They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

From Saul To Paul

The Conversion of Sergius Paulus

Perhaps no one in in the Bible was more like Christ than Saul of Tarsus. We first meet Saul in Acts 7:58, at the stoning of Stephen and then learn of his conversion experience on the road to Damascus in Acts Chapter 9. Most Christians have assumed that God changed Saul’s name to Paul at his conversion experience to signify his new faith in the Messiah Jesus. Now that he is a changed man, God switched the “S” to a “P” to give him a new name and signify that change. But, is this really the case? Did God change Saul’s name? Did he leave the Damascus Road using his new, ”Christian” name? A careful look at the Text will give some revealing insights into this interesting subject.

First of all, when do we find evidence in Scripture of the name change? Was it right after the Damascus Road experience? Actually, there is no mention of it until four chapters later in Acts Chapter 13, on Paul’s first Missionary Journey. Acts 13:9 says, “then Saul, who was also called Paul…”. This is the first mention of the name Paul in Acts and most scholar’s time-line date his first missionary journey approximately fourteen years after his conversion experience in Chapter 9!

Did God change Saul’s name to Paul and was this change done to minimize his Jewishness and emphasize his Christianity? Again, Scripture gives no indication that this is correct. In fact, it appears as if it was not a change of name at all, but another name that Paul also went by (Saul who was also called Paul; see above verse). Saul was a devout and observant Jew and remained one all his life (e.g Acts 17:2, Acts 18:18, Acts 20:1, and Acts 28:17 just to name a few). He was very proud of his Jewish name and the heritage it represented (Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, the same tribe as Israel’s first king, also called Saul). He would have never wanted to change his name and renounce his Jewishness.

In English, it looks like Saul just switched an “S” for a “P” in order to have a different name. But, in Hebrew, his name was Sha’ul, and Paul is the English word for the Roman (Latin) name, “Paulus”. To go from Sha’ul to Paulus isn’t quite as catchy and takes away the Saul to Paul rhyme that we find in an English translation. It is also possible that Sha’ul had been given the Roman name Paulus early in life. Paulus in Latin means, “little”. Sha’ul grew up in a very Greek and Roman city, Tarsus, so he may have been called Paulus by his Hellenistic friends.

Sha’ul decided to start using his Roman name, Paulus only after going to the Gentiles and having an encounter with the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus (one of the top officials in all the Roman Empire). It is no coincidence that Sha’ul took the last name (Paulus) of the prominent man who was his first convert. By using the Roman name Paulus, possibly even at the suggestion of Sergius Paulus, Sha’ul now had easier access to the Romans he was trying to tell the good new of Jesus to. We know from the study of Acts that Paul spends the rest of his life trying to go to Rome to preach the gospel – often to the highest Roman authorities. The name Paulus undoubtedly helped him to gain access to Roman circles.

Whatever the case was, it certainly doesn’t appear from Scripture that Saul’s name was changed to Paul by God. It is likely that Paul changed or started using the Roman name of Paulus in order to be a more effective witness to the Roman world he was trying to reach. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 sum it up well, “To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to those not having the law, I became like one not having the law, so as to win those not having the law…. I have become all things to all men, so that by all means I might save some.”

A Call to the Jews and Gentiles

Click the image for more information on Omrit

One of the most interesting places we visited on our trip to Israel was a recent archaeological excavation near the town of Omrit, in the northernmost part of Israel. Newly discovered ruins there have placed this as the location where the main traveled road through Israel turned northeast out of the Jordan River Valley towards Damascus. Archaeologists had never known the exact location of the Damascus Road that Saul was on when he was met and blinded by the Lord Jesus. An ornate temple complex to Caesar Augustus and elaborate colonnaded streets and shops confirm that this was the “doorway” into Israel from the North. This find made for an exciting visit for the New Testament believer because you could imagine this as a place that Saul came by on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus. Just a few miles north and east of here he was blinded by a light and heard the audible voice of Jesus speaking to him. This is one of the seminal events in Christianity and Saul’s life was completely changed by this miraculous encounter. Sitting in the temple ruins, near the paved street running to the northeast, we read Acts Chapter 9 out loud and heard the story of God calling Saul to be His chosen instrument to get his message out to both Jews and Gentiles.

There is a tendency to think of Saul’s Damascus Road experience as a unique and isolated event that God put in motion. However, if you look at the experiences of almost all the prophets in the Old Testament you will see some remarkable similarities. Because Saul knew all these stories, he would have probably identified with what happened to them when they were being called by God. Let’s look at some of these Hebrew prophets and see what the similarities are.

  • Exodus 3 – At the burning bush, Moses saw a bright light of fire and hid his face in fear. God told Moses, ”Go, I am sending you”. Moses asked God who He was. Also, God called Moses name twice.
  • 1 Samuel 3 – God called Samuel in a vision and called his name twice (See When God Calls Your Name – Twice)
  • Isaiah 6 – God called Isaiah audibly to His ministry; there was smoke and an earthquake, and a heavenly being spoke to Isaiah and said, ”Go Tell”
  • Jeremiah 1 – God spoke directly to Jeremiah and touched his mouth. God told him not to just tell Israel, but also the Gentiles
  • Ezekiel 1-2 – This is very similar to Saul’s experience. A huge storm with lightning, wind, thunder, and a brilliant light prompted Ezekiel to fall face down, unable to speak. God appeared and spoke audibly and said, ”Go Tell”.
  • Daniel 10 – Daniel saw the Lord in all His brilliance, but the men with him did not see God. Daniel fell face down as God spoke saying, “Go Tell”.
  • Jonah – God appeared and spoke audibly to Jonah and said, “Go Tell the Gentiles”. God appeared in a violent storm and Jonah was plunged into darkness for three days because he was doing the opposite of what God wanted.

The point of this little study is that Saul, a devout student of the text (a Pharisee of Pharisees), would have been familiar with all these prophets and God’s call on their lives. When God spoke out of the heavens in an audible voice, calling his name twice, in the presence of blinding lights and shaking earth and terrified companions, Saul knew that he was being called by God to something special! Then Saul, like Jonah, was plunged into darkness for three days! Saul obediently responded just like all the others after being visited by God. He boldly went and told both Jews and Gentiles without fear of what man could do to him! God met Saul on the Damascus Road and commissioned him in a very familiar way, and Saul was equal to those great prophets of old in every way.