by Doug Ward

There is a common misconception among Christians that the name of Saul of Tarsus was changed to Paul after Saul's life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.


On the contrary, Acts 13:9 tells us that Saul "was also called Paul" (NIV). In other words, he had both names before and after he became an apostle of Jesus. He apparently used the Hebrew name Shaul (Saul) in Jewish settings, as when he was addressing a crowd in Jerusalem after his arrest there (Acts 22); and the Roman name Paulus (Paul) in a Greco-Roman environment, as in his epistles.


It seems to have been fairly typical for first-century Jews to have more than one name. Other New Testament examples include:

"Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus)" (Acts 1:23);

"Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas)" (Acts 9:36);

"John, also called Mark" (Acts 12:12);

Paul's companion Silas (Acts 15-18), who is also known as Silvanus (2 Cor 1:19; 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thes 1:1).

This information raises an interesting question about the use of Saul's two names in the book of Acts. Luke, the author of Acts, refers to Saul of Tarsus as "Saul" until Acts 13:9, then shifts to "Paul" for the remainder of the book. (This is one source of the misconception about Saul having a "name change.") Why doesn't Luke simply stick with one of the two names throughout the book, as he does in the case of Silas?


A satisfying answer to this question has been proposed by New Testament scholar Stephen B. Chapman of Duke Divinity School. In an enlightening article1, Dr. Chapman suggests that Luke has a definite message in mind in his employment of the two names. In this article I will summarize Chapman's explanation, which I believe can enhance our understanding of the book of Acts.


Confrontation in Cyprus

As the thirteenth chapter of Acts opens, the Christians at Antioch send Saul and Barnabas on a trip to proclaim the Gospel (vv. 1-3). Guided by the Holy Spirit, the two evangelists sail to the island of Cyprus (v. 4), where they announce the good news about Jesus in the synagogues. The fact that Barnabas is originally from Cyprus (Acts 4:36) may aid them in their efforts to gain a hearing.


The preaching of Paul and Barnabas apparently provokes a great deal of interest, since their message comes to the attention of Sergius Paulus, the leading Roman official on the island (v. 7). When the two apostles present the Gospel to Sergius Paulus, they are opposed by the proconsul's spiritual advisor, the Jewish sorcerer Bar Jesus (vv. 8-12). (It is at this point that Luke makes the name shift from "Saul" to "Paul".) Paul strikes Bar Jesus temporarily blind, and the proconsul believes the Gospel.


The confrontation in Acts 13:7-12 has symbolic significance. Though the Jewish sorcerer is named Bar Jesus (literally "Son of Jesus"), he is actually a "son of the devil" (v. 10) who rejects Jesus of Nazareth. His blindness reflects his spiritual darkness. On the other hand, the Gentile Sergius Paulus accepts Jesus, embracing the light. This will turn out to be a recurring pattern in Acts, as Paul's message faces opposition from some Israelites while being greeted enthusiastically by some Gentiles.


Paul's Powerful Sermon

From Cyprus the two apostles sail to Anatolia. In Pisidian Antioch, they again go to the local synagogue on the Sabbath (v. 14). The synagogue, where the Jewish Scriptures are read and discussed, is the natural venue for them to launch their message that the Messiah of Israel had come. Synagogue services are attended by both Jews and "God-fearers"-Gentiles drawn to the God and Scriptures of Israel-people with the interest and background in the Bible to readily grasp the full import of the Gospel. The synagogue is also a place where Paul's credentials carry weight. Since Paul had studied in Jerusalem under the renowned Jewish teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), synagogue audiences are eager to hear what he has to say. In Pisidian Antioch, Barnabas and Paul are invited to give "a message of encouragement for the people" (v. 15).2


In response to this invitation, Paul delivers a powerful address, aimed at both Jews and Gentiles in attendance (v. 16). Luke outlines his argument, giving the most detailed summary we have of the message Paul presented in Diaspora synagogues.


Paul begins by rehearsing God's choosing of Israel and his faithfulness to his people through the Exodus and the period of the judges, to the time of King David (vv. 17-22). He then announces that the Messiah, the prophesied Son of David, has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Though some did not recognize Jesus as Messiah and had him put to death, this was all part of God's plan. Those responsible for his crucifixion simply "carried out all that was written about him" (v. 29).3


Paul goes on to emphasize that the crucifixion of Jesus is not the end of the story. God had "raised him from the dead" (v. 30), as attested by many witnesses (v. 31). Paul asserts that this, too, had been predicted in the Scriptures. Here he quotes Psalm 16:10, arguing that Jesus must be the "Holy One" who did not see decay.4 He also cites Isa 55:3 to explain that the resurrection of Jesus is part of the "holy and sure blessings promised to David" that give people from all nations the opportunity to be joined to God in an "everlasting covenant." Paul makes a connection between the two verses based on a similarity in language. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used in Diaspora synagogues, the "Holy One" in Psalm 16:10 and the "holy blessings" in Isa 55:3 are given by the same Greek word.


Paul closes his sermon with a call to action (vv. 38-41). The eternal future of his listeners hangs in the balance. They can heed the prophets and be justified before God through Jesus, or they can ignore this message and face divine judgment.


Comparing Two Sauls

Dr. Chapman sees in Acts 13 the key to understanding Luke's use of the two names "Saul" and "Paul". Especially suggestive, he believes, is Paul's mention of Saul son of Kish, the first king of Israel, in Acts 13:21-22.


King Saul, Chapman observes, is a troubling figure in Israel's history. Saul is one of the most famous members of the tribe of Benjamin, and Saul of Tarsus, a Benjamite himself (Rom 11:1; Phil 3:5), is named after him. But King Saul does not appear in any lists of Israel's heroes. (Indeed, the only time King Saul is mentioned in the New Testament is in Acts 13:21-22.) As a chosen king of Israel who fails and is eventually removed from office (Acts 13:22), Saul is a reminder that simply belonging to the chosen people of Israel does not preclude the possibility of divine rejection and judgment.


Chapman believes that in the book of Acts, Luke uses the names "Saul" and "Paul" to draw comparisons between King Saul and Saul of Tarsus:

Like King Saul, Saul of Tarsus is a member of the chosen people of Israel and may exercise a prophetic gift (Acts 13:1; cf. I Sam 10:9-11).

Like King Saul, Saul of Tarsus acts rashly, being carried away by anger in his persecution of followers of Jesus (Acts 9:1-2).

King Saul pursues David with the intent of killing him, and Saul of Tarsus persecutes the Son of David (Acts 9:4) by tracking down and arresting Christians.

However, there is also a key difference between the two. When confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus repents, completely altering the direction of his life. He becomes Paul the apostle, a champion of the Messiah he once persecuted. King Saul, on the other hand, is never reconciled to God. Luke makes the shift from "Saul" to "Paul" in Acts 13 in order to emphasize this contrast.


Understanding Luke's purpose in contrasting the two Sauls accentuates the importance of the decision with which Paul confronts those in attendance at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. We face a similar decision today, along with all readers of the book of Acts through the centuries. It is impossible to be neutral with regard to Jesus the Messiah. Will we be like Paul (and Sergius Paulus) and follow Jesus? Or will we be like King Saul, rejecting God's Anointed One and facing estrangement from God? The choice is ours.


1"Saul/Paul: Onomastics, Typology, and Christian Scripture," pp. 214-243 in The Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays, Edited by J. Ross Wagner, C. Kavin Rowe, and A. Katherine Grieb, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2008.


2Here it is interesting to note that the name Barnabas means "son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36, NIV).


3The crucifixion is predicted, in particular, in the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.


4For more on the prophetic meaning of Psalm 16:10, see our article on the resurrection in Issue 7 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 27


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On 09 Mar 2012, 17:36.