🔼The name Silas or Silvanus: Summary
- Of The Woods, Of The Fuel Of The Fire, Of The Subject Matter Of The Story
- Asked For
- From the noun silva, wood or woodlands.
- From the verb שאל (sha'al), to ask for.
- From the verb סלל (salal), to cast up highways.
🔼The name Silas or Silvanus in the Bible
The names Silas and Silvanus apply to a single New Testament character, and although Silas is obviously short for Silvanus (the way Dick is short for Richard, and Bill for William), the name Silas has a distinct Semitic ring to it, whereas Silvanus (or Silouanos) leans more toward the Latin sound of things. We'll get into the details below.
The name Silas belongs to a prophet (Acts 15:32) and "leading man among the brethren" (15:22), who is introduced right after the Paul and Barnabas cycle, which starts with the rise of Antioch as placental counterpart of Jerusalem, and terminates in the debate on whether the gentiles should adhere to circumcision (and see our article on περιτομη, peritome, circumcision, for our own two bits on this issue). For a while Paul & Barnabas and Silas & Barsabbas stick together (perhaps in some vague way somewhat resembling the four rivers of Eden; compare Genesis 2:10 with Exodus 27:2 and 20:24) but then break up. Ultimately, Barnabas takes John Mark with him to Cyprus and Paul takes Silas to Derbe and Lystra, where they meet Timothy.
But as fascinating the story is, and reminiscent of the search for the primer in Carl Sagan's Contact, author Luke blatantly hints at a much greater world of meaning by submitting the formula: when (Paul & Barnabas) + (Silas & Barsabbas) becomes (Paul & Silas), then remains (Barnabas & Barsabbas) to go to Cyprus. We'll look into this strange phenomenon of broken symmetry further below.
The Paul and Silas cycle runs from the conversion of Lydia (Acts 16:14), via the story of the jail in Philippi (where Paul for the first time invoked his rights as a Roman citizen under Roman Law; the final time he did so would have him get sent in Rome), to Paul's stirring sermons in Thessalonica and Berea. Paul and Silas briefly separate (Acts 17:14), during which Paul preaches in Athens. They meet up again in Corinth (Acts 18:5), but as Paul declares to definitely want to quit the Jews and go to the gentiles instead (Acts 18:6), Silas too quietly departs the Biblical stage and is heard from no more.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions Silas (as Silvanus) as fellow preacher, and in both his letters to the Thessalonians as his co-author (or editor and scribe). The apostle Peter too mentions Silvanus as having helped him write his first letter. The name Silvanus occurs 4 times and the name Silas occurs 13 times; see full concordance.
🔼Etymology of the name Silas or Silvanus
As noted above, Silas can be regarded (and usually is) as short for Silvanus, and Silvanus comes from the Latin noun silva, meaning forest or woodland (the suffix -anus means "from" or "of the"). A little forest was known as silvula. The adjective silvestris or silvester means wooded or overgrown with forests, or simply denoted anything growing wild and uncultivated; hence the names Silvester, Silvius and Silvia.
Notably, the name Rhea Silvia belonged to the birth mother of Romulus and Remus (by rapist father Mars), who were set adrift on the Tiber and subsequently saved by an accommodating she-wolf and raised by a shepherd couple. This story obviously demonstrates how civilization evolved out of the wilderness, which in the Bible is told as the Exodus out of Egypt and subsequent coming home to Canaan. The Latin words for she-wolf, lupa, and wolf, lupus, relate to the verb λυπη (lupe), meaning sorrow. The noun κυων (kuon), dog (i.e. a domesticated canine, like Romulus and Remus, initially raised by wolves; Helen of Troy famously referred to herself as a she-dog, see our article on the name Hellas), relates to the verb κυω (kuo), to be pregnant, which in turn relates to Isaiah's famous assertion that the Virgin (παρθενος, parthenos) would be with Child.
Our Latin noun stems from a Proto-Indo-European root "swel-", meaning both wood in the sense of forest, and wood the material. From this same root come also the English noun sill and the Greek noun υλη (ule), building material (and see our article on the noun σειρα, seira, cord or rope, for more instances of the curious case of the missing leading sigma):
The noun υλη (ule) means basic, elementary or building material: the stuff things are made from. It mostly refers to wood, since wood was a primary building material (and our noun derives from a PIE root for wood). But it could also refer to the subject matter of a poem or treatise, as opposed to its "mind" or intelligence (i.e. its internal complexity). Since wood was a primary fuel, our word also described the basic matter that formed any centralizing fire (and thus light and thus wisdom, technology and culture) at the heart of any society. In modern Greek, this noun means matter (atoms, molecules).
All this is really rather spectacular, also because Luke, the author of the story of Silas, switches to a first-person plural delivery in Acts 16:10 ("God had called us to preach the gospel in Macedonia") and keeps it up until Acts 16:17, the encounter with the divinatory slave girl ("following after Paul and us, she kept crying out..."). Luke again switches to a first person narration in Acts 20:5 to 21:18 and again from 27:1 to 28:16, but the point is made that Luke inserts his own character ostensibly at the start of the Paul & Silas cycle.
The name Luke comes from the Latin verb luceo, to shine — and in antiquity, names commonly commemorated attributes of the deity, never suggesting that the bearer embodied this attribute. Luke was named in commemoration of the light that is Jesus, never suggesting that Luke himself was the light). The name Paul means small, and is not unlike the noun λεπτον (lepton), a very small thing, from which English gets its word lepton, belonging to the family of particles of which the electron is the best known member.
That means that the trio Luke, Silas and Paul relate like Fire, Log and Spark (James 3:5), of even more spectacular: like photonic forcefield, atomic nucleus and electron(s). Jesus said, "I am the Light" (John 9:5, also see John 1:4), and Paul added: "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17), which beside all the theological implications also correctly asserts the relationship between photonic energy (photons), polarized energy (particles and antiparticles) and the virtual photons that both keep electrons bound to the atomic nucleus, and atoms together in molecules and thus in objects. Modern science didn't know these things until Einstein, a Jew, thought of them — meaning that these truths were not discovered in a laboratory, but in the unaided mind of a ponderous man who had been brought up to think in patterns and self-similarities (Psalm 78:2, Matthew 13:35).
The Bible was not written by a single willful person or counsel acting as one, but is rather a so-called "emergent property", namely an emergent property of society, arising organically (like language, like law, science and art, like a vastly complex old-world Wikipedia page on human reality) from the unbridled interactions of countless participants — rather like the ten-thousand widely different estimations of the amount of beans in a jar at a country fair, whose average is nearly always much more accurate than the most accurate single guess (see James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, 2004).
As we discuss more elaborately in our article on the Gospel of Impurity, the phenomenon Israel was never a matter of racial or ideological purity but always a hotchpotch and catch-all of whatever worked and could somehow made to fit in. Wholly true to form, Israel's celebrated Exodus out of Egypt was livened up by the absorption of a "mixed multitude" (Exodus 12:38), and the escape from bondage became celebrated by the feast of Pascha: noun פסח (pesah), Passover, comes from the verb פסח (pasah), to pass-over (i.e. to ignore irrelevant details and focus on the underlying basics). The Greek rendering of this name, namely πασχα (pascha), looks like an offshoot of the verb πασχω (pascho), to experience. That means that to Greek-speakers, the Feast of Pascha, which the city of Jerusalem hosted yearly, was literally a world-fair at which visitors could experience the cultures of the world, and discover which great truths bound them all and which inconsequential cultural details made them appear to differ. The name Nazareth, where Jesus hailed from, could likewise be construed to be a Niphal participle of the verb זרה (zara), meaning to scatter or winnow, or זרע (zara'), meaning to scatter or sow, and mean "Scatterings" or Diaspora.
Jesus of Nazareth embodied the eternal and divine Word of God, but even though this Word itself never changes or is ever incomplete, the embodiment of this Word in human flesh was received and allowed to grow like a single seed into maturity. In the words of Luke: "The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom" (Luke 2:40), and "Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52). There had famously been no place for Jesus at the inn (Luke 2:7), but the rise of the Word in Human Flesh had always been a global affair (John 21:25), and despite the attempts of evil men to stump out the knowledge of the ancients, the ancients deposited their vast knowledge safely in the manger of its most cherished texts:
Beside the basic structure of the atom as depicted by Luke in the Book of Acts, the ancients knew about the fractal nature of creation, the vastness of space and the standard model of elementary particles (see our article on the noun αστηρ, aster, star). They were in great detail aware of the mammalian reproductive cycle plus nucleic DNA and all that (see our article on Stephen). They knew about relativity theory (see our article on the verb נהר, nahar, to shine or flow). They understood that the great realms of matter, life (the biosphere) and mind (words, languages, ideas) are self-similar and evolve or develop according to the same basic but recognizable and ultimately predictable structures (see our article on πνευμα, pneuma, spirit). They were aware of black holes and spacetime curvature (see the noun αμπελος, ampelos, vine, as well as dark matter (see the noun ירך, yarek, genitalia), and a great deal more.
🔼Alternative etymologies of the name Silas
The name Silas is commonly accepted to be the shorted version of Silvanus. But Σιλας (Silas) is also the Greek version of the Hebrew name Saul (Paul's original name), namely שאול (sh'aul), or, more specific, its Aramaic version, namely שאילא (sh'ayla). The Greek transliteration of this Hebrew name is Σαουλ (Saoul), but the Hellenized version of its Aramaic counterpart is Σιλας (Silas). Something comparable happens with the Hebrew name יהודה (Yehudah), or Judah, which became transliterated into Greek as Ιουδα (Iouda), but also attained its own Greek version, namely as Ιουδας (Ioudas) or Judas. The name Saul, and thus possibly the name Silas, comes from the verb שאל (sha'al) meaning to ask, inquire, borrow, beg:
The verb שאל (sha'al) means to ask. Noun שאלה (she'la) means request or petition, and noun משאלה (mish'ala) means petition or desire. The difficult noun שאול (she'ol) refers primarily to the grave and by extension to death and decomposition.
The curious link between the verb שאל (sha'al), to ask for, and the noun שאול (she'ol), meaning grave, might somewhat be explained by the word καταλαμβανω (katalambano), to drag down, as used in John 1:5.
But even better: with just a little creativity, our name Σιλας (Silas) may also very well be derived from the cluster סלל (salal), to heap, and specifically of highways. As we discuss more elaborately on our article on the noun οδος (hodos), meaning way (hence the term Ex-Hodos or Exodus, meaning Way Out), the followers of Christ were known as the People of the Way (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, 24:22), in obvious resonance of Jesus' declaration that he was the Way (John 14:6), and Isaiah's prophesies:
- "A highway will be there, a roadway, and it will be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean will not travel on it, but it will be for him who walks that way. And fools will not wander on it" (Isaiah 35:8).
- And of course: "A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God" (Isaiah 40:3, Matthew 3:3).
- And: "I will make all My mountains a road, And My highways will be raised up" (Isaiah 49:11).
- And: "Go through, go through the gates, clear the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway, remove the stones, lift up a standard over the peoples" (Isaiah 62:10).
The verb סלל (salal) primarily means to cast or heap up, and is mostly used in relation to building highways. Highways, of course, come to pass when first a heap of individuals individually choose to take the same route, thus creating a natural path, after which a government of sorts piles rocks upon the path and tops it off with pavement.
In much the same way, collective handiness evolves into a natural or spontaneous cultural quality, and finally a formal technology from which even foreigners may benefit. Likewise the command to create a highway for the Lord in the desert has nothing to do with Jeeps and Land Rovers and everything with growing smarter as a natural people and finally bringing forth formal science (or language or technology). Likewise "lifting up the Lord" has nothing to do with howling inane homages toward the church ceiling, but rather with achieving responsible mastery of created nature.
Noun סללה (solela) describes a piled up mound or wall. Noun סלם (sullam) describes Jacob's ladder, which obviously wasn't actually a ladder but rather a reference to cognition. Nouns מסלה (mesilla) and מסלול (maslul) mean highway. The verb סלה (sela) is only used in the imperative form, and as a musical term that commands people not simply to rise up but to settle their verbal expressions into a harmonious whole.
Verb סלה (sala) also means to pile up but emphasizes the tossing and particularly the tossing aside of elements that won't fit a standard. This verb (or an identical other) is also used to describe the heaping up of gold bits in order to weigh them against a standard weight.
Noun סל (sal) probably derives from סלל (salal) and describes a kind of basket, obviously one used to pile stuff into. A most obvious discussion of this root and its methods and effects is found in the New Testament, as the various accounts of the miraculous "feeding of the multitude."
🔼More fun with names in Acts
Luke is a master of the fine art of painting pictures with names, and the structures he depicts are baffling (and almost certainly represent structures in physics, chemistry and biology). He uses a technique derived from what physicists call a breach in symmetry (and biologists punctuated equilibrium): when a great many particles (or animals) behave in the same way, there is perfect symmetry and the particles (or animals) are really the same beasts. But when, slowly but surely, different kinds of behavior arise, due to emerging qualitative differences in the particles (or vice versa; it's a chicken or egg thing), the symmetry breaches and two groups of very distinct particles arise: particles that are on the whole very different but still share a common origin and have many defining qualities in common.
In the very early universe, there was only the strong-electro-weak force, and all particles behaved symmetrically. But as the universe cooled, the strong-electro-weak symmetry breached into (1) the strong force, and (2) the electro-weak force. Subsequently, certain particles distinguished themselves from the herd by being receptive to the strong force (these particles, known as quarks, went on to build atomic nuclei, which store the vast majority of mass and data in the universe), whereas others distinguished themselves by being receptive to the electro-weak force (among which leptons, from which came the electrons that allow nuclei to support a soul and bind with other nuclei and form molecules; Genesis 2:7 and 2:22).
A change of name is an important element in the narrative of the Torah, and marks the patriarch cycle: both arch-parents Abraham and Sarah attained the names of their fame through a dramatic name-change (see our article on the verb γαμος, gamos, to marry), and their grandson Jacob had his name changed to Israel, after "wrestling" with the angel of YHWH. Rather similarly, Simon was named Peter after "wrestling" with Jesus (and see our article on κονια, konia, dust).
The two pillars of the gentile church are Paul and Peter, and both these men obtained their names through a dramatic name-change. Peter's original name was Simon, and while at the house of his deliberate namesake Simon (a βυρσευς, burseus, skinner) at Joppa (Acts 9:43), he saw the vision of the Great Sheet, that clearly embodied the principle of Passover, and that directly inspired Peter to go see to Cornelius.
Simon was named after Simeon, one of the twelve patriarchs of Israel. The Barsabbas of our story was also known as Judas (i.e. Judah). The other Barsabbas mentioned in Acts is Joseph Barsabbas, who rivaled Matthias as candidate to replace Judas Iscariot. Like Simeon, both Judah and Joseph are names of patriarchs of Israel.
Similarly to the Simeon-overture, but much more elaborate: the Paul & Barnabas cycle starts when Barnabas (a.k.a. Joses, or Joseph, of Cyprus, see Acts 4:36) sets out to track down Saul of Tarsus and bring him to Antioch (Acts 11:25). Saul, as everybody knows, is also the name of Israel's first king, and ostensibly, Saul of Tarsus came from the same tribe as Saul the king, namely the tribe of Benjamin. Joseph is the name of the only full-blooded brother of Benjamin (their mother was Rachel, the most loved wife of Jacob), and Israel's first royal, (albeit a viceroy, albeit over Egypt), as well as the father-by-law of Jesus, who, ostensibly like his ancient namesake, was an accomplished oneirocritic (see οναρ, onar, dream), who likewise survived in Egypt (Matthew 2:15).
After an entire year at Antioch, Saul and Barnabas are sent on a mission trip. Their first stop is Cyprus (where Barnabas was from), where they meet the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus, and that's the first time the name Paul(us) occurs in the Bible. After a ruffle with Sergius' pet magician Bar-Jesus (means Son of Jesus) — at whom Saul growls: "will you not cease (παυω, pauo, to stop; hence the name Paul) to make crooked the straight ways (οδος, hodos, way, mentioned above) of the Lord?" (Acts 13:10) — Bar-Jesus goes blind (like Paul himself some years earlier), Sergius Paulus believes, Saul assumes the name of his host and becomes Paul(us), Barnabas and Barsabbas do their switcheroo, and Paul continues with Silas, a.k.a. Saul, Paul's old name, or perhaps a.k.a. Sallu, the Straight-Highway-Maker, to do what Bar-Jesus so miserably failed at.
Somewhat similar to the story of Saul of Tarsus and Sergius Paulus of Roman Cyprus, the historian Josephus (Joseph son of Matiyahu, or Matthias), assumed the name of his Roman host, the emperor Vespasian, whose son Titus had sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD. Literally nobody in the original audience of Luke would have missed this drum-roll pun.
🔼Silas, Silvanus meaning
The name Silvanus means Of The Woods, and also belonged to a minor Roman deity, namely the patron of woods, fields and shepherds. Silvanus was also associated with the "eastern" point of a field — not so much its geographic easternmost point, but rather its "beginning" as a cultivated plot, as contrasted to the wilderness which Silvanus protected; see קדם (qedem), east or past — which makes Silvanus a pagan equivalent of the cherub that guards the garden of Eden (hence our somewhat flippant remark on the four rivers, earlier). Hence, where Luke adorns the prologue to the birth of Christ with shepherds abiding in the field (Luke 2:8), Matthew has magi come out of the East (Matthew 2:1).
The name Silas may be short for Silvanus, but it may also be a Hellenized version of the name Saul, which means Asked For, and which reminds of the harrowing words: "The Lord said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you." (1 Samuel 8:7-8).
The name Silas may also be a Hellenized version of any of the many names that had to do with highways and highway making. Silas may mean Highway Making or Highway Heaper and relate to the verb סלה (sala), to heap, the way the noun νιφασ (niphas), snowstorm, relates to the verb νειφω (neipho), to snow, or the noun λαμπασ (lampas), lamp, relates to the verb λαμπω (lampo), to shine.
Forming a native noun from a foreign verb is of course a bit of a no-no but certainly not unheard of. In our own time, the verb to compute isn't known outside English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, but the noun computer has been adopted by most of the world's languages. Also note that highways were made by casting rocks in a gully, and that Silas is introduced right after Paul is stoned by opposing Jews from Antioch and Iconium (Acts 14:19).