|The Harbor at Paphos, Cyprus|
Someone asked me recently about an article posted on Messiah’s Mandate.org, “Why Did Paul Change His Name?” (http://messiahsmandate.org/why-did-paul-change-his-name/). The point of the article is to challenge the idea that Saul’s name change to Paul was a rejection of his Jewish identity, which is how many Christians understand it. As the article correctly states, the idea that Paul would reject his Jewish identity to follow the Jewish Messiah makes no sense at all. It’s the result of hundreds of years of anti-Jewish thinking in the Church.
But the fact remains that in the earliest accounts of his life, this famous apostle is called Saul, while in the later accounts he’s called Paul. Why the change?First, let’s take a look at the verse at the center of the controversy: Acts 13:9. This is the verse in which Saul is first called Paul. It’s true that this verse doesn’t say that Paul changed his name. It says only: “Saul, the one who is also [called] Paul…” There is no mention of where this additional name came from or why Luke (the author of Acts) uses only this name for him after this verse. But from this point on, Luke only calls him Paul.
Paul, too, in his own letters, all written after the events of Acts 13, only uses the name Paul. (Paul’s earliest letter, Galatians, was probably written during the time he spent in Antioch mentioned in Acts 14:28). The only time he used the name Saul was when he gave a spoken testimony of his salvation (in Acts 22:7,13; 26:14).
So why this change of name? A change of name for religious purposes has a long history in the Hebrew Bible. Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel. Most likely, Paul's change of name is related to his calling as a minister to the Gentiles. This explains why this new name first appears during his first missionary journey (in Acts 13). A Roman-style name (Paulus) would be more familiar and easier for Gentiles to remember.
It’s possible, of course, that Paul already had this name before this time, and just decided to start using it when he was in Cyprus. (Paul was a Roman citizen and so would have had a full Latin name including a praenomen, nomen, and cognomen, one of which could have been Paulus). Or perhaps it had something to do with his host in Paphos, the proconsul Sergius Paulus, who shared the same name (Acts 13:7). After Paul’s great miracle in Paphos and the salvation of the proconsul (Acts 13:11,12), he might have received this name as a nickname.
In either case, this new name reflected his method of sharing the gospel: that he “became to the Jews as a Jew” (1 Cor. 9:20) and to the Gentiles “as without the Law, not being without the law of God, but rather subject to the Law of Messiah, in order that I might win those without the Law” (1 Cor. 9:21). This reflected his central teaching message that the gospel was available not only to Jews but also to Gentiles as Gentiles, both of whom together made up the one new man of the gospel (Eph. 2:15), the true Israel of faith (Gal. 6:16).
(For more on this topic, see the index category Paul.)