When Saul Became Paul

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.

7 thoughts on “When Saul Became Paul

  1. Nicole says:

    I read this a few days ago but then forgot to comment! Such a good read–and brought a perspective I hadn’t seen before. I’d say it was well worth the rabbit trail you took writing it!

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  2. Emma Love says:

    It seems that the fact that God allowed people to become blind, and various other things,
    bothers you. God is supreme and God is just. His wisdom is far beyond our comprehension.
    Does the thought of God making hell disturb you? That’s a lot worse than blindness or
    anything else that can happen to you. Some people would never turn to God if they weren’t put in dire circumstances that they cannot change, God is to be thanked for anything he does to make people see their helplessness without God. Like the scripture says, “It’s better to enter heaven without a limb or eyes that to be lost and go to hell.” God is God, and you
    will never understand His ways, but it sure doesn’t mean He’s wrong; it just means you’re not God and you can’t possibly understand the measures He’ll take to bring someone to Himself.
    I see nothing confusing about any of the Bible. You just take God at His Word and trust Him.
    Whatever God allows to happen to His own, He is always in control and will see them through it. We aren’t promised that everything will be perfect until we get to the celestial city.
    Just trust Him and not your own understanding. It pays.

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    • Katie Brookins says:

      God allowing, even striking, someone blind does bother me, but not because I wouldn’t do that or because I cannot understand how God used this situation to bring about salvation for the person. I do. I am grateful for the salvation, as we must always be grateful for salvation. Still, I am bothered that, throughout the Bible, disability is used as punishment or to make a person more pitiful in some way. This bothers me because it perpetuates the idea that disability is always negative and that disabled people need to be saved from their disabilities.

      In truth, we are all born with imperfections in our character and body, but disabled people are commonly viewed by Western society as distinctly lesser than non-disabled people. I believe we should carefully examine where these prejudices come from and what contributes to or encourages those ideas, even subtly. Finding them, we should call attention to them so that we are not led to conclusions which are contrary to God’s intent for all people. In several cases, Jesus forgave people’s sins, but only seemed to healed them afterward to visibly indicate to the society that there had been an inner change (John 5, 9). Jesus verbally refuted the connection between disability and sin (John 9:2-3). We also know that Jesus did not heal every person he encountered (the man at the Beautiful Gate is one such example; Acts 3:1-10). I take Christ’s example as an indication that we should view all people as fully people, and we should not assume that disabilities are punishments or situations from which people need rescuing.

      Although I am imperfect in it, I do seek to trust God in every situation and with every one of my concerns and joys. However, Paul encourages us to engage our minds in worship and I believe God blesses us when we likewise engage our minds in the study of Scripture. You may find nothing in the Bible confusing, Emma, but that is not my journey. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Emma Love says:

    It surprises me that you think people connect disability with sin. Well, it is
    connected to original sin, of course. But I don’t connect disabled people
    with their sin. It’s a result of the “fall”. Sometimes it may be because of
    sin though. That’s God’s discretion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think most
    people view a disability as a result of that person’s sin. And I don’t think of
    disabled people as “less than” healthy people. I guess some disabled
    people think of themselves that way, due to their lowered self-esteem. I
    think a close relationship with the Lord can raise one’s self-esteem; it sure
    has mine over the years. Walking with the Lord for years has let me know
    I am no better or worse than anyone else – outside of God, and also it
    has removed all fear from me. I don’t live with any kind of fear at all. I live
    in freedom due to being a “King’s kid”. Have a good night. Emma

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    • Katie Brookins says:

      Emma,
      I know some people connect sin with disability because I have heard people say so, though I certainly hope you are right and most people don’t! I have also listened to countless disabled friends describe how they are treated, how hard they have to fight to be allowed to make choices about their bodies. I’ve seen how assumptions made about them, their intelligence, their desires, and every other aspect of their lives can be hurtful. I see it in the way cashiers don’t look at my friend, clearly the I’ve making the purchase, and look and talk to me instead. I see it in the way people try to push another friend’s chair where they want her, when she does not require and had not asked for help.

      You seemed to assume that a lower self esteem would be a result of the disability, not how we as a culture infantilize, ignore, belittle, villainize, and hide people with disabilities. Not intentionally, not knowingly, but we do all the same. I’ve done so. My assumptions, reinforced by media and how I have seen others treat people with disabilities, have been hurtful. And low self-esteem I may experience has no real comparison to a culture telling me I can only ever be a saint or a vilain, a burden or an inspiration. I get to be a person first. In general, based on what my friends with disabilities have told me and what I’ve observed, disabled people don’t get to be people first. That is not the initial assumption people make about me, that I am a competent, multi-faceted human. Only by listening to disabled people and carefully watching my own behavior and thoughts have I glimpsed how prevalent this is.

      Pulling this back around to our mutual faith, I agree that faith does give us courage and hope and strength and humility and so much else. But I think it’s dangerous to ignore contributing factors from our culture, and even the Bible stories than can also be taken as reinforcement of these ideas.

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  4. Emma Love says:

    Yes, unfortunately people who don’t live their lives to please the Lord
    don’t walk in love, and it spills out on others. They don’t have the
    “mind of Christ”, as the scripture tells us to. And it’s not just disabled
    people they are being rude to so many times; it’s everyone that
    interferes with what they want to do this minute. I don’t think Christians
    ignore the rudeness of people around us; it appalls us, and we feel
    for the affected person, but giving dirty looks or yelling at the offender
    doesn’t change him. Being kind to the disabled person can go a long
    way to give some relief. In saying, “I don’t think Christians do this or that”,
    I mean genuine Christians, not people who say they are Christians. If
    you are truly trying to live your life as pleasing to the Lord, you have a
    strong desire to act as if you do, and your actions show it. Not that we
    don’t fail at times in this, but our desire and goal is to be pleasing to the
    Lord in all things. I think very few people are totally committed to living
    their lives as pleasing to the Lord. Most people, if the truth be known,
    are committed to themselves, even many who claim to be Christians.
    I think of these people as “luke warm” Christians, and you know what
    Jesus said about “luke warm” people; in essence they make Him sick.
    (Revelation 3:16). Even God Himself can’t make all rude and unloving
    people repent and start living to please Him. SELF is on the throne of
    their heart and that are not willing to humble themselves and repent.
    And if God Himself can’t make them change, we certainly cannot. But
    we can sew Christ’s love to among people, and be an example of a true
    follower of Christ. The people who equate disability with the person’s sin
    are judging, and scripture says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
    So these people will pay dearly for ignoring the Lord’s command to love
    one another, and God will one day make it up to the righteous disabled.

    Like

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