Silas of the Acts narrative1 is Silvanus of the epistles2 (cp. Acts 18:5; 2 Cor. 1:19). Having more than one name in the ancient Greco-Roman world was fairly common (e.g. Saul/Paul, Tabitha/Dorcas, John/Mark, etc.). The name “Silvanus” is Latin,3 which is not unusual for a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37, 38), while the name “Silas” is Greek, evidently favored by the Greek Dr. Luke in his historical account. It is possible that the name “Silas” is simply an abbreviated version of “Silvanus.”
Silas first appears in the biblical record in Acts 15, involved in the meeting of the Jerusalem elders and apostles discussing the circumcision controversy. He is mentioned with Judas Barsabas,4 both described as “leading men among the brethren” (v. 22b NKJV). Being a recognized leader in a congregation that has apostles and elders is pretty impressive.
After discussing the issue and reaching a consensus under the Holy Spirit’s guidance (Acts 15:28), it was determined that Judas Barsabas and Silas would put the decision into writing on the group’s behalf (vv. 22-23). Note that the verbal form grapsantes is from graphō, which means to “write” (ASV, ERV, HCSB, ISV, N/KJV, WEB),5 although several English translations have curiously rendered it “sent” (ESV, NASB, NET, NIV, N/RSV, cf. NLT). Granted, Judas Barsabas and Silas were the letter carriers (vv. 22a, 27), but someone had to do the writing, and the verb graphō identifies these two men as the designated scribes.
Not everyone in the ancient Greco-Roman world (even among the educated) was capable of writing, much less writing well. The typical procedure in these predominantly oral cultures was to verbally dictate information to a trained amanuensis (secretary) who was responsible for putting it into writing. Note that Baruch wrote for Jeremiah (Jer. 36:1-32), Tertius wrote for Paul (Rom. 16:22), and Silvanus wrote for Peter (1 Pet. 5:12, discussed further below).6 If multiple copies of the Jerusalem-conference letter were needed to send to multiple congregations (cf. Acts 15:23, 30, 41; 16:4), more than one amanuensis would be preferable. The point is, Silas (as well as Judas B.) was a skilled writer, a fact that becomes even more significant as this study continues.
The document was hand-delivered and read, and Judas B. and Silas are identified as “prophets” who gave additional instruction as they “exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words” (Acts 15:27, 32). Here we learn that Silas (as well as Judas B.) was a divinely inspired and adept teacher, as well as an encourager.
When the apostle Paul needed a new missionary partner after he and Barnabas parted ways (Acts 15:36-39), Silas was chosen to fill the void (v. 40). Evidently he was someone in whom the apostle had a great deal of confidence and is never depicted as a subordinate or understudy but as an equal partner. After adding a couple more teammates, the mission team headed to Macedonia (Acts 16:1-12).
In Philippi Silas participated in preaching Christ’s gospel, leading to the first converts on European soil (Acts 16:13-15). It was Silas who was working with Paul when the two were apprehended, dragged before the magistrates, and accused of disturbing the peace (a very serious charge under Roman law!). They were beaten with rods and with many stripes, then thrown into the inner prison with their feet secured in stocks (vv. 19-24). “But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (v. 25). The situation would have been much more daunting for Paul had Silas not been at his side.
Later Paul and Silas together had the opportunity to teach the word of the Lord to the jailer and his family, resulting in more conversions (Acts 16:29-34). It is here we learn that Silas (like Paul) was an ethnic Jew and a Roman citizen (vv. 20, 37, 38). Silas also helped to evangelize the residents of Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth (Acts 17:1–18:5) – leaving behind established congregations7 – before fading out of the Acts narrative, only to reappear in the epistles.
A relatively short time after Paul, Silas (a.k.a. Silvanus), and Timothy had departed from Thessalonica, they collectively wrote a letter to the church of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:1; 2:17), followed by a second letter not long thereafter (2 Thess. 1:1).8 Both documents are written almost entirely in the “we” form of address to “you” the Thessalonian readers. While Paul was obviously the leading correspondent, he kept his personal comments to a minimum in both 1 Thessalonians (2:18; 3:5; 5:27) and 2 Thessalonians (2:5; 3:17). Moreover, the implication of 2 Thess. 3:17 is that the actual writing of the material preceding the postscript was done by someone other than Paul himself. Seeing that Silvanus was both a prophet and an efficient writer, his contribution to the Thessalonian correspondence should not be ignored.
Over a decade after his last known whereabouts in the biblical report, Silvanus reappears as the apostle Peter’s coworker. At the end of Peter’s first epistle, the acknowledgment is made: “By Silvanus, our faithful brother as I consider him, I have written [graphō] to you briefly …” (1 Pet. 5:12). Simon Peter, an uneducated fisherman (Acts 4:13), partnered with Silvanus, a prophet and competent writer, in producing this inspired document.
Beyond these few details, little else is known about Silas/Silvanus. The New Testament record shows that he was:
o a capable leader
o an inspired prophet
o an encouraging teacher
o a dedicated missionary
o an invaluable coworker
o a skilled writer
His writing projects included at least four biblical manuscripts: the letter embedded in Acts 15:23-29, the Thessalonian correspondence, and 1 Peter.9 His vital role in the establishment and spread of the early Christian movement cannot be denied, the effects of which are still being experienced today. How unfortunate that the extent of his work is often overlooked and underappreciated. May we be encouraged and motivated by his life of faithful service.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Acts 15:22–18:5.
2 2 Cor. 1:19 [cf. 10:14]; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 Pet. 5:12.
3 Silvanus (meaning “of the woods” in Latin) was the name of a Roman deity considered to be the protector of forests and fields, including crops, herds, and flocks.
4 See The Aramaic Patronymic Bar-.
5 Cf. Acts 1:20; 7:42; 13:29, 33; 15:15; 18:27; 23:5, 25; 24:14; 25:26.
7 Cf. 1 Thess. 2:1-2, 13; 3:1-2; 2 Cor. 1:19. In addition to his initial evangelistic efforts, Silas’ ongoing follow-up work is indicated by his remaining in Berea (Acts 17:14), returning to Macedonia after meeting Paul in Athens (Acts 17:15; 1 Thess. 1:1; 3:1-2; Acts 18:5), and potentially remaining in Corinth after Paul’s departure (Acts 18:5, 18).
9 For his potential involvement in the writing of Hebrews, see Plural Authorship of Hebrews Part 1, and Part 2.