Paulos / Saulos: The name change.

Dave Black  asked me Please do write a follow up on the Saulos thing. I had always assumed that this name was a badge of honor — first king of Israel and all that. I also was under the impression that Paul was his Roman name (given at birth) and that he used it because he had begun his Gentile mission…. Read more here in the comments

The comment was in regards to yesterdays post about a footnote in Ben Witherington’s commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians. I wrote:

His foot notes are very extensive and informative; they took me on many tangents, such as is found in note 12. The explanation of the Apostle changing his name to Paul from Saul was fascinating, in that Saulos has connotations of how a prostitute walks. This tangent in of its self makes for a potential worthy essay and future research.

Dave,  Witherington notes: p5

Cf.T.J.Leary, Pauls Improper Name,” NTS 38 (1992), pp. 467-69; C.J Hemer, “The Name of Paul,” TynB 36 (1986), pp, 179-83.

Probably Paulos was for Paul one of three proper names that a Roman citizen would have. We do not know what the other two of those names were. According to Acts, Paul’s name change did not occur with the Damascus road experience but when he begun to reach out to the Roman world, specifically to Sergius Paulos; the way in which Acts 13:9 introduces the change may suggest that Paulos was a nickname, “the small one,” rather than Paul’s proper name.  As Leary points out, once Paul became a missionary to the Gentiles an added reason not to use the name Saulos was that this word was used in Greek of the wanton style of walking of some prostitutes.

In making my observation of this footnote, I make the disclaimer that my knowledge of Greek isn’t sufficient to critique Leary’s comment on how the ancient Greek meaning of Paulos can have connotations of how some prostitutes walk.

In many ways Paul began his pre Christian persecution of the church with much pride, power and big noting of himself. Perhaps one could say his persecutionary zeal was similar to the strutting / wanton walk of prostitutes as he continued to make a name for himself with the power brokers and society in general – and on the road to Damascus, God revealed himself to him – causing a similar response to the time where God revealed himself to Job.

It is interesting that Paulos however could be a nickname meaning the “Small One.”Certainly Paul undergoes a paradigm shift where he no longer wants to draw attention to himself and follows the example of John the Baptist who says, Christ must increase and I must decrease! Within the Corinth socio rhetorical framework the genterie hierarchy was not one of ancestral origin; instead it was one where any and all could raise to the top through self effort and ability: Slave or Free, Jew or Gentile, Male or Female, all could take positions of power. ( Its worth exploring this Corinth sociological scandalous distinction within the Roman empire more and whether Paul draws upon his observation of this distinction and his usage of it within a Christian kingdom perspective Gal 3:28. )

Tangent aside, Paul’s nick name the Small One is a stark reminder that indeed we are all the small ones and our God is indeed the great one. The great one who came to earth as a small one, to redeem us to himself and for himself. And within this framework, I ask – how great is our God?

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About Craig Benno

I'm an average aussie guy who has lived perhaps a not so average life.
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2 Responses to Paulos / Saulos: The name change.

  1. Dave Black says:

    Thanks so much for the follow up, Craig. I wonder if Paul (“small”) carried that semantic weight back then? We have a Dr. Little on our faculty, as well as a Dr. Black, but I doubt that anyone takes those names as descriptors 🙂

    • Craig Benno says:

      That is a great question!

      There can be a sense within our society that names do carry a meaning. Baby shops carry books of names which have their meanings. Anecdotally, with my first son, it was after 9 months of marriage where I got down on my knees, said to the Lord, Lord, its time, can we have a baby. We named him Samuel and at his dedication, a lady said to me, did you know that Samuel means asked of God? I said back, No I didn’t, but he sure is.

      Within the framework of your question regarding Dr Black and Dr Little – I read somewhere 🙂 that a good exegete needs to be constantly careful of the trap of esigesis. Therefore caution is needed in using our personal examples: Samuel, Dr Black, Dr Little and the meaning of names to understand the Scriptures.

      I think more within the Old Testament and somewhat within the New, names did have a significant meaning. Some examples being: Adam – man. Eve – woman. Jabez – pain. Jacob – deceiver. Barnabas – son of encouragement. Therefore within a linguistic, rhetorical, anthropological / sociological framework, one may be able to find that within scripture, names had a significant importance- both within Scripture and ancient society.

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