Per my usual morning routine, and because I am not able to take classes anymore, I was listening to a lecture by a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, who will remain anonymous (to protect the guilty). The course, for the past 7 seven lectures has been rather good, and I anticipate its continued goodness for the remaining 17. We’ll see how it goes.
This morning’s lecture dealt with the twin topics of revelation (not the book of) and eschatology–two topics that often grab my attention. To begin the lecture, the professor (we’ll call him, “Bob”) recapped some of the previous discussions in order to show their relevance for the current one. In the midst recapping, “Bob” raised the point about names having “significant, historical, redemptive connotations”, and that sometimes names are purposefully changed by God to reflect this reality. Moreover, the name-change signals something about the person, namely: that person is now going to be used by God in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan.
In an effort to illustrate (or even prove) his point, “Bob” listed off some key biblical figures where he sees this purposeful name-changing thing taking place–e.g. Abram –> Abraham.¹ And then it happened. I feared it would the moment he started this line of argument, and he proved my fears correct. He mentioned the apostle Paul as an example! I nearly came out of my skin, which would be a bit gross. And messy to clean up. I have heard and read this (bad) theory many times,² and each time it provokes the same response–i.e. the coming of the skin thing. I say it’s a bad theory because it is simply not true, let alone consistent with the biblical text. And “Bob”, being a systematic theologian, should know this–i.e. he should know better.
The only passage in the NT that refers to Paul as having another name is Acts 13.9. It is true that up to this point, he has been called, “Saul” and after this point he is referred to as “Paul” (excepting Acts 22.7 and 26.14). I’ll grant that, but only that. But nothing in the text suggests either 1) that the name was changed from Saul to Paul as a result of a direct encounter with God or with some divine, redemptive-historical assignment,³ or 2) that “Paul” was not already a name by which he was known. In fact, the text simply reads: “But Saul–who [is] also Paul–being filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Σαυλος δε ὁ και Παυλος πλησθεις πνευματος ἁγιου…). Nothing about a name-change. Only that he had another name.
If such a name-change took place, as “Bob” and others parrot, and if such a changing is ordinarily linked with some divine encounter and/or redemptive-historical commissioning, then we would expect to see the Saul-Paul shift taking place after Acts 9.19 and not nearly 4 chapters later. But we don’t. And we don’t see it because it ain’t there, and it ain’t there because “Paul” was always one of his names, given to him at birth. Some 30 years prior.
¹ This theory begins to fall apart when we consider the names of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even James (the brother of Jesus). All of these men retained their (original) names despite encountering God and/or being given specific divine commissions.
² Augustine seems to one of the earliest to suggest it (see Sermons, 225). After that, it can be found in the works of scholars, pastors, church-goers, and even skeptics–e.g. J. Stow, Reflections on the Epistles of St Paul (1847), 318; C.J. den Heyer, Paul (2000), 27; M. Dimont, Jews, God, and History (2004), 141; B. Organ, Is the Bible Fact or Fiction? (2004), 48; A. Scheil, The Footsteps of Israel (2004), 224; J. Carter, Faith (2008), 300; D. Ridges, Your Study of the New Testament (2008), 26.
³ Adolf Jülicher already made this point–see Introduction (1904), 34.