A zealous young Pharisee named Saul, from the city of Tarsus, encounters the risen Messiah Jesus, in a blinding vision. He is converted from killer of Christians to Christian. He no longer goes by the name Saul and changes his name to Paul upon conversion, and becomes the great missionary of early Christianity.
Or so the narrative goes. It was never quite explained to me in Sunday School why the name Paul was more Christian than Saul. (God likes “p” more than “s”? Saul developed a speech impediment when he fell off and could no longer pronounce his name right?) But it was assumed this had something to do with his conversion.
There are a couple problems with that narrative, though. First, Paul most likely had both names his entire life. Saul was his good Jewish name and Paul (Paulus in Latin) would have been part of the Roman trinomenaccompanying his Roman citizenship.
The other problem with that is the Book of Acts itself. Granted, we don’t have a single epistle bearing the authorial introduction for one “Saul of Tarsus” but only the familiar “Paul, an apostle…” But a brief survey of the Saul/Paul’s life in Acts will reveal to us a little more about this name change.
Acts 7:58- Saul stands by holding the garments of those stoning Stephen. (How do you think Luke knew Saul was there? or how he knew Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin? I would imagine it was Paul himself years later, perhaps with tears, recounting the final moments of Stephen’s life.)
Acts 9:1-5- Saul encounters Jesus while on the road to Damascus and is confronted by the true Lord, Jesus.
Acts 9:19-30- Saul meets with Barnabas who is willing to risk meeting with this former executioner of Christians to disciple him.
Acts 11:19-26- Saul is brought by Barnabas from Tarsus to Antioch to help lead a growing church of Jews and Gentiles.
Acts 13:1-3 -Barnabas and Saul are commissioned by the Holy Spirit and the church at Antioch to start churches in other cities.
Acts 13:5 -Saul the missionary preaches the Word on Cyprus
Acts 13:6-12-Luke subtly mentions that Saul is also named Paul while recounting the conversion of Sergius Paulus on the island of Cyprus.
Acts 13-28- Saul is called Paul from this point forward in Acts.
What can we draw from this?
Paul’s change of name was not simply related to the fact that he was a Christian. In fact, for years after his conversion, even when Acts was written, he was also known as Saul. Had Luke wanted us to tie Paul’s name change to his conversion, he would have switched names at the point of Paul’s baptism. But apparently he wants us to connect Paul’s name change to a different story altogether, one that occured almost haphazardly on Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. Our narrative should not be “Saul the Pharisee becomes Paul the Christian” but “Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul the Christian missionary, also known as Paul the Christian missionary.”
But still, Luke begins using Paul for the rest of the stories in Acts, with this story on the island of Cyprus being the pivot for Luke’s usage of Paul’s Roman name rather than his Jewish one. Why?
I think this change was a conscious one. A couple things stand out about this location in Acts. First, we meet a proconsul named Sergius Paulus. I can imagine having our character Saul/Paul encounter another character named Paul would be a memorable place for Luke to disclose Paul’s second name. But why would he continue to use the second name? Second, this is Paul’s first recorded missionary work with a Gentile. We know that Peter has already preached to Cornelius in Acts 10, and that Paul himself taught many Greeks at Antioch who were coming to faith in Jesus. But this is our first specific encounter of Paul with a Gentile that Luke recounts, a Gentile who shares Paul’s Roman name. And Saul goes by Paul from this point on. Paul, the one who “became all things to all men”, was willing to be primarily known by his Roman name from here on out as we see in the rest of Acts and the epistles. Perhaps he saw the connection he developed with the proconsul that day on Cyprus, or perhaps he had slowly come to this conclusion that in order for this ex-Pharisee to reach Gentiles with the Gospel, he would exploit every God-given connection with them available. If that meant eating new food, he did so. If that meant working as a tentmaker rather than be paid in some cities, he did so. Even if it meant going by his other name, Paul did so.
What natural ways has God given you and me to connect with people? What interests, skills, family connections might we, like Paul, exploit for the sake of the Gospel? If the difference between an “S” and a “P” was seen by Paul as strategic to the Gospel advancing among the Gentiles, how can we neglect entire areas of our life that God might use for the mission He has called us to?