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Why the Name Paul? : A Question of Biblical History

Why the Name Paul?

Biblical History

Why the Name Paul? : A Question of Biblical History

Why the Name Paul? : A Question of Biblical History

A little over a month ago I stumbled across something in the Bible that I hadn’t realised before. And to be honest it took me by surprise a little bit. I had grown up with a view of this for pretty much my entire Christian walk (16 years to date). The issue all revolves around the name Paul, was his name ever changed from Saul to Paul? Many of us believe that Christ changed his name to Paul (probably on the road to Damascus). The question of was Saul’s name ever changed came up for me after reading an article by The Gospel Coalition entitled “No, ‘Saul the Persecutor’ Did Not Become ‘Paul the Apostle’”. So with that being said, let’s try to address this question, shall we?

Let’s start with a brief history of the life of who we now know as the Apostle Paul.

Who Was the Apostle Paul?

We are first introduced to Paul in Acts chapter 7 in the account of the stoning of Stephen (54-60), where we see Paul (then known as Saul of Tarsus) standing by (seeming in approval) as Stephen is stoned to death by a rabid mob of Jewish men.

We also learn later on in the book of Acts that Saul was a student of Gamaliel, a well-respected leader in the Sanhedrin, and seemingly the Rabbi who took Saul under his wing to be discipled.

After Stephen’s stoning Saul set out to Damascus to arrest and capture any Christians living in that city, however, on the way to Damascus Saul meets Jesus. Jesus appears in the middle of the road, blinding Saul in the process. Jesus then tells a man named Ananias to go and meet Saul, to pray for him, and lay hands upon him. Obviously, Ananias is hesitant to do this, but Jesus assures him that Saul is His chosen man to go and preach the gospel to the Gentiles.

From there Saul goes on to preach throughout the world, seeing many come to faith in Jesus. He planted churches, wrote them letters, and travelled throughout much of the world. Ultimately Saul would go to be the attributed author of 28 percent of the New Testament, that’s over a quarter of the New Testament itself. All of this leading to the martyrdom of Saul in approximately 67 AD at the order of Emperor Nero of the Roman Empire.

So that’s a very brief history of the Apostle Paul, so let’s find out if his name was ever changed.

Paul vs. Saul in Acts

To allow us to get a gauge on whether Saul’s name was changed or not, let’s take a look at the times the name comes up and track where the change appears in the book of Acts between the name Saul and the name Paul, and evaluate that point of change.

We’ll do this in table form:

No.ChapterSaul or Paul
1Acts 7Saul
2Acts 8Saul
3Acts 9Saul
4Acts 11Saul
5Acts 12Saul
6Acts 13Saul and Paul
7Acts 14Paul
8Acts 15Paul
9Acts 16Paul
10Acts 17Paul
11Acts 18Paul
12Acts 19Paul
13Acts 20Paul
14Acts 21Paul
15Acts 22Paul
16Acts 23Paul
17Acts 24Paul
18Acts 25Paul
19Acts 26Paul
20Acts 27Paul
21Acts 28Paul

In the table, you’ll see that the name change occurs in Acts 13. Acts 7 through to Acts 12 the name used is Saul. Acts 13 uses both Saul and Paul, and then from Acts 14 to the end of Acts, the name used is just Paul. So let’s take a look at Acts 13 and see if we can find out why Saul started going by the name Paul. The change is a very interesting one.

Saul and Paul in Acts 13

In Acts 13 we see a subtle shift from Saul being referred to as Saul to now being referred to as Paul. Let’s take a look at the contrast between Acts 13:2, Acts 13:9, and Acts 13:13.

  • While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” ~ Acts 13:2 (ESV)
  • But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him. ~ Acts 13:9 (ESV)
  • Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem. ~ Acts 13:13 (ESV)

These three verses are the first three verses in Acts 13 that include the name of Saul/Paul. You’ll notice that in verse 2, the name is Saul. In verse 9 it’s both, and in verse 13 it’s Paul. So verse 13 is the place where we see the first mention of Saul being referred to as Paul. However, the verse does not indicate a name change per se, which is interesting. Rather it indicates that Saul also bore the name Paul, meaning he had two names.

The name Paul as we have it today comes from the Latin language, Latin when tracing back far enough directly ties to the Greek language. Therefore it is logical to conclude that the name Paul was the Roman name that Paul bore as he had dual citizenship as both a Jew and a Roman. So it is reasonable to conclude that Paul bore both the name Paul and Saul. Using Saul as his Hebrew name, and Paul as his Roman name.

At this point in the timeline Acts covers, Paul is about to embark on his first of two recorded missionary trips. These two trips saw Paul visiting several countries across the Roman Empire, preaching the gospel, setting up Churches, and raising up leaders. So it seems reasonable that Paul would use his Roman whilst travelling around the Roman Empire carrying out his missionary work.

So there you have, a relatively simple conclusion to a question that should be asked, but isn’t too often investigated. Paul had two names and chose to use his Roman name when visiting countries that were Greek speaking countries governed by the Roman Empire.

Mark is the Lead Writer at Theology Review. Mark is currently studying theology at Spurgeon's College, working towards completing the Church Training Initiative before moving on to their degree course. Mark has been a Christian since 2001, and now spends a lot of his time studying and researching various topics affecting Biblical and Church History. This has led him to start Theology Review, a place for thought and discussion on historical and current theology.

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