Why the Apostle Paul “Changed” His Name
Until I started working with Hispanic and Latino college students with Destino I had a false impression as to why the Apostle Paul’s name is changed from Saul in the book of Acts. Growing up I understood from church and other places that he was named “Saul” before his conversion, “Paul” afterwards. Since I hadn’t really crossed cultures until college I never questioned this assumption. It was always the default explanation for Saul/Paul’s name change.
If you look at the book of Acts more closely, you realize this assumption is actually wrong. Saul’s name change doesn’t appear to have anything to do with his conversion. Here’s the chronology of Saul/Paul’s name in the book of Acts:
Acts 7:58 – Saul is introduced giving approval to Stephen’s death
Acts 8 – Saul continues persecuting the church
Acts 9 – Saul travels to Damascus on persecution mission, is converted in the process
Acts 9:19 – Saul (no name change yet) begins preaching Christ in Damascus
[At Least 3 Years Pass - Galatians 1:14]
Acts 13:1-3 – Saul and Barnabas (still no name change) are set apart by the Holy Spirit for missionary service
Acts 13:4 – Saul and Barnabas set sail for Cyprus
Acts 13:9 – Saul (or Paul) name “change” takes place
Acts 13-28 – Saul goes by the name Paul for the remainder of the book (and in his Pastoral Epistles, mainly to Gentiles)
From this timeline it is easy to see that Saul’s name change doesn’t take place at conversion. It doesn’t even happen at his commissioning for missionary service. Rather, Luke makes the shift when Saul and Barnabas begin ministering on Cyprus. So if Paul didn’t change his name at conversion, why did he change it?
The answer seems to be that maybe he never changed it. Saul/Paul grew up a Jew in the Mediterranean. As a youth he was a Jew living in Asia Minor, not in Israel. (He even returned their after his conversion). As a result, he was a bi-cultural person. He was an Asia-Minor Jew. As any bi-cultural person knows, you often have two or more names that you go by. One is the name your parents gave you. The other is the name for the friends who can’t pronounce your given name. Maybe it’s a name that sounds like other names in the culture you find yourself.
In our Destino movement, Alejandro goes by the name “Alex”. Jorge is known as “George”. Huy, a Vietnamese student, is called “Lance”.
It seems that Saul went by the name “Saul” in Jewish contexts and “Paul” in Greek contexts. So rather than being a sign of his change in spiritual identity, it’s a picture to us of how God wants to use bi-cultural people in mission. I believe this is one of the major reasons Paul was such an effective missionary to the Gentiles. He had grown up around them his entire life. He knew how to interact with them. It was second nature. He even had a second name so he could fit in better among them.
The next time you hear someone say that Saul/Paul changed his name at conversion, think about bi-cultural people like Destino students that have two or more “names”. Let it remind you that God has equipped them in a unique way to be a part of his global purposes. They can fit in seamlessly in two or more cultures for the sake of the Gospel, just like Saul/Paul. They’re in good company.