Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:
The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.
The Old Testament thought form
This is a bit of a break from the focus I have tried to maintain in these posts, but I was recently struck by what suggests itself as an Old Testament antecedent to a New Testament reality, and thought it might be worth setting the thought loose in the ether.
The story of Saul, the first king of Israel, is one of the most disappointing narratives in the Bible. To be sure, because the document to which we go to recover that narrative, 1 Samuel, is primarily an apologetic in defense of the legitimacy of David’s claim to the throne, the impression with which we are left concerning the man Saul is no little bit jaundiced. The bare facts are these: David is recruited as a young man to play a minor role in the court of Saul (1Sam 16:14-21a); he rises to a place of prominence second only to Saul (1 Sam 16:21b; 18:6, 7); and ultimately he ascends the throne occupied by Saul, thus displacing the house of his master (2 Sam 5:1-5). All of this could easily lead to the conclusion that David was a seditionist, an unprincipled usurper who had used the privilege and position afforded him to seize for himself that which rightly belonged to his benefactor. The prophetic hand(s) behind the book of 1 Samuel frame(s) the story deliberately to dispel that notion, to demonstrate that David succeeded to the throne of Israel only because God had appointed him to that station.
To make that point more carefully, the narrative of 1 Samuel casts Saul in a very negative light. Indeed, the most extensive stories of his life recorded in the book have to do with his two great sins: the intrusion into the office of the priest which eventuated in Saul’s lineage being denied the throne (13:1 – 14:46 esp. 13:13, 14); and the refusal to slay all of the Amalekites which resulted in Saul himself being rejected as king (15:1-35, esp. 26, 35). After those two sorry chronicles, the narrative turns to David (16:1-13). To be sure, Saul remains titular king of Israel for some years, but the Spirit is soon taken from him and given to David, and the protection of the land falls to David and his mighty men.
Two points deserve brief mention in this regard. First, Saul was a much more effective king than is intuitively acknowledged by the reader of 1 Samuel. He reigned for 40 years (Ac 13:21); however that is calculated (i.e., does it include the 7 years of the reign of his son, Ish-bosheth?), his was a significant reign. Further, the synopsis of his reign in 1 Samuel 14:47-52 is impressive.
Second – and most important with reference to this post – the word of rebuke spoken by Samuel after Saul’s second grand sin may well ramify to the New Testament. The prophet confronted the king returning from the conquest of the Amalekites, caught that king in a lie when he insisted that he had “performed the commandment of the Lord” (15:13), and then assessed the situation in this remarkable conversation:
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Be quiet! And I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” And [Saul] said to him, “Speak on.” So Samuel said, “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not the head of the tribes of Israel? And did not the Lord anoint you king over Israel? Now the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the Lord?” (15:16-18)
Saul responded with a flurry of self-serving attempts at rationalizing his sin (he is, after all, the greatest excuse-maker of the Old Testament), and then with an outburst of guilty anger against his prophetic accuser. But then Samuel concluded with a chilling message:
“The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of ours, who is better than you. And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man that He should relent.” (15:28, 29).
For our purposes, it is instructive to focus on the prophet’s observation that God could use Saul only so long as he was “little in his own eyes”!
The New Testament Use
Given the rather infamous character of King Saul, it seems curious at first blush that a strict Pharisee of the second temple era would give his son the name, Saul (Ac 23:6). The primary reason was doubtless that this was a name given to many of the men in that family, but that only compounds the apparent anomaly: why would a deliberately Jewish family thus memorialize a man treated so negatively in their own Scripture? But that anomaly is explained when it is recognized, as suggested above, that Saul was in fact a heroic figure in the history of the Jewish people – a flawed hero, to be sure, but a man of some nobility and great significance nonetheless.
Again, it is curious that Saul of Tarsus, after his conversion, becomes known only as Paul. That transition takes place rather suddenly in the record. As Saul commences his ministry to the Gentile world as recorded in the book of Acts, Luke simply refers – almost in passing – to “Saul, who is also called Paul” (13:9). After that, the apostle is never referred to by Luke as “Saul” in any context, even when the focus is on his life before his conversion. (As I was reminded below, Paul does use His Hebrew name when remembering the experiences surrounding his conversion – Ac 22:7, 13: 26:14.) We are not given any explanation as to why the change occurred, although the almost universal speculation is that Saul’s family had given him both a Jewish and a Gentile name (per the custom of the day with Jews of the diaspora), and that as he began to move among Gentiles he employed that name. Perhaps! And yet throughout his ministry, Paul’s habit was to go first of all to the synagogue; in those passages it would perhaps have been appropriate for Luke to use the Hebrew name, but Luke does not refer to the apostle with the Jewish “Saul” even in those narratives.
I wonder if the change was much more deliberate and significant. After his conversion, Saul must have spent much time re-thinking the Hebrew Scriptures he had always cherished so deeply and studied so carefully. I wonder if in the course of those contemplations, as again and again he rehearsed the chronicle of his namesake, the significance of that prophetic rebuke – “when you were little in your own eyes” – gripped him so that he settled on a strategy to remind himself day by day of the importance of remembering how little we are before the God of the universe. In short, the connection between Samuel’s rebuke and the name by which Saul is known throughout his ministry – the name Paul, which means “little” – seems too immediate to be accidental. Paul struggled much against pride (2 Cor 11, 12), and he had much of which he might have been proud (Gal 1:14). The pattern of King Saul must have served as a powerful warning to the newly converted rabbi who, in the Jewish world in which he had moved all of his life, had exceeded the accomplishments of all who had gone before him. Perhaps the name by which we have come to know and regard this remarkable apostle to the Gentiles, a name which is in fact a perpetual reminder of a God-honoring understanding of who we are even as children of God, was not just a Gentile name assigned him at birth by his family. Perhaps it was one of the ways in which Paul strategized to avoid falling into the same snare that entrapped both the devil (1 Tim 3:6) and his fondly remembered namesake, King Saul of Israel.