Friday, December 9, 2011

Acts 17:11 The Noble Bereans

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 …                                             (Acts 17:10-12 ESV)

This has long been among my favorite passages of the Bible. I have often thought of the faithful Bereans looking up and double-checking what Paul and Silas told them and confirming it for themselves, through study, that indeed the Gospel message was in fact biblical (taught in the Old Testament). This is the ideal Protestant picture of discipleship; test everything by diligent study, carefully examining the Word, searching the Scriptures, to evaluate all truth claims. An interesting article in the November issue of The Journal of Biblical Literature, however, questions how accurate this image is.

The article, by Roy E. Ciampa of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is titled “Examined the Scriptures”? The Meaning of anakpinonteV taV grafaV in Acts 17:11. Ciampa argues that our mental image of faithful Jews engaged in an ancient equivalent of modern style Bible study is likely inaccurate or at least overstated. He begins by pointing out that there is some question among historians as to how accessible physical texts would have been to the average first century Jew. Books were very expensive at that time and many people could not read. Certainly not everyone would own their own Bible and even if they could read many may not have had access to one that they could use for private study.

Ciampa points out that the misunderstanding is due in large part to a long tradition of interpretations that say that the Bereans “searched” the Scriptures which gives the impression that they were looking things up in their Bibles directly. He traces the origin of this translation tradition to Chrysostom who, in his comments on Acts 17:11, explained that the verb in the text (anekrinon) means the same thing as another verb (anhreunwn) which does in fact mean “searched”. Apparently the wording in the text was not a common construction even at the time he was writing and Chrysostom therefore defined it in reference to a more well known word. Chrysostom’s substitution of the definition of anereunaw for anekrinw became (whether due to his influence or not isn’t certain) the standard approach for major translations that followed. Jerome’s Vulgate as well as Luther, Tyndale, the King James Version, and many others translate the word in a way that conveys the idea of searching the text. Historically most lexicons also listed “searched” as one of the meanings for the word but Ciampa argues that this was a result of the ancient tradition of translating it that way rather than any lexical-grammatical justification for doing so.

Ciampa looks at the use of the term in both the Bible and other ancient Greek literature and shows that the word anekrinon can mean “to examine” in a judicial context such as cross-examining a witness but that it never means “to search” or “to examine” an impersonal object such as a text or artifact. He suggests that “inquire” better communicates the idea in the text. Most modern translations use the word “examined” rather than “searched” to translate the word and this is supported by the best recent lexicons but Ciampa points out that it is important to pay careful attention to the definitions used by those lexicons. He explains, “The Greek texts that support the gloss “examine” do so with the meaning “to determine the qualifications, aptitude, or skills [of a person] by means of questions or exercises” or “to question formally/judicially to elicit facts or information; interrogate,” not with the meaning “to observe carefully or critically; inspect” (or “to study or analyze”).” He goes on to point out that the contemporary English translations, thought they use the term “examine” rather than “searched” still give the impression that the Bereans were searching or analyzing their Bibles.

It is, of course, possible that some of the wealthy Bereans had copies of the Scriptures so it might have been the case that some of them were in fact looking things up. According to Ciampa, however, the verse itself is not addressing that issue but is rather dealing with them asking questions about the Scriptures.  Ciampa argues that the text “indicates that the Beroeans were ‘asking [Paul] questions about the Scriptures every day to see if these things were true.’ This gives us a picture of a community that treated Paul as a highly respected rabbi or teacher of Scripture and suggests that the Beroeans were thought to have (or are portrayed as having) evaluated his teaching based on his answers to the questions they put to him in light of their own prior knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures.”

Ciampa therefore claims that although it is possible that some of the Bereans may have had the tools and capability to engage in daily Bible study, and that it is possible that this capability informed their questions of Paul, that all Acts 17:11 tells us is that the Bereans were asking Paul questions and comparing his answers to their knowledge of the Scripture. It does not indicate if that knowledge was the result of continual and direct access to the scrolls themselves or through memorization and what they knew from the regular readings at the synagogue. The picture we should have in our mind from Acts 17:11, according to Ciampa, is that Paul was being called on to explain and defend his teaching as if he were defending a thesis. Ciampa sees this as much more consistent with the approach that would be used by those who may not have personal texts and he argues it was a common approach in the rabbinical tradition. He is saying that what is commendable about the Bereans is their openness to hear and consider the teaching rather than their commitment to Bible study as we have come to know it.

The article is interesting and makes a good case for Ciampa’s conclusions though the reaction of other Greek scholars remains to be seen. In at least one sense, if this is correct, it makes the Bereans even more commendable because the implication would be that they were not just using their Bibles like encyclopedias or reference books but rather that they had a working knowledge and grasp of the material. In order to “examine” or “question” Paul or any other teacher with regard to their doctrine and interpretation would require a great deal of understanding of the various connections and relationship of material within the Old Testament.

The flow of the narrative in Acts suggests that it is the suffering and resurrection of the Messiah that they were searching to confirm with the Old Testament. I do not know how many Christians in our Churches today, even with all of our modern access to texts and study aids, can biblically demonstrate the suffering and resurrection of Christ solely from the Old Testament. These ancient Bereans, however, were familiar enough with the content of their Bibles to follow Paul’s references as he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, ask follow up questions, and evaluate Paul’s claims. Bible in hand or not, that requires a great deal of familiarity with the text.

I pray that like the Bereans we would all come to know the Scriptures well enough to evaluate teachings we encounter against them even if our Bibles do not happen to be readily at hand.


  1. What a bogus argument. Have you ever heard of a synagogue without an ark containing the Torah? Any Hasidic Jew would laugh all the way to the shtibel at the idea that it would be too much to expect of a cosmopolitan Jew to have daily access to the Scriptures.

  2. I am not sure if Ciampa is correct or not. The issue is the meaning of the term in the verse. He doesn't argue that there were not copies at the synagogue. Also, we should keep in mind that it is anachronistic to think of modern Jews as the model for the Berean Jews. Hasidism, for example, did not develop until the 1700's if I recall correctly. It is a mystical strain of the religion and is very different from 1st century Judaism. I will need to wait and see how other Greek scholars respond to Ciampa's article before coming to any final conclusions. Even if they had scrolls his reading could be correct.