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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Silas
Silas

SILAS sī’ ləs (Σιλᾶς, prob. a contraction of Σιλουανός, G4977, the equivalent of Heb. שָׁא֗וּל, asked or Aram. šeîlā, “Saul”). A prominent member of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:22, 23) and companion of Paul on most of his second missionary journey (chs. 15-18).

When the Jerusalem Council decided that Gentile believers were not obligated to be circumcised, Silas was one of two delegates appointed to accompany Paul and Barnabas to Antioch with the letter announcing the Council’s decree (15:22, 23). The sentiments of the Council were orally expressed as well (v. 27), together with strengthening words of exhortation by Silas and Judas Barsabbas who are called “prophets” (15:32). After some time in Antioch, their mission accomplished, they returned to “those who had sent them” (15:33), or “unto the apostles” (KJV). (According to 15:34 [KJV], Silas remained in Antioch, but this v. is omitted by the best texts and RSV.) Others hold that he remained in Antioch until he was chosen by Paul (v. 40).

Paul chose Silas as his companion for the second missionary journey after Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over the John Mark incident (15:36-40). Not much is said directly of Silas until he and Paul were beaten and imprisoned at Philippi, accused of causing a breach of the peace and preaching false doctrine (16:12-40). Undaunted, the two prisoners prayed and sang praises to God at midnight, before an earthquake secured their miraculous release. After the conversion of the jailor and his family, and the realization by the magistrates that Paul and Silas were Rom. citizens, they took leave of Philippi and the brethren there for Thessalonica and Berea where Silas was left with Timothy while Paul went to Athens to escape the riots (17:1-14). From Athens Paul dispatched a note to his companions in Berea to join him, but it was not until he had left Athens and arrived at Corinth that they caught up with their leader (18:5, and perhaps 2 Cor 11:9).

Probably a Rom. citizen (Acts 16:37), Silas may be identified with Silvanus (“wood”) which could be the Latinized form of “Silas.” As customary, this man may have had both a Grecized Sem. and a Rom. name. If the one who is invariably called Silas in the Acts, and the one who is invariably called Silvanus in the epistles are one and the same, then the preaching mission of Silas in Corinth with Paul and Timothy is mentioned in 2 Corinthians 1:19. This fits with 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1, written from Corinth during the second missionary journey, in which references the same three send greetings to the saints at Thessalonica where Paul and Silas had earlier founded the church (Acts 17:1-9). His Rom. imprisonment with Paul in Philippi may be inferred from 1 Thessalonians 2:1, 2.

The use of “we” throughout the main body of these epistles may mean that Silas and Timothy were actually co-authors with Paul, who adds his own personal postscript (1 Thess 5:27; 2 Thess 3:17). Such literary activity of Silvanus is alluded to in 1 Peter 5:12: “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you.” While the full meaning of this remark is uncertain, it has been taken to mean that he was more than bearer of the epistle, but rather amanuensis, or he may have been only responsible for much of the style and arrangement of the letter. It is well known that ancient secretaries were allowed considerable freedom in writing down their master’s ideas, even to the extent of filling in the contents of a bare outline. The master would check over and authenticate the finished product. Although the language would be that of the amanuensis, the fundamental ideas would be those of the master. In this case Peter would have regarded Silvanus as a trustworthy secretary (“a faithful brother”), “better fitted than anyone else to express in an intelligible and effective manner the thoughts and feelings which Peter entertained toward the Gentile Christians of Asia Minor” (Zahn, Introduction to the NT, Vol II, 150, 151).

If Silvanus (whom Paul calls an “apostle” along with himself, 1 Thess 2:6) can be identified with the Silas of Acts, who was associated with Paul in the production of the Thessalonian letters (see the detailed discussion of L. Radermacher, ZNW 25 [1926], 287-299, and C. Bigg, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude, 83ff.), it is quite probable that a similar relationship with Peter existed in the writing of 1 Peter. Selwyn (The First Epistle of St. Peter, Essay II, 365-466) argues strongly for this probability on the grounds of a close connection of thought and language between 1 Peter, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15, of which Silas was one of the bearers. Also, it is not likely that a man of such stature should have been relegated by Peter to the office of a mere scribe or postman (Selwyn, 10, 11). While similarities of thought and expression are capable of various explanations, the Silvanus hypothesis may be a reasonable alternative for those whose main objection to Petrine authorship is linguistic (“How could an illiterate Galilean fisherman write with such elegant diction and facility in Greek?”).

However, this hypothesis has been challenged by F. W. Beare who calls it “a device of desperation” (The First Epistle of Peter [1958], 28, 188f.). His main objection—the meager references to the Holy Spirit which would have concerned a writer of the apostolic period—is a precarious criticism which has been adequately answered by A. F. Walls (Intro. to The First Epistle General of Peter, by A. M. Stibbs, 25-30). Another problem is the non-mention of Silvanus in the salutation of 1 Peter (as he appears in 1 Thess 1:1 and 2 Thess 1:1; cf. Rom 16:22 where Tertius the scribe sends greetings). This suggests that Silvanus may have played a less important part than the amanuensis hypothesis implies. Since διὰ̀ Σιλυανοῦ (“through Silvanus”) is ambiguous, allowing Silvanus to be either the bearer or the secretary of the epistle or even co-author, the amanuensis theory is inconclusive without stronger supporting evidence. The dynamic personal authority and tone of the whole letter (esp. ch. 5) makes it improbable that Peter’s helper was allowed too much freedom in its basic message as we know it. When Peter says he has written “briefly” (1 Pet 5:12), this is not to minimize his responsibility for the weight of the epistle, but that his words were shortened to a relative “few,” knowing that Silvanus his delegate would enforce and supplement them in person.

Because of his association with the writings of Paul and Peter, and certain literary resemblances between 1 Peter and Hebrews, Silvanus (Silas) has been considered as a possible author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The certainty of this is without corroborating evidence.

Bibliography C. Bigg, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude (1901), 83ff.; T. Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament, II (1909), 150, 151; L. Radermacher, “Der erste Petrusbrief und Silvanus,” ZNW, 25 (1926), 287-299; E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (1946), 9-17; F. W. Beare, The First Epistle of Peter, 2nd ed. (1958), 28, 188f.; A. F. Walls, Introduction to The First Epistle General of Peter, by A. M. Stibbs, The Tyndale NT Commentaries (1959), 25-30; D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Hebrews to Revelation (1962), 20, 21, 102-105.