BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

When Did Saul Become Paul?

Did the apostle really change his name from Saul to Paul?

Paul on the ground under a white horse. in the article Saul to Paul. When did Saul become Paul?

“The Spill of Paul” by Italian painter Parmigianino. Having just seen a vision of a light from heaven, the bewildered Paul falls from his horse and onto the ground.
Credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank {{PD-US-expired}}

It is arguable that other than Jesus himself, no one has been more influential on the development of Christianity than the apostle Paul. One can even make a case that Paul’s writings made a greater impact on the rise and spread of Christianity than the teachings of Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s story begins under a different name—Saul of Tarsus (Acts 8–9). When, exactly, did Saul become Paul? Did the prolific missionary and Apostle to the Gentiles change his entire identity from Saul to Paul?

In terms of names, there probably was no conversion of Saul to Paul. Saul was most likely called Paul at birth. Contrary to popular belief, Saul did not drop his Jewish name to fully embrace his new life and vocation as a Christian missionary to the Gentiles. We often have this misconception of Saul of Tarsus becoming the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, which goes along with the other common misconception that Saul “converted” from Judaism to Christianity. Thus, the Jewish Saul becomes the Christian Paul. This idea was very appealing to medieval Christians but has no basis in either the Bible or the realities of the first century.


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As a Roman citizen, Saul would have had multiple names: a praenomen, nomen, and cognomen (or personal name, family name, and personal nickname, respectively), e.g., Gaius Julius Caesar. Evidence that Rome’s Jewish citizens used Roman naming conventions can be found in places all over the empire, such as the catacombs beneath Rome herself. In many cases, the individual’s cognomen is a Latinized version of their Semitic name (e.g., Lucius Domitius Abbas and Lucia Maecia Sabbitis). At times, the nomen was that of the individual’s father, while others used just the praenomen and nomen, employing a Latin praenomen and Greek nomen. Neither the author of Acts nor Paul himself gives any clue as to his family name or the name of his father. All that we know is that he was a descendent of the tribe of Benjamin. It’s possible that Paul’s full name was something like Paulus Beniamin Saulos.

From what we know of Paul in the Book of Acts and the short biographical sections of his letters, he was very zealous when it came to his religious and cultural identity. Like many of his peers, Paul likely believed the end of the age was nigh and that God would send the promised messiah to right all wrongs and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel. This called for the Jewish people to reach a new level of religious purity to signal that they were ready to inherit God’s promises from centuries past. As a zealous Pharisee learning at the heels of the great rabbis in Jerusalem, the young Paul would have likely fully embraced his Hebrew cognomen and rarely used his Roman praenomen among his fellow Jews.

Some 15 years or so after Saul of Tarsus became a follower in the Jesus movement, after having been a prominent member of the church in Antioch for some time, he and Barnabas were sent out on a missionary journey. While on Cyprus, the two have dealings with a Roman proconsul named Sergius Paulus and it is only then that the author of Acts decides to let his readers know that Saul was also called Paulus (Acts 13:9). What a coincidence! And from then on the author, and seemingly also Paul, refers to the apostle by his Roman name.

Again, we can only speculate about the sudden change in preference. It could very well have nothing to do with ideas of cultural or religious identity. In the Greek world, the word saulos carried a negative connotation when it came to males and meant something like “prancing.” It seems likely that someone in Antioch gave Saul some valuable advice before he went out among the peoples of the Roman world. Calling oneself “Prancer” when standing before the likes of philosophers and Roman governors would probably not generate a great first impression.

For more common myths about the apostle Paul, see “Five Myths About the Apostle Paul” by David Christian Clausen published in the Summer 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article, “Five Myths About the Apostle Paul” by David Christian Clausen published in the Summer 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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3 Responses

  1. JOSÉ SERRA says:

    In trial before Herodes he says to centurion “i am roman by right of birth” (njot “by birth”, birth at roman empire didnot give citizenship). By 43-42 BCE triunvirum General Marcus Antonium when meeting Cleopatra at Tarsus granted that privilege to Tarsus nominating it Roman City and counting citizenship to all those who should birth there.
    By jewish mistake Shawl (Paul) was told to be born at Jerusalem by 4-6 BCE and after riots jewish population was expelled to Tarsus.
    By 64 BCE Pompei exported many jewish to Tarsus, including Shawl, Grandfather of Shawl Paul. Paul father was born at Tarsus the time Marcus Antonium declared Tarsus a free roman city.
    By jewish tradition Shawl was presented to Priests at Synagogue and Given the Benjamin name “Shawl” -wished, prayed for. They were at a greek area so Shawl was taken to the Polis Notary, where he was recorded as Shawl Saulós (Shawl Junior, Saulós, son of Shawl family). Tarsus was roman free city so Shawl Saulós went to roman civilian conservatory for recording: Roman name: Shawl Saulós Paulós (Paulós roman equivalent to greek Saulós “Son of”, also “Little/Baby” Shawl Saulós”. So for foreigners the baby had name Shawl Junior Son, Shawlson Junior, Shawl Junior II (second).
    When he went to rome in event of oceanic crash at Malta, he acquainted the emperor nephew Paulus. He was considered a “protegée” of Paulus roman, so now the full name WAS SHAWL SAULÓS PAULÓS PAULUS. WE KNOW SHAWL BY THIS NAME “PAULUS . PAUL”.

    NO BIG DEAL OF DIFFICULTY FOR THESES ROMAN GREEK NAMES AT ALL, YEAH??

  2. Bruce Gardner says:

    Saul followed his great ancestor, Benjamin, who was first given the name Ben-Oni. His Damascus Road conversion mirrored the death of Rachel and the birth of Benjamin in Genesis 35, which is why Paul calls himself a Benjamite on one more that one occasion and refers to Christ in 1st Corinthians 15 appearing to “as to one untimely born.”

    This parallel profoundly affected him as an ancestor of Benjamin who had grown up with the story and could not fail to identify his own death and rebirth on the road with the death of the wilful sinner Rachel and the birth of his ancestor who had received two names.

    While it is probably true that he had a Roman and a Jewish name, what is significant is that before the Damascus conversion he is clearly referred to as Saul and after it he is called Paul. This presents as a significant move in his orientation out of Pharisaism to a global idea of Christianity. As he was led to bring the faith to Macedonia, and so Europe, it is Paul’s dedicaton to which we owe Christendom. He eschewed the narrow, legal life he had led as Saul, which is reflected on the name change.

  3. dennis e miller says:

    I see nothing wrong with the speculation about Paul’s multiple names. But I don’t understand why this particular speculation calls his name change a myth. The Bible just says he was also called Paul and then started using this name exclusively. So what?

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3 Responses

  1. JOSÉ SERRA says:

    In trial before Herodes he says to centurion “i am roman by right of birth” (njot “by birth”, birth at roman empire didnot give citizenship). By 43-42 BCE triunvirum General Marcus Antonium when meeting Cleopatra at Tarsus granted that privilege to Tarsus nominating it Roman City and counting citizenship to all those who should birth there.
    By jewish mistake Shawl (Paul) was told to be born at Jerusalem by 4-6 BCE and after riots jewish population was expelled to Tarsus.
    By 64 BCE Pompei exported many jewish to Tarsus, including Shawl, Grandfather of Shawl Paul. Paul father was born at Tarsus the time Marcus Antonium declared Tarsus a free roman city.
    By jewish tradition Shawl was presented to Priests at Synagogue and Given the Benjamin name “Shawl” -wished, prayed for. They were at a greek area so Shawl was taken to the Polis Notary, where he was recorded as Shawl Saulós (Shawl Junior, Saulós, son of Shawl family). Tarsus was roman free city so Shawl Saulós went to roman civilian conservatory for recording: Roman name: Shawl Saulós Paulós (Paulós roman equivalent to greek Saulós “Son of”, also “Little/Baby” Shawl Saulós”. So for foreigners the baby had name Shawl Junior Son, Shawlson Junior, Shawl Junior II (second).
    When he went to rome in event of oceanic crash at Malta, he acquainted the emperor nephew Paulus. He was considered a “protegée” of Paulus roman, so now the full name WAS SHAWL SAULÓS PAULÓS PAULUS. WE KNOW SHAWL BY THIS NAME “PAULUS . PAUL”.

    NO BIG DEAL OF DIFFICULTY FOR THESES ROMAN GREEK NAMES AT ALL, YEAH??

  2. Bruce Gardner says:

    Saul followed his great ancestor, Benjamin, who was first given the name Ben-Oni. His Damascus Road conversion mirrored the death of Rachel and the birth of Benjamin in Genesis 35, which is why Paul calls himself a Benjamite on one more that one occasion and refers to Christ in 1st Corinthians 15 appearing to “as to one untimely born.”

    This parallel profoundly affected him as an ancestor of Benjamin who had grown up with the story and could not fail to identify his own death and rebirth on the road with the death of the wilful sinner Rachel and the birth of his ancestor who had received two names.

    While it is probably true that he had a Roman and a Jewish name, what is significant is that before the Damascus conversion he is clearly referred to as Saul and after it he is called Paul. This presents as a significant move in his orientation out of Pharisaism to a global idea of Christianity. As he was led to bring the faith to Macedonia, and so Europe, it is Paul’s dedicaton to which we owe Christendom. He eschewed the narrow, legal life he had led as Saul, which is reflected on the name change.

  3. dennis e miller says:

    I see nothing wrong with the speculation about Paul’s multiple names. But I don’t understand why this particular speculation calls his name change a myth. The Bible just says he was also called Paul and then started using this name exclusively. So what?

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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


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