Paul’s Conversion and Name Change: Separating Fact from Fiction

It’s an oft-told story in Sunday School classes and pulpits: when Saul was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, God changed his name to Paul. Just one little problem: it’s not true!

st-paul-conversionTo begin with, it’s probably inaccurate to say that Saul was “converted.” Typically when we use conversion language, we are referring to changing from one religion to another, e.g. from Christianity to Islam. This is certainly not what happened to Saul. When Saul met Jesus on the way to Damascus, Christianity was not a distinct religion from Judaism (don’t get me started on the enormous problem of whether ‘religion’ was even on the first-century conceptual radar!). Jesus and all his earliest followers were Jewish. Early Christians were considered to be members of a Jewish sect (“the Way,” according to Acts), not a new religion.

It may surprise you to realize that Paul continues until his death to identify himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5). He follows the Jewish law (Acts 21:17–26), makes sacrifices, engages in purification rituals in the Temple (Acts 24:17–18), and observes the Jewish festivals (Acts 18:21; 20:16)—even after he has become a follower of Jesus.

I don’t mean, of course, in any way to undermine the radical change that occurred when Saul met Jesus. His life was certainly turned around, as he amply attests in his letters. A more helpful way to understand Paul’s experience, though, may be as a prophetic call. Many of the Old Testament prophets, like Saul, were “Shanghaied,” so to speak, into proclaiming God’s message. For example, Jeremiah found that he had to speak God’s word, since it was like a fire in his bones (Jer 20:9). Moreover, like Paul, many of the OT prophets experienced a vision of God’s glory or presence when they were called. Think of Moses at the burning bush, Isaiah in the temple, or Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot-throne.

Now, what about the name change? This is simply mythical, a part of Sunday School lore. If we read Acts, we find that Luke calls the apostle ‘Saul’ long after his encounter with Jesus (all the way up to Acts 13:9). It’s not until he has begun his first missionary journey that the apostle is first identified as ‘Paul’ (Acts 13:9). And here there is no indication that he has changed his name. Luke’s statement “Saul, i.e. Paul” (Σαῦλος δέ, ὁ καὶ Παῦλος) suggests that ‘Paul’ may simply be another one of Saul’s names. Paul is a good Roman name, which is probably why Paul began favoring it when he began his travels throughout the Roman world. On the other hand, Saul was a Hebrew name (think of King Saul in the OT), which would have emphasized Paul’s foreignness. Also, ‘Saul’ in Greek (σαῦλος) probably had negative connotations, as it described someone who strutted or swaggered, perhaps in an effeminate way, i.e. prancing. It simply would not do for Paul to begin his preaching to Greek and Roman audiences by introducing himself as “Prancer!”

If you’re interested in separating Sunday School myth from Scriptural fact, you might considering enrolling in one of our degree programs at HBU. We offer numerous courses in the Bible, with an emphasis on understanding the Bible in its first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts.

Kyrios Christos at 100

How many books are considered so significant that they are translated and published in English more than 50 years after its first German edition.   I’m referring to Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos: A History of Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus  (first German edition 1913; English translation 1970). Bousset was one of the founding fathers of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (the history-of-religions school) in the German academy. Like other scholars in the Schule, Bousset studied religion as a phenomenon of history.  He applied to Christian origins the same kinds of criteria historians apply to the rise of any movement in history.  Bousset argued that the cult of Christ, that is, the worship of Jesus and calling him “Lord” occurred only when Christianity had moved away from its Jewish roots and had been exposed to “pagan” religions.  Under these influences early Christ-followers began to think of Jesus as one would think of a god. So they prayed to him, sang hymns to him, gathered in his name for sacred meals, etc. For Bousset the adoration offered to Jesus by his followers was an unfortunate development in Christian history.Christ enthroned

Almost immediately, Bousset’s conclusions were called into question by the likes of J. Gresham Machen and A. E. W. Rawlinson. But what scholars found difficult to challenge were Bousset’s methods; they were sound. Christianity was a phenomenon of history and so its origin could be understood in historical terms.  Yet in the second half of the 20th century scholars began looking closer to home, in Judaism, for the historical antecedents for Christianity.  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and many other texts from the second temple period have given scholars a great deal more information than Bousset had about the period when the Jesus movement was just beginning.  Today there is a new history-of-religions school according to the late Professor Dr. Martin Hengel.  This Schule tries to understand Christian origins as a phenomenon of history but concludes that the central features of Christianity developed from within Judaism not paganism.    

This past 6 months I’ve headed a team of several scholars–Loren Stuckenbruck, Paula Fredriksen, and Larry Hurtado—to create a special session at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in November 2013 (Baltimore, MD).  2013 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Bousset’s magisterial monograph.  We thought it might be helpful to take stock of Bousset’s influence on the field of religious studies. Here are a few of the salient questions we hope to address:

(1)   How do we assess the significance of Bousset’s work today (particularly Kyrios Christos), 100 years later?

(2)   How has Bousset shaped scholarly discussion?

(3)   Is there a new history of religions school (a statement made by Professor Martin Hengel in the 1990s)?

(4)   Is there anything Bousset said that we missed?

(5)   Has subsequent research (DSS, pseudepigrapha, archaeology, etc.) proved or disproved any of Bousset’s ideas?

 Four prominent New Testament scholars have agreed to present papers and guide our discussion.  They are

       Kelley Coblentz Bautch, St. Edward’s University

      Larry Hurtado, University of Edinburgh

      Lutz Doering, University of Durham

      Cilliers Breytenbach, University of Berlin

Dr. Jeff Peterson of Austin Graduate School of Theology has agreed for his program unit (Extent of Theological Diversity in Early Christianity) to host the session. Either Paula Fredriksen or I will moderate the session.

Professor Jens Schroeter, editor of the prestigious journal Early Christianity, has agreed to publish the essays in the fall 2014.

As details about the time and place of the session are made known, I’ll share them with you.  If you plan on being in Baltimore, MD in November 2013, I hope you will join us. 




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