On the Road to Paul
Patrick Henry Reardon on Why the Apostle to the Gentiles Changed His Name
The Bible does not explain why the name of Saul, the early persecutor of Christians, was changed to Paul, but also the Bible does not discourage speculation on the point. Undiscouraged, then, let us speculate.
A modern view speculates that the man in question had two names all along; he was known as "Saul" among Jews and as "Paul" among Gentiles. This explanation sounds reasonable, I suppose, to those of us who have Jewish friends we know as "Stanley" and "Ashley" at the bowling alley, but who are called "Shlomo" and "Adasha" at the local synagogue. (Greeks are like this, too.)
A Change Comes on Cyprus
Among Christian readers over the centuries, however, the change from "Saul" to "Paul" has usually been associated with the man's conversion from persecutor to apostle. Thus, when William of St. Thierry published his commentary on Romans in 1137, he began the work with this prayer:
Thou hast known Saul, who derived the form both of his persecution and his name (formam trahentem tam persecutionis quam nominis)from a proud king and a persecutor, but Thou hast not known him from afar. For Thou didst humble him like a proud man wounded, and by the Spirit of grace, Thou hast changed him from Saul to Paul. (Exposition of Romans 1.1)
He began life, then, as Saul. Since the apostle bragged to the Philippians that he was a Benjaminite (Phil. 3:5), it is not surprising that his parents would have named him for that ancient King Saul, who was a member of the tribe of Benjamin.
After his conversion, I suspect that the apostle gradually became unhappy with the name "Saul." He apparently adopted his new name during the early mission to Cyprus, where his preaching converted the Roman proconsul of the island, a man named "Sergius Paulus." Luke describes this Sergius Paulus as "an intelligent man," who "called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God." Luke goes on to inform us that "the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord."
This is the context in which Luke suddenly switches the apostle's name from Saul to Paul (Acts 13:6–12). From that point on in the apostolic saga, the narrator always speaks of "Paul," never again of "Saul."
The Same Voice of Reproach
The circumstances of his conversion, I believe, prompted this change. Let us recall that the Lord, when he encountered Saul on the road to Damascus, shouted out to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" When he heard that voice of reproach, Saul immediately recognized the irony of his name, an irony enunciated in Jesus' very question. He recognized that voice. It was the voice of David wandering in the desert, during that period when he was pursued by Israel's first king.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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