Today, people change their names because they do not like the name they have or because they see some advantage to having a different name. This is particularly common for actors and musicians, of course, who change their names or take “stage names” they feel might be easier for people to remember and better for their chosen careers. Some past and present examples include John Wayne, who was born Marion Robert Morrison, Bob Dylan who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, Kirk Douglas – born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, Alan Alda – born Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo, Martin Sheen – born Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estevez, Elton John – born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, and Natalie Wood – born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko.
But name changing is not just a modern phenomenon. The birth name of the great theologian Martin Luther was actually Martin Luder. He later changed his name to “Luther” (based on the Greek “eleutherios” meaning “free”) as being more appropriate to his beliefs.
There are also many instances of name changes in the Bible, though the ones we find there almost all occurred because someone else changed an individual’s name rather than the person changing it themselves. An exception was Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth (Ruth 1:20), who changed her name to Mara, meaning “bitter,” after losing her husband and sons.
More commonly, the names of individuals were changed when they entered the service of the king of a foreign culture, just as Joseph was renamed Zaphenath-Paneah – the meaning of which is unknown – by the Egyptian pharaoh (Genesis 41:45), Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar – a form of “Bel protects the king” – by the king of Babylon (Daniel 1:7), and the Jewish girl Hadassah was given a new name, Esther (meaning “star,” Esther 2:7) when she was taken into the court of the Persian king.
In the New Testament we see exactly the same process in action when Jesus renamed his disciple Simon as Peter – meaning “stone” (John 1:42). Peter had certainly not earned this new name to that point, but with the coming of the Holy Spirit he was transformed into a stable pillar of the New Testament Church (Galatians 2:9).
Many think that the apostle Paul’s name was changed by God from “Saul,” though the New Testament shows that the name Paul – the Greek form of Saul – simply began to be used of him when he started to work in Greek-speaking areas (Acts 13:9). Yet it is also possible that there was some significance in the changed name. In Greek, paulos means small, and it was perhaps a mark of humility to willingly exchange the name of the Hebrew king Saul for the humble Gentile name Paul, just as the apostle became a humble servant to the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:8).
More important, biblically, are the clear examples where God himself changed the names of people. God renamed the patriarch Abram as Abraham (“father of nations,” Genesis 17:5), for example, and his wife Sarai as Sarah (probably meaning “princess,” Genesis 17:15). He also renamed their grandson Jacob as Israel (meaning either “prince of God” or “he who overcomes with God,” Genesis 32:28). There was deliberately expressed symbolism in these new names given by God, of course, each new name expressing a new identity based on what the individual had accomplished or the person’s potential in the plan of God.
Interestingly, however, there are relatively few such changes recorded in the Scriptures where God gave his servants new names. The phenomenon was uncommon and always full of great meaning when it did occur. Yet despite the relative infrequency of God’s acts of re-naming, the Bible does make it clear that every faithful believer will be given a new name in eternity as we see in the Book of Revelation: “To the one who is victorious, I will give … that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). The new names of believers will apparently be as meaningful and relevant to our potential roles in eternity as the names changed by God in the past. At that time, even God will take a new name (Revelation 3:12) – signifying that he will, indeed, "make all things new" (Revelation 21:5).
The answer to Shakespeare’s question in “Romeo and Juliet” “What’s in a name?” may be “very little” – unless it is a name changed by God.