For the average student of the Bible, who starts his or her study ‘“in the beginning” with the book of Genesis, it doesn’t take long to realize that names play a significant role throughout sacred Scripture.
They reveal a certain characteristic, or mark an event, in the lives of people and the history of places. Names are sometimes changed as well. In fact, it only takes 17 chapters into Genesis before the great patriarch of Israel, Abram, becomes Abraham.
Why is that? Why does God change people’s names?
The short answer to that question is that a name change signifies a new call in life. It is symbolic of a new identity.
From Abram to Abraham
In the case of Abram, whom God would make Abraham, the change in names reflected a new status. At age 75, Abram is called by the Lord to go forth from his native land and begin a new nation (see Gn 12). He is told that he will receive a plot of land as far as his eyes can see and given descendents as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gn 13:15-16).
He was attentive to the Lord’s directives throughout his journey in the land of Canaan. When Abram is the age of 99, the Lord calls him and says, “no longer shall you be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a host of nations” (Gn 17:5).
In Hebrew, the name Abram means “exulted father,” while Abraham means “father of a multitude.” The name change became a benediction of sorts. God memorialized Abraham’s obedience and faithfulness and blessed him for the road ahead. As the saying goes, behind every great man is a strong woman. Abraham had Sarai. God changed her name to Sarah, or “mother of multitudes,” and thus a new calling. “God further said to Abraham: ‘As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai; her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. Him also will I bless; he shall give rise to nations, and rulers of peoples shall issue from him’ ” (Gn 17:15-16).
God appointed a royal couple in Abraham and Sarah. The patriarch now has a matriarch, and she will give birth to a noble son, Isaac, who will continue to bear witness to the Old Covenant.
Also in the Old Testament is the story of Jacob, who becomes Israel. Jacob means “deceitful one” (literally, “leg-puller”), and the son of Rebekah lived up to his name sake. His older twin brother, Esau, points this out when he explains that Jacob took away his birthright and “now he has taken away my blessing” (Gn 27:36). However, God turned the deceitful Jacob into the “prince of God” as he is given the new name Israel just five chapters later. God says to him, “You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel” (Gn 32:28). Under his new name, he is called to be the leader of the 12 tribes of Israel and becomes a key Old Testament patriarch.
In with the New
In the New Testament, two notable name changes are those of Peter and Paul. Peter is the second-most mentioned name in the New Testament after Jesus. However, he wasn’t born Peter. His birth name was Simon son of Jonah (see Mt 16:17). He and his brother Andrew grew up together fishing on the Sea of Galilee. They were among the first disciples chosen by Our Lord.
“Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Kephas’ (which is translated Peter)” (Jn 1:42).
Why did the Lord call this man “Rock?” Because of the mission he was about to receive. The Lord said to him, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it’” (Mt 16:18). The fisherman from Bethsaida had become the rock, or the building stone, of the Church. God had chosen him with a new mission. He was now a fisher of men. His new name gave him his identity as the first pope and leader of the Church.
A name change took place as well to Saul, who became Paul. However, it wasn’t God who changed this Jewish man’s name. Not unlike his contemporaries of the time, it is believed that Saul, a Hebrew living under Roman rule, would have acquired more than one name. The story of Paul’s conversion is narrated three times in the Acts of the Apostles. However, in none of these stories is God mentioned as the one changing Saul’s name. On the contrary, it is Jesus who says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). His new name is mentioned briefly in Acts 13:9: “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him.” While the name change from Saul to Paul doesn’t exactly fit the same mold of Abraham and the others, it can be reasoned that it signified his new identity as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Devotion to the Holy Name
Reverence to the Holy Name of Jesus began in the early Church. The apostles and the first disciples were the first to cultivate devotion to the sacred name of Jesus.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, writes, “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17).
During the time of the Council of Lyons in 1274, Pope Gregory X issued a call to the universal Church to take up this devotion to the Holy Name. Soon after, the Dominicans took up the Church’s pleas and began preaching on the virtues of the Holy Name.
Why Do Religious Change Their Names?
In generations past, it was the norm that religious nuns and, at times, orders of priests or brothers ran Catholic grade schools. The presence of these dedicated women was regularly recognizable through their distinct religious habits, and quite often the nuns carried unique names.
For any third- or fourth-grader who had Sister Mary of the Cross as his or her teacher or Sister John the Baptist in the classroom across the hall, the question might have arisen of where did she get that name from? Didn’t her parents know she was a girl? Why did they name her John the Baptist?
The answer lies in the fact that the taking of a new name symbolizes the entering of a new state in life. Think of marriage. When a woman marries, she normally drops her maiden name and takes on the name of her husband. She is no longer a maiden, but rather is now a married woman.
While this tradition was most prevalent among female orders, it was not un-common for male religious, particularly monastic orders of men, to change their names when they professed vows or were ordained.
Customs varied on what a newly professed name could be. Sometimes the women were allowed to suggest a new name. In other instances, sisters were assigned a name. In either case the ultimate decision was in the hands of the mother superior.