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Saul a.k.a. Paul

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?
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.

A Londoner at the Astros Game

When Chris Seay started Ecclesia, he had a great idea.  He purchased Houston Astros season tickets in the upper deck of Minute Maid Park and would use the opportunity to connect with new and old friends.  Church growth via 81 home games and America’s favorite past time.  The idea worked well.  A number of lives have been changed forever as the Killer B’s (Biggio, Bagwell, and Berkman) rounded the bases and headed for home. 


The very first product in The Voice Bible project was a book several of us worked on entitled The Last Eyewitness: the final week. There is a tradition that John, one of Jesus’ twelve, outlived all the other disciples and became the last person on earth who had seen Jesus of Nazareth as he traveled the Galilean hills preaching, teaching, and healing.  He was the last eyewitness to the life of Jesus, the last person to remember the look of his face and the sound of his voice. Rob Pepper

The book told the story of the last week of Jesus’ life.  It was written in the first person, told from the perspective of an old man (John) who wanted to pass down to his own disciples the key events of that fateful week.

The Last Eyewitness is one of my favorite products in The Voice project because of the artwork of Rob Pepper.  Rob is a Londoner who has a unique style of drawing; it is simple yet elegant.  With just a few lines drawn in ink, highlighted with a minimal amount of metallic gold, Pepper provides our book with 17 dramatic illustrations of Jesus’ life.  These illustrations were themselves inspired by great masterworks of Christian art.  They add a great deal to the tone and texture of the book. 

The first time I met Rob was at an Astros game—courtesy of Chris Seay—on a warm, clear night in Houston.  Because it was not a hot day in the Bayou city, the roof was back which gave us a wonderful view not only of the field but of the Houston skyline.

Rob did not know baseball. But like any good Londoner he knew cricket, so we spent about half the game talking baseball—history, strategy, etc.—comparing it to cricket (You see, I had spent 7 months in Edinburgh, Scotland on sabbatical in 2000; so I knew a bit about cricket). 

It was a good night of baseball for the Houston Astros.  A lot of runs were scored and the Astros came out on top.  Rob learned a little about a quintessential American experience, a night at a baseball game. The Last Eyewitness

But it was what happened in the 7th inning that sticks out most in my mind about that night.  Rob took out paper and pen and began to sketch the lines and contours of the baseball park from our vantage high above the field.  I had become a fan of his during the project and was frankly amazed at the way he was able to capture the world around him with minimal lines and emphases.  He went on to finish the piece and named it “The Juice Bowl,” a reference to the fact that Enron Field had recently been renamed Minute Maid Park.

The Voice Bible project has brought together some amazing people with enormous talents.  We gathered writers, artists, musicians, poets, scholars, and editors to do a project which will never be done again.  It has been a unique—or as the Brits would say—“a one-off” experience.

Often, I’ve learned, the most meaningful moments in life come when you least expect it but most need it.  Meeting Rob that night, hearing his story and seeing him at work provided me—and others I’m sure—with some much-needed inspiration.

A Few Days in Austin

Most of the collaboration on The Voice took place by means of technology: through email, Internet, SKYPE, and cell phones.  In some cases the work was personal, that is, people knew and worked closely with their reviewers and commentators. In other cases the work was anonymous.  It is standard practice, for example, in scholarly work for a person’s book or article to be reviewed anonymously, meaning both the writers and reviewers do not know the identity of the person offering the review.  This process ensures that a person’s feelings—positively or negatively—about another does not affect the quality of the review.  I understood the need for those checks and balances.The Voice of Hebrews cover

But there were a few remarkable occasions when writers and scholars actually sat down together, face-to-face, to work through a translation.

One of my favorite times working on The Voice project took place in Austin, TX.  Greg Garrett, a noted novelist, was working on the translation of the book of Hebrews, so I drove over to spend a few days with him. It was summer so he had arranged for us to work in empty classrooms at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, an institution where he was writer-in-residence.  The staff of the school graciously allowed me to stay in one of the dorm rooms—on The Voice discount of course.

Over the next few days Greg and I shared meals, swopped stories, and settled down over the Greek text of the letter to the Hebrews.  I watched carefully and listened closely as Greg, a gifted writer, worked through the challenging prose of the New Testament’s most sophisticated and difficult-to-translate books.  We plotted the argument and puzzled over the best way to communicate to our modern audience the way our anonymous Jewish author went about persuading his Jewish audience about the superiority of God’s new covenant.  I remember watching Greg count out the syllables, the rhythm, of the prose.  I learned from watching Greg that well crafted prose has a rhythm; meter is not restricted to poetry.  I had never thought of it before, but working with Greg convinced me it was true. 

Scholars are often strong left-brained people; this means they are good on the technicalities.  A translator might say, “this word is a Greek adverbial concessive participle and its referent is thus-and-so” or “this syllable is a pronominal suffix on the Hebrew root and its antecedent is x-y-z.”  Scholars can do that sort of thing all day long.  But gifted writers, poets, and artists are often strong right-brained people.  They are better equipped than technical scholars at capturing the beauty of a phrase or finding the right word to resolve the rhythm of a poem.  This is why I’m fond of saying about The Voice, “Finally, a Bible for both sides of your brain!”

I remember leaving Austin on the last day a bit sad. Greg and I had run out of time, and we had not been able to translate through all 13 chapters of this tough letter.  We would have to go back to our respective lives to complete it, in between other duties.  I was sad too that more of my Voice-related experience had been so isolated.  Translation is often a solitary experience—the nature of the discipline demands it be so—even if you are working in a “collaborative environment.”  As I started the car and headed for home, I was grateful for Greg’s talent and friendship.  When I look back, those were good days.



Tolkien, Jackson, and Paul

I saw the movie “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” the night of my birthday.    We entered a theater in Houston, sat at small tables, and waiters took our orders during the previews.  When the food arrived, the previews were over and in a few minutes the theater lights dimmed and for the next 2 ½ hours we were transported to Middle Earth.the hobbit unexpected journey

The Hobbit is a wonderful movie. I’d recommend it.  Here is the trailer:

The movie is a typical Peter Jackson film.  The action is well paced.  There are ample battles and tense moments throughout. Yet even during some of the battle scenes, Jackson manages to inject bits of humor to break the tension. I often wonder what Tolkien would think if we could bring him into our time to see how Jackson and others have interpreted him.

There is a wonderful bit of dialogue near the end of the movie that, for me, echoes the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians.  Throughout the movie there is pushback from the road- weary dwarves trying to make it back to their home.  They wonder aloud why Gandalf the Grey, skillfully played by Ian McKellan, has invited this hobbit from the shire–this creature who craves his books and armchair and avoids adventures at all cost—to join the band of battle-hardened dwarves on this quest to try and reclaim their home.

When you see the movie, listen for the echo.  Here is what Paul said:

Look carefully at your call, brothers and sisters.  By human standards, not many of you are deemed to be wise. Not many are considered powerful.  Not many of you come from royalty, right?  But celebrate this: God selected the world’s foolish to bring shame upon those who think they are wise; likewise, He selected the world’s weak to bring disgrace upon those who think they are strong.  God selected the common and the castoff, whatever lacks status, so He could invalidate the claims of those who think those things are significant. (1 Corinthians 1:26-18, The Voice)

For me and I’m sure many others, The Hobbit  and Lord of the Rings trilogy is a great story that reflects the reality Paul celebrates in his letter.  No one would ever consider the hobbits adventure-worthy creatures. They are not wise.  They are not powerful.  Royal blood does not flow in their hobbit veins.  They are the foolish and the weak. Yet they are chosen, indeed destined, for greatness in a story which sees good triumph over evil in Middle Earth. Yet evil, true evil, is not defeated easily.  It takes great sacrifice to overcome the powers that rule the darkness. Tolkien understood Paul.  I’m sure of it.  He understood the central Christian convictions that ought to animate more of our literature and films.

You are dust

Easter comes early this year: March 31, 2013.  A long time ago it was decided to set the date of Easter as the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (or the first day of spring).  The decision was a long and complicated one, but a key factor was this: since Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples on a Sunday, then Easter should be on a Sunday.  Other proposals had it so Easter could fall on any day of the week.  The church, in its wisdom, decided instead to have Easter fall every year on Sunday.  In a real sense, every Sunday is a little Easter.ash-wednesday

But Easter is such a profound holy day on the church’s calendar that our spiritual ancestors decided to preface it with a season of preparation marked by prayer, fasting, and spiritual reflection.  So the season of Lent was created to make the transition from more ordinary time to the day of resurrection.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—this year celebrated on February 13, 2013—and ends on Holy Saturday, the day prior to Easter.  On Ash Wednesday Christians gather to remember a sobering fact: we are dust and to dust we will return.  This year I will stand in line—or as my British friends prefer to say, “I will queue up . . . “—and have someone make the sign of the cross on my forehead in ash and they will say: “You are dust and to dust shall you return.”

Ash Wednesday means different things to different people, I suppose, but at a very basic level the ritual we gather and perform is designed to remind us that we are not immortal, that these bodies we coddle, clothe, decorate, protect, nurture, feed, and insure will go the way of the earth.  The first man (Hebrew, Adam) was made of the dust (Hebrew, Adamah).  The Adam came from the Adamah.  That is what we are. That is who we are.  On my best day.  On my worst day.  I am dust, and on another day not of my choosing I will return to the dust.

Yet, there is another reality, the resurrection.  Listen to what Paul wrote (Philippians 3:20-21, The Voice):

But we are citizens of heaven, exiles on earth awaiting eagerly for a Liberator, our Lord Jesus the Anointed, to come and transform these humble, earthly [read . . . dust] bodies into the form of His glorious body by the same power that brings all things under His control.

All of us dust-men and dust-women down here on earth really belong to another kingdom.  Right now, we wait, hope, and long for the world to come.  It is our true home.  When the resurrected Jesus returns, resurrection will become our reality  just as it is for Jesus.  On that day we will exchange these mortal bodies for glorious ones.

Ash Wednesday and Easter are two sides of an important, very human, deeply spiritual reality.

We enter the season with this confession: “I am dust . . . “

We arrive at the pinnacle of our holy day with this confession: “Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.”