Episode #9: How did Saul Become Paul? (Answer: He Didn’t!) (Also – Why You Wouldn’t Be Able to Find Jesus in 1st Century Jerusalem even with a working time machine)
If you’ve grown up in church – and maybe even if you haven’t – you’ve probably heard of the conversion of Paul the apostle. Initially, as the story goes, Saul was an enemy of Christians and had them arrested. He was even at the murder/martyrdom of the deacon Stephen, and was apparently the government official there that signed off on his impromptu (and likely illegal) execution. So far, so good – all accurate. Then, later on the Damascus Road, as Acts 9 tells it, Saul meets Jesus, and becomes a Christian. For the rest of his life after meeting Jesus, Saul is now known as Paul because Jesus has not only changed his heart, but changed his name! Great story, bro, but… is that what really happened? Actually, it isn’t. But – before we discuss Saul/Paul and biblical names, let’s read Acts 9 together!
Fantastic testimony! Saul is such a notorious enemy of Christians that when God directly tells the prophet Ananias to go pray for him, Ananias has the temerity (or perhaps, the foolishness) to try and tell God that He was mistaken about sending Ananias to go and pray healing for Saul. God convinces Him that He’s right, and Ananias is wrong – duh – and then Saul is healed and delivered. And then, Ananias gives him his new name – right? Actually, no. Saul is still Saul. In fact, in Acts 9:19-20, we see that Saul has become an evangelistic dynamo:
“Saul was with the disciples in Damascus for some time. 20 Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.”
But…his name is still Saul! Later, Saul goes to Jerusalem to try and join the church there, but they are still afraid of him, so he decides to change his name to something more Jewish sounding, right? Actually, no – he remains Saul…and Saul is a Hebrew name! Then we take a Saul break for a couple of chapters to let Peter eat some goats and pigs and such. At the end of chapter 11, the focus turns back to Saul, who has been sort of exiled to his hometown of Tarsus partially because Christians are afraid of him, but mostly because people that aren’t Christians are after him. But – praise God! – good old Barnabas, the son of encouragement, comes along, and takes Saul (that’s still his name) to the church in Antioch, which is a Greek/Gentile city that would be in modern day Turkey. At Antioch, Saul becomes a valued member of the church AND IS STILL CALLED SAUL.
Finally, we get to Acts 13. The Gentile church at Antioch is flourishing, and filled with seasoned prophets and teachers from many different nations, including at least two Africans: Lucius of Cyrene and a guy named Simeon the Black (which is a pretty cool name, if you ask me). The Holy Spirit sets apart two of those prophet/teachers for an evangelism mission, and calls them out by name: Barnabas and SAUL. Yes, God Himself calls him Saul years after His conversion. And then we get to the changeover – blink and you miss it!
9 But Saul—also called Paul—filled with the Holy SpiritActs 13:9
And after that its Paul, the whole Paul and nothing but the Paul. Following that verse, the only time we hear the name “Saul” in the Bible is when Paul is recounting His testimony on the Damascus road. In every other instance, he is simply called ‘Paul.’ So – our big question: Why did Saul become Paul? And the answer is – HE DIDN’T! Saul is both a Roman citizen and a Hebrew citizen, and as such, he would have two names – a very common practice in the first century. I have a good friend with Mexican origins who is called Johnny by most people here in Salinas, California, but his real name is Juan. Something very similar is happening here with Saul/Paul. (Read more about dual names here) Some dual names came about because a person had an encounter with God, and God changes their name. Abram becomes Abraham, and Jacob the deceiver becomes Israel the overcomer. But in Saul’s case – Saul was his Hebrew name, and Paul his Greek/Gentile name, and that is what he went by once God called him to take the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. I have no doubt that if one of Paul’s old Hebrew friends had seen him, that he would have hailed him as ‘Saul.’ and Paul/Saul would have answered without batting an eye.
One last little rabbit trail about names. Let’s say that you and I encounter a certain dashing British fellow (or lady, as is the case at the moment) who is a Doctor, but not the medical kind. And this Doctor has a an interesting blue police box that is larger on the inside than on the outside and – HOLY COW! it can go back in time. If our Doctor friend asks me where to go – I’d immediately ask to go back to first century Jerusalem – I want to see Jesus!
Here’s the sort of interesting thing. If I could speak Aramaic – which was the dominant Jewish spoken language at the time – I would have a very hard time finding Jesus, no matter how many people I asked. They would probably look at me like I was crazy, and tell me they had never heard of a ‘Jesus!’ What if I asked for Saul, or Paul or Luke, or Matthew, or Peter? I’d get the same response! Why – because those people are myths that only appear in the Bible? NO!! Because Jesus wasn’t called Jesus when He was here, and neither was Saul/Paul called Saul/Paul, or Luke called Luke or Matthew called Matthew or Peter called Peter! Confused yet? Well – don’t be. Those names are ENGLISH – and English was not a language in the first century A.D. Saul’s name would be pronounced more like “Shaul.” (with an SH!) His Greek name would have been Paulos. How about Peter – you mean Petros (Greek) or Shimon Ben Yonah (Hebrew) or Keephah – the apparent Aramaic transliteration of the word ‘stone.’) Luke would be Loukas, and Matthew would be Levi or Matthean. What about Jesus? Well, most likely, he would have been Yehoshua Ben Yosef, which was later shortened to Yeshua Ben Yosef. Both are shortened forms of Joshua, son of Joseph, and the Hebrew name means “YHVH is salvation.” Jesus name in Greek is apparently a transliteration of the Hebrew, and is ” Iesous” which is pronounced sort of like Ee-ay-soos. Our English word ‘Jesus’ comes from that via a complicated bit of etymology that would be somewhat boring to non word-geeks. Here’s a bit of a stunner if you haven’t realized it yet: the name ‘Jesus’ and the name ‘Joshua’ are the same names in terms of meaning and origin. Joshua is an anglicized version of Yeshua and Jesus is an anglicized version of the Greek Iesous. (note: anglicized means ” make English in form or character. “)
We will talk at length about the name Jesus/Iesous at some point in an upcoming pod, but for now it is good to simply remember that Jesus/Peter/Paul/Luke/Mark, etc. are Anglicized versions of Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic names.