The inspiration for this article came from one of our readers. Her question was, “When was Saul’s name changed to Paul?” A very good question and I hope to supply a good answer. First it should be noted that neither God, The Lord or the Holy Spirit changed Saul’s name to Paul as we will show. As always we will employ the cultural, geographic and historical hermeneutic in our search for understanding.
Acts 9 The Road to Damascus Conversion
1 Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” NASB
Here at the appearance of the Glorified Christ, long after His ascension, Jesus calls Saul by name, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
Acts 9:10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying…” NASB
The Lord instructs Ananias to, “inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul…” The Lord still calls him Saul. No name change by The Lord at Saul’s conversion.
Acts 13 Commissioned by the Holy Spirit.
1 Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
V 1. “…Simeon who was called Niger…”
Συμεὼν ὁ καλούμενος Νίγερ As translated from the Greek, “Simeon (called, whose name, surname) Niger (surname of the prophet Simeon) Thayer’s Geek Lexicon.
Simeon is a Jewish name and Niger meaning Black was a Latin surname. So here we have Jew with a Latin surname.
V 2. The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
He is still referred to as Saul by the Holy Spirit.
Maybe an exegesis of the names may yield some understanding.
The Greek word Σαῦλος is transliterated Saulos, Pronounced sau’-los, meaning desired. It is transliterated from the Hebrew שָׁאוּל, Sha’uwl pronounced shä·ül’ also meaning desired. First used in the Bible as the name of an early king of Edom and a successor of Samlah. (Gen. 36:37) Most importantly it is the name of Saul the first King of Israel who was from the tribe of Benjamin.
In the Ancient world and as it is today throughout much of the world names have meanings. I am reminded to make note of this to an American reading audience. For it is an American cliché that for generations Anglo-Americans would reply when asked their name and, “What does that mean?” The cliché reply would be, “I’m an American. Our names don’t mean anything.”
Since the meaning of his name was so easily translated into Greek and since he could easily continued to be known as Desired, why did he become known as Paul?
The Greek word Παῦλος, transliterated Paulos, pronounced pau’-los, means “little or small” is of Latin origin, Paulus meaning small, little or humble. The fact that it is of Latin in origin may yield a clue as well for it was a Latin surname. Bearers of the name include Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus (229 BC – 160 BC), a Roman general and politician. Also Sergius Paulus, Sergius meaning “earth-born: born a wonder” surnamed Paulus, a deputy or proconsul of Cyprus and converted to Christianity by Paul. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon.
Paul was a Hebrew of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee the son of a Pharisee, a Roman citizen born of a Roman citizen, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel and until the day The Lord appeared to him on the Damascus road, a persecutor of the believers in Christ.
Even though it was common for Jews in the ancient world to have more than one name, it would not have been as common for a first century Jew to have a Jewish and a Latin name, but Paul and his father were both Roman citizens and tradesmen. The family business seems to have been tent making and having a Latin name may have had some advantage in Tarsus, but this is just speculation. So let us continue to examine the scriptures.
Acts 13:4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper. 6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, 7 who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? 11 Now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time.” And immediately a mist and a darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking those who would lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord. NASB
V 7. “…the proconsul, Sergius Paulus…”
The name of this Roman Proconsul is the only other use of the Greek word Παῦλος Paulos in the Bible and incidentally he was the Apostle Paul’s first recorded convert.
V 9. “But Saul, who was also known as Paul…”
The words, “known as” are added to the scripture by the translators to help us understand that Saul was also Paul. Could Saul have had a Latin surname of Paulus? It is interesting in the light of Simeon who was called, whose name or surname was Niger.
From chapter 13 of Acts on Paul is never called Saul by anyone else. He does refer to himself as Saul in recounting his Damascene conversion in Acts 22 and 26, but in his own writings he will always use the Greek form of his Latin name Paulus. The Apostle may have chosen to do this as a way of making is easier for him to travel and preach within the Roman Empire. An excerpt from his letter to the Church in Corinth may offer an explanation.
1 Corinthians 9
19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
Paul was interested in saving the lost and spreading the gospel of Christ to the Jew first and also to the Gentile. He became all things to all men, so that he by all means may save some. We don’t need to change our names, political associations or compromise the Gospel to reach people for Christ, but maybe we could be a bit less threatening and set in our ways that are not His Way.
In conclusion we can understand that God did not change Saul’s name to Paul and that he was also known as Paul. Was that a Latin surname? We can not be absolutely certain of that possibility. We have demonstrated from the Scriptures that even though it might have been rare for a first century Jew to also have a Latin name it did happen and the name Paul has its origin in Latin.