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The Name of Saul/Paul and the Sources of the Pentateuch: Weekly Mailbag June 26, 2016


Why did Saul change his name to Paul?  And what were the sources lying being the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible?  Good questions!  I’ll deal with them here in the Weekly Reader’s Mailbag



What is the meaning of “Paul” that Saul of Tarsus was moved to change to that name upon his conversion?


Ah, right – my students ask me this a lot in my New Testament class.  When we all grew up in Sunday School we learned that when Saul of Tarsus converted, he changed his name to Paul, so that Saul was his Jewish name and Paul his Christian name.  As it turns out, that’s not quite right.

Paul himself never gives any indication that he had another name, Saul.   But he is called Saul in the book of Acts.  Until he converts.  After that he is usually called Paul.  But not always!  See, e.g., Acts 11:30 and 13:2 (there are other instances).  There the Christian Paul is called Saul. What gives with that?  Did people (or the Holy Spirit, in 13:2!) forget that his name had changed when he became a Christian?

Nope.  The deal is this.  Saul was not renamed Paul after his conversion.  Saul is his Aramaic name.  Paul is his Greek name.  He didn’t change his name.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if he actually had an Aramaic name Saul, historically, despite the fact that the author of Acts calls him that.  I see little to suggest that Paul – the real historical figure — had spent any real time in Judea before his conversion.



Can you please post a bit on the Documentary Hypothesis?  I understand it is out of fashion a bit these days. What are the theories that replaced it?


This question is about the Hebrew Bible, specifically about the multiple authors of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).  I dealt with this question about four years ago on the blog, when talking about my (then) new textbook on the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Here is what I said then.

Traditionally it was thought that the five books of the Pentateuch were written by Moses – so that they are even today sometimes called the Law of Moses (or the books of Moses).  But the books do not claim to have been written by Moses: they are anonymous – and Moses is talked *about* in these books; the author[s] never use the first person pronoun.

But scholars have long had highly compelling reasons for thinking that these books were not written in Moses’ day – during the thirteenth century BCE – or, in fact, by ONE person at all.   It is not that there was a different author for each of the books.  The situation is more complicated than that.   The five books we now have were edited together by someone who was utilizing earlier sources that (most of them, at least) provided material for more than one book.   The person who first popularized this view was a nineteenth century German scholar named Julius Wellhausen.  The view is called the “Documentary Hypothesis.”

According to this hypothesis, the first four books have three sources lying behind them, named J, E, and P.   The book of Deuteronomy is set apart, and is attributed to a source D.   The chronological sequence of these sources (we don’t know their real authors, of course) provide the other unofficial name for this hypothesis: JEDP.

There are lots and lots of reasons for thinking that this view is basically right.   There are internal contradictions between different parts of the Hebrew Bible (for example, there are two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2; the first is from the P source, the second from the J source); different episodes use different names for the divinity (Yahweh – or in German, Jahweh – for the one source, and so that is why it is called J; Elohim, the Hebrew word for God, in another, hence the E source); different portions reveal different concerns (parts are completely devoted to Priestly concerns, hence P).

Wellhausen argued that these four sources all told traditions of ancient Israel, and – a highly significant aspect of his theory – since the sources were originally written at different times in the history of ancient Israel, they can tell us about what the concerns and conditions of the authors were, in their own day and time, more than they can tell us about what was really happening, say, in the days of Moses.   For these sources were in fact centuries removed from the events they narrate.   The older scholarship claimed that J was from the 10th century (in the days of King Solomon); E from the 9th century; D from the 7th century; and P from the 6th century BCE.

Today scholars rarely buy into Wellhausen’s hypothesis in toto.  But not because they think the whole shooting match (or in fact, even a single shot) goes back to Moses.  Instead, scholars have tended to make the picture even more complicated, murkier, more nuanced, with more than just four sources and all interwoven in complex ways.  The complexity that is sometimes proposed is mindboggling at times.  If they still think in terms of four major sources, they date them even late than Wellhausen (some scholars think that the sources did not start getting produced until the 6th century.  That would be 700 years after Moses!  Assuming Moses was a real person – which many scholars do not assume at all.  I happen to be one of them.


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Who Wrote the Pentateuch? Early Questions of Authorship.
Paul’s Converted Vision of Himself



  1. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  June 26, 2016

    Oh, Thanks answering my question, Bart.
    It’s been a while since I posted it so I was very glad to see about it today.
    Still working on my book. Have a FB page now https://www.facebook.com/TheGospelofLie/

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  June 26, 2016

    “Saul is his Aramaic name. Paul is his Greek name.” Not get too pedantic, Dr. Ehrman, but technically speaking Saul (Sha’ul — שאול) is a Hebrew name, being that it comes from the Hebrew name of the Hebrew King Saul from the Hebrew Bible, and means, in Hebrew, the one who asks/seeks. But seeing as how Hebrew and Aramaic are so closely related we can split the difference and say that Saul was his Semitic name, while Paul was his European name — because Paul is a name in both Greek (Παύλος) and Latin (Paulus).

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2016

      Ah, right! Thanks. I was thinking that in Aramaic speaking circles this is what he would be called (since I don’t think there were any Hebrew speaking circles at the time)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 27, 2016

        I’ve read some scholarship that suggests there may have been pockets of Hebrew vernacular within the Judean countryside. But, yes, for the most part Hebrew was reserved for liturgical purposes and Aramaic was the vernacular.

    • Avatar
      Eric  June 27, 2016

      Would there have been a Latin “Paulus” prior to the significance of our Paul on the culture?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 28, 2016

        I’ve wondered that myself. Paulus is actually a word in Latin. It means “tiny” or “a little bit”. It could have been used as a nickname. However, I have yet to find any evidence of the use of Paulus as a name other than it being the Latin version of the Greek name Paulos.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 30, 2016

          It was a Latin surname; it occurs, e.g., in Diodorus Siculus in teh first c. BCE.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  June 30, 2016

            There you go, thanks.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 26, 2016

    A question, sort of… I got to thinking that Jesus might have hiked all the way to Judea to hear John the Baptist preach because he’d already decided to take up a preaching ministry of his own (might even have had a few followers), and hoped to get “tips” from observing what John was doing.

    And then he learned, among other things, that some of John’s followers thought John was the Messiah. Perhaps Jesus had never thought about *that* at all.

    When he went back to Galilee and either began or continued preaching, he and his followers did speculate about the “Messiah” notion. And that was why, after John’s death, Jesus’s followers began thinking *he* was the Messiah…and easily convinced *him*.

    My question: Do you think any of that seems possible?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2016

      Yes, it would be possible. The quesiton for hisotrians is always: what makes it *probable*….

  4. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  June 26, 2016

    Dear Bart,

    As a matter a fact I’m reading your book ‘The Bible, a historical and literary introduction’ right now.
    I understand there are new insights on the Documentary Hypothesis. However, reading your blog today I can presume the hypothesis still stands strong enough in general? In other words, your book is not completely outdated….yet? 😉

    By the way, I love this book. It is more like a study book with a great layout. Just beautiful!

    Greetings from the Netherlands,

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 26, 2016

    About “Saul” and “Paul”…the names don’t mean the same thing. “Saul” means “asked for” or “prayed for”; “Paul” means “small” or “humble.” Did people in that era use “soundalike” names interchangeably, without knowing or caring what they meant?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2016

      I’m afraid I don’t know of others with two names. Maybe someone on the blog does?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 27, 2016

        A lot of prominent Jews at the time seem to have had two names, one Semitic and one Hellenic. Probably the best example is all the Herods — Herod being a very common Idumean (Edomite) name at that time. There are so many Herods, in fact, that they are usually identified by their Hellenic name — e.g. Herod Antipas, Herod Antipater, Herod Archelaus, Herod Agrippa, Herod Philippi, etc. You’ll also notice that most of the Hasmonean royalty had combination Semitic-Hellenic dual names as well — e.g. Alexander Jannaeus (i.e. Alexander Jonathan), John Hyrcanus, Alexandra Salome, etc. It seems just about any important Jew had two names, one Semitic (Herod, John, Jonathan, Salome, etc.) and one European (Alexander/Alexandra, Hyrcanus, Archelaus, Agrippa, Aristobulus, Antipater, Antipas, Philippi, etc.) My sense is that they would use their Semitic names within Semitic circles and they would use their Hellenic names within Hellenic circles. As for the names sounding similar, I think in Paul’s case he wasn’t given the Hellenic name Paul at birth (as was the case with nobility), but instead as an adult chose the name Paul precisely because it sounded similar to Saul, and so when Paul was in Judea he went by Saul, and when he was in the Hellenic world, he went by Paul.

  6. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  June 26, 2016

    I remember stumbling across Immanuel Velikovsky when I was a naive college freshman.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  June 26, 2016

    I think the Moses in Exodus is clearly much more mythologized than Jesus. He strikes me as having a position equivalent to King Arthur in Celtic/British myth, but I still think there probably was a real King Arthur (or several) who inspired those stories.

    I wonder how many stories about Moses have been lost to posterity? We probably wouldn’t have much about Arthur without Christian monks writing those legends down.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 26, 2016

    Another question. Do you think that when Jesus recruited his very first followers – people like Peter and Andrew, James and John, if they were indeed the first – he had to “convert” them to belief in the coming “Kingdom”? Or would they have believed in it already?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2016

      My sense is taht they already agreed with parts of his message, which is why they chose to follow him.

  9. Avatar
    nichael  June 26, 2016

    If I could make so bold as to add one further note (all of which I’m sure Dr Ehrman is well aware of):

    One particularly interesting piece of evidence here involves the form of the so-called “Doublets” in the Pentateuch. That is stories (or other sections) that are repeated at various points in the Pentateuch (such as the two creation stories; the intertwined flood narratives; the selling of Joseph; the stories of Abraham/Issac pretending their wives are their sisters; etc)

    Now, it is important to bear in mind that the relevant piece here is *not* simply that the stories are repeated. But, rather, that in virtually ever case it is possible to examine the two members of the Doublet, and assign each member of the Doublet to a separate Source as determined by the distinct features –i.e the distinctive vocabulary, terminology, theology, names, etc– of the Source.

    In short, it’s difficult to explain how such a situation could be true without _some_ form of multiple Sources (e.g. The DH) being used.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2016

      Ah, you’ve inspired me to dedicate some posts to the whole issue. Doublets: yes, very intersting.

  10. Avatar
    nichael  June 26, 2016

    As an (unsolicited) suggestion to my fellow blog-readers:
    A very accessible –and readable– source of information about the structure of the Pentateuch (and of the Documentary Hypothesis, in particular) are the books of Richard Elliot Friendman; especially his excellent _Who Wrote the Bible_.

    (If you happen to have access to a copy of _The Anchor Bible Dictionary_ Friedman has an excellent article there as well, which contains much useful information and examples.)

  11. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  June 26, 2016

    Can you recommend any book(s) on Enoch and it’s influence on the NT (Jude and the Petrines in particular) that also includes the books of Enoch themselves? Maybe I”ll need a separate book just to get the originals in English. Whatever you recommend can be scholarly as long as there isn’t a ton of reliance on me knowing any Greek (I don’t mind a little of that though).

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2016

      The best place for the originals is James Charlesworth’s two-volume collection of Jewish Pseudepigrapha published by Anchor. The opening introduction may give some comments on the influence of 1 Enoch on the NT — I’m not sure (and am out of town just now, away from my books)

      • Greg Matthews
        Greg Matthews  June 27, 2016

        Thank you, next can your recommend a starter book on Greek grammar? I’ve read that Dan Wallace’s book is very good. I have Basics of Biblical Greek (and a workbook) by William Mounce, but I didn’t know about Wallace’s book when I bought the Mounce book.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 28, 2016

          I think starting with Mounce and then moving to Wallace is a good and sensible progression.

          • Avatar
            bamurray  June 28, 2016

            There’s now a Great Courses course on (ancient – Homeric and Koine) Greek 101.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 26, 2016

    Can you tell us more about why scholars do not think Moses was a real person? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2016

      I’ve decided to give some posts on teh Pentateuch. Short answer: there is no reference to him in any non-biblical sources except those influenced by biblical sources, and the stories about him are clearly highly legendary. So is he more like King Arthur? Robin Hood? Or Julius Caesar?

  13. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  June 27, 2016

    I didn’t know scholars thought Moses wasn’t a real person until reading this, so I watched a few videos by some experts who gave lectures on the subject. I didn’t completely understand their explanations. One lecturer said that the Israelites (they weren’t called Israelites though) worshipped only the storm god and that was seen as incredulous. Not only did they refuse to worship the sun god, but they didn’t worship any of the other gods either. Monotheism was basically viewed as atheism, and it resulted in them getting kicked out of Egypt at a time when bizarre weather patterns were taking place. That’s how they they think the plague stories came about. I think! Very very complicated as was the evidence to prove it.

    If Moses wasn’t a real person, how did the Ten Commandments and the laws come about and from who?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2016

      They evolved in oral traditions, just as most legal codes did and do!

  14. Avatar
    Abu  June 27, 2016

    Dear prof Ehrman, what do you think about this analogy.
    I think the trick Paul was setting up himself as a ruler. He was making subliminal message that he was addressed by that light entity who claimed to be (Jesus son of Mary), and what did Jesus addressed him as: saul, but wait Paul will say thinking in his head my name is Paul then why would (Jesus), a light being entity that transform and claimed to be Jesus, say to Paul , Saul Saul emphasizing the name . As to say your are saul to me and I appoint you as Saul. So, what is the significant of the name Saul, or what subliminal message he was conveying to Paul when he appeared to him, well we have to know that Saul is Jewish figure who also had a chang of heart and was appointed king over jews by God through the message of Samuel. Look text i1 Samuel 10New International Version (NIV)
    So if Jesus is telling him you are saul although his name is Paul, what do you think Paul he was to the Jewish and infedals like.

  15. Avatar
    nichael  June 27, 2016

    Ok, here’s a slightly off-the-wall question in an effort to possibly merge the two topics (i.e. “Paul vs Saul” and “Evidence for the use of multiple Sources in the compilation of the Pentateuch”):

    Is there any possible reason to think that the use of the different names for S/Paul might indicate a merging of separate “Sources” for the book of Acts; that is in a way analogous to the way in which the names Abram/Abraham (or Sarai/Sarah — or, for that matter, Israel/Jacob) change according to which underlying Source is being used at that point in the Pentateuch?

  16. Avatar
    john76  June 27, 2016

    I had another question I wanted to ask. I’ve been making the argument to some friends that Mark doesn’t portray Jesus as a God, but as a fallible human prophet. I give the example that in Mark Jesus identifies with being a fallible prophet, and was unable to perform miracles in his home town. Mark writes that “Then Jesus told them, ‘A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household.’ So He could not perform any miracles there, except to lay His hands on a few of the sick and heal them (Mark 6:4-5).” Am I on the right track with what Mark thought of the Christology of Jesus? I’m not concerned with whether this event happened historically or not, just what it tells us about Mark’s mindset about Jesus that Mark wanted to include this story in his gospel. I think it may be a window into Mark’s thoughts about the Christology of Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 28, 2016

      That’s what I long thought as well. I now think that Mark did understand Jesus to be divine in some sense. I cover this a bit in my book How Jesus Became God.

  17. Rick
    Rick  June 27, 2016

    Do you think Paul actually studied in Jerusalem under Gamliel even for a short period?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 28, 2016

      No, I think that’s something Acts wants its readers to think, to elevate Paul’s status.

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 30, 2016

        Do you think Paul was really a Pharisee?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 30, 2016

          Yup. He says so, and I don’t see any reason for him to lie about it. It’s just an off the cuff remark.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 1, 2016

            I am curious as to why you believe Paul to be honest regarding everything that he writes. The author of Acts freely added non-historical items to Paul’s life in order to elevate Paul’s status. Since Paul did not meet or know Jesus, he seems to be defending his credentials at every turn. I think Paul has every reason to elevate his status by making himself appear to have authority and credentials, even if the authority and credentials came from himself. He certainly brags about himself often and seems to exaggerate whenever he wants. What’s to keep him from making up credentials if it helps his mission?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 1, 2016

            I don’t think he was necessarily honest. One has to look at each statement to see if there are good grounds for doubting it.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 5, 2016

            Is the fact that he never met Jesus, taught a different message than Jesus, was constantly having to state his credentials and that most other Jews of his day thought he was a little off enough reason to doubt him?
            (I know I’m tough on Paul but it certainly seems like we are missing a lot of the background story with him)

          • Bart
            Bart  July 6, 2016

            I don’t think any of that makes him a liar, if that’s what you’re asking.

        • Avatar
          jhague  July 6, 2016

          How about a great exaggerator? 🙂

          • Avatar
            nanbush  September 25, 2016

            About credibility: To understand Paul, it helps greatly to be familiar with the extreme responses of individuals today after a near-death experience that is, like his spiritual dynamo, of the “third heaven” variety. The experiences and their messages are not identical, but after a blazing, direct encounter with Divinity/God/Christ, there is that same passionate conviction, an unflagging intensity and persistence, the same type of 180-degree life transformation…and it goes on often for decades, with a willingness to take incredible risks. It’s not an act, it’s not a lie, it’s not an exaggeration; but yes, people do tend to think they’re weird. To my mind, it perfectly explains Paul’s post-experience career and his belligerent defensiveness. There’s no arguing with that implacable certainty.

  18. Avatar
    sinetheo  June 28, 2016

    I heard someone mention that part of the old testament was made by Royal propagandists which used ancient Jewish mythology to create a religion and enforce control. Have you heard of this theory before?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 28, 2016

      Yes, and I don’t think there’s any evidence for it (as with most conspiracy theories!)

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 29, 2016

    I really like “The Weekly Mailbag” and ” A Blast from the Past” features. I wonder if a “Book at a Glance” feature might be a similar idea. Such a feature would consist of your quoting a section from one of your past books. This might save you some writing time as well as keeping readers of this blog informed about books they might want to read in the future.

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