It is common in English-speaking countries for a woman to take her new husband’s surname upon marriage. Only about 20% of women do not change their names. There are various reasons for this. Sometimes the woman’s surname is easier to pronounce or spell, and so the man takes her name. Sometimes it is because she doesn’t want to deal with the paperwork involved (driver’s license, credit cards, government or non-government agencies). Frequently it is because she considers this a sexist holdover from bygone days. If that is what she thinks, she is partly right. For many years women in England were required to change their surname to that of a husband because of the legal doctrine of “coverture.” This doctrine states that a married woman’s rights and obligations are subsumed by those of her husband; that is, she has legal rights to own property, for instance, only if he grants those rights. In England and the United States today there is case law that countermands that doctrine. A woman may enter into contracts without her husband’s knowledge or permission, although in community property states the husband and wife share ownership.
To a certain extent, even the Law of Moses Abraham’s new name was the covenant.recognized coverture. If a man had only daughters, they would inherit his real property provided she married within the tribe to which her family belonged. Beyond that, coverture extended not only to husbands but to fathers of unmarried daughters. Numbers 30 specifies that if a woman makes a vow (contract), if her husband (or father if she is unmarried) learns about it, he may immediately cancel that vow. If, however, he says nothing to cancel it, the vow stands. Thus, the Law recognized a modified form of coverture. This was, however, before the development of surnames, so she did not take the name of her husband.
Even though there are no examples in the Bible of women changing their names solely because of marriage, there are many examples of people changing their names, or having their names changed. This usually was reflective of a change in status of some sort.
Avram and Sarai
Perhaps the most famous name change in the Bible, if not in history, came when God made a covenant with a man named Avram (Abram) and his wife Sarai. It is unclear why Nahor gave his son this name. Avram means “exalted father,” so it may be that Nahor hoped his son would make a great name for himself.
As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. (Gen 17:4-5)
God changed Avram’s name to Avraham (Abraham) because of the covenant He was making. No longer would he be simply an exalted father, but now a father of a multitude. Notice that this name change was made before Abraham had any children with his wife. The new name was the covenant; it was God’s promise of a son and many descendants.
“And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.” (Gen 17:15) When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he also made a name change for his wife. This one, though, is a little more subtle. Her original name, Sarai (properly pronounced in three syllables, sar-a-ee) meant “princess.” It may be that her father (Nahor, Avram’s father) was calling her, as many fathers do today, “my little princess.” Sara (with or without the h) means “noblewoman.” In modern parlance one would think this was a step down—from princess to a mere noblewoman of undetermined rank. Actually, it was a step up. A princess might be so from birth and continue as one throughout life, but a noblewoman denoted the wife of a king. It elevated her from a princess to a queen.
These name changes reflected a new status. Avram moved from a father (exalted though he be) to an ancestor. His new status required a change for his wife as well.
A change of country
American genealogists sometimes have difficulty in tracing ancestries of children of immigrants from non-English-speaking countries. As their ancestors came through ports like Ellis Island, immigration officers might spell the name like it sounds, or even change the name altogether. There is an old joke about a Chinese man with the name of Stanley Kowalski. When someone asked how he got that name he explained that the man in line in front of him had that name, and when they asked his name he said, “Sam Ting.” So the immigration official, hearing “same thing” gave him a Polish name.
The practice of immigration officials changing names of newly-arrived foreigners goes back at least to ancient Babylon. Whether because of pronunciation issues or because a new local name would indicate that they were not going back to Israel, we find at least five people who had their names changed in Babylon or Persia.
Now among these were of the children of Judah, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: Unto whom the prince of the eunuchs gave names: for he gave unto Daniel the name of Belteshazzar; and to Hananiah, of Shadrach; and to Mishael, of Meshach; and to Azariah, of Abednego. (Dan 1:6-7)
It is possible that the Babylonians objected to Hebrew names containing the name of God (El or Iah). One may infer that from the fact that at least two of them had their names changed to ones containing names of Babylonian gods (Bel and Nego). Perhaps the idea was that if they got used to their new names they would be acknowledging their new gods. In that respect it is interesting that only one other time (Dan 10:1) is Daniel referred to by his new name. Azariah, on the other hand, was referred to by his new name after chapter 1, and most notably in the incident with the fiery furnace.
The fifth person of whom we know with a name change in her new country was a young Jewish girl named Hadassah (Myrtle), who commonly went by the Persian name Esther (Star). In her case the use of the Persian name may have been to intentionally hide her lineage. Because nobody knew she was Jewish, she was in a position to save the Jewish people from genocide.
Peter and Paul
Two of the leaders of the early Christian church underwent name changes. We can only speculate as to the reasons, but they may be reasonable speculations.
Simon the son of Jonah was a fisherman. The gospels picture him as impulsive, sometimes dangerously so. The first time Jesus saw him he changed his name. “Thou art Simon [one who listens] the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, Peter.” (Jn 1:42) This was hardly an apt name for one of Simon’s character at the time. It did become an apt name for the apostle that was later to preach the first gospel sermon and (according to some) lead the church in Rome. This has led to speculation that Jesus changed his name in the hope that he would live up to his new designation.
Galatians 2:11 seems to indicate that Peter, on at least one occasion, went back to his old ways. Some older manuscripts use the Hebrew name Cephas in this verse, rather than the Latin Peter. Some scholars, therefore, believe that Paul was referring to another Cephas rather than the apostle. The context, though, seems to indicate that the apostle made an impulsive mistake.
Saul was a rabbi who was zealous for the Law of Moses. As he traveled to Damascus, his life was changed, and he became zealous for the Way. For some time afterward he continued to use the Hebrew name Saul. Beginning with Acts 13:9, and in all his letters, he went by his Latin name, Paul. There are two (or more) possible reasons for this name change. It may have been that he wanted to leave the old life behind. Saul was known as a persecutor of Christians, and that made his new life difficult. A name change could make his past more anonymous. Of equal importance, though, is his mission. He was specifically sent to make disciples of non-Jews (gentiles). By taking a Latinized form of his name, he might better associate with the gentiles. At the same time as his name change was noted, he was the guest of a governor of Cyprus named Sergius Paulus. It may be that he adopted his new name from his host.
To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. (Rev 2:17)
That was what the Spirit wrote to the church at Pergamos. A little later we have this to the church at Philadelphia.
Him that overcometh … I will write upon him the If they used their new names they would be acknowledging new gods.name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, … and I will write upon him my new name. (Rev 3:12)
Some people believe that the new name would be “Christian;” however, that name had been in use about 45 years when the Revelation was written. Others have gone so far as to take a new personal name, as is common in the Roman Catholic Church with a new Pope or when someone takes holy orders.
Since the letters to the seven churches constitute a communication to the whole church, and since the reference to a new name is repeated, it is possible (even likely) that the new name does not refer to either the corporate designation of Christian or personal names. Instead, it is possible that God is telling the church that they are a new creation, just as the New Jerusalem came out of heaven as a new creation. In the light of the previous examples, we can see that this new name represents a new covenant, a new citizenship, and a new history.
Christians are under a new covenant. (Heb 12:24) We are in the world, but no longer of the world; we have a new citizenship. (Jn 15:19) We have entered a new life. The old life has been taken away. (Rom 6: 4-6)
A new name is significant. It marks a change in a life. When a child is adopted and takes on the new parents’ name it signifies a new relationship. In like manner, we are given a new name. God even said it was “my new name.”