Monday, January 02, 2017

The Bereans

In Acts 17:10-12 we read the following:

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. 

Most Christians are familiar with this wonderful passage about the noble Jewish Bereans. We might be tempted to use this passage to promote bible studies, higher biblical literacy, but some even to support the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Studying our Bible is important and believers should be encouraged to study it and study it deeply.  And it seems, at first glance, to be the perfect passage for this.  But is it?

It is interesting to note that prior to the reformation it is difficult to find any reference to this passage, let alone a use of it familiar to most of us from a protestant background. In fact, doing a search through Schaff's Early Church Father's  I managed to find one reference to Bereans prior to the Reformation and it was a note by the translator (or Schaff himself) commenting on a phrase by Cyprian (see note 3814) quoted below.  It is interesting, as a side note, that the importance of searching the Scripture is pointed out but not reading through "the complete volumes of the spiritual books" which it appears Cyprian is putting on somewhat equal footing with Scripture.

And these things may be of advantage to you meanwhile, as you read, for forming the first lineaments of your faith. More strength will be given you, and the intelligence of the heart will be effected more and more, as you examine more fully the Scriptures, old and new, and read through the complete volumes of the spiritual books.

 This fact, that what is now the normative use of the Berean passage isn't shown to be normative at all until the Reformation, isn't conclusive in and off itself, but it should at least give us pause long enough to ask ourselves what this passage is really trying to tell us. So with that in mind I want to ask a few questions.

First, what was St. Luke trying to get across when he wrote Acts?  Was he trying to show us how Church was suppose to run and how Christians were suppose to behave?   Well, maybe there was a bit of this in mind when he set pen to parchment, but I don't believe it was his major aim.  If I were to sum up his goal in one sentence I would put it like so: Luke was attempting to demonstrate that this fledgling movement was both birthed and guided by the Holy Spirit.  Or to put it even more concisely: the Church was, through and through, a God thing.

I think this summation is easily supported and mostly agreed upon by biblical scholars, both Protestant and Orthodox.

Second, this passage, by its wording, was intended to be read as a juxtaposition to the previous passage.  This is clear from St. Luke's words, "Now these [Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica..." (vs. 11).  Which really isn't about the Thessalonian Jews not reading Scripture and the Berean Jews reading Scripture but rather how they received the word of the Apostles. 

Third, what about all the accounts of people following Jesus without once being told that they first ran to the Scriptures?  We can see this both in the accounts of Gentile conversions as well as Jewish ones.   Are they to be considered less noble because they didn't first look to the Scriptures?   Some might argue, "Yes, but they had memorized the Scriptures and therefore had no need to read them".  To which I would counter that this doesn't explain the Gentiles who would likely not have had exposure to the Jewish Scriptures nor does it explain why the Jews in Berea needed to read them in the first place. 

Fourth, what was it they received from the Apostles?  We aren't told so anything we say about this will necessarily be conjecture.  But considering what we know of the Apostles and their commission given them by Jesus to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe everything Jesus commanded, I believe the safest conjecture would be that they taught the Bereans exactly what Jesus told them to teach.  And if this is the case, how would they search through the Old Testament Scriptures and come to any sort of conclusions about Jesus?  If I were to give a copy of the Old Testament to an unbeliever or even a Jew and said, "Look up everything I tell you about Jesus and verify that what I am telling you is in that book" would they be able to do it?

Fifth, if this passage really was saying, as many of us have been taught, that we must study Scripture and in order to determine if what we are being taught is true or not, we have another problem to address.  This problem was brought to full light at the Protestant Reformation.  When each person interprets the Scripture on his own then he is likely to come up with his own interpretation.  If the Bereans were attempting to decide the veracity of the Apostles' words exclusively from their interpretation of Scripture how could they trust the veracity of their own interpretation. In fact, we see from both from Jesus' interaction with his disciples and the reaction of the religious elite to Jesus that interpretation was a major factor. 

So what was St. Luke trying to say in this passage?  If I am correct, and I think I am, that he was attempting to show how the Holy Spirit was the source of this new movement then it would only follow that this passage about the Bereans was, likewise, following this same vein.  That is, the Bereans are "more noble" not simply because they searched the Scriptures but because they "received the word with all eagerness".  The fact that they searched the Scriptures was only a  manifestation of their eagerness.  Why were they so eager?  Clearly God was working in their hearts.  The seeds being scattered by the apostles took immediate root and began to produce fruit.  This was a God thing.

This would explain how they were able to search the Scriptures for verification of what they were being taught.  They were looking at passages they were quite familiar with and reading into them a new understanding of what they meant in light of the revelation of this Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah as taught by the Holy Apostles.   They weren't just saying, "I'm not going to believe you until I read it myself".  Rather, they were saying, "I believe you and I want to look at the Scriptures to make sure".  I think if Luke wanted this passage to be more about Bible study he would have written something like, "They searched the Scriptures and, after verifying the word of the Apostles, received with eagerness what they were saying".  I don't think it was an accident that the Holy Spirit, through Luke, wrote the order the way that He did.

Not only is this understanding more consistent with the book as a whole, but it also takes this passage beyond mere intellectualism and seats it squarely in the middle of the Holy Spirit's activity in the  Church and her Traditions. Yes, reading the Scriptures is important (as the Cyprian quote above points out). Yes, everything should be weighed carefully against Scripture.  The Berean example does allude to this. But it isn't the primary interpretation.

To recap, I would argue that this passage is not saying the Bereans were noble because they searched the Scriptures but rather they were noble because they received the teaching of the Apostles with eagerness. As should we all.



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