The Bereans Had No Bibles: Re-envisioning Acts 17

As I grew up in conservative Baptist churches, there was no Christian trait more valuable than Bible knowledge. Children’s programs gave awards for memorizing Scripture. Sunday sermons came from Scripture. VBS was dedicated to teaching Bible stories. In an environment like that, one group from Scripture was held forth as our example: we were told to be Bereans.

Acts 17:10–12 describes the Bereans as “examining the Scriptures daily to see if [the] things [Paul and Silas preached] were so.” This conviction to be a Berean was ingrained in me from an early age. However, until very recently my understanding of what it meant to be a Berean was flawed or incomplete. The picture painted for me was one of the Bereans actively searching the Bible, refusing to believe what the apostles taught unless they could flip to a certain page and attach a passage to it. There’s only one problem with that image.

The Bereans had no Bibles.

It was rare for average folks in the early church to have an individual copy of the Scriptures. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Reformation era that mass production of God’s Word was even possible. What they had instead was a community—in this case the synagogue—which had a collection of writings we know as the Old Testament.

Three Fundamental Truths

We would all benefit from evaluating anew what it means to be a Berean. Three fundamental truths can help us form a more accurate conception.

1. Bereans Receive Truth

Notice the order of their seeking: the Bereans received, then examined, and finally believed the truth (Acts 17:11–12). 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 norms (or conforms) our norms.

It was rare for average folks in the early church to have an individual copy of the Scriptures.

It was by the witness of Scripture that the Bereans believed what they received. 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 don’t do theology ex nihilo (from nothing) or ex ratio (solely from reason, what can be observed and deduced in the world). The essential truths of the faith developed in the early church should be received by believers, but not simply on their internal logic. Christians should search Scripture to see how these teachings are upheld by the witness of God’s Word. We shouldn’t act as if we are the first to ever read the Bible, but neither should we set the Bible aside to put our trust in external truths like the creeds. We receive the truth handed down to us, and verify and guard it by the authority of the Scriptures (2 Tim. 1:14).

2. Bereans Learn as the Gathered Church

This shouldn’t surprise us, but perhaps it will. In our individualistic age, the thought of studying theology brings to mind podcasts, private devotions, and personal reading. This was not the way of the Bereans.

The text tells us they gathered daily in the synagogue to search Scripture. This would’ve involved public readings of Scripture, debate and disputation by teachers, teaching and exposition, and conversation about teaching. This act of interpretation, whatever else it was in the granular details, was a communal act.

Biblical interpretation, whatever else it was in the granular details, was a communal act.

This point is not incidental, but fundamental to the very purpose of Scripture. The post-Reformation theologian Franciscus Junius is helpful here. Junius makes a distinction between Scripture’s principal purpose and its instrumental purpose. Its principal purpose is the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Its instrumental purpose is God’s glory in the church through the wisdom of true righteousness—the weakening of our sinful addictions and being brought to the full stature of Christ—which constitutes the present and future good of the church.

This is a foundational point for biblical interpretation: if the goal of Scripture is the revelation of God and his glory in the church, then Scripture cannot properly be interpreted in abstraction from the community, wisdom, and mission of the church. If we are to be Bereans, we must not divorce the doing of theology from the community. We need one another to discern the teaching of Scripture. Theology cannot be done apart from the church.

3. Bereans Believe the Christian Faith from the Old Testament

Few realities make me more uncomfortable than knowing the early church (including the Bereans) didn’t have the full New Testament. It’s 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 misconception that the Old Testament is somehow materially different from the New Testament.

If we are to be Bereans, we must not divorce the doing of theology from the community.

Does the Old Testament teach the Trinity? Does it teach a divine Messiah? How can we know Jesus is Lord without Romans 10:9? Here’s the reality: the Scripture teaches a consistent gospel story from beginning to end. Indeed, the New Testament most often makes explicit what the Old Testament makes implicit. As B. B. Warfield described 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.

Or as Robert Smith Jr. often says, 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 through Christ’s death and resurrection. If I could borrow from Warfield, to be a Berean 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” (2 Cor. 5:19).

Being True Bereans

What is the end goal of all this? It’s not to win debates or fill our heads with knowledge for its own sake. The passage tells us: it’s so that many will believe (Acts 17:12).

The goal of emulating the Bereans is to bring about and strengthen faith. It is Christ’s person and work 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).

A version of this article appeared at

The Bereans Had No Bibles: Re-envisioning Acts 17

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