Check it out

Bible reading and study: it’s an indispensable part of the Christian life. That’s not to say that there’s one right way for everyone, despite how people might advocate for their favorite translations and study methods. But we should never take for granted what a miracle it is to have a Bible in the first place — the very word of God, in our own languages, in a variety of versions that attempt to bring out the nuances of the original texts.

We should be grateful for the treasure, a resource that the earliest churches didn’t have.

It’s an anachronism, of course, to imagine the churches planted by the apostle Paul and his companions having printed Bibles (or for that matter even literacy, in some cases). But that’s not to say they had nothing. They had oral tradition, passed on diligently from one generation to the next. Increasingly, they had the letters of Paul himself. And, of course, they had the Hebrew Scriptures, recorded on scrolls and read aloud in the local synagogues.

The question is what you do with what you’ve got.

As we’ve seen, Paul and Silas had established a new community of believers in Thessalonica. When they were ordered out of the city, the church sent them approximately fifty miles southwest. Beroea, though off the main road, was a significant city in its own right, and like Thessalonica, had its own synagogue.

Paul and Silas, as was their habit, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, presumably doing much the same as they had in Thessalonica: Paul reasoned with his fellow Jews, showing from Hebrew Scripture how the crucified and resurrected Jesus was the promised Messiah. In Thessalonica, this had met with mixed success. There, many more Gentiles than Jews had believed, and the Jews who didn’t believe had made significant trouble for the evangelists.

But in Beroea, things were different:

These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. 

Acts 17:11-12, NRSV

The word translated as “receptive” suggests a person who is of good stock, and therefore noble. Functionally, as the NRSV has it, this means that the Jews in Beroea were more receptive to the gospel.

But by describing them as “noble minded,” Luke is paying them a compliment. These Jews demonstrated their bona fides by listening to Paul and going back to their own scriptures to check his arguments for themselves. If they were going to disagree with Paul, it wouldn’t be out of defensiveness or jealousy — it would be on the authority of a diligent examination of their own sacred text.

Now that’s integrity.

Whereas in Thessalonica, relatively few Jews had believed (in comparison to the number of Gentiles converts), many more Jews in Beroea received the gospel. Moreover, Luke doesn’t tell of any reprisals from the Beroeans who didn’t believe.

But that didn’t mean Paul and Silas got to take their ease. As had happened on his first missionary journey, Paul’s opponents followed him from one city to the next: “when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds” (Acts 17:13).

Similar tactics, similar result: though Luke says nothing of any formal action by Beroean city officials, Paul was forced to leave. Silas and Timothy stayed behind (it’s not clear where Timothy was during the earlier trouble in Thessalonica), and Paul had to go on to Athens without them.

Down through the centuries, a number of Christian groups have adopted the name “Berean.” They differ in their theology and emphasis. But the name honors what we read of the Beroeans in Acts 17 — it represents the commitment to diligent, daily examination of an authoritative Scripture.

Should we, who have easy access to immense biblical riches they could scarcely have imagined, do less?