It is in recording the transaction with Bar-Jesus that Luke gives to the apostle of the Gentiles the name of “Paul,” which he always afterwards uses. “Then Saul (who also is called Paul), filled with the Holy Ghost,” etc.
This change of name, at this turning point of the history, which henceforth becomes almost exclusively the record of Paul’s proceedings, has excited a good deal of speculation, and the opinions have been very various. The most prominent notion ascribed the change to the conversion of Sergius Paulus, whose name the apostle assumed in commemoration of so important an event. Although this notion had so ancient an upholder as Jerome, and one so recent as Olshausen, Christian feeling seems instinctively to recoil from it, as adverse to the character of Paul, who was not want to glory after this sort in his spiritual victories. Besides, this would be all inversion of the natural order of things. He that teacheth is greater than he who is taught. In the relation in which they stood to each other, Paul was greater than Sergius Paulus; and although there have been examples of a servant assuming the name of his master, or a disciple that of his teacher, there is none of a teacher taking the name of his pupil. Still more objectionable even, as it seems to us, to offensive puerility, is the notion of Chrysostom and others, that, seeing Simon Peter had two names, Saul was determined not to be, even in this respect, behind the very chiefest of the apostles. We apprehend that those who have studied the character of this great apostle, as a whole, will not hesitate to reject both these explanations with some feeling of disgust. Better in religious feeling, and more in unison with the apostle’s character, but scarcely more satisfactory to the instructed judgment, is that which Augustine applies, with much rhetorical effect, in various of his writings, where he alludes to the literal meaning of the name Paulus (little), and contrasts Saul, the tall king, the proud, self-confident, persecutor of David, with Paul, the lowly and the penitent, who deliberately wished thus to indicate by his very name that he was “the least of the apostles,” and “less than the least of all saints.” This is really a pretty fancy, and the imagination entertains it with some pleasure.
Others, still dwelling upon the signification of the name of Paul, imagines that it was bestowed upon him as a sort of nickname by the Gentiles on account of the lowness of his stature. That he was of small stature is a very general tradition in the Church; but it is quite likely that this tradition itself had no better foundation than the meaning of the name. But not then, any more than now, was every one who bore the name of Paul necessarily of small stature; for at the time in view, as now among ourselves, current names were applied among the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans, with little regard to their literal signification. That, however, Paul was of small stature, whether his name had any relation to the fact or not, is thought by some to be indicated in 2Co_10:10, where he speaks of his “bodily presence” as “weak.” A better explanation is that which Doddridge gives after Beza, and which has since been fully enforced by Kuinoel. Doddridge says: “I think Beza’s account of the matter most easy and probable—that having conversed hitherto chiefly with Jews and Syrians, to whom the name of Saul was familiar, and now coming among Romans and Greeks, they would naturally pronounce his name Paul; as one whose Hebrew name was Jochanan would be called by the Greek and Latins Johannes, by the French Jean, by the Dutch Hans, and by the English John. Beza thinks that the family of the proconsul might be the first who addressed or spoke to him by the name of Paul.”
The analogy between the names Saul and Paul is too remarkable not to suggest that it was adapted to the practice of the Romans of distinguishing foreigners, and especially Orientals, by softened forms of their names, or by names of their own most nearly resembling them in sound. Grotius has brought together several examples, as Jason for Jesus; Pollio for Hillel; Menelaus for Onias; Silvanus for Silas; Alcimus for Jakin, and others. But this practice exists among most nations, and among none more than our own, in proper names both of places and persons, and even in the signs of inns; arising manifestly from the craving of those to whom the original terms are unknown, to reduce them into current or significant forms. The instances that we call to mind, being created by uneducated persons, are mostly of a ludicrous character, and are therefore somewhat unsuitable here; but we may yet point out a few for illustration—Abraham Parker for Ibrahim Pasha; Leather Rollin for Ledru Rollin, as recorded in the newspapers some years ago: Billy Ruffian for Bello-rophon; Andrew Mackay for Andromache, and other nautical corruptions of names of ships; not without significant application to the subject are such instances in the signs of inns, as Bull and Gate and Bull and Mouth, for Boulogne Gate and Boulogne Mouth (mouth of Boulogne harbor); Bag of Nails for Bacchanals; Cat and Wheel, for Catherine Wheel; and the like. Note: As respects this species of corruption in signs, there is much curious information in Brand’s Popular Antiquities, edited by Sir. Henry Ellis, ii. 351-358. Bohn. Lond. 1849.
But we return to the extract from Doddridge, to remark that the observation with which it closes, that Paul first heard himself so called by the family of Sergius Paulus, is scarcely tenable; for Tarsus, where Paul was born and reared, was as much a Gentile place as Paphos, and the same reasons existed at the former place as at the latter for the name being imposed.
We have repeatedly alluded to the fact that the Jews residing in foreign parts had two names, one Jewish, and the other Greek or Roman. Indeed, this was the practice to a considerable extent even in Palestine itself—at least in Galilee, where the population was of a mixed character. It is therefore likely, almost to certainty, that Saul, being a native of Tarsus, from the first had two names. Saul was, as we know, his Hebrew name; and that Paul was the other is rendered probable, not only by the fact of its being the one now brought forward, but by its resemblance to that of Saul, and by the fact that his being a born citizen of Rome would probably be indicated by his Gentile name being Roman rather than Greek. Indeed, that the name of Saul does from this point altogether disappear from history—that the apostle calls himself Paul exclusively throughout his Epistles, and that Peter, in the only place where he mentions him, calls him by the same name— would together strongly intimate that this name was now first assumed.
We are, upon the whole, then, led to conclude that the apostle had always borne the two names of Saul and Paul. Hitherto the first name only has been used, as the historian has chiefly had to relate his proceedings in connection with Jews. But now finding himself called Paul by the people about the proconsular court, and being aware that henceforth his intercourse would mainly be among persons who would distinguish him by that name, he thinks it proper to sink his Jewish designation, and adhere to that which already belonged to him, by which he would hereafter be best known, and which suited well with that career, as the apostle of the Gentiles which he had now efficiently commenced.
A recent writer Note: Howson, in Life and Writings of St. Paul, quoting Zunz’s Namen der Juden (Names of the Jews), Leipzig, 1837, a work we have not ourselves seen. has well remarked, that “the adoption of a Gentile name is so far from being alien to the spirit of a Jewish family, that a similar practice may be traced through all the periods of Hebrew history.
“Beginning with the Persian epoch, we find such names as Nehemiah, Schammai, Belteshazzar, which betray an Oriental origin, and show that Jewish appellatives followed the growth of the living language. In the Greek period we encounter the names of Philip, Note: Mat_10:3; Act_6:5; Act_21:8; Josephus, Antiquities, xiv. 10, 22. and his son Alexander, Note: Act_19:33-34; see 2Ti_4:14. and of Alexander’s successors, Antiochus, Lysimachus, Ptolemy, Antipater. Note: 1Ma_12:16; 1Ma_16:11; 2Ma_4:29-30. Josephus, Antiquities, xiv. 10. The names of Greek philosophers, such as Zeno and Epicurus; Note: Zunz adduces these names from the Mishna and the Berenice inscription. even Greek mythological names, such as Jason and Menelaus. Note: Jason, Josephus, Antiquities, xii. 10, 6, perhaps Act_17:5-9; Rom_16:21. Menelaus, Josephus, Antiquities, xii. 5, 1; see 2Ma_4:13. Some of these names will be recognized as occurring in the New Testament itself. When we mention Roman names adopted by the Jews, the coincidence is still more striking. Crispus, Note: Act_18:8. Justus, Note: Act_1:23. Niger, Note: Act_13:1. are found in Josephus, Note: Josephus, Vit., 68, and 65; B.J. iv. 6, 1; compare 1Co_1:14; Act_18:7; Col_4:11. as well as in the Acts. Drusilla and Priscilla might have been Roman matrons. The Aquila of St. Paul is the counterpart of the Apella of Horace. Note: Hor. 1 Sat., v. 100. Priscilla appears under the abbreviated form of Prisca. 2Ti_4:19. Nor need we end our survey of the Jewish names with the early Roman empire; for passing by the destruction of Jerusalem, we see Jews in the earlier part of the middle ages calling themselves Basil, Leo, Theodosius, Sophia, and in the latter part, Albert, Crispin, Denys.”
To this we may add that the same process is still in operation. Among the familiar names of Jews in London, there are numbers which indicate the countries from which the families they belong to came—Spanish and Portuguese, as De Castro, Garcia, Lopes, Mendoza; Italian, as Montefiore; German, as Herschell, Rothschild, Goldsmid; besides a number of Polish names ending in ski. English names are as yet few, or, being English names, we do not well distinguish them as belonging to Jews. Davis is, however, a very common name among them.