it’s worth, I quite agree. I would wonder especially about Acts 11:30 or even Acts 12:25, because by the time indicated in these verses Saul was already using the name Paul, for the famine-relief offering, to which both of these scriptures point, occurred at the time of Acts 15. Barnabas and Paul not only went to Jerusalem to debate with the authorities there concerning the position taken by the men from James, but also to bring the famine-relief stored by the gentile churches for Judea’s poor, as had been prophesied (cp. Acts 11:28). Why doesn’t Luke use the name, Paul, in these verses?—after all, Paul was going by this name at that time.

The obvious conclusion is that the name Paul came into use by Saul at Acts 13:9 for a particular reason, so Luke’s play on words with the name of Bar Jesus and Elymas in verses 6 and 8 continues with Saul-Paul in verse-9. Notice that Luke says Saul is also called Paul, implying that he was referred to by this name prior to his encounter with Elymas. If this is so, why isn’t this known in Acts? Why does Luke keep it hidden until now? I suggest it has something to do with the meaning of the name and the fact that the team had come from Antioch, the headquarters of the Roman governor in the East. The name Paul is indeed a Latin name, and its meaning (and Jews in the first century CE were very attentive to the meaning of their names) is ‘small’ or ‘least’. Could the same people, who had given us the name Christian which in the beginning of its use had a derogatory intent, also have given the name Paul to the Jew called Saul for the same reasons—as a put-down? The name Saul means ‘desired’ or ‘sought after’ and phonically resembles Paul. It does seem one or the other was chosen for its phonic similarity. Since Saul was probably the name given to Paul when he began his education in Jerusalem as a young lad under Gamaliel, he was known by Saul most of his life. Evidently, then, it was the name, Paul, that was given him later for its phonic resemblance to Saul, and we don’t know what Paul’s Latin birth names were.

Clearly, Paul’s calling himself by this name at this point is supposed to answer to what Elymas-Bar Jesus was doing in claiming to be a disciple of Jesus. Luke means to contrast two opposite undertakings. Elymas-Bar Jesus had assumed a name before God that exalted his own position before men, similar to the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14). Well, Saul/Paul took the route of the publican, making himself of no worth at all in answer to what Elymas-BarJesus was doing—exalting himself before God and giving everyone the impression that he was the son of ha-Shem or the ‘son of The Name’.

In the heat of the debate, as was often done in the Gospels when the rabbis could no longer answer Jesus’ argument logically, they slandered the Kingdom of God and resorted to name calling. Elymas-Bar Jesus could have referred to Paul’s Hebrew name, Saul, perhaps accusing him of drawing upon its significance as Israel’s first king and considered himself to be drafted/desired-sought after by God himself to fill Jesus’ sandals in his absence. Whereupon Saul took the name that had been given him with derogatory intent (probably Romans in Antioch) to show he was the servant of the Lord. If, as is thought by some that Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2Corinthians 12:7) was bad eyesight (cp. Galatians 4:13-15) inherited from his vision of Jesus on the Damascus road, perhaps Elymas-Bar Jesus asked how Paul could be a chosen prophet, if he had a physical imperfection (see Leviticus 21:17-23). According to Luke, Saul at this point became Paul and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, unveiled the judgment of God. In order to reveal God’s true prophet and judge between him and the false prophet (for a true prophet is known in that the thing he claims will occur does indeed occur—see Deuteronomy 18:20-22; cp. Acts 13:6), Paul declared that the hand of the Lord was upon Elymas-Bar Jesus, and he would be temporarily blinded, possibly judged by the words of his own mouth, and it was so (Acts 13:11).


Related Posts:

Paul’s Name Revisited

Who Was Elymas-Bar Jesus ~ Part 1

Who Was Elymas-Bar Jesus ~ Part 2

Why Did the Outreach Begin in Cyprus?


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3 responses to “How Did Saul Become Paul?

  1. Richard Fellows

    November 12, 2012 at 12:44

    I don’t think that Sergius Paulus chose the name for Paul. Instead, my suggestion (no more) is that Saul looked for a new name and the name “Paul” came to mind because it was the name of Sergius. In other words, Sergius did not give his name to Saul, but it may not be coincidence that Acts introduces the name “Paul” shortly after Saul’s encounter with Sergius Paulus. The name “Paul”, which means “small”, served to show up the presumptuousness of the names chosen by the magician. Notice that Paul seems to comment on the name “BarJesus” (son of Jesus) when he calls him instead “son of the devil”.

  2. Ed Bromfield

    November 12, 2012 at 09:01

    I have to concede to you that ‘Paul’ is a high class name, because this is not an area of my expertise. But, I don’t understand why Sergius Paulus would have given Saul the name ‘Paul’ and why it would be significant here. Could you elaborate?

  3. Richard Fellows

    November 12, 2012 at 01:57

    The name “Paul” was a high class name, so would not have worked as a derogatory nickname. It seems to me that it is more likely that was the name of the proconsul that gave Saul the idea to call himself “Paul”.

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