The original Hebrew name was Saul, and during the time of the Roman Empire the family name Paulus, meant “small” or “humble” in Latin. Paul was an important leader of the early Christian community, and according to New Testament Acts, he was a Jewish Roman citizen who converted to Christianity after Jesus appeared to him in a mystical vision. He traveled as a pilgrim along the territories washed by the Mediterranean Sea as a missionary, and many of the New Testament epistles were written by him.
From the Greek verb παυω (pauo), to stop, and Latin adjective paulus, little or small. From the verb פעה (pa’a), to propagate a call for support, and the letter ל (lamed), onto. From the verb פלא (pala’), to be extraordinary.
There are two men called Paulos (in Greek), Paulus (in Latin) or Paul (in English) in the New Testament, namely (1) Sergius Paulus, a Roman proconsul of Cyprus who harbored the Jewish pseudo-prophet Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:7), and of course (2) the evangelist Paul of Tarsus. These two men have the same name, although in English Bibles the evangelist’s name is commonly truncated into Paul, while the name Sergius Paulus is given in its untruncated Latin form.
Paul in the Bible
The apostle Paul, author of nearly half of the New Testament, was initially called Saul of Tarsus (Acts 21:39), and was known as Saul until Acts 13:9, where he begins to be called Paul. The Vulgate translator Jerome, proposed that this name change was due to Saul’s conversion, a common practice that also allowed the Jewish historian Yosef ben Matiyahu to adopt the name Titus Flavius Josephus, named after the general and future emperor Titus Flavius Vespasian. The change is also found other times in the Torah, such as in Genesis 17:5, 17:15, 32:28.
Saul, a Jew from the family of Benjamin and was a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5) trained by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). At first he fiercely opposed Christianity. He witnessed the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58; see 2 Kings 10:22 and 22:14) and severely persecuted Christians (Acts 8:3). But he had a mystical encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus; he was blind for three days (Acts 9:3, 9:9). As Saul’s sight returned he embraced the gospel message, so he began to travel the known world, often alone but also sometimes accompanied, by John and Mark (Acts 13:13), Luke (Colossians 4:14), Silas (Acts 15:40), Timothy and others (Acts 20:4).
Then the Lord appeared to Paul a second time and told him that he must go to Rome to continue preaching (Acts 23:11). He pushed his mission until he was sentenced to death, which probably took place in the latter half of the sixties on the orders of Emperor Nero.
The name Paul occurs 163 times in the New Testament.
All other mentions
1. Sergius (Acts 13:7)
2. The Greek name for Saul, which he took on his first missionary journey (Ac 13:9). He was of the tribe of Benjamin, and a zealous Pharisee. He was born in Tarsus, a Roman citizen, but was educated in Jerusalem under Gamaliel (Rom 11:1; Phil 3:5-6; Gal 1:14; Ac 23:6; 16:37; 21:39; 26:5; 22:3). As a young man he persecuted the church (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 22:4; 26:10-11; 1Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13) until his conversion when he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:18; 22:5-16; 26:12-18). After a period in Arabia, he spent three years preaching in Damascus before fleeing the Jews by going to Jerusalem (Gal 1:17-18; Ac 9:19-25; 26:20). But even from Jerusalem he was forced to flee to Tarsus, where he stayed for about 10 years (Acts 9:26-30; 22:17-21). From there Barnabas brought him as an aid in the church at Antioch (Ac 11:25; Gal 1:22). The next year they brought a gift to the church in Jerusalem (Ac 11:29-30; 12:25; Gal 2:1-10). After their return, they were sent by the Holy Spirit through the church on mission. For events in Paul’s life from this point, read the book of Acts of the Apostles from chapter 13 onward and his letters – that is, those in the Bible from Romans to Philemon. According to the most likely (but not certain) reconstruction, he was released from prison in Rome in 63, and visited Spain and Greece before his arrest and death in 67. His importance in church history comes from his call to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 13:2; 22:21; 26:17-20; Gal 1:16; 2:7-9; 1 Tim 2:7).