I was asked the following question:

In I Thessalonians 3:1-2, Paul is saying that “we thought it best to be in Athens alone and sent Timothy to establish you….” The corresponding Acts chapters (17:10-14) say that Paul, Silas & Timothy went to Berea after being in Thessalonica. Paul goes on to Athens without Silas & Timothy, and they come to him when he is in Corinth . So who are the “we” in I Thessalonians 3:1, and how could Paul have sent Timothy since Timothy wasn’t with him. It seems like the “we” could mean Paul & Silas because that’s who wrote the letter (which wouldn’t make sense because Silas was not with Paul in Athens); but then again, we guess it could be the “brethren” in Acts 17:14. Any thoughts?

That is a very good question. I think a closer examination of the text can clear some of these questions up. First of all, how Paul could have sent Timothy when Timothy wasn’t with him? The decision for Paul to be left alone at Athens apparently was made, not once he was already in Athens, but before he left Berea, as is set forth in Acts 17:14. “Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there.” So there was the decision to leave Paul alone at Athens, made in Berea, not in Athens. Therefore that was also where he determined to send Timothy to Thessalonica to check on them rather than bringing him with him.

Your other question regarding the “we” is more tricky. It seems unlikely that the scholars are wrong in suggesting that the “Silvanus” of I Thessalonians 1:1 is a longer form of Silas, so you are correct in your assessment of what is said. Nor does he say “we thought it best that I be left in Athens alone,” which he definitely could have said. Luke does not use “we” in relating the account in Acts, so he couldn’t be the unnamed one with Paul.

The “we” could be those who conducted Paul to Athens , according to Acts 17:15, “So those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens ; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed.” But these too left Paul alone in Athens , so it seems unlikely that these are the ones who are meant.

Young’s Literal Translation renders this verse as, “Wherefore no longer forbearing, we thought good to be left in Athens alone.” From this version, we could imagine an elipsis, making it “we thought good (for me) to be left in Athens alone.” The New Living Translation takes it this way, “we decided that I should stay alone in Athens ,” but I don’t know that I would base much on that, as there is little evidence for it. The NIV takes it as being definitely plural, “We thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens.”

Since it is clear that none of the “big names” were with Paul in Athens , there is really no way to know who is meant by “we” here. This hearkens back to a discussion I had about I Samuel 21, where we read in verse 1:

Now David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech was afraid when he met David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one is with you?”

Yet in verses 4-5, we read:

And the priest answered David and said, “There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women.” Then David answered the priest, and said to him, “Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was consecrated in the vessel this day.”

So while first it is stated that David was alone and no one was with him, later he is said to be accompanied by “young men.” It could be that David at first hid his companions from Ahimelech, in case word of his flight from Saul had come to him, so that his attendants would not also be in danger. But more likely what Ahimelech referred to was David’s usual cohort, which would have included his army commanders and so forth. So when David had only a few personal servants, they were considered almost as part of David, and Ahimelech said he was alone.

It could be the same way with Paul here. He was not left without helper or attendant, but he was still left without any of his usual companions, the big names that normally would accompany him. It would be like finding one of the twelve apostles alone without any of the others. He might be in a crowd of more than a dozen people, but you still might ask him why he was “alone,” since none of the other twelve were with him. So it could be with Paul here. He had personal attendants, but none of his usual fellowlaborers and companions.

At any rate, I don’t think that is a definitive answer to the question. There is still definitely room for further study.

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