The Name Change Myth: Did Saul Become Paul?

After living in my new house for a year now, I have finally gotten my office set up to the point that I can really get back into studying, researching, and writing for my blog. Since I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing regularly I wanted to do something simple and easy. Something that would gradually get me back into the habit of writing. I decided to start with this topic, the idea that after his conversion, Saul changed his name to Paul.


It has been popular in Christian culture to find significance in the fact that Paul went by two different names over his lifetime. He first made his appearance in Acts 7 at the stoning of Stephen, “and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

Saul was an incredibly devoted Jew, even to the point that he went to the high priest to seek letters authorizing him to seek out and arrest professing Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem (Acts 9.1,2). After receiving these letters he then set out to Damascus. Along the way was when he had his famous conversion experience, left his Jewish roots, and became a believer in Jesus Christ.

The common “folk theology” belief is that after his conversion, Saul changed his name to Paul. This is used in various mediums to highlight the change salvation brings about in Christ and the subsequent sanctification of the believer. One popular Christian music artist used the line “Once I was a Saul, but now I’m a Paul”[1] There certainly is a precedent in Biblical history for this type of name change signifying some sort of change in belief and behavior. In Genesis 17.5 Abram’s name is changed to Abraham to show that God would make a great nation of him. Likewise, Abraham’s wife’s name was changed from Sarai to Sarah. Later on, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel to signify both his and his decedents propensity to fight or struggle against God (Gen. 35.10).

The problem with this belief in Saul changing his name, is that it just isn’t supported by the text of the Bible. So the first question that needs to be asked is, why did Paul go by multiple names if he didn’t change it at his conversion? Jerry Hullinger gives us the following insight:

“The reason the apostle would be known as both Saul and Paul is to be explained by the different names a Roman citizen would posses. It was characteristic of Roman citizens to have three names: a praenomen (like our first name), a nomen (a family name like our surname), and a cognomen (personal name). In addition, being Jewish, Paul had the Jewish name “Saul.” As he embarked on his mission to the Gentiles, he appropriately used his Latin cognomen “Paul” (Paullus) rather than his Jewish name “Saul.””[2].

The last sentence of this quote highlights the significance of his use of a different name. It was because of his realization that he was called to minister to the Gentiles that he began to address himself by a name that would more readily be accepted by non-Jews. That being said, it is easy to see this progression in Paul’s life when looking at the usage of the two names in the book of Acts, which we will now look at.

The name “Saul” is used exclusively in chapters 7-12. This is an important section of Scripture when looking at the names of Paul, for the main reason that Paul’s conversion occurred in chapter 9. After his conversion, Paul stayed in Damascus for a number of days proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, but he still went by the name “Saul”  (v. 19, 22, 24). In order to escape a plot against his life, Paul escaped the city and went to Jerusalem. We see from these chapters that Paul continued to go by the name “Saul” for some time before we see him referred to as “Paul.”

When we come to chapter 13 we see the first use of “Paul.” The context here is Paul’s first missionary journey. He and Barnabas had sailed to the island of Cyprus. A man by the name of Sergius Paulus “summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God” (v. 7) Paul was opposed by a magician, Elymas, and we read “but Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him…” (v. 9). This is the first time “Paul” is used. It is interesting to note that Luke informs us that Saul “also” went by the name of Paul. From this we see that “Paul” was not a new name that Paul had bestowed upon himself.

For the rest of the book of Acts Paul is referred to as “Paul” except for two occasions. In Acts 22, Paul had just been arrested in Jerusalem. Here he recounts his conversion experience and early days of his Christian life. In the story of the Damascus road event, Paul tells of Jesus calling him out using the name “Saul” (v. 7). Then, when Ananias came to restore Paul’s sight, Ananias said “Brother Saul, receive your sight” (v. 13). In Acts 26 we see an almost identical scenario. When speaking before Agrippa, Paul recounted his conversion, and how Jesus called him “Saul” on the road to Damascus (v. 14).

So now we see that the belief Saul changed his name to Paul upon his conversion is nothing more than folk theology that has been perpetuated for its easy spiritual and practical applications. This doesn’t necessarily mean those lessons are wrong. Rather, we can approach the issue of application from a different angle now. Even though the believer does undergo a radical change in their spiritual life at the moment of salvation, and then continues to undergo changes through the process of sanctification, we see an interesting element of the believer’s response to God’s calling in the change of the name being used of Paul.

Paul began to use a different name for himself when he realized his calling and ministry was to the Gentiles.[3] The application that can be made for Christians today is that Paul took that calling and wrapped it up into his sense of identity. For us believers today, when we understand what God has called us to, we should not compartmentalize that calling in our lives. Rather, we should understand that that calling is our a core part of our identity in Christ and it should affect every area of our life.


[1] Toby Mac. “Lose My Soul” ft. Kirk Franklin & Mandisa.

[2] Hullinger, Jerry. “New Testament Life and Belief: A Study of History, Culture, and Meaning.” Piedmont International University, 2014. p. 322.

[3] It may be encouraging to believers today to point out that Paul did not immediately learn what his calling was. Rather, after his conversion, he devoted himself to the apostles teaching and made himself available to God’s direction until it became clear what he was supposed to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s