The Real Reason Paul Is Sometimes Called Saul In The Bible

Throughout the Bible, character names are changed after significant events. For example, in the Old Testament, Abraham started off as Abram, but God changed his name after the two entered into a covenant (Genesis 17). Similarly, Jacob became Israel after a dream in which he wrestled with God, with "Israel" translating more-or-less literally to "wrestles with God" (Genesis 32).

Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus' disciple Simon becomes Peter after he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and Jesus responds, "on this rock I will build my church." The English word translated as "Peter" comes from a Greek word that means "rock" (Matthew 16).

Another key figure in the New Testament also goes by two names throughout the narrative. The Apostle Paul enters the narrative in the Book of Acts with the name Saul — or more specifically, Saul of Tarsus — but is referred to as Paul after Jesus appears to him and he converts to Christianity.

But according to The Gospel Coalition, the narrative doesn't actually say that Saul changed his name — that interpretation came from a scriptural misunderstanding that worked its way into Christianity and hasn't quite left yet.

The same man used two different names depending on the context

Saul of Tarsus was a Jew who, early in his narrative in the Book of Acts, zealously persecuted Christians. In Acts 9, Jesus appears to him and asks, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Saul then converts to Christianity and becomes a key figure in the remainder of the narrative. From then on, he is sometimes called "Paul."

From here, a misunderstanding emerged in Christianity that Saul changed his name to Paul following his conversion, as The Gospel Coalition explains. And it would seem to track, considering that there's precedent in the Bible for such a name change.

But that's not the case here, writes Greg Lanier of The Gospel Coalition. He points out that the rest of the narrative uses Saul and Paul interchangeably. Similarly, at no point does the narrative directly say that Saul's name was changed to Paul; indeed, Acts 13:9 says that Saul "was also called Paul."

So why the two names then? Lanier compares Paul's situation to that of an immigrant from a non-English-speaking country to an English-speaking one. Because their original name might not make sense in the new context, they choose something close that works for them. Such was apparently the case with Saul (a Hebrew name) and Paul (a Greek name). The man himself was a Jew who lived and ministered in Greek society, and depending on context and audience, he — or the person referring to him — used whichever name made the most sense at the time.