A Commentary by John Stott

1 Thessalonians 3:Additional note on Paul’s use of ‘we’.

Turning from internal to external evidence to substantiate the essential Pauline authorship of the Thessalonian letters, three points may be made. First, Luke in Acts is quite clear that Paul was the leader of his mission team. Silas had been chosen to replace Mark, and Mark had been only a ‘helper’ (Acts 13:5; 15:37ff.). Timothy, though much loved, was clearly a junior (Acts 16:1ff.). Luke does indeed couple ‘Paul and Silas’ as fellow prisoners (Acts 16:19, 22, 25, 29), Roman citizens (Acts 16:38), and co-labourers (Acts 16:40; 17:4). Yet he makes it clear that Paul did the preaching, in both the Thessalonian and the Berean synagogues (Acts 17:2-3, 11). If, then, he was the leading preacher, it is all but certain that he was the leading writer too.

Secondly, Paul was an apostle, whereas Silas and Timothy were not. True, Silas was a leader in the Jerusalem church, an official delegate of the Jerusalem Council and a prophet (Acts 15:22, 27, 32), but he is never named an apostle. Nor is Timothy. In fact, in later letters Paul deliberately distinguishes himself from Timothy in this respect by writing ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother’ (2 Cor.1:1; Col.1:1; cf. 1 Cor.1:1; Phm.1). It is in the light of this that we must understand the surprising expression ‘as apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you’ (1 Thess.2:6b). Either Paul was using the word ‘apostles’ here in its broader sense of ‘missionaries’ (as in Acts 14:4, 14; 2 Cor.8:23; Phil.2:25), or he was referring to himself as the apostle but was forced by grammar to write ‘apostles’ in the plural, in order to be in apposition to ‘we’ (rather like ‘we were left alone [*monoi*]’ in 3:1).

Thirdly, there are many examples in Paul’s other letters where he moves from ‘I’ to ‘we’ without appearing to change the identity of the subject. For example, after announcing himself to the Romans  as having been ‘called to be an apostle’, he goes on to say that ‘we received grace and apostleship’ (Rom.1:1, 5). In his second letter to the Corinthians, after a highly individualistic passage in the first person singular about his relationship with them (2 Cor.1:15-2:13), Paul changes to ‘we’ (2 Cor.2:14-4:18), although he is still evidently describing his apostolic ministry, labours and sufferings. Similarly, at the beginning of 2 Corinthians 10, ‘I, Paul’ (2 Cor.10:1) lapses into ‘we’ from verse 3 to the end of the chapter, and then reverts to ‘I’ again throughout chapters 11 to 13. We may also note the ease with which Paul could slide from the request ‘pray for us that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ’ to the statement ‘for which I am in chains’ (Col.4:3).

One more example, this time from the pen of John, is 3 John 9-10: ‘I wrote [singular] to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us [plural]. So if I come [singular again], I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us [plural].’ It is understandable that RSV preserves the singular throughout, including ‘Diotrephes…does not acknowledge my authority’. Moreover, this almost interchangeable use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ has many parallels in the secular writings of Paul’s day. ‘There are plenty of examples to hand from the papyri’, wrote Bicknell, ‘where the writer passes backwards and forwards from the singular to the plural in a single letter.’ These are clear cases of the ‘epistolary’ plural.

To sum up, we should agree with Milligan that there is no ‘hard and fast rule’, since Paul’s use of the ‘we’ form includes ‘a wide variety of *nuances* and shades of meaning’. We have no liberty to say that Paul’s plurals are never epistolary, for this position ‘does not seem to be tenable’. Nor can we maintain that by ‘we’ Paul always means ‘I’, using a ‘plural of majesty’, of apostolic dignity, for sometimes he is clearly intending to associate Silas and Timothy with him. What we can say is that his use of ‘we’ is never incompatible with his leadership role in the mission team  and never lessens his authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.