Why does it matter if Rabbi Sha’ul is known by his Hebrew name Sha’ul, if he is called exclusively by the name of Paul, or if we refer to him, as he is in some denominations, as St. Paul? Unfortunately there is a false belief common among many believers that associate this Pharisee, who was known as Saul, had a name change to Paul. It is thought by many to be indicative of his “conversion” from Judaism to Christianity. I would like to address the issue of this imagined name change to dispel the notion that Sha’ul adopted a new name in order to rid himself of his Jewish status.
Many will wholeheartedly refer to him as Paul, the one formerly known as Saul. Without a doubt, most English Biblical interpretations refer to this learned Jewish Pharisee who wrote a great amount of the Messianic Writings as Paul. There are many who will not hesitate to inform us that he was Saul (not even using the proper Hebraic transliteration of Sha’ul) who became Paul after he was knocked off his horse and became a Christian. Choosing not to dispute whether or not there was a horse present or that he remained fully Jewish after his encounter with the Jewish Messiah, I will investigate what his name really was. Was there a reason he would have had to change his name to follow Yeshua, or did he remain known as Sha’ul?
From Scripture we do know that Sha’ul was a Roman citizen. Acts 22:27-28 tells us:
The commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” And he said “Yes.” The commander answered, “I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.” And Sha’ul said, “But I was actually born a citizen.”
Sha’ul was born in Tarsus, and he came from the tribe of Benjamin. He said of himself,
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city.” ( Acts 22:3a)
He was a Jew and he was a Roman citizen.
During this time of the Roman Republic, a Roman citizen’s name had to consist of three parts, and Rabbi Sha’ul’s was no different. The first part of the name was the praenomen, or the person’s given name. Sha’ul would have been his given Hebrew name. The nomen was what the second part of the name was called. This name would have been granted to the person of non-Italian descent, the privilege of taking to his own name an emperor or Roman general’s name. A name that might have reflected perhaps some service to a general or emperor would have been ideal and an honor. It was believed that Sha’ul’s father may have served under General Paulus. Sha’ul’s nomen was Paulus. This name would have been bestowed upon him at birth, not at a new birth experience or a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. The last part of the name was the cognomen, which would have been reflective of the person’s place of birth, in this case Tarsus. Hence, we can know that this Jewish Rabbi had the names of Sha’ul Paulus of Tarsus.
Perhaps this has been enlightening regarding Sha’ul’s name, yet the question still remains: Did he remain fully Jewish or did his faith change and include a disregard for the Torah? Be looking for Part II: The Jewish Man, The Myths, and the Legends.