Did Paul give new names to church leaders and co-workers?

It has often been noted that, in some key respects, the emphasis of the narrative of Acts is different from what we might suppose from reading Paul’s letters. Given that we can date many of Paul’s letters to an early period, this raises questions about the accuracy and historicity of the account in Acts.

One of the issues is the question of named individuals; whilst there is some significant overlap between the names in Acts and in Paul’s letters, there also appear to be some strange omissions. Lydia is clearly a key leader in Acts 16 in Philippi, and yet she is not mentioned in Paul’s letters. And who is the important person Euodia mentioned in Philippians 4.3 but absent from Acts? Why does the narrative of Acts 18.7 mention Titius Justus as hosting Paul, but such a key person is not mentioned in Paul’s letters—yet Paul describes Stephanas, not mentioned in Acts, as the first convert in the region (1 Cor 16.17)?

One person who has been exploring this issue is Richard Fellows, a specialist in New Testament history, with a focus on Paul’s co-workers and personal names in Acts and Paul’s letters. His background is in science, as can be seen in the statistical analysis of marks on Codex Vaticanus in his recent NTS article.

I had the chance to interview him about his 2016 article in Tyndale Bulletin, “Name Giving by Paul and the Destination of Acts”, and its implications for the accuracy of the Acts of the Apostles.

IP: What question does your article attempt to answer?

RF: It is well known from the gospels that Simon was named “Peter” by Jesus, and that Joseph was named “Barnabas” (Acts 4:36), but we know that Ignatius of Antioch, in the late first/early second century, was also known as “Theophorus” (bearer of God). Furthermore, James, the brother of Jesus, was named “Oblias”, according to Hegesippus. These examples suggest that the giving of second names was not uncommon, that these second names often suggested laudable qualities in the person so named (‘Rock’, ‘Son of encouragement’, ‘Protector’) and that they functioned bilingually, switching from one language to another. As in the case of inscriptional evidence, we need to remember that much of the ancient world was fluently multilingual.

My paper asks whether there are similar cases of renaming among Paul’s associates in his letters and in Acts.  For example, does Luke, in Acts, ever refer to someone by his or her birth name, while Paul refers to the same person by his or her new name? When Paul writes to the Galatians he refers to Simon as “Cephas” at Gal 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14, but switches to “Peter” at Gal 2:7, 8. This kind of name switching was very common in the ancient world when the person in question was already known to the audience by both names. Does Paul ever refer to anyone else by two different names in the same text? Does Luke do the same? These are the questions that I address in the article.

IP: So what cases of name giving are you proposing?

RF: There are several key characters whom I propose have been renamed, and are referred to by these different names, for a variety of reasons

Crispus = Sosthenes

The idea that Sosthenes was Crispus goes back at least to John Chrysostom, where he comments in his Homily on Acts 17 and 18:

This Crispus he means where he writes, I baptized none save Crispus and Gaius. (1 Corinthians 1:14). This (same) I take to be called Sosthenes — (evidently) a believer, insomuch that he is beaten, and is always present with Paul.

The identification has been taken up in recent times by both Augustine Myrou and by myself in an earlier paper in the Tyndale Bulletin (2005). If Crispus was the same person as Sosthenes, we no longer need to hypothesise that there were two Sosthenes (Acts 18:17 and 1Cor. 1:1) or two ἀρχι-συνάγωγοι (synagogue rulers) who became believers (Acts 18:8 and 18:17; 1 Cor. 1:1). The idea that Crispus was re-named ‘Sosthenes’ creates a remarkably consistent picture of the individual. Luke presents him as a synagogue ruler who caused many others to become Christians (Acts 18:8), and tells us that the Jews singled him out for a beating (Acts 18:17). The authority that his name carried among the believers in Corinth explains why Paul included him as a co-sender (1 Cor. 1:1). Paul named him ‘Sosthenes’, meaning ‘saving strength’ (which seems to be a close parallel to “Peter”, the rock on which Jesus will build the church, Matt 16:18) because, through his power and influence, he secured the viability of the fledgling Christian community in Corinth.

Lydia = Euodia

We have less data here, but it is generally agreed that Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:3) were leaders of the Philippian church, and Luke is unlikely to have mentioned Lydia in Acts 16 if she was not an important church leader. There is also a consensus that Euodia and Syntyche were probably converted during Paul’s first visit to Philippi. This is suggested by the fact that they had ‘struggled alongside’ Paul in the work of the gospel. Lydia too was a convert of Paul’s founding visit. She hosted Paul and his companions (Acts 16:14-15) and later hosted the believers (Acts 16:40).

The names Λυδία and Εὐοδία have a degree of phonetic similarity, and this increases the probability of identity (compare Saul—Paul, Silas—Silvanus, Jesus—Justus, Joseph—Justus). The word εὐωδία, a homophone of Εὐοδία, appears three times in the New Testament (2 Cor. 2:15; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 4:18). Phil. 4:18 describes the Philippians’ gift as a ‘ὀσμὴν εὐωδίας’ (fragrant odour). More intriguing still is 2 Corinthians 2:15 where Paul describes himself and his co-workers as ‘the aroma (εὐωδία) of Christ to God among those who are being saved’. Since the hypothesised Lydia = Euodia had opened her home for others to hear the gospel and had ‘struggled beside me in the work of the gospel’, Paul would surely have included her among his co-workers who were ‘the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved’.

For more details on Phil 4.3, see the 2018 ZNW article by Alistair Stewart and me here.

Gaius = Titius Justus = Stephanas

Titius Justus (Acts 18:7) was Paul’s host in Corinth and his conversion was the breakthrough that Paul needed to get the church started in the city. When writing to the Corinthians, Paul refers to “Stephanas” (crowned) (1 Cor 1:16; 16:15-18) as the “first-fruits” of the province and this fits Titius Justus perfectly. If we equate Stephanas with Titius Justus the background of the letter comes into sharper focus: there was disorder in the church meetings in Corinth, hosted by Titius Justus–Stephanas and his household, so they travelled to Ephesus and reported it to Paul, who told the Corinthians to submit to them.

It has previously been argued that the Gaius of Acts 19.29 and 20.4, Rom 16.23 and 1 Cor 1.14, is the same as Titius Justus, and therefore also Stephanas. If so, then this would explain the absence of the name Stephanas in the list of those greeted by Paul in Rom 16.

The name Stephanas is very rare. In the seven volumes of Lexicon of Greek Personal Names published so far, there are just six people called Stephanas. This represents just 0.002% of all recorded persons. The same database records just eight cases of ‘Stephanephoros’. ‘Stephanas’ is either an abbreviation of ‘Stephanephoros’, or it is a more direct extension of ‘Stephanos’. It therefore means ‘crowned’ or ‘crown-bearer’, or the like. However, Στέφανος is a Pauline term (1 Cor. 9:25; Phil. 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:19) so it would not be surprising for Paul to use this term in name-giving.

The suspicion that ‘Stephanas’ and ‘Sosthenes’ are names/titles that were given by Paul or the church is enhanced by the fact that they are Greek. It is unlikely that both had Greek birth names since we know nine names of members of the Corinthian church and all but one of them is Latin or Latinised, including Stephanas’s household members, Fortunatus, and Achaicus.

Jason = Aristarchus

Jason was the host of the believers in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5–9), and is mentioned there, without introduction, as if already known to the audience of Acts. He appears again at Rom 16:21, when Paul was about to set sail with a group of church delegates mentioned in Acts 20:4, where the only Thessalonians mentioned are “Aristarchus” (best leader) and Secundus.  Unless Jason = Aristarchus, we need to explain why Aristarchus is absent from Rom 16, and Jason is absent from Acts 20:4.

In the article I also discuss “Epaenetus” (praised) (Rom 16:5) and “Theophilus” (lover of God) (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) as possible church benefactors who received new names, and I find confirmation of the phenomenon in the second century Acts of Paul.

In summary, there seems to be a strong cumulative case that Paul gave new names to the founding hosts or benefactors of his churches, in much the same way that Jesus gave the name “Cephas/Peter” to his host. Acts, which records the initial evangelization of the region, refers to the individuals by their birth names. The proposed new names used by Paul in his letters are all Greek and have appropriate meanings that the importance of the person in question, and often make use of characteristically Pauline vocabulary and ideas.

IP: What impact does this have on our assessment of the accuracy and reliability of Acts?

RF: Acts presents Crispus–Sosthenes as an influential person, whose conversion led to the conversion of many in Corinth. This agrees very well with 1 Cor 1:1 where we read that Sosthenes was a co-sender of this letter to Corinth, for Paul includes as co-senders only those who helped him found the churches addressed. Evidently Sosthenes’ endorsement of Paul’s letter carried weight in Corinth and this fits what we read in Acts when we equate him with Crispus. A few scholars think that Acts got its details from the letters, but the agreement here between Acts and 1 Corinthians would be very difficult to contrive.

One argument for the historicity of Acts is that many of the people it names appear also in Paul’s letters. The names James, Peter, John, Barnabas, Mark, Timothy, Jason, Erastus, Aristarchus, Crispus, Sosthenes, Apollos, and Aquila appear in Acts as well as in the undisputed letters of Paul, and it is likely that Prisca, Cephas, Silvanus, and Sosipater, who appear in the letters, are in Acts under different names (Priscilla, Peter, Silas, and Sopater). The name-giving hypothesis strengthens the argument even further, by showing that we can no longer assume that Euodia and Stephanas are absent from Acts, or that Lydia and Titius Justus are absent from Paul’s letters.

I argue in the article that Acts was written for the churches of the Aegean region (which is covered by Acts 16:11–20:38), and that people, such as Crispus = Sosthenes and Jason = Aristarchus, were already known to the audience. This ties Acts to the first century and to a specific place in ways that we would not expect to find in a later creative fiction.

Acts 16:6-10 seems to be saying that Paul and his companions received three pieces of divine guidance, which they interpreted to mean that they should preach in Macedonia without stopping to preach en route.  This interpretation is strengthened if, as I argue, Theophilus and the primary intended audience of Acts were in Macedonia. Such an audience would certainly be interested to read that God had directed the missionaries to bring the gospel to them. This seems to rule out the idea that they evangelized north Galatia. So Paul’s letter was likely written to South Galatia. My 2018 article in Biblica builds on the South Galatia theory and resolves the major conflicts between Acts and Galatians in a new way

IP: How does this relate to other recent research that has been done in names in the New Testament—for example, the studies by Richard Bauckham?

RF: Unfortunately Bauckham does not address this particular phenomenon of new name giving in any detail. However, in his book Gospel Women he discusses “Andronicus and Junia” (Rom 16:7) and Joanna, one of the benefactors of the Jesus movement, who’s husband was Chuza (Luke 8:3). He proposes that Joanna took the name “Junia” for use in the Diaspora. In a recent blog post I endorse Bauckham’s idea and tentatively propose that Andronicus was Chuza renamed.

The recent data bases of ancient names, such as LGPN, The LJNLA, and Trismegistos People have enabled much of my research.

IP: How has your proposal been received? What objections have people raised to this way of reading the names?

RF: Craig Keener, in his commentary (p2749), refers to my 2005 article and writes,

Since Crispus was an early convert (1 Cor 114), Sosthenes also seems a believer (1:1), and both are described by Luke as “synagogue rulers” (Acts 18:8, 17), it is possible that these are two names for the same person. … This proposal is ultimately unlikely, however; why would Luke change names without an explanation connecting them?

Keener is right to raise this objection and it is the only objection that I have heard. It is addressed in my 2016 article, but I don’t know how this article has been received. I hope our discussion today might make it more widely known!

IP: Are you planning to develop this further? Where can people find out more?

RF: If Jason was Aristarchus and so on, then it would appear that Paul, in Romans, sends greetings from all the prominent believers who were with him at the time, so we would expect to find the author of Acts among them. Given the importance of name order, Lucius, who is second only to Timothy among the greeters in Romans, was surely the author of Acts, and this confirms the tradition, since “Luke” is just another form of the name Lucius. Thus we have good confirmation that Acts was written by a travel companion of Paul. I am developing this proposal, addressing the evidence in the disputed letters, and the Titus-Timothy hypothesis.

I am also considering people such as Aseneth, Mary Magdalene, Tabitha, and Strataeas in Pseudo-Pionius—and my blog has some further discussions.

IP: Thank you so much for sharing these fascinating insights. I look forward to reading more!

RF: Thank you for the opportunity to share my research here on your blog. I hope that it provokes and widens further discussion and research.

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22 thoughts on “Did Paul give new names to church leaders and co-workers?”

  1. With this in mind, is the “Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus)” of Acts 1 the “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”)” of Acts 4?
    If so, it says a huge amount about his character. The one not chosen to bear the name of “apostle” of the 12, is someone who still pitches in, is the “son of encouragement” and plays a huge role. He takes the rejection, and the setback, and continues in Christlike living.

    • That’s an interesting idea, Colin. The difficulty is that Acts 4:36 introduces Barnabas as if for the first time. We would need to explain why Luke does not tell us at 1:23 that this Joseph was a Levite from Cyprus. About 9% of people in Palestine were called Joseph so it is not a big coincidence that we have the name in Acts 1:23 as well as 4:36. Incidentally, Codex Bezae has the name Barnabas at Acts 1:23 instead of Barsabbas, but it also replaces Barsabbas with Barabbas at Acts 15:22. It seems that a scribe was uncomfortable with the name “Barsabbas”, perhaps because he/she interpreted it as a honorific new name, meaning “son of the Sabbath”, rather than as a mere patronymic. This might fit with the antisemitic tendency of Bezae, and I’ll give this some more thought.

      • I read this as an a potential idea about 2 months ago. But, do you think I can find the source? Not a chance.
        If I have a brainwave and if it has useful references, I’ll let you know. I acknowledge that chance of that is slim, but who knows. My brain does wierd things at times.

  2. This is a whole science, and often what one is left with at the end is merely greater or lesser probabilities, but we are in debt to anyone who does the spadework to clarify (a) the factors, (b) what those factors imply for greater or lesser probability.

    Isolation of the factors alone requires expertise in a reasonable number of fields. But even after that, definite findings could be meagre. That is only my suspicion, which I cannot prove. I fear that if I ever ventured into that area, I would never emerge.

  3. Sounds like CNN is rewriting the Bible? Why not? It should be written in the spirit of hope and change and other adjectives that skew facts and nonconforming ideas.

  4. Great research, thanks for the article, a couple of related yet quite different thoughts: firstly, surely one of the purposes of changing names was to help avoid detection because of the controversial nature of this new religio illicita. Secondly, I wonder about the four prophetess daughters of Philip and Agabus in Acts 21. Apparently one of the translations of Agabus is “Father’s Joy.” Could it be, and I realize this is quite radical, that Agabus is actually one or all of Philip’s daughters? And that Luke had to say Agabus to disguise the fact that it’s women prophesying because that’s still a fairly controversial thing in Jewish communities.

    • Thanks for bringing up the possibility of protective renaming. Richard Bauckham and others have written about protective anonymity in the gospels. A comprehensive study of protective anonymity and other protective silences in Acts and Paul’s letters is overdue, I think. In particular, there was sensitivity around Paul’s collections for Judea: Acts is silent about all the collections except for the one to relieve famine, and Paul conspicuously fails to name his collection helpers (2 Cor 8:18-22; 12:18). These things are hard to prove, but we cannot assume, as some do, that Luke did not know about the collection(s). The hosts and benefactors of churches were in danger (consider Jason and Sosthenes, and my reading of Phil 4:2-3), so I suppose it is possible that their new names had a protective function.

      There does seem to have been a lot of interest in the meanings of the names of prophets, so it is worthwhile to speculate on the name “Agabus”. I have speculated that he was given the name, which means “locust”, because he predicted the famine. More work needs to be done on the names of prophets before we can discern whether there was a pattern of renaming of prophets. Elymas seems to have taken the name Bar-Jesus to claim that he was a successor of Jesus, and it may be possible to reconcile Acts with Josephus if one Theudas (meaning gift of God?) took his name from the other.

      Acts seems quite comfortable giving prominent roles to women, and this is one reason to date it earlier than the disputed Paulines.

      • A minor point – not sure one can lump together a group called ‘the disputed Paulines’. (a) Any Pauline can be ‘disputed’ – I hereby dispute Romans (purely for the sake of illustration). (b) The idea is that the characteristic ‘some genuine doubt over authorship can be felt – whether or not that doubt is sufficient to tip the balance’ is effectively one and the same with the characteristic ‘dating late’ – but not only are these not the same, they are not even similar. (c) To be disputed means that the balance may tip either way, not that it tips the way of scepticism. (d) Paulines are classed as ‘questionable’ even in cases where more scholars tend to authenticity than to inauthenticity (vide Paul Foster’s BNTC survey) – which is an unwarranted bias towards scepticism. See (a) – even if less than 1% dispute something, it is still ‘disputed’; but if the majority fails to dispute it then why on earth should the minority rather than the majority be favoured in determining the way it is classified? Illogical.

  5. If Lucius is Loukas, Loukas would be a relative of Paul which helps explain his ever-presence in different cities from a very early age and perhaps his ability/authorisation to write in Paul’s name. One relative he could be is the son of Paul’s sister in Acts 23.16 – is it coincidence that this is an incomparably detailed and first-hand section of Acts?

    Not sure I believe any of that – but it is well worth airing. Does one call one’s nephew a beloved physician? The presence of Loukas in Col/Phm ties in well with his faithful ever-presence during this part of Paul’s life. So is Loukas really Lucius? Or is this more Eisenman/Tabor style improbable excitement at the fact that two people bear much the same common name?

    If anyone read Diggle’s Euripides, then Diggle would sometimes offer alternative possible new versions of words in the text which he did not himself in the end endorse but considered worthy of consideration as possibilities. To cite something as a possibility worth consideration (and most possibilities are not that) is a good thing to do, since everybody needs to make their decision based on the fullest range of genuine options.

    In addition, I am sure Richard would endorse the idea that if Romans is written from Corinth, the likelihoods can be gauged from close comparative study of 2 Cor and Rom, written only one year apart.

  6. συγγενής in Rom 16 probably just means “compatriot” rather than family member. It likely indicates only that the people in question were Jews.
    The identification of Lucius as the author of Acts does not rest mainly on the fact that the name was another form of “Luke”. In Rom 16:21-23 Lucius is the second most prominent of Paul’s co-workers, so he is almost certainly mentioned in Acts 16-20, unless he is the author. I have a forthcoming article in CBQ, which illustrates the importance of name order.

  7. Richard, thanks, that was really interesting.

    I was wondering about the name changes in the earlier part of Acts. If it’s correct that Luke joined Paul’s team just before they entered Macedonia where the first person plural begins, why would Luke bother to mention name changes which happened in the earlier chapters if he was relying on second-hand accounts to put together the first 15 chapters? Why would Theophilus need to know this name-change information if the new names were the ones in common use by then?

    • Peter, if I may rephrase your question: Why did Luke sometimes explicitly mention cases of double names and sometimes not? It is hard to know, but some points can be made.

      New names did not tend to replace birth names completely. For example, “Bar Kokhba” was a new name (given to him by Rabbi Akiva), but he signed his name “Simon”. Consider also James’s reference to Peter/Cephas as “Simeon” (Acts 15:14). Often it is clear how context dictated which name would be used, but not always. Paul used the birth names for Sosthenes and Stephanas (Crispus and Gaius) at 1 Cor 1:14.

      Double names could help to distinguish individuals. By referring to him as “John also known as Mark”, Luke distinguished him from other Johns and other Marks.

      Luke does not always go to the trouble of giving multiple names. He does not say that Silas was Silvanus or that Timothy was Titus or that Peter was Cephas. Nor, for example, does he give praenomina or nomina of Paul or Silvanus (though they almost certainly had them since they were Roman citizens).

      Acts mentions that the apostles had given a Joseph the name “Barnabas”, and I think this honours Barnabas for his generosity.

      At Acts 9:36 Luke refers to the generosity of Tabitha, and, when he translates her name, I think he presupposes knowledge of the habit of giving new names to benefactors. The fact that he gives the meaning of her name implies that she was new name worthy. He does not say whether she had receive the name “Tabitha” as a new name or whether it was a birth name that was considered so fitting that she did not need a new name.

      On the rather separate question of when Luke joined the group, I think it is very unlikely that he joined them in Troas. Ancient writers such as Josephus could refer to themselves in the third person so the absence of the first person prior to Acts 16:10 does not indicate that the author was not part of the team before then. Paul does not seem to have preached in Asia and tradition connects Luke with Antioch, not with Troas. Also, it seems to me that Luke was one of those who interpreted the three pieces of divine guidance in 16:10, and I doubt the he would have done so if he had not been present when they had been received. Luke switches to first person language when he begins sea voyages. In every case he was likely with Paul on land for some time before then.


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