This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

How Saul-Paul got his names

Here I argue that Saul-Paul received that name "Saul" only after he moved to Jerusalem and that he later took the name "Paul", which means "small", out of modesty.

His name "Saul"
Saul-Paul was born in Tarsus and moved to Jerusalem as a child (Acts 22:3). It is often assumed that he  held both names from birth. This is unlikely because the giving of double names at birth was relatively rare among diaspora Jews. Williams finds just 54 ancient diaspora Jews who held double names (1). These had no tendency to have names with a phonetic similarity to each other, but Palestinian Jews often took names that sounded similar to their Hebrew name (Silas-Silvanus, Joseph-Justus-Barsabbas, Barkosiba-Barkokhba, Abram-Abraham, Sarai-Sarah, Oshea-Joshua). The similarity in sound between "Saul" and "Paul" therefore suggests that this double name was not completed before Paul moved to Jerusalem. Also, Bauckham writes, "the name Saul is very rare among Diaspora Jews but relatively common in Palestine" (2). And for what it is worth, archaeology has found no Hebrew name in Tarsus.

It is much more likely that Saul received his name when (or after) he moved to Jerusalem. Saul, being a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28), will have had Latin names at birth but such names would not have served him well in Jerusalem. As Bauckham writes, "A Latin name would not imply culture, as a Greek name might, but alignment with Roman political rule. Few Palestinian Jews would have wanted a name that proclaimed allegiance to Rome."(3) Saul needed his Hebrew name to integrate into Judean society. Possible parallels may be found in inscriptions at Jaffa that refer to an Isaac of Tarsus and a Judah son of Joseph of Tarsus.

In any case, he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5) and was no doubt named after king Saul, the most famous member of that tribe (1 Sam 9:1-2).

His name "Paul"
The name "Paul" is introduced in Acts 13:6-10
When they had gone through the island as far as Paphos, they met a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. But the magician Elymas (for that is the translation of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?"
Bar-Jesus, like Saul, had a double name. As I explained in my last post, this false prophet had taken the name of Elam, the grandson of Noah. He, like Simon Magus, had probably become a follower of Jesus of sorts and had presumptuously taken the name "Bar-Jesus", which means "son of Jesus" or "disciple of Jesus". In any case, whether Bar-Jesus was a follower of Jesus or not, Paul will have thought that he did not live up to his name. In this passage Luke records Paul confronting Elymas's presumptuous name-taking by calling him "son of the devil". Paul is telling Bar-Jesus here, "you are not the son of Jesus, you are the son of the devil. Note that the ancients were much more attuned to the meaning of names than we are. The meaning of prophets' names was particularly important (consider the attention given in the New Testament to the names of Jesus and John the baptist, and the new names given to Barnabas, Barkokhba and other prophets).

It is often said that the name "Paul" is introduced here because Saul was moving from a Jewish mission field to a Gentile one. However, if that were the case we would expect the name "Paul" to have been introduced at Acts 13:7 or Acts 13:1 or even Acts 11:25 or Acts 11:30. The name "Paul" is introduced in Acts 13:9 when Paul is addressing a Jew, not a Gentile. I do not doubt that Paul used his Latin name when addressing Gentiles, but that is not why Luke introduces the name "Paul" here.

Rather, Luke introduces Saul's other name, Paul, in the context of this discussion of the presumptuous name-taking by Elymas/Bar-Jesus. The name Paul means small and Luke is surely here contrasting  this humble name-meaning with the arrogant names of the false prophet. Luke records Paul's criticism of the name "Bar-Jesus" and points out that Paul himself was satisfied with a name with a much more humble meaning.

While it is possible that Saul held the name Paul from birth, there are reasons to suppose that he took the name while he was a Christian, probably after meeting Sergius Paulus:

1. Paul's response to arrogant rivals is always to take the humbler part to show up their hubris. Consider  the "fools speech" in 2 Corinthians where he says, "I will boast of the things that show my weakness", and consider the way be points to his lowliness in 1 Cor 4:8-13 to counter those who were "puffed up". It is therefore possible that Saul took the humble name, "Paul", in response to the magician's arrogant names.

2. Humility was an integral part of Paul's identity. He writes:
"For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God." (1 Cor. 15:9)
Augustine, who was much closer than modern commentators to ancient naming conventions (4), realized that Paul took his name out of humility:

"Christ then by one word laid Saul low, and raised up Paul; that is, He laid low the proud, and raised up the humble. For what was the reason of his change of name, that whereas he was afore called Saul, he chose afterwards to be called Paul; but that he acknowledged in himself that the name of Saul when he was a persecutor, had been a name of pride? He chose therefore a humble name; to be called Paul, that is, the least. For Paul is, "the least." Paul is nothing else but little. And now glorying in this name, and giving us a lesson of humility, he says, "I am the least of the Apostles."" (Augustine sermon 27)
The name "Paul" therefore fits Paul's self-identity. There is other evidence of humility in self-reference in the New Testament:
a) the anonymity of the gospels, Acts, and Hebrews.
b) the frequent use of informal name-forms and praenomina. I hope to devote a future blog post to this phenomenon.

3. The name Saul represented his membership of the tribe of Benjamin, which he no longer valued (Phil 3:4-7). Saul and Luke were familiar with 1 Sam 9:1-2 (see Acts 13:21), from which he had been given the name Saul. These same verses (and 1 Sam 10:23) say that Saul "stood head and shoulders above  everyone else". The name Paul (small) could therefore have been a conscious rejection of what the name Saul represented. Saul (tall) became Paul (small). The phonetic similarity of the names also suggests a connection between them and demonstrates that they were probably not both given at birth (see above).

4. The name of the proconsul, Paul, could have given Saul the idea of taking the same name.

5. The name Paul, when used as a cognomen, was very distinguished. See E.A. Judge's paper here. When Greeks were granted Roman citizenship they retained their Greek name as their Roman cognomen. Colin Hemer notes here (p182) that "most of the Tarsian expatriates I have noted in the epigraphy, at Athens or elsewhere, bear Greek names in a Greek context". How, then, could the name Paul have come into Saul's family? Murphy O'Connor (p42) judges it "impossible" that such a distinguished name should be held by a Jew in Tarsus, where citizenship had been granted only a generation earlier. The problem is solved if we suppose that Paul was not his cognomen but rather an agnomen taken in adult life.

The name Paul is Latin, whereas most new names taken by Christians in the New Testament were Greek. However, as McDonough (5) points out, only a little Latin would be needed to understand the name. It's like someone taking the name "Petit".

There is a Jew called Paul in the 3rd century Aphrodisias inscription and another in the 4th century Sardis inscription. These Pauls are sometimes taken as evidence that the name Paul was commonly  used as an equivalent to the name Saul. However the name combination Saul-Paul is unlikely since the names do not even start with the same letter.  If someone wanted a near homophone of Saul they would surely have chosen another name, such as the Latin Sallus or the Greek Sallous or Saulikon. Furthermore, there is little evidence that Jews followed conventions about which Greek/Latin name was considered the equivalent of which Hebrew/Aramaic name and such double birth-names were, in any case, not common.

After moving to Jerusalem he was given the name Saul because he was of the tribe of Benjamin. Later, perhaps to counter the influence of the arrogantly named Bar-Jesus/Elymas, Saul took the name Paul (small). The presence of Sergius Paulus may have brought the name to Saul's attention. This Latin name, meaning small, symbolized Paul's rejection of his Hebrew name, which represented pride in his membership of the tribe of Benjamin and physical stature.

(1) Margaret H. Williams "The Use of Alternative Names by Diaspora Jews in Graeco-Roman Antiquity" Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007) 307-327
(2) R. Bauckham, ‘Paul and other Jews with Latin names in the New Testament’ in Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World ed. A.Christophersen et al Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 217. P 208
(3) Gospel Women p182
(4) Murphy O'connor (Paul: A Critical Life p44) writes condescendingly and without reason that Augustine's view "has nothing to recommend it, except as an opportunity for rhetorical piety"
(5) Sean M. McDonough, "Small Change: Saul to Paul, Again", JBL 125 (2006): 390-391


  1. I should have mentioned that Luke uses the name "Saul" consistently for events that occurred prior to Acts 13:9. He calls him "Saul" even at Acts 22:7,13; 26:14 which concern Saul's conversion. Luke calls him "Paul" consistently for all events that happened after the encounter with Bar-Jesus, even in Antioch and Jerusalem (Acts 15:2, 12, 22, 25, 35, 36, 38, 40 and through chapters 21-26), where he had previously been called "Saul". He is even called "Paul" in Judea by Jews (Acts 23:14) and by his nephew (Acts 23:20). Even an angel calls him "Paul" (Acts 27:24). It is chronology, not geography or ethnicity that determines whether he is called "Saul" or "Paul". This confirms that he became "Paul" in Paphos and that he rejected the name "Saul" thereafter.

  2. You make this way too difficult.

    First, Paul was never called "Paul". "Paul" is an anglicized version of the Greek "Paulos", which is what Paul called himself 100% of the time in his own writings. Greek was the language of the literate.

    The spoken language of the Jewish populace in Palestine was Aramaic, a close cousin of ancient Hebrew. The Hebrew/Aramaic version of his name was "Saul". Thus, in Palestinian Jewish circles, he was Saul; in Greek speaking circles; he was Paulos.

  3. Have you read Paul Barnett's *Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity*? He argues (in section 14.3, 277ff) thus:

    "In Cyprus Saul deliberately went to the provincial capital Paphos where, arguably, he positioned himself to minister to the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, who became his major Gentile convert. From an eminent family, L. Sergius Paulus was previously a Roman senator who was later to become a consul of Rome in the early years of the emperor Vespasian. As a mark of the proconsul's greatness, Saul now adopted the cognomen *Paulus*, an uncommon Roman name. Saul would probably not have done this except with the goodwill of the eminent L. Sergius Paulus."

    Barnett goes on to point out that "it is not known that the family of L. Sergius Paulus, though of Italian descent, had for some generations been domiciled in Pisidian Antioch" and hypothesizes that Paul travelled from Cyprus to Pisidian Antioch (via Perga, Acts 13:13-14) because of the smooth path into this Roman colony that letters of introduction to some of its elite would have afforded. Barnett suggests that "Paul may have changed his name at this juncture [in Cyprus], not only to mark the conversion of Sergius Paulus, the first Roman governor to embrace the faith of Christ, but also to acknowledge the patronage and protection of the Paulii family in Pisidia." (279)

  4. (sorry, in the first quote of the second large paragraph of my comment, it should read "it is now known..." not "it is not known..."

  5. Thanks Chuck. It is possible that Sergius Paulus had a larger role in the naming of Paul than I suggested, and perhaps Sergius adopted Saul.

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