A certain subset of American Evangelicals are very fond of the “Bereans” in Acts 17, and the legacy of the Bereans can be found in everything from Berea College to polemical groups like Berean Call, to countless essays and sermons and articles that say things like:
The church in Berea may no longer be in existence but their legacy ought to live on in the church as we carefully examine Scripture in discerning truth from error. Modern wolves now roam among God’s flock in sophisticated sheep-skins. The seriousness of such a threat demands that we be present-day Bereans, and develop the necessary discernment to intercept these wolves at the point of entry into our churches.
So who were these Bereans, and why are they so popular? Surprisingly, they’re barely mentioned in Scripture, making a brief three-verse appearance. It’s in the context of St. Paul’s travels in Greece (Acts 17:1-4, 10-12):
Now when they had passed through Amphip′olis and Apollo′nia, they came to Thessaloni′ca, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded, and joined Paul and Silas; as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. […]
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroe′a; and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessaloni′ca, for 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.
Perhaps you already see why the Bereans might be popular with this subset of Protestants. It’s easy to envision them as basically ancient Protestants, and Scripture praises them as “noble.” And the Bereans are noble, but they’re not Protestants. Quite the contrary. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind while reading this passage:
1. The Bereans Aren’t Using the Protestant Old Testament
Underlying this Protestant claiming of the Bereans is an assumption that the Scriptures that the Bereans are using was the Protestant Old Testament, as if they’re each rushing home to grab their 1611 King James Version English-language Bible. But the real-life Bereans lived in (you guessed it) Berea, in modern-day Greece, which is why Acts 17:12 mentions “few Greek women of high standing as well as men” converting alongside the Jews. These are Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jews. Why does that matter? Because Greek-speaking Jews used the Septuagint which included 7 Books (Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Baruch, Sirach, and Judith) that are accepted as canonical by Catholic and rejected as “Apocrypha” by nearly all Protestants.
In other words, the Bereans are probably using the Catholic Old Testament, or something a lot closer to it than the Protestant Old Testament. I am admittedly oversimplifying here slightly. As Nijay Gupta, an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary (formerly George Fox Evangelical Seminary) writes:
I would like to talk about the Apocrypha, which is included within the LXX.
Disclaimer: it is a bit misleading to talk about “the Septuagint.” Someone once wrote that to refer to the Septuagint is like referring to the English Bible. Just as with the English Bible, the Septuagint (as a term) represents a variety of text traditions with a long and winding history. The same goes with the Apocrypha. Which texts make up the Apocrypha? Again, while there are variant collections, there is a central set of texts (Tobit, 1-2 Maccabees, Epistle of Jeremiah, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, etc…) and peripheral texts that appear in fewer collections (4 Maccabees, Odes, etc…). Still, I think we can refer to the Apocrypha generally for convenience.
These are good disclaimers. There isn’t a single Greek version of the Old Testament at this time: there are several, with slightly-different canons. So we can’t say with certainty that the Bereans had the full Catholic Old Testament, because we don’t know which Greek Bible they were using. But all of those Greek Bibles include at least some of the Books that Protestants call “Apocrypha,” which is to say that none of the Greek Bibles of this period looked like the Protestant Old Testament of today. We don’t know for certain which Old Testament they were using, but we can be pretty sure of which one they weren’t.
So the “66-book Bible” Protestants praising the Bereans actually have less in common with them than they might think. When I pointed this out several years ago, a Protestant reader suggested:
Those Greeks needed that Jew [St. Paul] to open their eyes to see the error of the Deuterocanon. And after listening to the argument and then turning to the Scriptures, they immediately repented and got their cutters out and edited their book, looking for more help from above so as not to make that stupid mistake again.
This is pure fiction, of course. The Book of Acts doesn’t condemn the Bereans for reading false Scriptures. Rather, Acts praises the Bereans for their reading of Scriptures that almost certainly included the Deuterocanon/”Apocrypha.”
2. The Bereans Aren’t Sola Scriptura Christians
The other major reason that Protestants of this sort tend to like to claim the Bereans is that they imagine that the Bereans believed in sola Scriptura, that all doctrines must be proven from Scripture alone. So, for example, Cameron Buettel of Grace to You writes that
Scripture was the Bereans’ accurate and effective filter for receiving truth and rejecting error. The fact that they read Scripture “daily” also points to a high degree of biblical literacy. They didn’t merely dip their toes in the reading of favorite stories and the memorization of “life-verses.” They were fully immersed in God’s Word and studied it as a collective whole, being able to identify the story of Christ woven throughout the Old Testament.
It is also telling that there is no mention of the Bereans consulting with any sources other than Scripture. Their belief in the sufficiency of Scripture is evident by their use of it as the sole, necessary plumb line of truth.
This is from an essay called “Meet the Bereans,” but the Bereans that we’re meeting are almost entirely a creation of Buettel’s imagination, and he goes well beyond the three lines of Acts 17:10-12 in order to create these “Protestantized” Bereans.
For example, Scripture doesn’t record anything about how the Berean Jews used to read the Scriptures together every day. It only says that they turned to the Scriptures daily while St. Paul was there, to determine if what he was saying was true. Don’t get me wrong: it would be great if the Bereans had a daily practice of examining Scripture together. But, other than during the short period that St. Paul was with them, nothing in Scripture suggests that they did.
Being Scriptural devotees is also not what they’re praised as “noble” for, despite countless Protestant commentaries that treat it like it were. Rather, they’re praised for being open-minded, ready and willing to hear a new Gospel message beyond the incomplete revelation that they already had: “these Jews were more noble than those in Thessaloni′ca, for they received the word with all eagerness…”
In other words, they’re being praised precisely for not settling for the incomplete Old Testament but being open to the New Testament. That’s basically the opposite of what Buettel is praising them for.
And it’s worth noting that the Bereans couldn’t have been the sola Scriptura Christians that Buettel claims that they were, because sola Scriptura wasn’t practiced in the Apostolic era. Even James Whites, in the midst of trying to defend sola Scriptura, admits as much:
You will never find anyone saying, “During times of enscripturation—that is, when new revelation was being given—sola scriptura was operational.” Protestants do not assert that sola scriptura is a valid concept during times of revelation. How could it be, since the rule of faith to which it points was at that very time coming into being? One must have an existing rule of faith to say it is “sufficient.” It is a canard to point to times of revelation and say, “See, sola scriptura doesn’t work there!” Of course it doesn’t. Who said it did?
Remember the context of Acts 17 here. St. Paul is coming and preaching something radically new: the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And he’s saying that Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, prompting the Bereans to go back and look at those Old Testament prophecies.
But make no mistake: even though the prophecies were already there, their fulfillment in Jesus Christ is new, and not to be found in the Old Testament Scriptures. So radical is the Christian revelation that some of the first listeners responded “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).
So the Bereans don’t say “we don’t need anything other than the Scriptures.” If they did, they would have to reject St. Paul, since he’s bringing them a new and extra-Scriptural teaching!
Here, an important distinction should be made. Both Catholics and Protestants are against anti-Scriptural teachings, teachings that are contrary to what the Bible teaches. And the Bereans clearly (and rightly) double-checked to make sure that the Christian message wasn’t anti-Scriptural.
But not all extra-Biblical teachings are anti-Biblical. Not everything found in the Gospel of John is found in the Gospel of Mark, but that doesn’t mean that the two contradict (even if, at a surface level, they sometimes seem to). Likewise, not everything found in Sacred Tradition is found in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that the two contradict (even if, at a surface level, they sometimes seem to).
Sola Scriptura Protestants reject extra-Biblical teachings. But Catholics don’t, and the Bereans didn’t. If they did, they would have rejected St. Paul and the Christian Gospel — which, at that point, was only being transmitted orally. Instead, the Bereans were open-minded and open-hearted enough to listen to a teaching that was consistent with the Scriptures but not found in the Scriptures (namely, the Jesus of Nazareth died and rose) and to come to accept it as true.
All of this is to say that it’s more than a little ironic that Protestants who believe that all doctrines need to be found in the 66 books of their Bible claim to be modelling themselves off of the Bereans, who neither had a 66-book canon nor a belief that all doctrines need to be found in the Scriptures. So as I said before, the Bereans are noble, but they’re not Protestant.