On Paul meaning The Small

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by Neil Godfrey

Blogs are for thinking as we go so here is a thought on the run —

We all know that the name of the leading apostle, Simon, was changed to Peter, to mean Rock. (Matthew 16:18) Early Christian literature, including the church’s interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, has much to say about the theological imagery of “the/a rock” and from this literature we can sometimes appreciate what the name Peter may well have meant among those early Christians.

Paul was clearly the leading apostle among the gentiles, and the name was, like Peter, not original. Saul the persecutor was known, after Acts 13:9, as Paul, but the author of Acts gives the readers no explanation for this name change.

Paul is from the Latin “paulus” meaning “small”. Is there anything in early Christian literature that might give us a possible glimpse into what a name meaning “small” might have meant to Christians who looked to Paul as their chief apostle? I know of nothing in our canonical New Testament collection. But there are three references to the theological meaning of “being small” in early noncanonical Christian literature. Is it fair to look at non-orthodox writings? Church Father Tertullian who attempted to retrieve Paul for orthodoxy conceded that Paul was “the apostle of the heretics” (Adv.Marc.3.5). Maybe they know something not preserved in our canon.

The Valentinian Christians (who traced their history to Paul) left texts that were later recovered at Nag Hammadi. In one of these we we read:

Not only did he take upon <himself> the death of those whom he thought to save, but he also accepted their smallness to which they had descended when they were <born> in body and soul. (He did so), because he had let himself be conceived and born as an infant, in body and soul. (p92 of The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd rev ed. 1988)

This is in the Nag Hammadi text, The Tripartite Tractate, 115.5-8. Majella Franzmann says of this passage in her Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings (1996):

In Tri. Trac., the Saviour . . . takes upon himself the smallness (=death) to which humankind had descended when they were born in body and soul. . . (p.49)

In another Valentinian text, The Interpretation of Knowledge, 10.30-31:

Likewise I became very small so that through my humility I might take you up to the great height, whence you had fallen. You were taken to this pit. If now you believe in me . . . . (p476 of The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd rev ed. 1988)

Franzmann comments:

Interp. Know. presents frequent reflection on the passion and crucifixion of the Saviour which is seen as his being humbled or reproached. . . . [T]he cross stretches between heaven and earth (= the pit) . . . . The theme of Jesus’ humility of his suffering humiliation is reiterated in 10.30-31 where he becomes very small in order that by his humility he might bring believers back from “this pit” to the great height from which they had fallen. (p.146 of Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings)

So the Saviour’s smallness is central to his saving act, his sharing in flesh for the purpose of suffering and dying in order to save mankind. Does not this remind us of the very central focus of Paul’s gospel – Christ crucified? Do not the above remind us of Galatians 2.20 claiming that we see Christ living in Paul, that Paul was crucified with Christ? And of Colossians 1.24 that tells us Paul, through his sufferings, was a companion saviour with Christ?

The above Valentinian references are of the Saviour himself being made small. What of Paul’s place as the one who was both saved by Christ and demonstrated in himself the life of Christ? Returning to The Tripartite Tractate we learn that the Logos in this text was not the same as the Son. There the Son acts to save the Logos. This Logos “is patterned after the Son” (Franzmann, p.37). The Tripartite Tractate says that this saved Logos was also “small in magnitude” (Tri. Trac. 76.16).

None of the above can be demonstrated to have any direct link to the name of the apostle Paul. The most it can suggest is that, while we know we can find an explanation for Peter’s name in the orthodox canon, we might be more likely to find a comparable explanation for Paul’s name among the writings of the those Christianities that were later condemned by “the orthodox”. The evidence is clear that many rival groups did redefine Paul to claim him as their own.

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Neil Godfrey

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