How did Paul get his name?
Sometimes people in the Bible experience name changes. Some famous examples include Abram (Abraham), Jacob (Israel), and Simon (Cephas, Peter).
In each of these cases, there was a specific reason, and the new name had special significance (thus the name Peter means “Rock,” with Simon being the rock on which Jesus built his Church; Matt. 16:18).
Often, people propose that Paul belongs in this category.
Saul, also [called] Paul
When he’s first introduced in Acts, he’s known as Saul, but then later, once his ministry outside the Jewish community begins, Luke starts referring to him as Paul.
The transition point comes in Acts 13:9, where we read:
But Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him [Elymas the magician] . . .
After that, Luke regularly refers to him as Paul (except in flashbacks dealing with Paul’s conversion).
Many have inferred that Paul changed his name at this point, and they’ve wondered what religiously-charged significance his new name might have.
What Paul Means
The name Paul (Latin, Paulus, also spelled Paullus) doesn’t seem to have much religiously-charged significance.
It means “small” or “little.”
One could try to see this as religiously significant (perhaps being a reflection of Paul’s own religious self-perception; cf. 1 Cor. 15:9 and Eph. 3:8, where Paul talks about himself as the least of the apostles and the least of the Lord’s people).
However, most scholars have thought this implausible and have sought a different explanation.
A Victory Title?
Some authors have proposed that Saul took the name Paul at this point because, in this very story, he converted the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus.
In this case, the name would represent a personal victory of his.
Taking names that reflected personal victories was not unknown in the Roman world. For example, the Roman general Scipio was famously granted the agnomen “Africanus” because of his victories in Africa during the Second Punic War. He thus became known as Scipio Africanus.
But this understanding of “Paul” is unlikely. Victory titles like “Africanus” were awarded by the state, and that is not in question here.
Further, Luke introduces the name before the conversion of Sergius Paulus, which occurs in 13:12.
He also doesn’t draw any connection to the conversion. He simply says that Saul is “also Paul” (literally from the Greek; kai ho Paulos).
A Culturally Friendly Name?
A more plausible view is that Saul began using the name Paul because it was more familiar to the Gentile audience to which he was now ministering.
This would be basically the same approach that many people take today when they are working in a different culture than the one they were raised in.
For example, a man from China with the name Shen might choose to be called Seán, Shawn, or Shaun when working in America.
Using a name that is familiar to those in the local culture can help smooth social interactions.
That’s something that could be particularly attractive for an evangelist, as a foreign-sounding name could make him seem more like the representative of an alien culture and hamper his ability to get his religious message across.
The use of Paul may thus have been part of Paul’s effort to be all things to all men in hopes of winning them to Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
This still leaves a question, though . . .
Who Gave Paul the Name?
It is possible that Saul himself picked the name Paul when he began ministering to Gentiles, but Luke does not suggest this. He simply says that Saul was “also Paul.”
This raises the possibility that Saul had this name from his birth—that he didn’t give it to himself; his parents did.
Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38), which meant that he was a citizen of the city of Rome itself.
This means that, in addition to whatever name he went by in the Jewish community, Paul likely had an additional Roman name.
What’s more, he was born a citizen (Acts 22:25-29), which means that his Roman name was likely given to him by his parents, and specifically his father.
He thus was likely Paulus from birth.
How Roman Names Worked
Although this wasn’t true of everybody, Romans classically had three names, known as the tria nomina:
- Praenomen (“first name”): This was a person’s individual name.
- Nomen (“name”): This was a person’s family name.
- Cognomen (“co-name”): This was originally an additional personal name, often similar to what we would call a nickname, though its function changed over time. During the period of the empire, many people had multiple cognomens.
Thus the founder of the Roman Republic—Lucius Junius Brutus—had the personal name Lucius, he was of the Junius family, and he had the nickname Brutus (Latin, “the Dullard,” because he faked being simpleminded).
Saul, “the One Who Saunters”?
In his excellent book, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, E. Randolph Richards proposes that “Paul” was likely Saul’s cognomen, though he acknowledges it could also have been his first name or family name.
Paul did not change his name from Saul to Paul when he began working with Gentiles.
Rather, he stopped using Saul, his first name and began using his surname when he moved into the Gentile world [p. 128].
What’s particularly interesting is the reason he suggests Paul started going by this name rather than Saul:
We cannot be sure why he made this change. Perhaps he was distancing himself from his Jewish heritage, but this is unlikely. We do not see Paul ashamed of his heritage.
More importantly, it is unlikely that the typical person on the street had ever heard of the Jewish king Saul from a thousand years earlier.
Paul likely avoided using Saul because of a very common problem in crosscultural work: one’s name means something negative in another’s language.
In a footnote, Richards adds:
My supernomen [nickname], “Randy,” carries a similar problem in some countries. My colleague Bobby found a problem with his name when working among Muslims in Malaysia. His name phonetically means “pig.”
So what unflattering meaning would Saulos have had? Richards continues:
In his case, Saulos had a negative meaning in normal Greek; prostitutes were said to walk in a provocative, or saulos, manner.
He then adds a footnote to the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon, noting that saulos can be defined as a “loose, wanton gait,” before continuing:
Since his hearers were unlikely to have heard of Saulos as a name, they might make the unfortunate conclusion that it was some sort of nickname.
Paul probably avoided this problem by using his surname, a common and quite reputable Roman name.
One can certainly see why a travelling evangelist might not want people thinking he had the nickname “the one who saunters.”
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