Sometimes we can get very confused when reading the Bible because people either have more than one name or there are so many different people with the same name! There are several ‘Herods’ in the Bible (Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa I and II, for example), and this applies to many other people too, leaving us to have to clarify which Mark or Joseph we are talking about! Often, a name change is given which signifies God’s action in people’s lives (Abram became Abraham, ‘exalted father’ becoming the ‘father of many nations’; Jacob the deceiver became Israel, the one who had wrestled with God, for example.) So it can be important to be sure to define who we are talking about when names change.
In the book of Acts, we read about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9) and until Acts 13, he is referred to by this name. In Acts 13:9, however, we read that ‘Saul… was also called Paul’, and for the rest of that book, and in the many letters he wrote, it is by this name he is known. We might find this confusing, but it’s important to remember that this man was both a Jew and a Roman citizen, and as such would have had more than one name (just as we often have two or more given names.) Saul was a Hebrew name, and it’s highly possible that our New Testament apostle was named after the first king of Israel (both were from the tribe of Benjamin.) In Greek, however, this name was translated ‘Saulos’, which in that language was also an adjective describing someone walking or behaving in an effeminate way. Perhaps it’s because now, at this point in the story that Paul is starting his missionary journeys to the Gentile world, that the transition is made to use his Roman name Paul: we don’t know for certain. But one thing we do know. Names define us and identify us and it’s interesting that as Paul fulfilled his divine calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles, he adopted a Roman name. Hudson Taylor, Barnsley missionary to China, invested his whole life in evangelising the Chinese, even adopting Chinese clothing in order to identify himself with their culture. Paul would later say, ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ (1 Cor 9:22) We may well have to change and adapt many things to reach people (including names), but what is important is that the gospel is taken to the ends of the earth.