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Why the Bereans Rejected Sola Scriptura

Steve Ray

A prominent anti-Catholic organization out of Oregon, with Dave Hunt at the helm, publishes a monthly newsletter entitled The Berean Call. The title is taken from Acts 17, where Paul refers to the Bereans in Asia Minor as “noble-minded,” and Hunt chose the title to promote his belief in sola scriptura.

Sola scriptura, or the “Bible only,” is a Protestant doctrine invented in the fifteenth century. It declares the Bible is the sole source of revelation and the only and final judge in all matters of the Christian faith. Martin Luther developed it as a reaction to the historic teachings of the Catholic Church and of the Fathers of the first centuries. Luther rejected the authority of the Church and the apostolic tradition and so was left with sola scriptura—the Bible alone.

In reality, though, Hunt has turned the episode in Berea on its head, since the noble-minded Bereans actually condemn his sola scriptura position. This Bereans passage has been commandeered by Fundamentalists for too long, and it is time Catholics reclaim it. Many have been troubled by this text, and many explanations from a Catholic perspective have been mediocre at best. Not only can the text be explained easily by Catholics, but it is actually a strong argument against sola scriptura and a convincing defense of the teaching of the Catholic Church.

We are told that the Bereans were more noble-minded (open-minded, better disposed, fair)—but more noble-minded than whom? The Thessalonians! It is convenient for Fundamentalists to pull this passage out of context and force it to stand alone. That way their case seems convincing, but the context tells the real story. Before we look at the Bereans, let’s take a look at those they are compared to, the Thessalonians. What did the Thessalonians do that made them less noble-minded?

We find out in Acts 17:1–9: “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, 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. But the Jews were jealous, and, taking some wicked fellows of the rabble, they gathered a crowd, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the people. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brethren before the city authorities, crying, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard this. And when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.”

The Thessalonians rejected Paul and his message, and, after denouncing him, they became jealous that others believed. They treated Paul with contempt and violence, throwing him ignominiously out of town. Why? “For three weeks he [Paul] reasoned with them from the Scriptures” in the synagogue, as was his custom. They did not revile Paul the first week or the second; rather, they listened and discussed. But ultimately they rejected what he had to say. They compared Paul’s message to the Old Testament and decided that Paul was wrong. We must remember that many were proclaiming a wide variety of new teachings, all supposedly based on the Scriptures and revelations from God. Heresies, cults, and sects were as numerous in the Roman Empire as they are today. The Jews in Thessalonica had a right to be skeptical.

Now let’s look at Luke’s comment about the noble-minded Bereans: “The brethren 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, 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” (Acts 17:10–12).

When Protestants use this passage as a proof text for the doctrine of sola scriptura, they should realize that those in question were not Christians; they were Hellenistic Jews. There was no doctrine of sola scriptura within Jewish communities, but the Scriptures were held as sacred. Although the Jews are frequently referred to as “the people of the book,” in reality they had a strong oral tradition that accompanied their Scriptures, along with an authoritative teaching authority, as represented by the “seat of Moses” in the synagogues (Matt. 23:2). The Jews had no reason to accept Paul’s teaching as “divinely inspired,” since they had just met him. When new teachings sprang up that claimed to be a development of Judaism, the rabbis researched to see if they could be verified from the Torah.

If one of the two groups could be tagged as believers in sola scriptura, who would it be, the Thessalonians or the Bereans? The Thessalonians, obviously. They, like the Bereans, examined the Scriptures with Paul in the synagogue, yet they rejected his teaching. They rejected the new teaching, deciding after three weeks of deliberation that Paul’s word contradicted the Torah. Their decision was not completely unjustified from their scriptural perspective. How could the Messiah of God be cursed by hanging on a tree like a common criminal, publicly displayed as one who bore the judgment of God? What kind of king and Messiah would that be? This seemed irreconcilable to them (see Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1990], 614).

When some of the Greeks and prominent citizens did accept Jesus as Messiah, the Jews became jealous—and rightfully so, from their perspective, since the new believers separated themselves from the synagogue and began meeting elsewhere, at Jason’s house. The Jews naturally considered themselves the authoritative interpreters of the Torah. Who were the Gentiles to interpret Scripture and decide important theological issues or accept additional revelation? They were the “dogs,” not the chosen custodians of the oracles of God (see William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1976], 128).

We can see, then, that if anyone could be classified as adherents to sola scriptura it was the Thessalonian Jews. They reasoned from the Scriptures alone and concluded that Paul’s new teaching was “unbiblical.”

The Bereans, on the other hand, were not adherents of sola scriptura, for they were willing to accept Paul’s new oral teaching as the word of God (as Paul claimed his oral teaching was; see 1 Thess. 2:13). The Bereans, before accepting the oral word of God from Paul, a tradition as even Paul himself refers to it (see 2 Thess. 2:15), examined the Scriptures to see if these things were so. They were noble-minded precisely because they “received the word with all eagerness.” Were the Bereans commended primarily for searching the Scriptures? No. Their open-minded willingness to listen was the primary reason they are referred to as noble-minded—not that they searched the Scriptures. A perusal of grammars and commentaries makes it clear that they were “noble-minded” not for studying Scripture, but for treating Paul more civilly than did the Thessalonians—with an open mind and generous courtesy (see I. Howard Marshall, “The Acts of the Apostles” in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1981], 5:280).

The Bereans searched the Torah no less than the Thessalonians, yet they were eager to accept words of God from the mouth of Paul, in addition to what they already held to be Scripture, that is, the Law and the Prophets. Even if one claims that Paul preached the gospel and not a “tradition,” it is clear that the Bereans were accepting new revelation that was not contained in their Scriptures. These Berean Jews accepted oral teaching, the tradition of the apostles, as equal to Scripture, in addition to, and as an “extension” of, the Torah. This is further illustrated by the Christian community’s reception of Paul’s epistles as divinely inspired Scripture (see 2 Peter 3:16; here Peter seems to acknowledges Paul’s writings as equal to the “other Scriptures,” which can be presumed to refer to the Old Testament).

From the perspective of anti-Catholics, the Thessalonians would have been more noble-minded, for they loyally stuck to their canon of Scripture alone and rejected any additional binding authority (spoken or written) from the mouth of an apostle. In fact, at the Council of Jamnia, around A.D. 90, the Jews determined that anything written after Ezra was not infallible Scripture; they specifically mentioned the Gospels of Christ in order to reject them.

Why did the Bereans search the Scriptures? Because they were the sole source of revelation and authority? No, but to see if Paul was in line with what they already knew—to confirm additional revelation. They would not submit blindly to his apostolic teaching and oral tradition, but, once they accepted the credibility of Paul’s teaching as the oral word of God, they put it on a par with Scripture and recognized its binding authority. After that, like the converts who believed in Thessalonica, they espoused apostolic Tradition and the Old Testament equally as God’s word (see 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:16). Therefore they accepted apostolic authority, which means that the determinations of Peter in the first Church council, reported in Acts 15, would have been binding on these new Gentile converts.

By contrast, the Jews of Thessalonica would have condemned Peter’s biblical exegesis at the Council of Jerusalem. They would have scoffed at the Church’s having authority over them—the Torah was all they needed. Those who held to sola scriptura rejected Paul because he claimed to be the voice of “additional revelation.”

Luke makes it plain that those who were willing to accept apostolic Tradition as binding were more noble-minded. The Bereans passage, therefore, is hardly a proof text for those who espouse sola scriptura. This text proves too much for Fundamentalists. Anti-Catholics love to associate themselves with the Bereans, but the example of the Bereans actually condemns their exegesis. Luke’s praise of the Bereans cannot be applied to Fundamentalist Protestants, who resemble rather the Thessalonians, who held to sola scriptura and rejected the oral word of God contained in Tradition and in the teaching authority of the Church.

To be consistent with his novel theology of sola scriptura, Dave Hunt ought to rename his monthly newsletter. Let me suggest a new title: The Thessalonian Call.

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