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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