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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