Why do people change their names?
There can be many reasons, some perfectly legitimate like adoption or marriage and some not so legitimate, such as aliases for criminal purposes.
The reading for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday (March 5) is “the call of Matthew,” the apostle who was a tax collector. This Gospel comes from Luke: “Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me’” (5:27).
Matthew and Mark also speak of the call of Matthew (Mk 2:14 and Mt 9:9). All three clearly refer to the same person, but Matthew’s Gospel is the only one to call the tax collector by the name of “Matthew.” The other two evangelists call him “Levi.” However, they are one and the same person in church tradition.
What’s going on then? Did Jesus change Levi’s name? This happened to Peter when Jesus changed his name from “Simon” to “Peter,” meaning “rock.” (“Peter” in Latin is “Petrus” and “Kephas” in Greek.)
There are several other name changes noted in the Bible. Most famous would be the change of names for Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis. Their original names were “Abram” and “Sarai.” Both “Sarah” and “Sarai” mean “princess,” though some references will say “Sarah” refers to “motherhood.” The only difference in meaning of the two names in Hebrew is that “Sarai” means “my princess” and “Sarah” is “princess” in a broader sense. So rather than just being her husband’s or her family’s “princess,” the new “Sarah” becomes the princess of all Abraham’s descendants.
Abram’s original name — which he had for 99 years, according to Genesis — meant “honored father.” The new name God gave him — Abraham — meant “father of many nations” (Gn 17:4-6).
In the same way, God changed the name of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, to “Israel” (Gn 32: 28). This happened after Jacob wrestled with God, and later said, “I have seen God face to face.” The name “Israel “means “contends or wrestles with God.” Jacob encountered the divine while on his way home to meet with his brother, Esau, to reconcile with him after years of anger and separation. Jacob was afraid of the upcoming meeting, but God had told him to go to Esau. The brothers were reconciled.
So we see that when God changes a name, it signifies a whole new way of life. Abraham and Sarah were in a new land, starting what became a new nation. Jacob was about to reunite with his brother and, later, become the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. And Peter was the rock on whom Jesus built his church.
It was a little different with Matthew. While Matthew gave up his entire way of life and became an apostle, he did not have his name changed by God. Nor did St. Paul, even though he was first known as “Saul.”
In Jesus’ time, Rome ruled Palestine and many people had two names: their Hebrew name and their Roman name. In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told this (13:9): “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him.” Paul was Saul’s Roman name and, as he began to evangelize the Gentiles, he used his Gentile name.
Something similar happened with Levi. He was a tax collector, which meant he worked for the Romans. Technically, he was a “Jewish publican,” who worked for Jewish leaders who ultimately reported to Roman authorities. Publicans were often looked down upon, much as collaborators with any enemy might be, even in our times.
The name “Matthew,” though, is not Roman. It was Hebrew and, later, became Hellenized (Greek). A form of the Greek language at the time of Matthew was koine Greek, which everyday people spoke. The first language of the Gospels was Greek. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “Matthew” comes from the Hebrew Mattija and was shortened to Matthai, which became Matthaios in Greek (and Matthaeus in Latin). It seems to be that, once he accepted Jesus’ invitation to “follow me,” Levi the tax collector became Matthew the apostle. The name “Matthew” means “gift from God.” We are not sure how this exactly happened, but “Matthew” is the name the first Christians knew him by and it is how we remember him today.
So why take a new name? When someone takes a new name in our Judeo-Christian history, it signifies a lifestyle change. This is signified in those cases when some people choose to take a confirmation name or when one takes a new name in religious life. The new names signify that those who take them have reached a life-altering point, both in their lives and in their relationship with God. The name change reflects that reality.