Tuesday, August 28, 2007

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.

9 comments:

Matthew D. Montonini said...

David, Good points. I remember reading something similar in John McRay's "Paul: His Life and Teaching." He states that "Paul wore both names, Paul and Saul, from birth and no doubt utilized them selectively in various cultural settings." (p.27)

He then posits that due to "the possibilities of Paul's family having been granted Roman citizenship probably lie in the generosity of Pompey, Julius Caesar, or Mark Antony,...Paul's Roman name could possibly have been Gnaeus Pompeius Paulus, Gaius Julius Paulus, or Marcus Antonius Paulus." (p.26) For more info, see his discussion on pp.25-28.

Matthew D. Montonini said...
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Geoff Hudson said...

Was it 'Saul' breathing out murderous threats against the 'christians', or was it someone else who wrote to the high priest to ask for letters to the synagogues, in 'Damascus'? (Acts 9.1)

What legal powers would 'Saul' have had to make arrests in 'Damascus' and take its citizens as prisoners to Jerusalem? If 'Saul' could have had no such powers conferred by a high priest who had no jurisdiction in 'Damascus', then the arrests were part of a fiction - the conversion of 'Saul' (Acts 9.3 to 9.19). Surely the only place where the high priest could have such powers of arrest was Jerusalem itself.

Thus were the 'letters to the synagogues' merely to confirm that the holder was who he was supposed to be so that in 9.20, he could be allowed 'to preach in the synagogues'. The question would then be what was the message that this antagonist was preaching?

David B. Capes said...

I remember reading McRay a few years ago on this. I think he may be right. Some have tied the name Paul to the governor Sergius Paulus in Acts 13:4-12.

David B. Capes said...

Got to be quick on this.

I think there is considerable evidence that the high priest exercised some control over Diaspora Jewish communities. Note how power was exercised in the ancient world. Damascus is not that far away. Remember there is only one temple. Diaspora Jews paid the temple tax. They considered their synagogue meetings and communal meals as participation in the temple. Further, let's not forget that Jews turned toward Jerusalem and the temple to pray. These are more than mere symbols. They reflect a disposition toward the most holy place on earth. For people who have no sacred spaces (or lots of them) we have no idea how Jews may have looked at that one place and its leadership. Remember too that the distinction between secular and sacred does not exist at this time.

Finally, Acts and Paul's letters agree that Paul persecuted the church. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul calls himself the least of the apostles because he persecuted the church. Compare Galatians 1 and the statement on zeal. See too the chapter I wrote in the upcoming book on Paul and his conversion/call. Given how Paul talks about his time as a persecutor, I don't think he ever got over what he did.

simon said...

Interesting post, David. What do you make of the suggestion that Saul might have taken the name Paul because of his contacts with Sergious Paulus on Cyprus and the possibility that the latter gave the former letters of commendation for his trip to Pisidian Antioch and beyond?

David B. Capes said...

Simon, I take that as a definite maybe. I am familiar with the argument and it does make sense. I'm open to it as an explanation for the name he uses in the Gentile mission. It's also possible that Paulus was a family name. Paulus is a fairly common name. Onomastics is the study of names. I'm sure someone, somewhere has studied the frequency of Paulus inscriptions and literary texts from the time and give us some information on it.

Barbara said...

David,
You made the comment that Paul/Saul may have never gotten over the fact that he persecuted the church, referring to himself as the least of all the apostles and chief sinner. Do you think this internal wrestling contributed to his theology - especially what Gorman refers to as "Cruciform"? Did Paul have a greater sense of dying with Christ, of being cricified with Christ because he was so in touch with the weight of his sin?

David B. Capes said...

Barbara,
That's an interesting question. I think there may be something to that. It is not demonstrable historically, but certainly suggestive as an explanation for the depth of Paul's commitment to Christ. Remember too, however, that Paul expected every person to die and let the cross take shape in them (cruciformity--see Colossians 3 especially). I have no doubt experience shapes theology in ways we don't fully comprehend. It is at heart a psychological state, don't you think. Can deep commitment be traced directly or indirectly to a significant sense of pain inflicted upon another? I need to ponder it.