Lately at work, I’ve had the occasion to read about Paul. A number of projects have involved the first-century builder of the church, and one thing has bugged me. I grew up thinking that Saul was renamed Paul on the Damascus road, at his conversion. I thought that God had verbally said to him “You, Saul, shall be named Paul” or something similar, as with Simon/Peter and Jacob/Israel. But I have been editing a book of sermons on Acts, and “Saul” continues to be used long after that story. And God isn’t recorded to have openly said anything about Saul’s name changing.
In fact, the first time Paul’s name is used as Paul is in Acts 13, four chapters and several years after Paul’s conversion. Specifically, he’s “Saul” in verse 7, “Saul, also known as Paul” in verse 9, and “Paul” alone from that point forward. Which makes me wonder what was happening in those verses of Acts 13.
Review time! I keep mentioned the Damascus road, which was a literal road from Jerusalem to the town of Damascus, and which Saul was traveling on when he saw a vision of Jesus that temporarily blinded him and changed his life. There were some more details in the few days after that, but most people refer to the Damascus road as being the point at which Saul’s life changed irrevocably, the point at which he became a Christian. He had been a proper religious Jewish boy, a scholar and leader, young but highly ambitious and highly esteemed by the who’s who of Israel’s religious elites. He had been actively involved in the murder of the Stephen for his faith in Jesus, and Saul is recorded as having “approved” (Acts 8:1) of the mob’s violence and Stephen’s death. In fact, Saul was going to Damascus in order to persecute Christians there (9:1-2). But he was interrupted. By a vision of Jesus. Who said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). And Saul basically said, “Who’s this?” And Jesus basically says “Jesus. The one you’re persecuting” (9:5). [Sass level: Jesus.]
So Saul spends some time with other Christians, learning and growing and meeting the who’s who of the early church, not being murderous, and probably confusing the heck out of all his old friends and mentors. And then he starts traveling and telling other people about Jesus and about what happened to him on the Damascus road and about everything he’s learned since that experience. And a few things he learned before that (which shows that your education can, actually, come in handy). Simon/Peter, who had been the leader of the apostles and one of the leaders of the early church, is thrown in prison in Acts 12, and now we’re at Acts 13.
Saul hasn’t sworn off preaching to Jews yet (though he will, despite not following through on it terribly well), but he and his good buddy Barnabas are traveling and preaching about Jesus to Gentiles (non-Jews). The Gentiles don’t have the cultural and religious basis that Saul and Barnabas have, and at this point in history there’s longstanding bad blood between the Jews and…everyone else. So these two good Jewish men preaching to and living among Gentiles was a bit of a stretch for them, a bit outside of their comfort zones, and there weren’t a ton of other early Jewish Christians preaching to Gentiles, either. Our pair of heroes get to Cyprus, and the governor invites them over to find out what all this Jesus hoopla is about.
Enter Bar-Jesus, a local mystic (called a sorcerer, actually). (Bar-Jesus means “son of Jesus”, and Jesus was a fairly common variant of “Joshua” at that time, so even without Da Vinci Code-esque conspiracies, we’re definitely talking about a different Jesus who fathered the Cyprian sorcerer than the Jesus who died on a cross outside of Jerusalem and rose 3 days later.) So Bar-Jesus shows up and tries “to steer the governor away from the faith” (13:8). And Saul gets ticked. Saul says some really choice words to Bar-Jesus, ending with, “You’ll be blind for a while, unable to even see the daylight” (13:11). And it happens. It happens immediately. Which probably prompts the governor to say a few choice words too. But the governor also believes Saul’s message and becomes a Christian.
Disability as punishment is a very gross concept. It reiterates ugly, hurtful stereotypes about disabled people. I know that in the Bible blindness is often used as a metaphor, etc. etc., but it’s still not okay. So I get a little ticked at Saul or God—not sure which was the chicken and which was the egg here, or if the answer is the same as the chicken-or-egg debate—for making Bar-Jesus temporarily blind in order to (a) teach him something, and (b) show God’s power to the governor of Cyprus. There’s a slim chance the blindness was metaphorical only, but those implications aren’t good either. I don’t have an answer for why blindness and other disabilities are treated the way they are in the Bible, so let’s acknowledge the not-okay-ness before we get back around to Saul’s name shifting to Paul.
Ready? Are you uncomfortable? Are you confused? You should be. If you aren’t, maybe reread that last paragraph and sit with it a bit more. Is blindness ever presented positively in the Bible, that you can remember? Tease out those implications.
Feeling uncomfortable now? Maybe even upset? Okay, good.
This Bar-Jesus situation is so similar to what happened to Saul on the Damascus road. Both men were doing what they felt so sure was right, but which was hurting other people. And they were both interrupted. They both became blind for a while, having to be led “by the hand” (9:8; 13:11). Maybe Saul remembers the positive changes in his life after he became blind on the Damascus road, so he says the same thing should happen in the governor’s palace to Bar-Jesus… and God agrees, or at least complies. Or maybe God was going to use the same method on Bar-Jesus that God used on Saul, so God told Saul, who explained this to Bar-Jesus. Maybe both happened simultaneously. We don’t know what happened to Bar-Jesus after Acts 13:11, but we are inclined to believe that his sight returned, just as as Saul said it would. I’d like to believe Bar-Jesus’s life also changed for the better but the Bible doesn’t tell us. What we do know is that Saul isn’t Saul anymore. He’s Paul. And the governor of Cyprus has become a Christian.
Saul cares so much for this stranger, this Roman governor, this Gentile, that Saul is willing to do about anything to make sure no one messes with him, no one tries to lead him astray. I’m thinking about Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dum, in The Fellowship of the Ring, when he’s all, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” at the Balrog, the monster of fire and smoke threatening Gandalf and his friends.
Saul was once a Jew who embodied everything that good religious folk in his culture ought to be. He must have internalized the hatred of Gentiles so prevalent in his culture at that time. But now he’s a Christian, and after a few years of being a Christian, he cares about this Gentile so much that he uses all his power and influence to ensure that the governor isn’t hindered by Bar-Jesus’s opposition. And from that moment on, Saul is only known by his Greek name of Paul.
The Damascus road. The Cyprian palace. I think Paul’s life radically changed more than once. The first time, he became a Christian. The second time, he embraced his purpose.
Or something. I don’t know, the Bible is complicated.