Dr IAN ELMER…
Studying what Dr Ian Elmer serves up to us each week about the activities for St Paul you could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the possibility of the story of Jesus Christ ever reaching us Gentiles was the greatest bit of serendipity that ever happened. Today Ian looks at another fascinating dimension to the story: why Paul changed his name. Dr Elmer describes his name change as "a watershed moment in religious history".
The growing schism in early Christianity…
Last week we spoke of the rise of the ultra-conservative brother of Jesus, James, whom tradition credits as the first bishop of Jerusalem. The failure of Peter and the Twelve to stem the spread of the Law-free mission to Samaria and Syria probably played a role in James' ascendency. However, events in the Law-free community Antioch certainly exacerbated the growing schism in early Christianity.
In Acts, Luke claims that, at the time of James' rise to power at Jerusalem, the Hellenists' community at Antioch embarked on a large-scale mission to widen the boundaries of their Law-free mission. In Acts (13:1-14:26), Luke describes an extended mission on the part of Barnabas and Paul into Cyprus and on to southern Asia Minor, in the locales of Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and the nearby Pisidian Antioch.
It is most unlikely that this was the only mission sent forth from Antioch, and we might reason that there were numerous other missionary excursions into the territories surrounding the Hellenists' foundation at Syrian Antioch (Sim, 1998: 78). We might speculate that when news of this development reached Jerusalem it would have been met with shock, and we must further surmise that James would have gathered even more support for his campaign to reclaim the renegade Hellenists for Law-observant Christian Judaism.
This so-called First Missionary Journey is remarkable for one other reason — the emergence of Paul as the primary apostle to the Gentiles. The foregoing evidence in Acts (13:1) suggests that Paul's initial role at Antioch was inferior to that of Barnabas and others, such as Simeon Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, who were already involved in a vigorous and successful Law-free mission to the Jewish and Gentile citizens of the Syrian city. In the traditional list of the prophets and teachers who constituted the leadership at Antioch in Acts 13:1, Paul's name appears last.
The point at which Paul assumes leadership…
Even when Acts (13:1-14:26) has the church in Antioch embark on this First Missionary Journey to expand the scope of the Law-free Gentile mission into Cyprus and Asia Minor, Barnabas is named before Paul (at this stage he is still called Saul) as the head of the embassage (13:2; cf. 13:7). It is only when the missionaries are invited to speak before the Roman pro-consul, Sergius Paulus, that Saul becomes Paul and assumes the role of chief spokesperson (Acts 13:9). From that point onwards, Paul's name appears at the head of the mission staff and he alone speaks on their behalf.
It is generally suggested that Paul changed his name from Saul to Paul after his conversion and when he embarked upon his mission to the Gentiles. This assumption is only partly substantiated by Acts. Paul had already been active in the Gentile mission at Antioch for five or six years, and his conversion experience (c. 36 CE) occurred some eight years previous to the First Missionary Journey (c. 44 CE).
More likely, Paul (Paulos) was always part of his name, but one which now served his purpose more adequately in a thoroughly Gentile environment where the Jewish Name Saul (Saulos) was uncommon and unusual — but more on that presently. The Antiochene Church did number many Gentiles, but it was predominantly Jewish.
Roman names had three parts: a first name (praenomen); a family name (nomen); and a surname (cognomen) (Murphy-O'Connor, 1996). Paul's preferred name Paulos was probably drawn from his surname (Paulus). Saul (Saulos) would then be his first name. Paulus was a common surname, and the Paulus clan was somewhat prominent in Asia Minor.
It is even possible that Paul was related to the pro-consul Sergius Paulus (Meeks, 1983: 218). This would explain why he assumed leadership of the mission; his family connections to at least one, important, regional official made him the best candidate to speak for the group while touring the Roman provincial cities of Asia Minor and Cyprus.
A more humorous explanation for the name change…
There may, however, be one other quite humorous reason for the name change. The Pauline scholar, E. Randolph Richards (2004: 128), explains:
We cannot be sure why he [Paul] made this change. Perhaps he was distancing himself from his Jewish heritage, but this is unlikely. We do not see Paul ashamed of his heritage. More importantly it is unlikely that the typical person on the street had ever heard of the Jewish king Saul from a thousand years earlier. Paul likely avoided using Saul because of a very common problem in crosscultural work: one's name means something negative in another's language. In this case, Saulos had a negative meaning in Greek; prostitutes were said to walk in a provocative, or saulos, manner. Since his hearers were unlikely to have heard of Saulos as a name, they might make an unfortunate conclusion that it was some sort of nickname.
The name change is significant in that it marks for Paul and the Hellenists a new stage in their mission — the move to primarily target Gentiles and to tailor their mission to that end. In a very important sense, it was this decision that ultimately made it possible for us two thousand years later to convert to the Christian movement. It was one of those watershed moments in religious history.
Widening the gap…
From another perspective, however, it signalled the widening of the gap between the Law-free mission out of Antioch and the Law-observant mother church in Jerusalem. If we proceed on the assumption that the Hellenists were not in frequent contact or more likely, as I argued previously, in outright conflict with the Jerusalem church, it seems improbable that the Hellenists at Antioch would have sought the sanction of the Hebrews at Jerusalem prior to embarking on further missions to spread their Law-free gospel.
Paul designates a significant chronological gap between his first two visits to Jerusalem; the first to Cephas in 36 C.E. (Gal 1:18-20) and the second for the Apostolic Council in 48 C.E., which bears sufficient testimony to the independence of the two missions.
If our prior reconstructions of events that led first to the split between the Hebrews and the Hellenists, and second, to James' ascendancy at Jerusalem, are fundamentally accurate, it stretches the bounds of reason to assume that James and the Jerusalem church would have been inclined to condone a further expansion of the Gentile mission. Rather, we must assume that James and the Hebrew remnant at Jerusalem would have viewed this development with alarm, and would have been more inclined to act against the widening influence of the Hellenists than to condone it.
If we accept this scenario then we must also accept that the Antiochene initiative to expand the spread of the Law-free gospel into Cyprus and Asia Minor in the mid-forties must have contributed directly to the calling of the Jerusalem Council, which met some four years later (Sim, 1998; 78-79) – a subject to which we will return next week.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2008 Ian Elmer