Name Change Myth: Saul Never Became Paul

Name Change Myth: Saul Never Became Paul March 8, 2018

​Today, I have something that may be a huge paradigm shift for you.

​You’ve heard the story: Saul became Paul.
It is a powerful story.

A Jewish man once hell-bent on the destruction of Christianity became convinced that his life was nothing without Christ. The name change from Saul (old identity) to Paul (suffering for Jesus / new identity) is a reminder for many people that our lives are never the same after we embrace Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

On the latest edition of The Paulcast: A Podcast All About the Apostle Paul, I examine the credulity of this storyline.
And look, I have some skin in the game on this one. It preaches so well. As a pastor I’ve used this example of transformation so many times over.

Here’s the problem: it is unbiblical and ahistorical.

​I want to briefly sketch the case out for why Saul never had a name change.
*If you would like a detailed look at this, you will need to head over to the podcast episode.

Perhaps you remember the well-known story of Paul traveling on the Road to Damascus. The author of Luke-Acts tells this story (that Paul recounts in his own way in Galatians 1) with narratival​ gusto. It truly is a powerful story about Jesus transforming and calling Saul. 

But that is the kicker… it is about Saul. In fact, when Jesus addresses him directly he says: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts of the Apostles 9.4).

And you would think that by the end of this experience that Jesus, or other followers of Messiah, would start saying “Paul, Paul,” but this never happens. In fact, after this event in Acts 9, Paul is referred to as “Saul” 11 more times: without qualification.

Nothing in the New Testament says that he dramatically changed his name.
Not even Acts.

The key transition point in Acts comes a few chapters later when Saul and Barnabas are commissioned and sent out as missionaries to the non-Jewish nations / nations-people.

  • ​Acts 13.2 cites the Apostle as Saul (without qualification).
  • Acts 13.9 tells us that “Saul, who was also called Paul” was full of the Spirit. Saul is used with a disclaimer that sometimes he is known as Paul.
  • Acts 13.13 then uses the name Paul without qualification as they sail out to proclaim God’s good news to non-Jewish people-groups.

The pattern seems pretty clear. As a rule of thumb, at least in Acts: Paul is Paul in gentile contexts. Paul is Saul in Judaean contexts. There is no moment in the Bible where a name-change takes place (which is completely distinct from Jesus adding the name Peter to Simon).

No wonder his letters all bear the name Paul. These are letters to the nations! They are addressed to gentile-specific contexts with Greek speaking congregations!

A Bit More About Names and Empire

So, you may wonder why this matters at all.
Fair enough. ​

It certainly isn’t to make a major out of a minor. This could easily be perceived as that.

But let’s think about names for a minute.

When you think of your neighbors that come from other national-contexts (here, I’m assuming you are either American born and/or English-speaking only/primarily).

Have you ever met someone who had a name that was challenging to pronounce?
Perhaps you found such a name difficult to memorize since it was so unfamiliar.

I certainly have. As much as I try, it can be hard to pronounce and remember ‘foreign’ names.

Paul had a similar situation. He was in a world, much like the North American context, where a great empire had assimilated many cultures (after conquering them, mostly). This forced him to live in 2, if not 3, worlds (perhaps 2.5): his Jewish world, the Greek-speaking Hellenistic world, and the Roman world which had annexed the latter two into their dominion.

Thus, the Apostle had 3 names (more like 2.5 names):

  • Saul: his Hebrew/Aramaic name. The name he most easily recognized and the one that spoke deeply of his Jewish identity. This Jewish teacher took joy in being from the tribe of Benjamin, the same tribe from whom emerged the king he was named after!
  • Paul: his Greek name (Paulos) and his Roman name (Paulus). He chose a close “equivalent” to his Jewish name from the known Greco-Roman names of the time.

Paul’s Greco-Roman name was necessary for navigating the world, one where he was forced into a dual identity. It is not unlike your neighbors who might not be US born (or Canada, UK, etc. since I realize that not all of you are from here) who, for similar reasons forgo their cultural story to ‘anglicize’ their name or choose a completely different one to navigate the tumultuous cultural waters of dominant culture. ​

Saul’s/Paul’s names speak to a contextual reality: both the power of being named and the dehumanizing forces in our world that seek to un-name people.

I don’t know all of the practical ramifications of this observation, but it should cause us to wonder how the forces of privilege played themselves out against the movement of God in the first century and how similar forces are at work in our own day and age.

Hopefully that gives us all something to think about.
Again, if you want to hear me go deeper on this issue, as well as point to helpful resources on the subject, I invite you to subscribe to The Paulcast itself: iTunes or Google​. ​​

And, I hope you are excited for a Spring season of the podcast that is being recorded now. I just had a great conversation with Scot McKnight about Philemon and have several other interviews coming!

And if you haven’t subscribed to this blog, I invite you to do so as well!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • richard03835

    Wow, anything to be “cool”, right. Guess what, He was ALSO called Paul, meaning that for many he went by his old name and for many more he was called Paul. So what?
    Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said. Acts 13.9 NKJV

    • Clearly you didn’t read the article closely enough to know that I cite that very passage. Oh well.

      KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

      Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

      • richard03835

        Clearly? Add psychic to your resume. As you wrote, Oh well. Peace as well.

        • Jared Kurtz

          Why you mad bro

  • carl thomas

    Truly a Greek to the Greek.

  • Daniel G. Johnson

    Saul gave Shimon grief about eating differently depending on Jewish or gentile setting. Hmmm.

    • No, he gave him grief for willingly eating with Gentiles when other Jews weren’t present, but then avoiding them when other Jews showed up.

      • Daniel G. Johnson

        I think you state it more correctly than I did. But, I doubt that Peter ate Kosher when he was with the Gentiles, so….

        • It’s a fairly important distinction, though, and this is why: in the way you’ve stated it, it’s the food that Peter might be possibly vacillating about (well maybe the food is okay and clean; no, maybe it’s not). And actually, in that very scenario, Paul might actually COMMEND Peter (“To the Jews, I am a Jew; to the Greeks, I am a Greek; all things to all people- like our brother Peter! See his example: when he is with the Jews, he eats kosher, so as to remove any barrier to the gospel for them; and while he’s dining with Gentiles, he eats what is placed there with them, so that there will be no hindrance to the grace he offers them.”)

          BUT, what was happening was not that Peter was dithering over the cleanliness of the food; the problem was he was acting as if the Gentiles THEMSELVES were the unclean ones whenever some Jewish brothers showed up, no longer sitting at the table with them when Jewish friends of James showed up.

          • Daniel G. Johnson

            So, how are you able to get into Peter’s head?

          • Notice I didn’t say, “he thought they were unclean,” I said, “he was acting as if they were unclean.” Which is true. Paul does add his own two cents about why he acted the way he did: “He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision.” In other words, whether Peter himself mentally believed the Gentiles were unclean or not doesn’t really matter; what matters is that he acted in a way that had the same effect.

          • Daniel G. Johnson

            Doesn’t matter to who? What is at stake for the different parties? What does “unclean” mean? What does “the Gentiles” mean? Are you making assumptions about terms and contexts without consulting Jews?

  • Brian

    I would submit that you are indeed making a major out of a minor—and that you have done so more than once if you indeed “used this example of transformation many times over.” I’ve heard thousands of messages from dozens of preachers, and never heard anyone claim there was transformative significance to the name change. Simon to Peter, certainly, but never Saul to Paul. I’m glad you’re no longer considering it a big deal, but I don’t think I would be proclaiming it as a great insight others have missed.

    • Oddly enough, numerous people have told me the opposite this week. We all come from differing places and experiences.

      KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

      Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

      • Brian

        Interesting! I’m quite surprised, but reminded of the importance of humility.

      • Tim

        I have often heard this “name change” being used to highlight the change as well, either explicitly or implicitly.

  • William Scheel

    Then there is the meaning of Saulos in Greek, which is something like “slut-butt”, referring to the way prostitutes walk. Probably not a good monicker for an evangelist.

    • Jon-Michael Ivey

      His name was never Saulos anyway, but “Sha’ul.” ‘S’ is simply the closest equivalent sound that Greek has to the Hebrew “Sh’ phoneme.

  • Tim

    Perhaps we can refer to him as TASKAP (with an appropriate symbol representation, The Artist Sometimes Known As Paul). 😉

  • ravitchn

    What a piece of nothing! Many Hellenistic Jews had both Greek or Roman names and Hebrew names. Jews even today give their kids Hebrew names and names from the surrounding gentile culture. It used to be that the Hebrew names were never used but of late Jews have begun calling themselves Naftali and Ari and so on; this is probably a reaction vs. too much assimilation — weird at a time when over 2/3 of Jews marry non-Jews. Anyway, Paul or Saul: all you need to know is that this very disturbed man invented Christianity out of whole cloth despite the fact he clearly knew nothing about the real Jesus and what he knew from Jesus’ brother James of Jerusalem he rejected.

  • For all those proclaiming the article’s content an all to do about nothing and going off on your own tangents, then why do ya suppose Luke’s gospel to the gentiles always referenced Saul as Paul. There is a relevance there and for sure a reason. Ask off the cuff any Christian who’s versed in the Gospels as to the reason for the name change and they will inevitably say it represents the transformation of the Jewish, Saul into the Christian, Paul even though there is no biblical detail at all in alluding to that thinking. So there’s your “major minor”…

    • Jon-Michael Ivey

      His name was never Saul. His Hebrew name was “Sha’ul,” which begins with a phoneme that (although common in Hebrew and English) is unpronounceable in either Greek or Latin. Paul insisting that gentiles call him by his Hebrew name would be like a Khoi-san man insisting that Americans must call him by a name containing click noises. It is easier for everyone to use a name they can actually say.

      Also, since Sha’ul was a natural born Roman Citizen, he would have been given a legal Roman name as an infant. He was not simply adopting a new name, but using an alternate name he had already had all of his life.

      • That’s nice to know, Jon, but exactly where did ya get that info as the Bible only states the two names of Saul and Paul and as ya know…how can the word of God be contradicted…unless it was purely written by men in putting down their own thoughts and opinions with embellishment on down the line in later centuries…

      • Thanks for the additional info about the actual spelling and the giving of his Roman name at birth!

  • Jack McNulty

    I was always told that “Paulus” in Latin and maybe Greek meant “Small”. Our English word “Paltry” derives from this root. I took it to mean that the man who was from King Saul’s Tribe had become “Small” so as to win as many as possible to the Reign of Jesus.

  • steve

    It is irrelevant, just like the bible.

  • hisxmark

    Or perhaps the Roman born citizen, Paulus, took the name Saul when he wanted to return to his Jewish roots. But even though he became quite a Jewish militant, the Jews wouldn’t get over the fact that he was a Roman, so he became “the apostle to the gentiles”.

  • bill wald

    I buy into the hypothesis that the pastoral letters were written by one of Saul’s gentile apostles after his death. If so, It is reasonable they would use his Greek name.

  • Interesting observations and analysis, Kurt. I’ve studied Paul and Acts in relation to Paul’s own writing quite a bit and think you have a valid and good point on usage of one name or the other for Paul. Also that the change has been tied, probably erroneously, to his “conversion” by many. (And his “conversion” was not from Judaism to Christianity, which didn’t yet exist, but to the Jewish sect of Jesus-as-Messiah believers, which Paul later went on to develop in new directions.)

    What is also involved around what you’ve pointed out is that Paul, raised as you say in a mixed-culture situation, carried his desire for universalizing Jewish faith into his theology-making. I wouldn’t deny there being an element of “revelation” (per his claims) in that, but much of his biblical interpretation, along allegorical lines and some new twists, reflects his apparent desire to create a hybrid theology that could honor and build upon Jewish faith yet appeal to and include non-Jews.

  • rtgmath

    I appreciate the perspective. Whether you think the point to be a major one or a minor one, the reminder that interpretation ought to be rooted in the time, culture, and understanding of the writer and the action is important.

    I’ve heard many a sermon over the years which identified Paul’s change of name with his conversion. I’ve never had a good explanation for the cultural rationale until now.

    People may disagree about the value of the Christian faith. But we should all be willing to understand the details better.

  • addalled

    This seems kinda nit-picky.

  • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

    Well, one would have to be deeply foolish to want to believe whatever trash it is you’re saying over the Scripture itself. Apparently you are ignoring many books in the Bible that don’t agree with you.

    • Sophotroph

      Which ones? Where do they disagree?

      When your argument has no actual substance it makes you look foolish.

    • Ursula L

      I think you are confusing what you remember from Sunday School picture books with what is actually in the Bible. There is a lot of bad writing that goes into children’s Bible story books.

      Things like trying to make Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 into one creation story, or combining the Nativity stories in Mathew and Luke into one narrative. Sanitizing out the sex and political maneuvering in the book of Esther, making it about romance rather than spies and seduction. Other stories get left out, such as focusing on Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing to Egypt, but glossing over the murder of the children left behind, whose parents Joseph failed to warn. Or adding details to make the story more cohesive and interesting, such as imagining a dramatic reason for Saul/Paul to use two (or more) names.

      The Bible is a collection of many books, of many different types. None of which are written to a standard that a modern editor and publisher would hold a writer to. And that’s as individual books, let alone trying to make the whole thing work like a single modern work.

  • Ursula L

    It’s interesting to go back to the text, and separate out what is written from the stories and folklore around it. I remember a children’s filmstrip, from Sunday School, where Saul being renamed Paul, by a deep, booming male voice, was part of his vision on the road. Yet that’s not in the Bible at all. Not unlike the story of David and Bathsheba, where folklore puts Bathsheba on the roof as if to attract David’s attention, rather than David being on the palace roof, overlooking the private courtyards and spaces of people in the city below.

    A reminder to watch for what you think you know, that isn’t so.

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    I’ve been telling people this for years. Of course, I prefer to write his Hebrew name as “Sha’ul,” since it should be two syllables and begin with a sound common in English but not found in Greek or Latin. Also, I usually point out that Sha’ul was probably given both names as an infant. Roman citizens require Roman names. If a foreigner was granted citizenship later in life he was required to take on a Roman name, usually incorporating parts of the name of his former master or whoever sponsored/adopted him. Sha’ul claimed to be a Roman Citizen By Birth, so his parents would have given him a Roman name for dealing with Romans as well as a Hebrew name for dealing with Jews. This too is a common practice for immigrants.

    • Nica

      Coming to this essay/thread rather late, I’m afraid. Jon-Michael, I’d appreciate knowing your source(s) for this. Most of my own NT work has focused on the gospels, but I’m always eager for more insight into all of the texts. Thanks, Nica

  • Dawn Flores

    I agree with your writing on the use of Saul’s Hebrew name and Greek name, Paul. Thank you for stating so clearly what many Christian teachers and congregations fail to see. Blessings.

  • Very interesting and makes total sense, thanks for writing it!

  • Ted

    I am just reading this now, in September 2018. Thank you for posting it. Yes, I was taught the transformation myth many times through the story of the name change, often conflating it with being struck on the road to Damascus. I appreciate this kind of contextual correction. Thank you.

    • Thanks so much! When I discovered this it was so helpful for framing Paul!