A Word in Edgewise

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Saul a.k.a. Paul

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We encounter Paul the apostle in the NT under two names: Saul and Paul. There’s a common misunderstanding about the two names. Often you hear that Saul the Pharisee changed his name to Paul when he came to faith in Jesus. At first glance that seems reasonable because there are biblical people whose names are changed at significant moments in the story. For example, Abram’s name is changed to Abraham when he puts faith in the covenant that God was making with him (Genesis 12-22). Jacob’s name is changed to Israel ( = one who wrestles with God) right before he meets his brother Esau again. Jesus gives Simon the name Peter (Cepha = rock). So there is a tradition of name changes that correspond to important moments in a person’s life. Also, when we first encounter Saul, he’s persecuting the church and standing by as Stephen is stoned (Acts 7). Later, however, in Acts 13-28 the missionary, apostle is referred to as Paul. Conclusion: he changed his name when he accepted Jesus as Messiah. Sounds reasonable, right?
Paul
On closer investigation, however, we find out this is not the case. First, Saul is converted or called in Acts 9. He’s baptized and engages in apparently a significant period of Christian discipleship and ministry under the name of Saul. In Acts 13 Saul along with several others are leaders in the church at Antioch when the Holy Spirit sets them a part for the Gentile mission. In Acts 13:6 Saul is called Paul for the first time (“But Saul, who was also known as Paul, . . . “) on the island of Cyprus. For the rest of the book and in all of his letters he is referred to as Paul. So what is going on?

Saul was a Pharisaic Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. If Jewish tradition were followed–and there is no reason to think it wasn’t–he was given his Jewish name on the day of his circumcision. So Saul was his Jewish name, the name of Israel’s first king. But Saul may well have been a Roman citizen as well (that’s Acts testimony) which means that he needed a Roman name. Perhaps Paul was taken because it was a family name or the name of someone who helped provide citizenship to his family, we don’t know. But the name Paulos in Greek means something like “little fellow.” I suggest that what happens is this: when Saul is around Jews, he uses his Jewish name. But when Saul is around Greeks and Romans, he uses his Roman name. In Antioch where the Jewish population of Christ-believers was significant it made sense that he’d use his Jewish name. But during the Gentile mission, he encountered primarily, well . . . Gentiles. So he used his Roman name then. But there’s another thing. When you take the Jewish name Saul and render it in Greek it sounds like this: Saulos. And the word saulos in Greek means “the sultry walk of a prostitute.” No wonder Paul didn’t want to be introduced like that.

By the way, the same thing happens today. One of my best friends is a Jewish rabbi. His Jewish name is Shimon (Simon). When he is around Jews, particularly at the synagogue, they call him Shimon. But his “American” name, the name on his birth certificate, is Stuart. That’s how I know him.

As you move across cultures, you may find that your name means something odd or even scandalous in another language. That’s true for another friend of mine. His Vietnamese name when properly pronounced in Vietnamese is a really, really bad word in English. So he allows all his non-Vietnamese friends to call him by another, more acceptable name.

Cross-cultural work calls for compromise and creativity. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul said I have become all things to all people so that I can by all means save some.

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