Did Saul change his name to Paul when he became a follower of Jesus? This seems to be a common opinion among Christians. Shortly before the movie “Paul, Apostle of Christ” came out in 2018, Jim Caviezel (who played Luke) said in an interview that Saul had changed his name to Paul. Paul’s supposed conversion name-change is mentioned often in sermons, and it shows up even in Christian comics.
But the Bible never actually says that Saul changed his name to Paul. Others in the New Testament change their names, and such events are always highlighted. Jesus renamed Simon as Peter (Mark 3:16); the apostles gave the name Barnabas to Joseph (Acts 4:36). We don’t have any such account for Paul.
So why have so many people claimed that Saul changed his name to Paul? In Acts, Luke calls him Saul for the first 13 chapters, then calls him Paul for the rest of the book, so some people have assumed that there was a name change. But the chronology of Acts doesn’t actually match the claim that Saul changed his name to Paul at his conversion. Look at the following references in Acts:
- 7:58, 8:1 – Saul is present at the execution of Stephen and “agreed with his murder.”
- 8:3 – Saul begins persecuting Christians.
- 9:1-11 – Saul goes to Damascus to persecute Christians, but meets Jesus and becomes his disciple.
- 9:22 – Saul preaches that Jesus is the Christ.
- 9:24 – Opponents of the faith plot to kill Saul because of his preaching.
- 11:25 – Many years later, Barnabas tracks down Saul and asks him to help him with the church in Antioch.
- 11:30, 12:25 – A year later, the church at Antioch sends Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem with a gift to assist during the famine.
- 13:1-2 – Some time later, the Holy Spirit speaks to the leaders of the Antioch church: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work…”
- 13:7 – While Barnabas and Saul are preaching the gospel on Cyprus, the proconsul asks them to come and give him their message.
- 13:9 – “But Saul, who was also Paul” denounces the magician Elymas and proclaims the gospel.
Paul’s conversion was about AD 34-37, and he arrived on Cyprus in AD 48, which means that he continued to use the name Saul for possibly as long as fourteen years after his conversion.
So what is going on? Why the name switch? The answer lies in Paul’s claim that he was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28), but also had faithful Jewish parents (Acts 23:6, Phil 3:5). Roman citizens usually had full Roman names. Even those who were not ethnically Roman were granted Roman names if they received citizenship. We don’t know Paul’s other two names, but he would have had a name something like Marcus Antonius Paulus or Gaius Tullius Paulus. (For Romans, the third name, called the cognomen, was the one most commonly used. The other two were used formally, like on birth certificates or other legal documents.)
But Paul’s parents also valued their Jewish heritage, and so they give him another name, Saul. That was an appropriate name for a boy from the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5), since King Saul was Benjamin’s most famous member.
Having different names for different cultures was a somewhat common practice. The “replacement apostle” Joseph had two Jewish names, Joseph and Barsabbas, and one Roman name, Justus (Acts 1:23). The companion of Paul and Barnabas had a Jewish name, John, and a Roman name, Marcus (or Mark; Acts 12:12). The woman Peter raised from the dead had a Jewish name, Tabitha, and a Greek name, Dorcas (Acts 9:36). And several examples can be found in non-biblical accounts from the time, such as Josephus.
While Paul was in his early phase of ministry, it would have been more beneficial to use his Jewish name, Saul. It may have been his “default name” since he moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem as a young man. Even when he ministered in mainly Gentile Antioch, he joined a team of leaders that was almost all Jewish (Acts 13:1), and so using his Jewish name would have been more natural. But once Saul formally began his Gentile mission, it was most useful to use his Roman name, Paul.
Is this claim, that Paul always had both names, some crazy new idea? No. All the Acts commentaries on my shelf agree with this evaluation (see the excellent commentaries by Craig Keener, Darrell Bock, F.F. Bruce and I. Howard Marshall, for example). And it is not a new claim at all. In AD 256, in the oldest surviving commentary on Romans, Origen said this:
… it appears to us that Paul also used two names and while he was ministering to his own people he was called Saul because it seemed more colloquial to his native country, but he was called Paul when composing laws and precepts for the Greeks and Gentiles. For the Scripture that says, “Saul, who was also called Paul,” shows very plainly that he is not being designated Paul there for the first time, but rather this had been an old designation.
 Origen, Comm. in Epist. ad Rom., pref 9. From Origen: A New Translation, transl. Thomas Scheck (Catholic University of America, 2010), 57-59.