Simon and Saul

Some years ago I started teaching a course on the King James Bible. Not as a serious exercise in Biblical scholarship, which I don’t do, but simply as an opportunity for students to gain greater familiarity with the major narratives and characters and theological patterns of the Christian story. Obviously, if you’re going to study literature written in English (or any other European language) prior to, say, the late twentieth century, you’re going to be confronted with Biblical allusions, references, tropes, etc. If you don’t know them, you can’t understand them—simple as that. I chose the King James Version (KJV), published in 1611, mostly because I am that kind of person, and to fit the course rubric (excitingly, “seventeenth-century non-dramatic literature”). However, this ended up making more intellectual sense than I had expected, because KJV effectively is the Bible, as far as most English literature is concerned. Also because (as I have learned) the Bible is only ever available in its various “versions”—products of translation, transmision, and interpretation. A maximally fascinating aspect of this maximally fascinating text.

I’m not sure if I’ll teach my Bible course again (after, I think, eight iterations). I worked hard at it, was proud of it, and believe I did some good with it. However, the problem I came up against, sometimes mildly, sometimes severely, was the very one the course was designed to resolve—but couldn’t. There is simply no longer any basic or coherent relationship between the cultures of 21st-century Canada and the traditions of Christianity. The majority of my students, having no Bible or Church (or temple) background at all, simply found the course too challenging. And challenging it was, even with ruthless and painful selection, to get from Genesis to Revelation in 13 weeks! Meanwhile, a significant minority of my students took my course because they were indeed devoutly Christian (which I am not), and therefore expected my teaching would be, um, easier than they found it. My impression is that the first group typically spent the term listening to me while thinking: “I have no idea what you are talking about.” The second: “You have no idea what you are talking about.” In the end, I couldn’t square this circle.

Nonetheless, I am going to keep thinking and talking about the Bible. And one figure in it I want to talk about right now (following on from my previous post on Shakespeare and Platonism) is St. Paul.

He is the protagonist of the brilliant Book of Acts, which follows the four Gospels in the New Testament. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) describe Jesus’s life and death in first-century Judea under Roman rule. Acts describes what happened next: the founding of the Church. This begins, of course, not with Paul but with Peter—which is actually a nickname, “rock,” from Greek petrus. (We’ll come back to this.) In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, Peter and the rest of the disciples are basically waiting for the world to end. That doesn’t happen; since it doesn’t, they set about organizing themselves into a community based on their heretical belief (and from an orthodox  Jewish point of view, it is really about as bad as it could be) that the charismatic preacher from Nazareth, whom some of them knew and followed, others have only heard and learned about, was no mere prophet, but actually and literally the son of God. 

Paul first appears in the story at Acts chapter 7. Or rather, Saul does—that is his original, given name. Somewhat like Peter, whose real name is the solidly Hebrew “Simon,” the equally (even exceedingly) Hebrew “Saul” is to receive a Greco-Roman renaming that expresses a religious transformation. But when we first meet him, Saul is a Pharisee: a member of a conservative sect of Jewish traditionalists—fundamentalists, we might say—dedicated to preserving the pure worship of the Temple. For that matter, Saul is a Pharisee’s Pharisee: he is leading the counter-attack against the nascent Christian heresy, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Then, in a moment so stunning it has become proverbial, Saul receives a vision of Christ while on the road to Damascus. After overcoming some initial and, perhaps, understandable hesitation from his new brethren, Saul becomes the indefatigable leader of the faith. (Peter accepts second fiddle, which always strikes me as pretty gracious.) And, eventually, Saul starts to be called Paul.

Now, Simon’s renaming as Peter is dramatic and explicit. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, Jesus is asking the disciples who they think He is. Most of them dodge the question, referring to what other people think: some people say you’re John the Baptist; others that you’re a re-appearance of this or that Old Testament prophet. But Simon answers directly: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

And Jesus answers:

Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. (Matt. 16:16-18).

Or, in the Latin version of that last line, which shaped Europe for a thousand years, and is inscribed to this day in golden lettering around the ceremonial canopy, or baldacchino, that stands before the altar of St. Peter’s own cathedral, in the Vatican: “Tu es petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam.” The Latin lets us hear the pun (petrus, petram) that is involved in the renaming. (It would be nice if we could get a Bible translation that spoke of “St. Rocky.”) And the episode carefully includes the Hebrew name that is getting rewritten, in its full, patronymic form: “Simon Bar-Jona.” Simon son of Jonah. Simon son of the name of the late Old Testament prophet who spent three days in the belly of a whale.

Saul’s renaming is different. Probably, historically, it also has a different basis. By the first century AD, the ancient Jewish world had become very complex—politically, demographically, and geographically. Although still very much centred on the Holy Land, and on Jerusalem, there were Jewish communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and Saul is from one of these: in Tarsus, a Greek-speaking city in what is now southern Turkey. To make matters even more complicated, Tarsus was one of the places in their empire to which the Romans, for one reason or another, had granted the privilege of citizenship. (Paul gets a lot of traction from this at various moments in the book of Acts.) So Saul, in the first place, is not just a Jewish fundamentalist Pharisee; he’s a Hellenized Roman Jewish fundamentalist Pharisee. Anyway, the point is that he probably would have had two names all along: a “Jewish” name for his family and community, and a “Roman” name for the larger society. Simon gets called Peter, and is therefore Simon Peter. But Saul, from the beginning, was probably Saul Paul.

None of which is explained in Acts at all. There isn’t even a “renaming” episode, like Peter’s, for Paul. In Acts 9, on that road to Damascus, Saul gets smacked off his horse by God. Blind for three days, he is led into the city, and into its small Christian community. But still he is called, throughout these episodes, “Saul.” Not until Acts 13, after many dense narrative episodes involving himself and Peter and others, does the name “Paul” appear. And then with only the parenthetical, one-line explanation that Saul “also is called Paul” (Acts 13:9). And that’s it. He’s called “Paul” from then on. And not Saul Paul. Just Paul.

Actually, just before this point in Acts 13, there is an amazing, tiny detail; which I almost dare to suggest may not have attracted much attention. Saul (as he still is being called) and his associate Barnabas have travelled from Salamis to Paphos. There they meet a Jewish sorcerer and “false prophet,” who is under the protection of the local Roman deputy (although the latter is “a prudent man”). The false prophet is called—and this is crazy enough—“Barjesus”: “son of Jesus.” And the deputy? “Sergius Paulus” (Acts 13:7). 

You see? Paul’s new name first first appears in this story as somebody else’s; a somebody of almost no significance, from whom and of whom we never hear again; and who seems to enter the narrative precisely and only to give the name. And “oh yeah,” says the scripture a few verses later. “That’s Saul’s name, too. Yeah. Paul.”

What are we to make of this? I guess it can go two ways—and they are in opposition, or at least tension. 

On the one hand, we could infer that the book of Acts is telling us: “Look, the names don’t matter very much. What matters is who these people are, really or essentially.” And of course, to some extent, that must be correct. 

But precisely for it to be so—for us to look past the names—we need to know that we are doing that. And that brings us to the second way of reading this aspect of Acts; this nudge or hint that we get, when Barjesus, for example, shows up with Sergius Paulus. It is that the book is telling us: “Look: it may not be obvious why, but—trust me on this—when you’re reading this text, you gotta pay attention to the names.”

If we do that, we will notice some fascinating, tantalizing touches in the book of Acts. Names are carefully chosen, and meaningfully re-used. There are two characters called Ananias: one wicked, one devout. There is a disciple with the distinctly unJewish handle of Alexander: the name of the king who founded the empire that the Romans overtook. (He shows up in Ephesus, where the disciples are in danger of being murdered by a crowd of enraged pagans.) Peter, at one point, heals a man called Aeneas: The name of the legendary founder of Rome, hero of Virgil’s Aeneid (itself contemporary with the Gospels). Peter’s Hebrew name, meanwhile, is all over the place. In a Greek form, Simeon, it is the name of a prophet in the church at Antioch, and a priest at Jerusalem. It is the name of another sorcerer and false prophet, Simon Magus, who tries to buy the gift of faith-healing from the apostles (thereby inventing the sin of “simony”). In Acts 10, a devout Roman centurion named Cornelius receives an angelic visitation:

And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.

And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter:

He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do. (Acts 10:4-6).

“Ok,” one can almost imagine Cornelius responding—“But you couldn’t have had Simon Peter stay with somebody called, like, Teddy, or Bob? Do you even know how often the mail gets lost around here?” Lest we think it an accident, the command to the centurion gets repeated twice more in the chapter, each time with the almost comical confusion of Simons.

But—if we discount that trivial, passing “Sergius Paulus”—there is only one Paul in Acts. Only one, for that matter, in the entire New Testament. And only one Saul. And they are one.

The entire, twisting, almost farcical business of nomenclature in Acts, I am arguing, is there to highlight, or backlight, this uniqueness. 

To some extent, it is easy to understand why. After Jesus himself, nobody is more important to Christianity than Paul. Not just because of his organizational role in the first century (described in Acts) or because of his theological writings (which come next in the New Testament). No, the unique importance of Paul comes back to this business of the name. Simon’s renaming, as we have seen, is a big moment. Saul’s is more like an afterthought—because his big moment has already happened. That is in Acts 9, when the blinding light of God descends. There, and then, Saul is changed. Or rather: he is converted. The leading soldier of the old faith becomes the leading soldier of the new. The chief opponent of the church becomes its chief proponent. The Jew—to put it as simply as possible—becomes Christian. And this is crucial: For theologically, the very paradoxical and yet surprisingly intelligible idea here is supposed to be that when that stunning thing happens to Saul, nothing much happens to Saul. He becomes himself, when he hits the dust of the Damascus road. And that is why his name is precisely not changed—not there, not then. That is why Saul was (probably) always also called Paul.

Christianity, you see, is not supposed to be an addition to or alteration of Judaism. It is supposed to be Judaism, in the latter’s true and revealed form. (I ain’t selling it, just describing it.) Jewishness, becoming Christianness, undergoes a conversion; but it is a conversion understood precisely as transformation into the same. What is left is what was really there, or meant to be there, all along. This is what Saul undergoes—what he performs—in Acts. If Peter embodies the church, Paul embodies the faith.

And that, as I said, is kind of the easy part.

The hard part is this: Although there is only one Saul in the New Testament, there is another, a prior, in the Old. And that Saul, too, is a very important figure; and that Saul, too, undergoes a conversion. I think it is beyond question that the Bible wants us (so to speak) to superimpose these two figures, creating a larger symbolic structure. And this is very tricky. For Saul is Paul; and yet Saul is not Saul—the New Testament not the Old. Ultimately, I think, this superparadoxical structure bears on what St. Paul has to say about love (1. Cor. 13). In a later post, I’ll try to explain how.


Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). In 2011-12, I created and organized, at SFU Vancouver, the original iteration of the conference series "Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World." I also organized the 2019 Scientiae conference, held at Queen's University, Belfast.

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