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The Apostle Formerly Known as Saul

Question
Why was Saul of Tarsus name changed to Paul and when did this occur?
Answer
Names in NT times are a little strange to us. The Jewish tradition was to have your given name linked to the name of your father. Thus, "Simon bar Jonah" or "Simon, son of Jonah." Paul would have been called such by his Jewish friends and family. The Roman/Greek tradition was your given name associated with your place of birth thus, "Saul of Tarsus," Saul's given name linked to a town in the province of Cilicia where he was born.

In that time, names were seen as having meaning as revealing something about the inner workings of the person. The name "Saul" was a mixed bag, so to speak, having both positive and negative connotations. Postively, the name of the first king of Israel had also been "Saul." Negatively, this same king had acted evily towards David, and died in a shameful way. In other words, it may have conjured up negative ideas in the minds of the people who heard it (for a modern parallel, consider that people rarely name their children "Judas" these days, because of the negative association with the betrayer of Jesus). On the other hand, "Paul" is a fully Romanized name (meaning "small"), with no Jewish tradition attached to it.

So, why was the apostle's name changed? We can speculate that this Romanization of his name is an embracing of his mission as an apostle to the Gentiles (see Acts 15). We can also speculate that this new name is a break with the legacy of his covenant-breaking namesake.

As far as the actual time and place of that name change, this is not clear. It didn't happen at his conversion (Acts 9) and we see the transition made between Saul and Paul in Acts 13:9. After that, Paul is the name used to refer to him.

Did God himself change Paul's name? If he did, and we don't know for sure, this divine name change is probably very important, not in the actual name or even the meaning of the name, but that *God* changed his name. Like Abraham, Jacob, John, Jesus--this man was set apart by God for a special mission by being re/named by God himself.

If it wasn't done by God, then Paul must have done it, perhaps reflective of his position as the "least of the Apostles", a pun on the meaning of "Paul" in Greek.


Answer by Robert Barnes

Rev. Robert Barnes is a minister in the PCA and the Managing Editor for Bright Media.