Most people know that Apostle Paul was a pious Jew. Many New Testament readers would note that he was a Pharisee trained with the rabbis at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). And at the same time, most Christians would also see Apostle Paul as a radical convert to Christianity. But how accurate is this idea? One way of rationalizing Paul as a Christian is that a Jew, a Pharisee named Saul was baptized, converted from Judaism to Christianity and from then on was known as Christian Apostle Paul.
The name changing transaction can be truly misleading. It is broadly-known that when people convert to another religion they often change their name. To use a contemporary example, Cassius Clay converted to Islam and most people today know this champion and boxing legend as Mohammad Ali. Indeed, through the ages, when pagans converted to Christianity they received “Christian” names. And the reason for such practice makes perfect sense.
Imagine a man by the name Dion becomes a convert to Christianity. Dion is a wonderful Greek name. The problem is that Dion is a diminutive form of Dionysius – who is a Greek god of wine and grape harvest associated with drunken orgies and all sorts of debauchery. A new Christian named after a Greek deity was a problem. Thus, a common practice was to baptize him and give him a new, better fitting name – Daniel, or David. There is nothing scandalous in that.
Though such name-changing is common, this is not what happened with Paul. Unlike Abraham or Jacob, he did not get a new name as a result of his encounter with God. He had more than one name from the beginning (Acts 13:9). A common Jewish custom, even today, especially among those who live outside of Israel is to give multiple names to their children. One may be an ancestral Hebrew name, but another one is for use in the culture where they live, that is much more common and easier for locals to pronounce.
Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin and had a name of Hebrew origin – Shaul. It comes from the root that means “to seek”, “to ask”, “to question”. This is the name of the first king of Israel, who was also a Benjamite. A Greek spelling of that name would be Σαῦλος (Saulos) – “Saul”. This is the name by which Jesus addressed Paul in a vision (Acts 9:4).
But for some reason, Paul also had another name Παῦλος (Paulos) or “Paul”. Maybe it was tied to his Roman citizenship, or there was some other reason behind it. It is hard to know for sure. Still, this was not a very common Greek name. We do not find people with this name prior to the 1st century. Perhaps it is a made-up name. In fact, Παῦλος (Paulos) differs from Σαῦλος (Saulos) only by one letter. It is possible that this is how this name came to be. Paulos could simply be an alteration of the Greek spelling of the apostle’s Hebrew name.
The idea that Paul converted and changed his name from Saul to Paul is merely an attribution to a known conversion-related practice, not a historical explanation. Paul is how the apostle was known in the non-Jewish world. And since he labored an apostle to the Gentiles Paulos or Paul was the name he used in his ministry. In fact, many others continued to know and address him as Shaul (Acts 11:25; 12:25). So, no, Paul was not his special “Christian” name.