When we read the Bible we tend to approach names in several ways. We most often use them to recognize prominent figures like Moses. Sometimes they help identify an era. But many times and especially if the names are not recognizable to us we gloss over them and move along not realizing that those very names are significant bits of information in the passage. That point could not be stronger than when one reads through the Book of Acts for names there not only help us to date the event (information that is very important to the 21st century mind) but also to underscore just how much the Gospel was impacting the culture of the time. This is particularly true of Acts 13:4-12.
A little background on names and positions in the first century is helpful here. In Acts 13:6, Sergius Paulus is named as the Proconsul of Cyprus. The term proconsul means that Cyprus was a province governed by the Senate and not the emperor. The name Sergius Paulus is mentioned twice in historical documents concerning Cyprus. The NIV Archaeological Study Bible notes that Romans typically had 3 names: a pranomen (personal), a nomen (indicating one’s clan) and a cognomen (which identified one’s particular branch in the clan). However Luke has only identified this man’s nomen and cognomen leaving us to do a little historical research to clearly understand who he was. This Sergius Paulus is most likely the one who held an administrative position during the reign of Claudius in AD 41-54. This date coincides nicely with the estimated date of Paul’s first missionary journey. Luke features this man’s nomen and cognomen rather than his personal name to demonstrate his high standing. The Pauli “family” was one of Rome’s most influential families producing many officials throughout the empire over a long period of time. Simply put, this man held a high position with honor.
In contrast to the altruistic Sergius stands one of his confidants, Bar-Jesus (Hebrew), also known as Elymas (Arabic meaning sage or charlatan depending on one’s character), whose secondary name is associated with his role as a fortune teller in the personal entourage of this administrator. Barclay notes, “These were superstitious times and most great men, even intelligent ones, kept private fortune tellers who dealt in magic and spells”. When Paul and Barnabas encounter the soothsayer who is trying to sway Sergius away from the Truth the stage is set for a fiery climax. Elymas has launched an all-out attack on Paul and Barnabas. It was not a smart move on his part! Luke notes that Paul “filled with the Holy Spirit” (a clear indication that Paul is not acting on his own behalf but that of the Lord) looks the deceiver directly in the eye and with a barrage of Old Testament references to the Lord’s character and nature calls him out by making a word play with his name. He is not the son of the savior (Bar-Jesus); he is the son of the devil. The ironic outcome is Elymas, the one who is supposedly revealing divine light will not be able to see the light of day for a time (v. 11). The end result is that Sergius is fully convinced about Paul’s teaching of the Lord (v. 12). The power of the Gospel is undeniable.
Another dual name identification takes place within this passage for at this juncture the name Paul overtakes the name Saul. From here on out, there will be no mention of both names concerning the evangelist. Perhaps it is because from this point on Paul’s ministry is most fruitful among the Gentiles, but he never veers from his routine of going first to the Jews in the synagogues and then to the Greeks (Rom. 1:16-17). So why would Luke put all these naming details in his letter to Theopholis, the original recipient of this “book”? I think there are two important reasons. First, the truth of the Gospel and the spread of the Christian faith is always grounded in reality. It occurs in real places, in real time, and through real people. That has not changed! Every time you share your faith with someone, it happens in a real place, at a specific time and with real people. It’s not a fantasy that takes place in a galaxy far, far away. Secondly, it is attached to real people who have names which identify them. They are not fictional characters and neither are you! So when you share the Gospel with others and they are affected by it, perhaps even coming to faith, you are adding to the story of faith begun in the pages of Scripture. Isn’t it great to be a part of a story that carries that kind of impact? (Acts. 8:4, 25; 1 Cor. 23; 15:11; 2 Cor. 2:4-5)
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre