Silas: What Does it REALLY Mean?

File this under reason #58 to not believe anything you read on cutesy Baby Name websites.

On our page discussing names, we were recommending names to a fan. One of our fans innocently adds Silas to the list of considerations, adding that it would work well for the OP, because it means “third”, and this was to be her third child.

I was intrigued why she thought this (“where did you hear that?”, a common question I believe I will be asking often enough), and she informed me that a baby name site told her that. Figures.

Could she have been thinking of Birth Village? Here was the user contributed (!) meaning they ascribed to dear old Silas:

The baby boy or baby girl name Silas comes from the Biblical word which means, “three, or the third.” Biblical word which means, “three, or the third.”

That was taken directly from the entry for Silas without additional editing on my part. If you want something user-submitted to tell you about your name, you might be better off visiting Urban Dictionary. Tee hee.

Now, it just so happens that there is a very similar word in Hebrew to Silas, and it does mean third. From ancient-hebrew.org:

As an example the Hebrew word for “three” is “shelosh”, and the Hebrew word for “third” is “sheliyshiy”.

It would be easy to see why “sheliyshiy” could seem connected to or related to Silas. However, there is already a Hebrew baby name that seems to cover this meaning– Shilshah, which does indeed specifically refer to a third son.

Most sources out there (yes, even the fluff sources) will tell you that Silas stems from the same Latin and Greek roots that “silvan” does, which definitely gives it a meaning of “woody” or “of the forest”. But, there is still a chance that this is wrong and that Silas and Shilshah are related, right?

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. -Robert Frost

I asked my favorite Hebrew/Biblical baby name expert (and all around brilliant guy), Arie, about this. This man is a scholarly genius when it comes to understanding the complexity and poetry behind Biblical names, words, and meanings.  Here’s what he said:

You are correct. The name Silas is short for Silvanus (like Bill is short for William), and both mean forest(ed). And you’re also correct about the Hebrew word for three, which is shalosh. The word for third generation is shilesh, which comes very close to the name Silas.

Names in the New Testament are not as often descriptive of the name-bearer as in the Old Testament. I doubt very much that there is something profoundly “third” about Silas. But maybe I’m wrong.

Most sources, from the fluffy and superficial books and sites, to reliable resources such as Biblical study books, genius Hebrew language students, and reference/dictionary sources seem to agree that Silas has to do with the forest, and not birth order.

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6 responses

  1. Being a bit of a Hebrew Linguistic student myself, I’m not sure the evidence is so obvious. The reason people seem to give the meaning “forest” to “Silas” is because it seems pretty clear that in the New Testament, the fellow traveler and preacher with Paul is referred to by both names. Yet how can this be evidence that both names are the same and have the same meaning when we have “Paul” also being called “Saul”? The Bible is full of people with multiple names – Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel, etc.

    Then there’s the argument that Silas is the Greek form of the Latin Silvanus, which is linguistically possible, I suppose, if the v (pronounced u) and the a contract, and the n assimilates, but that seems like a lot of shifting for a name, especially given the fact that names tend to get frozen in form (i.e. not experience all the regularly expected linguistic changes that occur in languages).

    I would argue that this guy mentioned in the NT had a Semitic and a Greco-roman name, which was fairly common among the Jews of the period (Peter [Gr. “rock”] / Simeon [Heb. “hear”]). His Greco-roman (Latin?) name was Silvanus, and his Semitic name was Silas meaning “three.”

    Yet no matter what etymology you choose to believe (and we must admit that there is some educated guessing going on here!), I would say name your child “Silas” if you like the name, and select which etymology is the meaning you are giving it, since a case can be made for either.

  2. Pingback: Cowboy Prairie Style First & Middle Baby Name Combos | First & Middle Baby Names

  3. We are considering Silas for our third son. Because we like the name and the person from the New Testament with whom we associate it. However, the meaning of wooded/of the forest def didn’t hurt. A possible meaning of third added a fun twist. I would argue that first century families of mixed background would probably have loved a name that could have associations for both parents and families. While the Greek/Latin origin seems most likely to me, use by a Jewish family living in a diverse area would also make sense. This discussion acutally helps a lot! I like thinking about how Silas in Acts may have been named or how his Greek name may have been interacted with when he encountered primarily Jewish communities.

  4. We have a new baby Named Silas. To answer your question regarding the third, I think because I’m the Bible Silas was a companion of Paul and Timothy and we don’t don’t hear his name but that one time so people refer to him as the third. I have no answer as to why.

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