This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Goulder on Silas in Thessalonica

Mark Goodacre reminded me of Michael Goulder's "Silas in Thessalonica" (JSNT 48 1992). Here Goulder suggests that:

a) Silas and Paul had very different doctrines.
b) After Paul had left Thessalonica, Silas may have returned there and promoted is own version of the gospel.
c) 1 Thess (& probably 2 Thess) are Paul's response to Silas's influence in Thessalonica.

This is problematic.

Firstly, Paul would not have chosen to travel with Silas if there were significant doctrinal differences between them. Paul was selective about who should be in his team (Acts 15:37-38), and he chose Silas in preference even to Barnabas. Goulder seems to be aware of this problem, writing:
They could hardly have undertaken the mission together if they did not get on; but we have to consider the possibility that having worsted Paul in the incident of Gal. 2.11-14, the Jerusalem emissaries may have insisted on having one of their men go on mission with him and keep an eye on him. (p102)
This is ingenious, but not convincing. It is doubtful that Paul, who was capable of holding his ground against Peter (Gal 2:11-14) and resisted the inclusion of Mark in his team, would then allow others to impose Silas on him if Silas was likely to create the kinds of problems that Paul addresses in 1 Thess. Also, if Silas accompanied Paul to make sure that Paul did not promote Gentile inclusion too strongly, as Goulder implies, we would expect the issue of Gentile inclusion to surface in 1 Thessalonians if Goulder is right that this letter responds to Silas's influence.

Secondly, Paul includes Silas/Silvanus as a co-sender of 1 Thess, implying that Silas endorsed the letter. Goulder's explanation (without evidence) is that:
When Silas came to Corinth, Paul browbeat him into joining in the two Thessalonian letters (p104)
This is again ingenious but unconvincing. The Thessalonians would surely have realized that the letter(s) contradicted Silas's views, if that were the case. The use of Silvanus as co-sender would then be a charade that would convince no-one. Furthermore, the letter uses the first person plural almost entirely. Paul and his colleagues write that 'we' had brought the gospel to Thessalonica, and they make no distinction between Paul's gospel and Silas's (see for example 1 Thess 1:5; 2:8-13; 4:2-6; 4:11; 4:15; 5:14). If Silas's gospel was different from Paul's, the Thessalonians would feel that these texts were misrepresenting what had happened. Goulder claims that Silas had encouraged the Thessalonians to give up work, but Paul and Silas wrote, "we worked night and day" (1 Thess 2:9) .

Also, if Paul was able to 'browbeat' Silas into endorsing his letter to the Thessalonians, it would be odd that he was not able to browbeat him into conforming to his teaching while in Thessalonica. Furthermore, if Silas had been imposed on Paul by Jerusalem to keep him in check, as Goulder must suppose, Silas would not have been so easily browbeaten. Goulder's ingenious explanations are therefore in tension with each other. Why would anyone force Paul to accept Silas as his fellow missionary if Silas was too weak to stand up to Paul?

Thirdly, there is no solid evidence for Goulder's hypothesis that I can identify. He attempts several arguments, but they are based on particular exegetical decisions that I am not confident in (for example the tendency of the Thessalonians to shun work can be interpreted in terms of patron-client relationships). If Silas was the cause of so many problems (as Paul saw them) in the church, why does Paul not address Silas's influence directly? Why does he not write, "Silas told you abc, but we/I now tell you xyz"? Goulder writes:
there is no suggestion in either letter of a competing mission which has been spreading these false ideas. (p101)
Goulder implies that this excludes the possibility that the false ideas had been spread by missionaries from outside of Paul's team. Fair enough, but neither is there any suggestion of a competing mission from within Paul's team.

But Goulder is correct when he writes:
We learn little of Silas from the Thessalonian letters, but there is no reason to distrust Acts, where Luke seems well informed about him, and for the most part without an axe to grind.
Therefore we can be confident that Silas was indeed a leader of the Jerusalem church, and that he was chosen by the other Jerusalem church leaders to represent them on the issue of Gentile inclusion. His views on Gentile inclusion were therefore representative of those of the Jerusalem church leadership. Since Paul chose him at a time when Gentile inclusion was the hot issue, it is very likely that Paul shared the same views. In a future post I will argue that Gal 1-2 also tells us that Paul was known to preach the same message of Gentile inclusion as the Jerusalem church leaders.


  1. Hi Richard:

    Goulder says: "After Paul had left Thessalonica, Silas may have returned there and promoted is own version of the gospel".

    It's problematic, because Silas preached the Gospel in Corinth: "Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, that is, by me, SILVANUS, and Timothy" (2 Corinthians 1:19)

    Greetings from Spain,


  2. Hi Xabier.

    I see your point. However, to be fair to Goulder, Acts 17:14-15; 18:5 say that Silas and Timothy arrived in Corinth after Paul. This allows the possibility that Silas spent a short time in Thessalonica before going to Corinth.

  3. You're right. Goulder says that. But, is it certain that Silas arrived in Corinth after Paul?

    It seems that there is a contradiction between Acts 17:14-15; 18:5 and 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2, 6. Perhaps Luke is unintentionally wrong and only Timothy arrived in Corinth after Paul (and Silas)