In Acts 13, Saul conflicts with the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus and is called by the name Paul for the first time. I explore the literary dynamics of this account a bit more closely.
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In Acts 13, Paul encounters Sergius Paulus, the proconsul at Paphos on the island of Cyprus. There is a conflict between Paul and Bar-Jesus or Elymas the sorcerer, who seems to be some sort of advisor or counselor to Sergius Paulus and who is leading him astray, seeking to oppose the Word of God and the message of Paul.
In his lectures on Acts at the Theopolis Institute, Jeff Meyers highlighted the significance of this conflict within the overarching themes of the book of Acts. This is a Jewish sorcerer, a false prophet, who is providing false counsel to a Gentile ruler. He’s like Wormtongue with Theoden in The Lord of the Rings. He is leading someone astray and making it hard for him to see the truth. And this conflict symbolizes a broader conflict between the Church as the counselor of the rulers of the nations and the false Jewish counsel that is provided by people like Bar-Jesus or Elymas.
There are a number of other details about this narrative that may jump out at us.
It happens at a significant moment within the overarching theme of the text. This is a transition here, as Jeff Meyers pointed out. There is movement from Acts 1 to 5, and then from 6 to 12, and then chapter 13 starts a new movement, a new stage in the story, leading up, among other things, to Paul’s trials and his shipwreck.
But within this particular account, we can see clever literary plays that highlight identity. Paul’s name is changed at this point—narratively, though not actually. Saul is his name and Paul is his name, but from this point onwards in the narrative he is called Paul. It is interesting that he is called Paul in the same narrative in which we encounter Sergius Paulus, who has the same name.
In verse 9, we read “But Saul, who was also called Paul….” We might wonder what the “also” refers to. Does it mean that Paul had two names, Saul and also Paul? Or does it mean that there is this proconsul named Sergius Paulus and Paul is also called Paul? I think it might actually be the latter.
In this context, there are significant wordplays with names. The name of the sorcerer, Bar-Jesus, does not seem to be the same word as Elymas. Bar-Jesus seems to mean “the son of Jesus,” as Barnabas is referred to as “the son of encouragement” earlier in the narrative of Acts. So why is he also called Elymas? What’s going on there? How do you get from Bar-Jesus to Elymas, and what is the significance of that name, Elymas? Where does that derive from?
That is one question. The other question is what sort of play is going on with Paul’s name. Should we focus upon the meaning, which is small? Perhaps he is called that because he is the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church (1 Corinthians 15:9). Perhaps that is part of it.
But it is quite likely, within the context here in Acts, that it is related to the name of the proconsul. There is this conflict between a false counselor and a true counselor. Now it would seem that if your name is Sergius Paulus, your fitting counterpart might well be called Paulus, too. So Paul is the fitting counterpart to the man who is his namesake.
Bar-Jesus is also an interesting name. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is the name we associate with Christ almost exclusively. In the book of Acts, there are a couple of occasions where we see another character called Jesus. We have a reference to Joshua as Jesus, the Greek form of that name.
But it seems odd that we would have Bar-Jesus mentioned at this point and then have him mentioned by another name. This name seems to connect him with Jesus or with the Jesus Movement. And maybe his name—literally, “Son of Jesus”—highlights that falsehood, indicating that he is someone who is seemingly affiliated in some way with the early church.
But he is a false prophet, a false Jewish prophet. And the opposition to Paul is framed along these lines: You have a false Jewish prophet who has an identity, a name, that threatens the movement of the church because of its proximity to the name of Christ Jesus. He is named as if he is a son of Jesus, but he is in fact no son of Jesus, no disciple of Jesus.
Later on, we encounter the sons of Sceva who try to cast out demons in the name of Christ and then the demons attack them and drive them away, wounded and naked. Earlier on, we have Simon Magus who is confronted by Paul. He claims to be a magician and he wants the power of the Holy Spirit. And once again there is a conflict with someone who is close, who in some way claims to represent or be associated with the Jesus Movement but who is actually false, actually an opponent.
Paul’s conflict with that character here may highlight plays of identity, indicating that he is the true counselor to Sergius Paulus because he is Paulus himself, and on the other hand he is the one who reveals the true identity of the magician, not as Bar-Jesus, a true son of Jesus, but as Elymas the sorcerer.
Now what does Elymas mean? Rick Strelan has suggested a connection with the character of Elam, who is the descendant of Shem. Elam is the one whose line leads to the Persians, and the Medes and the Persians are associated with magic. They were famed for it. This name, then, would present him, not as part of the Jesus Movement, not as someone associated with Jesus Christ, a “son of Jesus,” but as a false magician, like the magicians of Pharaoh or the false advisors that were in Herod’s court in Matthew 2.
There are further ways in which these characters play off each other.
Saul is also called Paul. He receives a new name at this point. Later on in this chapter, we read about King Saul being replaced by David, who gives rise to the Davidic Kingdom and to the Messiah. That connection may highlight further why Saul’s name would be changed to Paul in this context. He is now associated with Jesus, the true David. He is not just someone who bears the same name as the wicked king who inaugurated the kingdom of Israel. No, he is associated with the new counsel of the proconsul, the new one who gives wisdom to the nations, the one who gives wisdom where the others that preceded him led astray.
There is a play on his name, but there is also a play on his character and on certain of the events that befall both. Elymas the sorcerer, as a result of his sin, is judged. It says:
Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
Saul’s name is changed to Paul in the narrative in that immediate context, as Paul speaks the word of judgment to Elymas the sorcerer. What he says is quite arresting. It is almost exactly the same as the judgment that befell him on the road to Damascus, being struck blind and having to be led by the hand.
There are other details that might recall that story. In Acts 9,
The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
So there is a laying of hands on persons—a laying of hands on Saul so that he will receive his sight and then later on a laying of the hand of God on the false prophet. And he has an experience and judgment very similar to Saul. Saul has the hand laid on him to restore his sight and Elymas has a hand laid on him to remove his sight.
There is a play here with Saul’s older identity and his new identity. The judgment that falls upon Elymas is the judgment that fell upon Paul’s old identity as Saul. It looks forward to some of the other reversals.
Elymas is said to make crooked the straight paths of the Lord. We have encountered a straight path earlier in the story. Saul goes to a street called Straight. Now he is no longer making straight paths crooked; the hand of the Lord comes upon him in a street called Straight.
And this juxtaposition between the two characters, between Saul and Elymas, really comes to the foreground in the narrative as the two are held off against each other, as Saul judges the sorcerer.
There are similar things in the earlier story in Acts 8, where there is a conflict again between an apostle and his namesake. Simon is the magician, and Simon has conflict with Peter, who is also called Simon. So there is a play of identities there as well. Peter places the power of the Holy Spirit on people by laying hands on them, and Simon wants that power himself. He wants to be like the other Simon, to imitate him:
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.”
So there is a juxtaposition between Simon Peter and Simon the magician, just as there is a juxtaposition between Paul and Elymas the sorcerer here. Paul has his name changed within the narrative. He is no longer Saul, the false persecutor. No, now he has had a conversion, and his conversion is also a judgment on his old identity, a judgment on persons like Bar-Jesus who present themselves as false associates of Christ, like the sons of Sceva or like Simon, but who are not of Christ at all.
There are other ways that we can see the significance of this story. In chapter 12, there is a transition between Peter and Paul. In chapter 12, Peter dies and rises again. It is Passover time and he is placed in prison, about to be put to death, but in the middle of the night the angel opens the tomb—the prison—and he is brought out through the doors. The guards are dazzled, and they are prevented from stopping him. He goes to the house where the disciples are praying and appears to them, and they think it is a ghost. He appears first to a woman, and the woman tells the disciples and they do not believe her, and then he appears to the disciples and then goes on his way. We don’t see much of him from that point onwards.
But the passage is bookended by Saul and Barnabas going from Antioch to Jerusalem and then going back again. Then chapter 13 follows. And in that chapter, Paul has a very similar experience of conflict with a magician with names that juxtapose them as individuals, just as Peter did earlier in Acts. Peter fades out of the picture and what happens to Peter now happens to Paul as Paul comes to prominence.
I think we see, as Jeff Meyers emphasized, a broader transition here between the false Jewish prophets and teachers as counselors to the nations to the true counsel that will be offered by Paul and the apostles and the Christian disciples.
There are themes of blindness: The guide that supposedly guides their proconsul—the guide to the Gentiles—is proved to be blind himself. But the once blinded Saul has now been made into Paul, who has the power to bear this message. Peter’s ministry has transitioned to that of Saul and Barnabas and now to Saul being called Paul.
Sergius Paulus is going to be counseled by another Paul, one who has his same name. And now he will be advised well, taught the message of the kingdom. However, the false Jewish prophet—who in spite of his other name is not in fact associated with Jesus at all but is a son of the Elamites, associated with the magicians, the Persians, and that sort of false religion that we see in the conflict between Aaron and Moses and the magicians of Egypt or that we see in the court of Nebuchadnezzar—is judged. Here in Saul who is also called Paul we have a true wise man, a wise man that will bring counsel that will lead to the healing of the nations.