Did the apostle really change his name from Saul to Paul?
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.
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.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.