Growing up in conservative Baptist churches, there was no trait a Christian could possess of more value than knowledge of the Bible. Children’s programs gave awards for Scripture memory. Sunday sermons came from the Scriptures. VBS was dedicated to teaching children Bible stories. In times of grief or seasons of celebration, we turned to the Bible for solace or exultation. In an environment like that, one group from the Scripture was held forth as our role model and example. We were told to be a Berean.
Of course, this was not a rousing call to adopt Macedonian culture. Read what Scripture says about the Bereans in Acts 17:10–12:
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.
This conviction to be a Berean was ingrained in me from an early age. Even now, I can think of no greater exhortation to Christians than to know the Bible.
However, until very recently my fundamental understanding of what it meant to be a Berean was, I believe, flawed. At the very least, it was incomplete.
The picture was often painted for me as one where every Berean was actively searching through their Bibles. The Bereans, in my mind, were like an ultra-devoted group Bible study. Together they opened their Bibles and each of them refused to believe what was taught unless they could collectively flip to a certain page and attach a chapter and a verse to it. There’s only one problem with that image:
The Bereans had no Bibles.
This isn’t only true of the Bereans. It’s true of every single Christian church in the New Testament era. It was not common for average folks in the early church to have their own, personal copy of the Scriptures. It was nearly unheard of. It was not until the Reformation era that mass-production of the Scriptures was even possible. What they had instead was a community—in this case the synagogue, but also the temple—which had a collection of the writings we know as the Old Testament.
If that’s the case, and your conception of what it means to be a Berean is like mine was, then we would all benefit from re-conceiving what it means to search the Scripture as a Berean. There are three fundamental truths that I think can helps us form a more accurate conception of what it means to be a Berean and which can give us some insight into how theology was taught in the early church.
- Bereans receive the truth.
I couldn’t help but notice the order of their seeking: the Bereans received, then examined, and finally believed the truth. In truth, this passage is a beautiful picture of the Reformation principle of Scripture as the norma normans. That means that while we have many norms of our own, Scripture is the ultimate norm that, so to speak, norms (or conforms) our norms. The Bereans hear the doctrinal truth through the apostolic preaching and verify it through the Scriptural truth. It is by the witness of the Scripture that they believe what they received.
This is an important distinction. The truth was brought to them as a conclusion from interpretation. The apostles taught them that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. This truth they then verified according to Scripture (at this point, the Old Testament texts they had at the synagogue). Then they believed.
There is an important application here. Christians today do not do theology ex nihilo (from nothing) or ex ratio (solely from ration, what can be observed and deduced in the world). Nor do we start from scratch, just man and his Bible, to do theology. Theology is received: a gift delivered to God’s people from the treasury of the church. This treasury is Scripture, but also its faithful interpretation handed down to us from the church in our creeds and confessions. We stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Our command is not to “make a deposit” but to “guard the good deposit” (2 Tim 1:14). Theology is not done without regard to what has been delivered to us. Instead, as good Bereans we search the Scriptures to learn verify and guard the deposit which was made before us.
- Bereans learn in the context of the gathered church.
This point follows from the first point. It should not surprise us, but perhaps it will if for no other reason that because we live in such an individualistic age that the thought of studying theology brings to mind podcasts during commutes, private devotions, personal reading, and individual study.
This was not the way of the Bereans. The text itself tells us they gathered daily in the synagogue to seek the Scriptures. This would have involved public readings of Scripture, debate and disputation of teachers, teaching and exposition, and conversation about teaching. This act of interpretation, whatever else it was in the granular details, was a communal act.
This point is not incidental, but is fundamental to the very purpose of Scripture itself. The post-Reformation Reformed dogmatician Franciscus Junius is helpful here. Junius makes a distinction between the principal cause and the instrumental cause of Scripture. The principal purpose of Scripture is the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The instrumental purpose of Scripture is God’s glory in the church through the wisdom of true righteousness—the lessening of our sinful nature and being brought to the full stature of Christ—which together constitutes the present and future good of the church. This is a foundational point for biblical interpretation: if the telos of Scripture is the revelation of God and the glory of God in the church, then the Scripture cannot be properly interpreted in abstraction from the community, wisdom, and mission of the church.
If we are to be Bereans, we must not divorce the study of the Scriptures and doing of theology from the community. We need one another to discern the teaching of Scripture. Theology quite literally cannot be done apart from the church.
- Bereans believe the Christian faith from the Old Testament.
There is perhaps no reality in the New Testament that makes me more uncomfortable than the fact that the early church did not have the full New Testament. It is hard to grasp what church would be like without Romans 8, Ephesians 2, or the Gospel of John.
At the same time, this discomfort likely reveals in me—and maybe in you—a latent, false belief that the Old Testament is somehow materially different from the New Testament. Does the Old Testament teach the Trinity? Does it teach a Divine Messiah? How can they know Jesus is Lord without Romans 10:9? Can we believe what Christians believe from the Old Testament?
Here’s the reality: the Scripture teaches a consistent gospel story from beginning to end. While the New Testament most often makes explicit what the Old Testament makes implicit, to be a Berean is to see that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God, eternally from the Father, sent to redeem his poeple from their sins.
Here’s how B.B. Warfield describes it:
The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before. The mystery of the Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament; but the mystery of the Trinity underlies the Old Testament revelation, and here and there almost comes into view. Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation that follows it, but only perfected, extended and enlarged.1
Put more simply, Dr. Robert Smith, Jr. oftens says in his preaching that for every New Testament Doctrine there is an Old Testament picture.
To be Bereans is not just to search the Scriptures as we now have them in full, but to search the Old Testament in particular and there see God’s plan of redemption in Christ through his death and resurrection. To be a Berean, to borrow from Warfield, is to read with the lights on. Reading this way we see the plan of salvation from the Old Testament to its revelation in the New Testament: “God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself.”
Being a Berean is a lost label for Christians. These days, most of the people who appeal to the term are bloggers on the internet, mostly engaged in heated polemics at best or vicious attacks on those they disagree with at worst. What we see here instead is that Bereans are those who receive the truth in the context of the church, and thereby together prove Christ is both Savior and Lord from the Scriptures. What is the end of all of this? It’s not to win debates or to fill our heads with knowledge for its own sake. The passage tells us: many believe.
The goal of emulating the Bereans is to bring about and strengthen faith. It is Christ’s work and who he is, preached from the Scriptures, that saves and sanctifies. The Bereans had no Bibles. But they did have Christ. We have the Bible. And together, we should seek to find Christ there, and thereby be transformed into his image (2 Cor 3:17-18)
1 Benjamin B. Warfied, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical Doctrines, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 141-42.
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[…] The conviction to be a Berean was ingrained in me from an early age. Even now, I can think of no greater exhortation to Christians than to know the Bible. — Read on griffingulledge.com/2020/11/03/the-bereans-had-no-bibles/ […]
Reblogged this on Averagechristiannet and commented:
Think through your beliefs that they are grounded in Scripture!
This is good stuff, Griffin. Thanks for writing.
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Dear Griffin, My name is Emily and I work for The Gospel Coalition. We would like to translate this article/blog post into Spanish. We would provide a text file, if you would like and we would link back to the original English article/blog post. Please let me know! Thank you!
That sounds great to me! Thank you for helping share this!
[…] “The Bereans Had No Bibles” by Griffin Gulledge. How they were able to search the Scriptures without personal copies of the Bible is even more impressive and convicting, as this author makes needed corrections to their reputation. […]
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Great article! I didn’t read all of it, but I can tell you’re onto something very important and significant. Well-done!
Second paragraph under point #2 isn’t practiced in “church” today. You sit in a room,looking at the back of someone’s head and listen to someone preach. Discussion isn’t allowed, questions are not taken, it’s a one way street.
I’m not sure I entirely buy that. Every church I’ve been a part of has opportunities for discussion, disagreement, or discovery. More often than not this happens on Sunday night or in a small group, but the opportunities tend to exist.
[…] their Bibles and “be like Bereans,” Griffin Gulledge has a provocative piece entitled “The Bereans Had No Bibles.” In it, he makes some important points worth your […]
I love you, Jim, but I really think this is semantic quibbling and nothing more…
Acts 17:11 doesn’t say “they searched their bibles,” it says “they searched the scriptures.” That’s obviously the Old Testament, which is often spoken of as the “Hebrew Bible.”
So to argue that they didn’t have their leather-bound gold leaf nameplated KJV bibles is really reaching here.
They had the Scriptures. They searched the Scriptures, just like Luke says. We should go and do likewise.
You’ve missed the point entirely, it seems. Perhaps give it a closer read and try again.
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[…] A version of this article appeared at griffingulledge.com. […]
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Thanks for your article. It is really interesting to see the passion of the Bereans to examine Scripture to verify what they had received, before they believed, even when it was Paul who gave them the message.
I have one question: when you quoted Franciscus Junius making a distinction between the principal and instrumental purposes, may I ask where did you get that information from, please?
Thanks and Shalom!
Hey Brian, you can read more in his “a treatise on true theology”.
Thanks Brother. Appreciate your prompt response. Shalom!
What a great image of the noble Bereans, searching and studying the scriptures together. A scroll of Matthew, to the one side, and the OT scrolls, to the other side, comparing scripture with scripture. We would indeed do well to do the same! (Thanks for the repost on Aquila Report!)
I’m not sure that’s exactly what I was after. My point was that they would not have had a scroll of Matthew, or any other NT text. What they had was the Old Testament Scriptures, and the preaching of the apostles.
Ah. You are going with the presumption that twenty years after the resurrection, that no one had yet bothered to publish a Gospel, in support of those, such as the Bereans, who would happily turn to written religious texts? And that Paul, who was so comfortable with handling/generating written materials, would be satisfied to allow the Jesus tradition to only be conveyed orally? This does seem to be a popular modern viewpoint, but when we consider the Berean scenario, does it make sense?
Yeah, that’s what the entire article that you’re commenting on is about. Pretty much all of New Testament scholarship is agreed that the gospels as we have them now we’re not in circulation during this time. That’s why it’s critical that we understand how they’re interpreting the Scriptures they do have, which is the old testament. Everything they’re doing here accords with later New Testament writings, but they are later. It’s not really a presumption so much as it is the nearly unanimously accepted consensus of the entire field.
But the whole point of this article is to push back on the idea that they are flipping through their New Testament seeing how it verifies the Old Testament. Instead, they are testing the claims of Paul’s preaching in light of the Old Testament Scriptures.