Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Paul's Name Change

This is a follow up post from Monday's post on Paul's supposed conversion.  I want to briefly discuss the change of name from Saul to Paul that we see in the book of Acts.

Now, it is a popular opinion that Saul, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians changed his name to Paul at the time of, and because of his dramatic conversion.  This popular opinion is confirmed by my students and by a quick google search.  The idea is that when Paul saw the light and left his wicked Judaism for the truth of Christianity (his conversion), he had to symbolize this dramatic conversion with a name change. Here is a somewhat typical expression of this view from a website called BibleHub: 
"Jesus Christ gave the Apostle whom He called to Himself in the early days, a new name, in order to prophesy the change which, by the discipline of sorrow and the communication of the grace of God, should pass over Simon Barjona, making him into a Peter, a 'Man of Rock.' With characteristic independence, Saul chooses for himself a new name, which shall express the change that he feels has passed over his inmost being. True, he does not assume it at his conversion, but that is no reason why we should not believe that he assumes it because he is beginning to understand what it is that has happened to him at his conversion."
Here the author connects the concept of Paul's name change with the name change of Peter which was given by Jesus in Matthew 16.

Now, I already questioned in my previous post the fitness of the word conversion for what happened to Paul, as if Paul were converting from one religion (Judaism) to another (Christianity).  Now, I am not denying that Paul underwent a radical change.  He did, and he says as much in his letters.  Yet, I do not think that in any way Paul would say he left Judaism behind to follow a different religion.

Moreover, if the name change was linked to Paul's experience (conversion) on the Damascus road, as in Acts 9, the author of Acts certainly does not make this connection clear.  Saul is called Saul 24 times in the book of Acts. Saul's supposed conversion takes place in Acts 9, and the conversion is complete by Acts 9:19.  Of the 24 times Saul is called Saul in Acts, 10 of those take place either before, or during Saul's supposed conversion in chapter 9 (7:58, 8:1, 8:3, 9:1, 9:4(twice), 9:11, and 9:17 (twice)). Another five times he is called Saul occur in Paul's retelling of that event in Chapters 22 and 26 (22:7(twice), 22:13, and 26:14(twice)).  Interestingly, the other nine times that Paul is called Saul in the book of Acts occur after this supposed conversion and over a span of five chapters in the book (9:22, 9:24, 11:25, 11:30, 12:25, 13:1(twice), 13:7, and 13:9).  In each case, Saul is engaged in one way or another in his ministry as a follower of Jesus.   So, if the author of Acts meant to communicate that the change of name from Saul to Paul was a result of and emblematic of his dramatic conversion from Judaism to Christianity, he failed miserably.  Saul continues under the name Saul to minister as a follower of Jesus for quite some time before the name is changed to Paul. The change of name takes place in Chapter 13 without much warning or comment.  Acts 13 narrates what is commonly called Paul's first missionary journey which he undertakes with Barnabus.  In 13:1 he is called Saul and is commissioned along with Barnabus to go abroad with the message of Jesus. On the Island of Crete, Saul and Barnabus minister in 13:7.  In 13:9, we get the following phrase: "But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him." Finally, the change is complete at 13:13 and the name Paul is used for the rest of the book except in Paul's recounting of his experience from Acts 9 in chapters 22 and 26.

So, what can we make of this name change?  Was it a change prompted by Saul's dramatic conversion to Christianity?  First let me say, we cannot know for sure why Saul changed his name to Paul.  In his letters, Paul only calls himself Paul and never mentions Saul.  Acts gives no explanatory comment about the name change.  But, I think that the evidence does not lead to the idea that Saul's name change was based on a supposed conversion.  I think the answer is much more practical and mundane.  The name change occurs in Acts during Saul's first missionary interactions with Gentiles. Gentiles would have been familiar with the name Paul (a common Roman name), but Saul, a Jewish name, would have been unfamiliar, and would probably have sounded odd and foreign.  I am of the opinion that the name change was a merely practical decision on the part of Paul so that he could more effectively minister to Gentiles.  It would be more akin to someone of Hispanic heritage named Alejandro, adopting the anglicized name Alex upon moving to America. It is even possible that Saul/Paul had always had both names since he was a Jew born and raised in a Gentile city of Tarsus and was possibly even a Roman Citizen. Either way, I do not think that the evidence leads to the conclusion that this name change was due to a dramatic religious conversion.  What do you think?

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