Column: Paul personifies evangelization of Gentile world

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Every so often, the news will report about someone leading a double life. They may have another family, hold down another job, live in a second home. It is as though they were two persons occupying the same body. They are living in two separate worlds.

Sunday’s first reading, Acts 9:26-31, focuses on the person we call St. Paul.

It describes that period of his life soon after his conversion to the Christian faith. At the same time, the reading does not refer to him as “Paul,” but instead identifies him as “Saul.”

Evidently, he used both names. Even though they sound very similar, the two names come from completely different languages and do not mean the same thing at all.

“Saul” comes from Hebrew, and also was the name of the first king of Israel. “Paul” comes from Latin, and was a name associated with a prominent Roman family.

It was common at that time for a Jew living among Gentiles, as did Paul, to go by both a Jewish name and a Gentile name. In a sense, the two names enabled him to set one foot in the Jewish world, and the other foot in the Gentile world.

The Acts of the Apostles traces Paul’s journey of faith. It begins at a point
in his life before he came to believe in Jesus Christ, at a time, in fact, when he was actually even persecuting the early Church. Eventually, the dramatic moment arrives when Paul is converted to Christ. He makes a complete flip-flop in his life. Sunday’s reading examines Paul’s transition as a new Christian.

Up until now, the Acts of the Apostles has referred to him only by the name “Saul,” as it does in Sunday’s reading. That will continue for several more chapters. Then, in Acts 13:9, the text will introduce the name “Paul,” and drop the name “Saul.” From then on, in the Acts of the Apostles, he will be known only by his Gentile name, “Paul.”

This is appropriate for the man whom eventually we would call “the apostle to the Gentiles.” The name “Paul” would emphasize his association with the Gentile world. That is where he would focus his ministry.

And yet, there is something else going on here. Besides tracing Paul’s journey of faith, the Acts of the Apostles also examines how faith in Jesus Christ started among believers who were Jewish, but then eventually attracted more numerous Gentile believers. It looks at how this Jewish sect began to develop into a world religion. In a sense, Paul personifies that development, and the choice of names for him in the Acts of the Apostles reflects that change.

Certainly, the Acts of the Apostles only shows us the start, not the full development of the church. It still has a long ways to go. But this fledgling faith has reached the world stage. It has traveled from Jerusalem, an obscure provincial capital, to Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire and most promi- nent city of the known world. And all this has happened because of Paul. (Or should we say, Saul?)

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