Did Saul Change His Name to Paul?

This title will likely sound very strange.  I mean, we all know that the persecutor Saul got rid of all relating to Judaism, the Jewish people, and the Torah when he converted, even changing his Hebrew name to the Gentile Paul.  Luke himself mentions “Saul, who was also called Paul” (Acts 13:9).

Of course, I shredded much of those traditional misconceptions in my post Does the Torah Still Apply?  Paul himself openly observed the Torah!  (Another good post on the same subject is Sabbath – Saturday or Sunday?)  Now it’s time to expose another misconception.  I’ll let Greg Lanier do it:

I keep coming across a “sticky” misconception that God (specifically, Jesus) changed the name of an important figure we now typically refer to as “Saint Paul.”

In a recent sermon, I heard: “Just like Saul the persecutor can become Paul the apostle, God is gracious to us.” On an exam, one of my brightest students wrote: “It is Saul, who is re-named as Paul, who is the primary messenger of the gospel.” A church member asked me, “Wait, you mean Jesus didn’t change Saul’s name to Paul on the Damascus Road?”

The problem is that such a view, however common, isn’t accurate. I hate to ruin the fun.

Popular But Unbiblical

I’m unclear on the origins of this idea—though some industrious person has no doubt studied it—but it seems this Saul-renamed-Paul notion is a clever re-reading of an Old Testament storyline onto that of the great apostle.

As is well known, God prominently changed the names of two Old Testament patriarchs: Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:5) and Jacob to Israel (Gen. 32:28). The idea seems to be that something similar happened to Paul when he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road (Acts 9).

There is no scriptural evidence, however, to support a name change for Saul/Paul. Here are six lines of biblical evidence that prove the popular notion wrong:

1. Jesus addresses him as “Saul, Saul” during the christophany (Acts 9:4).

Nothing in the narrative suggests Jesus subsequently changed Saul’s name. In Galatians 1:15–17, Paul speaks of being set apart before birth to preach to the Gentiles, but there is no mention of any name change.

2. Ananias addresses him as “Saul” after his conversion (Acts 9:17).

There is no mention of a name change, and he is still calling him “Saul” after the christophany.

3. The Holy Spirit calls him “Saul” before his first missionary trip.

Acts 13:2 says, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” It would be odd for the third person of the Trinity to keep calling this man by his “persecutor” name if the second person of the Trinity had changed it to his “apostle” name four chapters earlier.

4. After the conversion experience, he is called “Saul” 11 more times.

Again, this would be odd if Jesus had changed his name to Paul.

5. The decisive shift from “Saul” to “Paul” in Acts happens only once Paul sets off on his missionary journeys away from Jerusalem.

This subtle shift occurs in Acts 13:13: “Now Paul and his companions set sail.” The person who “changes” his name is not Jesus, but Luke.

6. Saul and Paul were two names for the same person all along.

Acts 13:9 is the clincher: “But Saul, who was also called Paul, [was] filled with the Holy Spirit.” Here the converted person is being called both Saul and Paul—not “Saul the tyrant who was renamed Paul the Christian.” Saul and Paul are dual names of one man, both before and after his conversion.Lightstock

Paul Is Saul

As it turns out, “Saul”—derived from the famous first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, to which Saul/Paul himself belonged (Phil. 3:5)—is simply the Hebrew name for this person.  “Paul”—a normal koine name—is his Greek name, derived from the Latin surname Paulus.

For someone born in Tarsus (Acts 21:39) but educated under Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3) in a strict form of Pharisaism (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:5–6), this is not unusual. Much as many immigrants to English-speaking worlds take an Anglicized name on top of their ethnic name, many Greek-speaking Jews in Paul’s day would have a Jewish/Hebrew name and a Hellenistic/Greek name.

Here’s the smoking gun: When Paul recalls his conversion, he specifically notes that Jesus was “saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” (Acts 26:14). Paul draws attention to how Jesus addressed him in his Hebrew name, and makes no mention that it is now abandoned.

When Saul/Paul launches his Gentile-focused ministry among primarily Greek-speakers (beginning with Acts 13:9), it’s natural for Luke, the author of Acts, to begin referring exclusively to him by his Greek name. Nor is it surprising that he’s later referred to as “Paul” in Jerusalem, since there were Greek speakers there too. Indeed, Luke could be making a thematic point by shifting from Saul to Paul around chapter 13, given the broader theme of Acts (e.g., 1:8). After all, the church’s nucleus is shifting from predominantly Jewish-centered Jerusalem to the Greek-centered “ends of the earth,” such as Rome.

The apostle’s two names is not unique. Several other figures in the New Testament have two given names: Joseph, later called Barnabas (Acts 4:36); Simeon, also called Niger (Acts 13:1); and Thomas, also called Didymus (John 21:2); among others.

Why It Matters

So why does clarity on this issue matter? Why would I rain on the parade of someone for whom a divine name change from Saul (bad guy) to Paul (good guy) is a cherished illustration of God’s grace?

Theological ideas not rooted in God’s Word—even if attractive and useful—are ultimately unwarranted. I can imagine how easy it is to draw powerful applications from the notion that Saul the persecutor met the risen Jesus and was so transformed that Jesus gave him a new name. That will preach, especially given how closely connected naming and identity are in Scripture. Nevertheless, without biblical evidence for such an idea, we should not use it. Even if it spoils the fun.

This principle applies well beyond this situation, of course. Another common error is the conflation of the magi with the shepherds at the manger. The magi were not there at the same time; they found Jesus months later. We can derive the right doctrine from the wrong text, and we can derive the wrong doctrine from the right text.

As God’s people we should endeavor to read God’s Word closely and be as faithful to it as possible, in every area. Application that appears to draw on Scripture but isn’t actually scriptural—even if it’s “useful” or “cool”—can easily undermine someone’s faith once they realize they’ve been misled all along.


Or, as the introduction to the Complete Jewish Bible sums it up in a footnote:

Some suppose that at this point [Acts 13:9] God changed his name from Sha’ul to Paul as a sign that he “had stopped being a Jew and become a Christian.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Like many Jews in Diaspora both then and now, he had two names – one suited to the country in which he was living, and the other, his Hebrew name, given at his circumcision.  (Complete Jewish Bible by David H. Stern, page xxxvi)

That’s about the gist of it.

34 thoughts on “Did Saul Change His Name to Paul?

  1. I agree that he used the appropriate name for the audience: Sha’ul when speaking primarily to Israelites and Paulos when speaking to Gentiles (Greek/Roman); Saul and Paul are his Anglicized names. But to be absolutely clear, Sha’ul was a Pharisee (Matthew 23) persecuting the men and women of The Way (Heb. HaDerech) before his conversion; see http://bit.ly/TheWayInActs and http://bit.ly/TheWayPennedDSS. Where was he going under orders from the Great Sanhedrin? Damascus. Now, read about the Damascus Document from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Titus Flavius Josephus, also a self-described Pharisee, derogatorily called this “sect” Essenes (=pious ones), which is incorrectly applied today. He actually claimed to have studied with them (in Qumran), but his timeline was incorrect; that is, he lied on his résumé. History is interesting to say the least…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read it a few years ago in the introductions to the Complete Jewish Bible. I recently (nicely and politely) corrected a Christian blogger (Bible Blogger – that’s his username) on the issue. He was intrigued, and asked me to do a post on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Greg Lanier gives very good Biblical evidence that Saul did not “change” his name to Paul upon conversion. The practice of Jews having two names, one Hebrew and one for use in the culture in which they live, is normal even today. “Yosef” is my Hebrew name; it is not the name I commonly use living outside of Israel as I do. Another good example of this practice can be found in the book of Esther. Her name is Hadassah but called Esther.

    The point of Saul’s / Paul’s name change also brings to light another big issue. Christian Bible translators show their theological bias by using his seeming name change to support their argument that Saul “converted” to Christianity and did away with “Jewish” things. This is obvious in the section titles that many bibles have put in their text. For example, the section title for Acts 9:1-18 is often something such as “Saul converts to Christianity.” This ‘conversion’ and subsequent ‘ridding himself of things Jewish’ is then used as a foundation for many core Christian doctrines and as a support for much anti-Semitism today and throughout the centuries.

    Yet when careful attention is made to the whole context of what is written, the truth can be found. And we live in an era of unprecedented knowledge of what was actually written so that there can no longer be any excuses for holding on to these false ideas.

    Shalom! – Yosef / http://www.discuss-life.com

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sha’ul did convert, but it was to the “sect” called The Way (Heb. HaDerech); see http://bit.ly/TheWayInActs. They even penned the Dead Sea Scrolls; see http://bit.ly/TheWayPennedDSS. John (Heb. Yochanan) studied in the desert wilderness of Qumran. In fact, he oversaw Joshua’s (mistakenly called Jesus) tevilah in the mikveh of the Jordan River at the exact spot where the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land; see http://bit.ly/ChagTirosh#tevilah and http://bit.ly/BethabaraMap.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow….John this was an Eye-opener to the common misconception the layman had. ..Thank you friend for clearing it. Keep up the good work and keep us rooted to realities in The Bible rather than the misconceptions.


    1. Thanks! I will.
      Speaking of common misconceptions: (you’re far from the first to make it, so don’t feel bad) my first name isn’t John; it’s John-Michael. Don’t worry, heaps of people (even people I’ve known personally – not online) have made that mistake.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha….thanks for clarifying both my misconceptions…and relieved that I am not the only one to do that.
        Ok so my obvious next doubt is
        If John-Michael is your first name what is your surname?
        Oh BTW accept my apoligies for.the mistake I made . How is your Father now John-Michael?

        Liked by 1 person

            1. Dad’s definitely recovering. A couple of days ago, he was sitting in the lounge (he spends most of his time in bed) when a movie was on, and he was not only watching it, but ENJOYING it! Compare to a few days before that, when he would watch a movie, but not respond at all. A a few days before THAT, when he wouldn’t even notice the movie.

              Liked by 2 people

  4. In reply to a comment by Mr. Schuetz, to say that Saul / Paul ‘converted’ to ‘the way’ implies a couple things. It implies that he quit practicing the Judaism of his day, which he did not. It also implies different fundamental beliefs about God and His word, and it implies that the people of ‘the way’ no longer viewed themselves as Jewish. None of these implications are actually true.

    In other words, he did not ‘convert’. He accepted Yeshua as the promised Messiah, and understood the ‘mystery’ of the gospel, being that gentiles could enter into the inheritance from God. He deepend his understanding of Yehovah (God) and grace. When one holds to saying that Saul ‘converted’, one is opening oneself up to all manner of questionable theology.

    Lastly, as to whether or not John (‘the baptist’) studied in the desert wilderness of Qumran, and where he baptized Yeshua is conjecture. It may be true and it may not be. And it is certainly not true that people of the sect called “the way” penned all the dead sea scrolls. Though they probably wrote some of them, they did not pen all. True, scholars are still discussing the authorship of many of the texts, but some are clearly not written by followers of Yeshua.

    Shalom, – Yosef

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting post. I’ve never thought about this before. I just assumed that Jesus had changed Saul/Paul’s name. Apparently there is still a whole lot for me to dig into! The Bible is an endless read, full of endless treasures to be found! Yeppers!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Some very interesting points! I likest to read the KJV. 🙂 Your post made me think of something I realized recently — Paul/Saul sometimes called his ministry friend Priscilla by the name Prisca. It’s in one of the letters, but I’m not sure that shows up in more modern translations. The Bible is a fascinating book, purely as a book, but so very much more. Blessings, young Aussie!!

    Liked by 1 person

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