Paul’s Name Revisited

17 Nov

In a recent blog-post (HERE), I suggested that Saul changed his name to Paul at Acts 13:9, and that Luke is doing some word play on the names of Elymas-Bar Jesus and Saul/Paul. While I still believe this, my suggestion that Saul received his name, Paul, rather recently in Syrian Antioch as a put-down by Romans, wishing to denigrate his evangelistic activity there, has been brought into question by Richard Fellows (HERE, and HERE), and I cannot, legitimately disagree.

That said, neither is Richard able to offer anything really firm about how Saul came to choose the name Paul at this point in time. Richard has much more understanding than I do concerning names used in the 1st century CE and has shown in his blog post (HERE) that, as a rule, Jews of the Diaspora did not have Jewish names, and archeologists have not discovered a single Jewish name in any of their works at Tarsus, Paul’s birthplace. Knowing this, it is safe to assume Paul received the name Saul after he arrived in Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel. This name change would be necessary, because Roman fraternization among Jews was frowned upon, and a Jew known by a Roman name would probably be considered a Jew who approved of Roman rule. Therefore, since Paul was probably not given the name Saul at birth, he must have been given that name as a young boy who was sent off to Jerusalem for several years of intense study of his Jewish traditions.

The name Paul is a Roman name. Was this Saul’s birth name? This is a possibility, but, since the names Saul and Paul are phonically similar, Richard Fellows argues that Saul was probably given or had taken the name Paul later, and its phonic similarity was probably the impetus. The question may be asked: could the name Saul have been chosen because of its phonic similarity to Paul? If so, the name Paul was probably Saul’s birth name. The problem is phonic similarity wasn’t a regular practice in choosing a Jewish name. So, if Paul (assuming this was his birth name) wasn’t renamed Saul for its phonic similarity, why would he receive this name when he began his studies at Jerusalem? Assuming there was a specific reason behind the name choice, I can think of one reason why the name Saul would be used to replace the name Paul. The name Paul means ‘small’ or ‘least’, and it is thought by some that Paul was actually small in size.[1] While Paul could have been small in size, it seems this idea comes from the meaning of the name rather than actual knowledge of Paul’s appearance, because how could one know a babe would be small or tall before it was full grown?

As long as we’re playing ‘what-ifs’, what if Paul was very tall as a youth when he was sent to Jerusalem. It may have appeared humorous to the one who renamed him Saul, that such a lad named Paul would be so large. While the names are phonically similar, it would have been rather his great height that triggered the idea for the choice of the name Saul, and its phonic similarity, though possibly realized by the one renaming him,[2] was really not the main consideration. So, if this is close to the truth, the name Paul could have been given at birth, and he was renamed Saul at Jerusalem with phonic similarity noted but not the impetus of the act of renaming him. Rather, it was Paul’s height, which contradicted the meaning of his name, that pointed to King Saul, who was head and shoulders over his contemporaries. Of course, this could be true only if Saul/Paul was tall as a youth.

On the other hand, if we don’t know Paul’s Roman birth names, the name Paul had to be acquired later and was probably used to replace Saul precisely because of their phonic similarity. Either Paul got the idea from Sergius Paulus’ name (as suggested by Richard Fellows) or he had been called Paul by others due before Acts 13:9 for reasons having to do with its phonic similarity to Saul. If the latter was done, then I would think the meaning of the name Paul would have been the reason for its use, and the idea of denigration could have been present, even though the name Paul was a ‘high class’ name as Richard claims.[3] I suggest that the meaning of the name Paul was the main consideration of its use in Acts 13:9, so regardless how we understand the circumstances of Saul receiving / taking the name Paul at Acts 13:9 and following, it was done because of it meaning ‘small’ or ‘least’. This fits the context which Luke wants us to see over against the arrogance in Elymas-Bar Jesus.

Renaming biblical characters was a very familiar practice in the first century. Jesus renamed Simeon, Peter, and he called James and John, Boanerges; and, of course, Joseph was surnamed Barnabas by the disciples. These names, however, were meant for encouragement, but the name Paul, however highly regarded as a Roman name, was either given to Saul or he took it to himself for the opposite reason the above surnames were given. Luke intends for us to see in his wordplay of names in Acts 13 that Saul takes Paul as his identity with the same understanding Paul later expresses about himself: that he is the least of all the Apostles, that he is not worthy to be called an apostle etc. Luke is showing us that Paul is taking a lower place in the debate with Elymas-Bar Jesus. Something was said or done to cause Saul to take this name at this specific time in Paphos.

In my previous blog on the subject of Saul becoming Paul, I offered several reasons for what may have occurred in the debate going on here. Add to those that reference may have been made that Saul, like his namesake had persecuted God’s Anointed One. The very same word that Jesus used when he said to Saul: “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14), is used in its strengthened form in the Septuagint by David addressing King Saul in 1Samuel 24:15 and 1Samuel 26:18, asking why King Saul was persecuting him.[4] Paul may have been accused of being a false prophet who persecuted Jesus’ disciples, just as his namesake had persecuted David, God’s Anointed. So, Saul took the name, Paul, saying he would never again be known by his more celebrated name. Then, being filled by the Holy Spirit, he showed publically who the real false prophet was (Acts 13:9-11).

[1] The Apocryphal book, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla,” describes the mighty apostle as: “A man rather small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, with meeting eyebrows, a large, red and somewhat hooked nose.” Yet the power of the man was unmistakable. “Strongly-built,” the account goes on, “he was full of grace, for at times he looked like a man, at times like an angel.”

[2] Antiochus Epiphanes was often referred to by Jews as Epimanes (the mad one), taking advantage of word play in the king’s title.

[3] For example, President Obama is probably highly regarded around the world, but the term ‘Obama Care’ is meant as a put-down. The people who refer to medical care in this fashion really mean for the term to be derogatory, the high regard for the President’s name around the world notwithstanding.

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Posted by on November 17, 2012 in Paul, Paul First Missionary Journey


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