Paronomasia and Paul

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Paronomasia and Paul

Post by mbuckley3 »

Acts 13.9 : "But Saul, who is also Paul.." From this point on, apart from the 'conversion' accounts at 22.7,13, 26.14, the main protagonist is always styled Paul. No explanation is offered. Exegetes from Origen* onwards have thought it a problem requiring a solution. However, I (tentatively) suggest that 'an' answer has been placed in the text of Acts itself.

By way of introduction : literary analysis of classical texts, including 'historical' works, customarily has an eye to word-play, especially as regard to proper names via fake homophonic etymologies. The same holds for patristic texts. The obvious example is the consistent understanding of the name of Jesus/Ιησους meaning 'healer' via ιαομαι, ιασις etc.

Most explicit, via homophones and synonyms, is the C4 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 10.13 :
"Jesus then means according to the Hebrew 'Saviour', but in the Greek tongue 'The Healer' [ο ιωμενος]; since he is physician [ιατρος] of souls and bodies, curer [θεραπευτης] of spirits, curer [θεραπευτης] of the blind in body, and leading minds into light, physician [ιατρος] of the visibly lame...He first cured [προεθεραπευσε] the soul that he might extend the healing [ιασις] to the body. If, therefore, anyone is suffering in soul from sins, he has the physician [ιατρον]."

The etymology is implicit in the C3 Origen, Contra Celsum 1.25 :
"If anyone is capable of understanding philosophically the mysterious significance of names, he would find much also about the titles of the angels of God...they are named after their activities which they execute in the whole world in accordance with the will of the God of the universe. The name of our Jesus is also connected with the same philosophy of names; for it has already been clearly seen to have expelled countless daemons from souls and bodies, and to have had great effect on those people from whom they were expelled."

It is also visible in the C2 Justin Martyr, 2 Apology 6 :
"But 'Jesus', his name as man and saviour, has also significance. For he was made man also..for the destruction of the daemons...For many demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, though by all the other exorcists and those using incantations and drugs they could not be healed, have been healed and are being healed [μη ιαθεντας, ιασαντο και ετι νυν ιωνται] by many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ..rendering helpless and driving the possessing daemons out of the men."

For the NT, the classicist John Moles made a case for the healing etymology as a verbal and thematic organiser in his suggestive, if uneven, 2011 article, 'Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity.' **

Once the practice of 'playing' with a name is accepted, the question then arises, was a meaning attached to the name of Paul ?


As regards the Pauline letters, some (half-hearted ?) efforts have been made to argue for self-referential bilingual word-play, linking the Latin paulus/'small' to 1 Cor.15.9, as Augustine did in On the Spirit and the Letter, 12 : "Accordingly Paul, who, although he was formerly called Saul, chose this new designation, for no other reason, as it seems to me, than because he would show himself 'little' - the 'least of the apostles'." This does not seem to be of prime relevance to Acts.

Much more interesting is Acts 26.14 : "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me ? It is hard for you to kick against the goads [προς κεντρα λακτιζειν]." We get so excited by the second sentence seeming to be an adapted quotation from Euripides' Bacchae***, that a basic question is never asked.

What animal is Saul/Paul being compared to ?

Unconscious translation bias leads us to assume κεντρα are ox-goads. But κεντρον is the normal word for a riding crop or whip :
Xenophon, Cyropaedia 7.1.29 : "..showing no mercy to his horses but drawing blood from them in streams with every stroke of the lash [ισχυρως εξαιματτων τω κεντρω]"
Psalms of Solomon 16.4 : "{God} struck me like a horse's whip [ως κεντρον ιππου]"

Once it is apparent that Saul/Paul is being visualised, by a writer with some literary pretensions, as some sort of unruly horse, a whole line of interpretation opens up.


In the C2/C3, among the biographical flotsam attached to the sages of the past was the story that Plato referred to his former pupil Aristotle as a 'colt'/πωλος.

Aelian, Varia Historia 4.9 : "Note that Plato called Aristotle Põlos [Πωλον]. What did he mean by the name ? Obviously it is a well known fact that when a colt has had enough of its mother's milk, it kicks [λακτιζειν] its mother. So Plato was hinting at some ingratitude on the part of Aristotle. In fact the latter had acquired from Plato the essential seeds and guidance for philosophy; then, filled with the best ideas, he became rebellious, set up another school, and in opposition took his companions and students out for a stroll, aspiring to be Plato's rival."

Diogenes Laertius, 5.1 : "Aristotle seceded from the Academy while Plato was still alive. Hence the remark attributed to the latter, 'Aristotle kicked out [απελακτισε] at us, just as colts [τα πωλαρια] at the mother who bore them."

Diogenes Laertius, 5.2 : "It is said that Aristotle applied to him and Callisthenes what Plato had said of Xenocrates and himself (as already related), namely, that the one needed a bridle and the other a whip [κεντρου]."


Põlos was also an actual, if rare, personal name. Põlos is one of the interlocutors in Plato's Gorgias. Pausanias 8.31.7 notes a statue of Põlos, one of the founders of the mystery cult at Arcadian Megalopolis (itself founded in the C4 BC). This is one of 15 examples from the literary and epigraphic record listed in the online Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, some from the Imperial era.


My suggestion is that Paulos/Παυλος and Põlos/Πωλος were homophones, sound-alikes, and the latter was used to 'explain' the former;

that either the 'original' author of Acts, in a revising polish of his draft, or a 'final editor', spotting the Saul/Paul issue, inserted the Bacchae line;

that this envisioned Paul/Põlos as a rebellious colt, inspired by the Plato/Aristotle anecdote;

that the alert reader would then be drawn back to the one famous colt/πωλος in Luke-Acts, that sequestered by Jesus for his entry into Jerusalem, Luke 19.29 ff. Crucially, that animal was unbroken, so needed disciplining; more to the point, the repeated "the Lord has need of him" encapsulates Paul's function as set out in his speeches in Acts (9.15, 22.10,14, 26.16).


Rather than trust my dodgy pronunciation skills, it would be helpful to the argument if a patristic author could be shown to regard Paulos and Põlos as homophones. This seems to be the case with Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 17. Matthew, for reasons, having two animals, an ass and a colt, Origen focusses on the two disciples sent to fetch them :

"..perhaps the two disciples are Peter and Paul, who gave to one another the right hand of fellowship, in order that Peter might be for the circumcision in reference to the beast of burden, the [people] who existed under the yoke of the law, but Paul [might be] for the nations, the young and untamed colt."^

In the Greek, the word-play in the last phrase is unmistakable : Παυλος δε εις τα εθνη, τον νεον και αδαμαστον πωλον.


If the Paulos : Põlos connection is accepted, then it need only be a punning explanation of the change from Saul to Paul : "For the Lord has need of him."

But Origen also shows how a wider 'apostolic' interpretation of the colt was possible, an interpretation that was not necessarily original to him. Commentary on Matthew, 16 :
"And perhaps those who are ascending to Jerusalem (with Jesus seated thereon) are such as the beast of burden or also the colt, but when they get there they do not remain a beast of burden or a colt, but are sent forth [αποστελλεται] after being changed and benefitted and partaking of the divinity of the Logos and supremacy of knowledge, so that they [are deemed worthy] to be sent forth [αποστελλεσθαι] for the glory of God to the place where they were first loosed, the Lord transforming them and giving them this change as a reward for having carried him, as though indeed having sent them out [ αποσταληναι] to the former place, [but] no longer for the former works."


In this field, there are few original ideas. I'm curious to know whether someone in the by-ways of scholarship has made the Paulos : Põlos connection, and run with it. Genuine question.


* Preface to his Commentary on Romans as translated by Rufinus, (Migne, Patrologia Graeca 14, col. 836)

**Available online at (Histos volume 5)
To anticipate objections : the three patristic quotations 'can' be dismissed as homiletic interpretations. The John Moles article is an attempt to demonstrate that the method was also intrinsic in the composition of texts, most notably Acts. As will become clear, my suggestion is an intermediary species, a 'homiletic interpretation' that has been inserted into the text

***For a succinct literary analysis of the verbal and thematic parallels between Bacchae and Acts, John Moles is again worthwhile : 'Jesus and Dionysus in the Acts of the Apostles and Early Christianity' (2006), available on jstor

^The identification of the colt with the gentiles and the beast of burden with the Jews is prior to Origen : Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 53.1-4 (assuming it has not been extensively overwritten)
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Re: Paronomasia and Paul

Post by mbuckley3 »

The argument of the OP still seems to me to be perfectly coherent. The problem with it is that plausibility of itself has no weight. What would lend it credibilty would be definite evidence that an early patristic writer read Acts 26.14 in the way proposed.

For this we need somone who knew and quoted both Acts and Euripides' Bacchae. This narrows the field to Origen and Clement of Alexandria. Origen, as noted in the OP, is a witness to Παυλος and Πωλος as homophones, makes use of this in exegesis of the Jerusalem colt, but does not really make much of it, and does not relate it to Acts.

On the face of it, Clement is no more help. Certainly, Acts 26.14 is nowhere quoted in his writings, nor are lines 794-5 of the Bacchae; λακτιζειν is never used. But Clement riffs on his source material to make his arguments. Or as Annewies van den Hoek{1} more elegantly put it :"Clement is also capable of clever and ingenious inventions. At times, he subtly turns the words of his source to serve his own purposes. Thus material is transformed by conversion and rearrangement. An impressive ability to vary and juggle is persistently manifest." It is my contention that one of Clement's more spectacular transformations, at the climax of his Protrepticus, is derived from reading Acts in the way I have suggested.


Firstly, some equine preliminaries. Generally{2}, Clement characterises horses and colts as opposite categories. The influence of Plato's Phaedrus is determinative. Picturing the ascent of the soul beyond the heavenly vault to ultimate reality : "We will liken the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome....The horse of evil nature weighs the chariot down, making it heavy and pulling toward the earth the charioteer whose horse is not well trained. There the utmost toil and struggle await the soul." (246A,247B)

For Clement, horse/ιππος refers to the unruly half of the combination.

Paid. 3.11 : "For luxury, that has dashed on to surfeit, is prone to kick up its heels and toss its mane, and shake off the charioteer, the Instructor; who, pulling back the reins from far, leads and drives to salvation the human horse [τον ιππον τον ανθρωπειον] - that is, the irrational part of the soul - which is wildly bent on pleasures, and vicious appetites..."

Protrep. 10.89 : "Like stubborn horses that refuse to obey the reins, and take the bit between their teeth, you fled from our arguments. You yearned to shake yourselves free from us, the charioteers of your life..."

QDS 42 : "He on his part gradually became used to their life; and, like a restive and powerful horse which starts aside from the right path and takes the bit between its teeth, he rushed all the more violently because of his great nature down towards the pit."


Clement's treatment of colts/πωλοι is strikingly different.

Paid. 1.5 : "We are the children. In many ways scripture celebrates us, and describes us in manifold figures of speech....And again, he figuratively calls us colts unyoked to vice, not broken in by wickedness; but simple, and bounding joyously to the Father alone; not such horses 'as neigh after their neighbours' wives, that are under the yoke, and are female-mad'; but free and new-born, jubilant by means of faith, ready to run to the truth, swift to speed to salvation, that tread and stamp under foot the things of the world. 'Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; tell aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem : behold, thy King cometh, just, meek, and bringing salvation; meek truly is He, and riding on a beast of burden, and a young colt.' It was not enough to have said colt alone, but He added to it also 'young', to show the youth of humanity in Christ, and the eternity of simplicity, which shall know no old age. And we who are little ones being such colts, are reared up by our divine colt-tamer. But if the new man in scripture is represented by the ass, this ass is also a colt. 'And he bound,' it is said, 'the colt to the vine', having bound this simple and childlike people to the Word, whom He figuratively represents as a vine...."

Key here is the use of πωλοδαμνης/colt-breaker, rather than ιπποδαμος/horse-breaker, which confirms Clement's privileging of colts as a category, and identifies them with Christian believers.


Now to the Protrepticus. Chapter 2, a general broadside against the immoralities of pagan myth and ritual, includes a particular, somewhat pornographic, focus on 'explicating' the cult of Dionysus. Yet chapter 12, the peroration, addresses two characters from the Bacchae, assuring them that even they can achieve Christian salvation. What is going on here, to achieve this transition ?

Firstly, Clement uses 'middle terms'. So, characteristically{3}, at 2.12 he uses homophonic etymology to connect the Bacchic cry of Ευα to Ευα/Eve (in Greek) and to Ευια/serpent (in Hebrew). This has the effect of including Dionysiaca within the Christian account of sacred history. Likewise, at 12.119, simple word-play contrasts yet connects αι μαιναδες/ maenads with αι αμναδες/lambs, his affectionate term for Christian women.

Secondly, remarkably, in chapter 12 Clement fuses the biography of Paul, as told in Acts, with two Bacchae characters. In short, Pentheus 'is' the young Paul, the persecutor, Teiresias 'is' Paul on the road to Damascus.

This interpretation relies on the sequencing of Clement's argument. So it is important to recognise that ακολουθια/sequence is key to him in the self-description of his method. Some examples :
Strom.1.1.15 : "..setting before us what according to natural contemplation necessarily has to be treated of beforehand, and clearing off what stands in the way of this ακολουθια...for there is a contest, and the prelude to a contest, and there are some mysteries prior to other mysteries."
Strom.1.28.179 : "..those who hunt after the ακολουθιαν of the divine teaching must approach it with the utmost perfection of the logical faculty."
Strom.7.10.59 : "For it is the life of the gnostic which it is our purpose now to describe, and not to give a systematic view of his beliefs, which we shall afterwards set forth at the fitting season, preserving the sequence of thought [σωζοντες αμα και την ακολουθιαν] ."
Strom.7.15.91 : "Having then from the abundance of nature the means for examining the statements made, we ought to discover the sequence of the truth [ της αληθειας την ακολουθιαν]."


Chapter 12 opens with a take on Odysseus navigating his ship past the island of the Sirens, paganism in its entirety being depicted as a charnel house. Then, at 12.118, comes an abrupt change of focus, with a quotation of lines 918-9 of the Bacchae, spoken by Pentheus (never named by Clement).

Why Pentheus ?

If the alert reader had been primed by Acts 5.39 (θεομαχοι/fighters against god) as a Bacchae reference, he could hardly miss 26.14. Crucially, in the play the 'kick against the κεντρα' line is addressed by the god to Pentheus. In the adjacent verse, 26.11, Paul describes his then self as περισσως τε εμμαινομενος/maddened in the extreme. This seems to be the additional verbal cue Clement needed to connect Paul with Pentheus, the prime example of madness.

In the play, lines 918-9 come directly after Dionysus has become convinced the king has lost his mind; (far earlier, l.359, Teiresias was explicit : μεμηνας ηδη και πριν εξεστης φρενων/you are mad now, and even before you were out of your wits; l.326, μαινη γαρ ως αλγιστα /you are mad in a most grievous way).

"'And lo ! I think I see a pair of suns and a double Thebes', said one who was revelling in frenzy through idols, drunk with sheer ignorance {4}. I would pity him in his drunkenness [παροινουντα], and would appeal to him to return from this madness [παρανοουντα] to sober salvation, seeing that the Lord also welcomes the repentance, not the death, of a sinner. Come, thou frenzy-stricken one [ παραπληξ] ...I will show thee the Word, and the Word's mysteries, describing them according to thine own semblance of them. This is the mountain beloved of God, not a subject for tragedies, like Cithaeron, but one devoted to the dramas of truth. ..Therein revel no maenads..but the daughters of God..."

That this is also Paul is an argument from sequence, as will be apparent. But once the connection is made, the ties multiply. Paul was complicit in Stephen's stoning to death (Acts 7.58, 22.20), Pentheus planned that fate for Dionysus (ll. 355-7). Paul imprisoned women as well as men (Acts 8.3, 9.2, 22.4), Pentheus imprisoned the maenads (ll.226-7), and prophets (l.551).
Paul was ενπνεων απειλης και φονου/breathing threats and murder, Pentheus was θυμον εκπνεων/breathing fury (l.620), a φονιου ανδρος/ murderous man (l.555).


Next in the sequence, at 12.119, Clement addresses Teiresias, the (crucially : blinded) prophet :

"Come to me, old man, come thou too ! Quit Thebes; fling away thy prophecy and Bacchic revelry and be led by the hand to truth. Behold, I give thee the wood [of the cross] to lean upon. Hasten, Teiresias, believe ! Thou shalt have sight. Christ, by whom the eyes of the blind see again, shineth upon thee more brightly than the sun. Night shall flee from thee; fire shall fear thee; death shall depart from thee. Thou shalt see heaven, old man, though thou canst not see Thebes."

This is so evidently a reprise of the 'conversion' accounts of the blinded Paul in Acts. 'Led by the hand'/χειραγωγου links verbally with 9.8 (χειραγωγουντες) and 22.11 (χειραγωγουμενος). But the strongest links are with Acts 26. 'Christ shineth upon thee more brightly than the sun'/Χριστος επιλαμπει φαιδροτερον ηλιου reworks 26.13, 'I saw a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me'/ειδον..ουρανοθεν υπερ την λαμπροτητα του ηλιου περιλαμψαν με ψως. 'Thou shalt see heaven'οψει τους ουρανους glosses 26.16, 'a witness of how you have seen me and what I will show you [ων τε οφθησομαι]'. 'Thou shalt have sight..Night shall flee from thee' mimics 26.18, 'to open their eyes, to turn from darkness to light'.


The clarity with whichTeiresias is identified as Paul on the road to Damascus lends strong support to the interpretation that Pentheus 'is' Paul the persecutor. So if this is a biographical sequence, by the rule of three we would expect to come next to the 'blessed Paul' prioritised by Clement, who quotes him extensively, more than twice as much as any other author, and reserves for him the epithet 'divine'{5}. And if I am right that Clement read Acts 26.14 as a reference to Paul as a πωλος/colt, we might hope that he appears in this guise...


So, at 12.121 : "Let us hasten, let us run, we who are images of the Word, beloved of God and made in his likeness. Let us hasten, let us run; let us tske up his yoke; let us take upon ourselves incorruption; let us love Christ, the noble charioteer of men. He led the colt [τον πωλον] and its parent {6} under the same yoke, and now having yoked together the team of mankind, he shapes the course of his chariot for the goal of immortality. He hastens to God that he may fulfil clearly what before he darkly hinted at; for he drove at the first into Jerusalem, but now into heaven, a most noble spectacle for the Father, the eternal Son bringing victory {7}."

The primacy of Paul's authority for Clement in all his writings is that, having made a heavenly journey in his own lifetime (2 Cor.12.2-4), Paul has mapped out the path for the gnostic Christian. The linking here between the Jerusalem colt and the heavenly journey strongly implies that the Παυλος/πωλος, Paul/colt wordplay is fundamental here, and that it is Paul in his final iteration who is described here, the supreme apostle.


As a coda, it should be noted that Clement seems to employ 'locators' to point to how the distinct peroration that is chapter 12 is to be read. Firstly, immediately before, at 11.117, Christ is described as το κεντρον της σωτηριας/the whip of salvation. Secondly, Luke-Acts is of course addressed to Theophilus/κρατιστε Θεοφιλε/ω Θεοφιλε. The only three times the simple noun is used in the Protrepticus come in quick succession at 12.121-122, sandwiching τον πωλον : ω θεοφιλη, θεοφιλεις, θεοφιλης. Which seems as clear as Clement is ever going to be that he intends the 'Bacchic' biography of Paul to be linked to the Jerusalem colt via the Παυλος/Πωλος pun suggested by an equine reading of the Bacchae allusion in Acts 26.14.


If this analysis of Clement's train of thought in the Protrepticus is correct, it does not 'prove' the argument of the OP. But it is at least consistent with it; and, as an ancient witness, could be said to lend a degree of probability to it.


{1} 'Techniques of Quotation in Clement of Alexandria' (1996), p.236, via

{2} the sole exception I can find is Strom.5.8.53, Phaethon's colts (stylistic variation?)

{3} Annewies van den Hoek, 'Etymologizing in a Christian Context : the Techniques of Clement
and Origen' (2004), via

{4} at 12.122, Clement conflates ignorance and madness : philosophers "by describing
ignorance [την αγνοιαν] as a form of madness [μανιας ειδος] they acknowledge that the
mass of men are nothing else but mad [ουδεν αλλο η μεμηνεναι]"

{5} Clement has a hierarchy of epithets. Μακαριος/blessed is applied to all apostles; at
Strom.1.1.11 the 'blessed teaching' derives from Peter, James, John and Paul, the 'holy
apostles.' At QDS 21, Peter is 'the blessed, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first of the
disciples' (not of the apostles). But only Paul is described as θειος/divine, eleven times
when quoting from his letters.
Further, four times Paul is termed θεσπεσιος/divine-sounding (Protrep.1.7, Strom.1.19.94,
5.1.5, 5.10.60). Plutarch's dialogue The Divine Vengeance, cited by Clement (Strom.2.18.93),
contains the quasi-Platonic myth of Aridaios, who is renamed Θεσπεσιος/Thespesios on
account of the heavenly journey he undertakes (Moralia 563B ff.).. It is obviously tempting
to connect Clement's so referring to Paul to this 'source'. The only other person so
described is Moses (Protrep.8.80). Of course, according to Philo's Life of Moses, and
Ezekiel the tragedian, both quoted by Clement in other contexts, Moses too made a
heavenly journey. He is termed ο γνωστικος/the gnostic at Strom.5.11.74

{6} τον πωλον υποζυγιον ηγαγε συν τω παλαιω. The LCL translation is unsatisfactory - I can
find no definite example in the lexica for παλαιος meaning parent. But it is reasonable to
think Clement is straining for meaning; or rather, the word only makes some sort of sense if
τον πωλον is indeed Paul, as a son of the old dispensation.
Compare Strom.4.21.134 : "We must know, then, that if Paul is young in respect to time -
having flourished immediately after the Lord's ascension - yet his writings depend on the
old testament, breathing and speaking of them [η γραφη αυτω εκ της παλαιας ηρτηται
διαθηκης, εκειθεν αναπνεουσα και λαλουσα ]."
The sense almost seems to be that Paul is (harmoniously) yoked to his 'former self.'

{7} νικηφορος : νικηφορει occurs at l.1147 of the Bacchae, the head of the murdered
Pentheus being paraded by his mother. One small indication of many that Clement knew
his classics well, and so was capable of filtering one text through another in the way

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