Saul to Paul: A few thoughts on Acts 13

One of the things which struck me about our New Testament course this year was the idea of narrative criticism, i.e. reading the text critically (analytically that is – not ‘critically’ in the popular sense) as narrative. I’d never really thought about the gospels in that way before, and it’s been colouring the way I see things now. This goes for Acts as well: one of the big things about our Acts section was how to read it as theological history – not just history, but history with a particular theological point and purpose.

This past term we’ve been studying Acts in our home group (after having studied it for our New Testament course last term), and I think I’ve even been seeing new things in the text which I didn’t see there before. The way the narrative is structured is far more complex than just “this happened, then that happened…” which I’d always read it as. One such example of this is Paul’s name change in Acts 13:4-12.

Now this might strike you as a fairly innocuous thing, but it’s nonetheless a niggling little detail. Why does Luke (the author of Acts) include it? More to the point, why does he include it here? Our Acts tutor last term took us through a few options, which I can’t remember any more! One suggestion from my ESV study Bible is that Saul is the Hebrew name, but Paul is his Gentile name. But I wonder whether there may be a bit more to it than that. As we went through the passage at home group, I had a few thoughts (or rather, we had a few thoughts as a group) which struck me as interesting. I don’t claim any particular originality for this, I’m sure it’s all stuff which has been covered before… in fact, it may be what we were already taught in class. So, with that caveat…

As context for this story, we haven’t seen Saul since chapter nine (his conversion). Recall that prior to his conversion, he was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (9:1); the last we see of him is speaking boldly in the name of the Lord (9:28) and being sent off to Tarsus (9:30). In Acts 13:9, the narrative simply drops in: “Then Saul, who was also called Paul…”. From thereon in he is referred to as Paul, except for times when he is narrating a story regarding his former life.

Now, what’s interesting here is the way Elymas is mentioned in the previous verse: “But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith.” So, in the verse before Saul is said to have another name, the name of Elymas has some kind of significance: he is a sorceror, “for that is what his name means”. I think this may be a clue that there’s more going on with names here than meets the eye.

Also note that Elymas was trying to “turn the proconsul away from the faith”, and Saul / Paul calls him a “son of the devil” and an “enemy of righteousness”. Then, Saul / Paul pronounces the punishment for Elymas “you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time”, which meant that Elymas needed to have people lead him by the hand. Let’s just pause there for a moment: what had happened to Saul back in Chapter 9? He had been persecuting the church – essentially trying to turn people away from faith – and his experience on the Damascus Road had left him blind and unable to see for a time, he needed to be led by the hand into Damascus (9:8). Coincidence?

I’m wondering whether it might be right to say that Saul’s change of name here is to do with his new identity in Christ. Here we are presented by two characters: Elymas and Saul. Both are men who had tried to turn people away from faith, but whereas in Saul’s case God had spoken to him and made him blind for a while, in this case Paul speaks to Elymas as God’s representative and makes him blind for a time. Whereas before Saul had been filled with “deceit and villainy”, now Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit”.

It’s an identity shift fundamental enough to require a new name. He is a new person in Christ: the Saul who was like Elymas, the Saul who persecuted the church, is gone; Paul is now here – the Paul who pronounces judgement on his older self.

This might be all quite “out there” and speculative, but I find it a fascinating possibility 🙂