Acts 17 – Who were the Noble Bereans?

In Acts 17, Luke contrasts the response of some Jews in Thessalonica with those in Berea. In fact, all three episodes in Acts 17 show that the gospel was presented in a rational and reasonable fashion. Some accept that rational message (Berea), others act in a disorderly fashion to oppose Paul’s message (Thessalonica). While some in Athens scoff at Paul’s message, there is some respect given to him by those who hear his message on Mars Hill.

Paul engages in rhetoric in the synagogue at Thessalonica and Berea, and in a public philosophical discussion in Athens. Luke describes him as persuading people with positive arguments for the truth of the gospel and the evidence of scripture and reason. This was an important theme for Luke if he was addressing a Roman who is likely from the upper-levels of society. Christianity is not at all like a mystery cult which hides the “real doctrine” from outsiders. Nor is Paul like a sophist orator, a teacher who convinces a crowd on the basis of his personal charisma. Christianity is a “reasonable faith” which can be accepted by intelligent and rational people when presented with a clear argument.

BibleSearchLogo2Paul success angered the Jews, who arranged for a mob to start a riot in the city, placing the blame on Paul and Silas (v. 5-9). The Jews of the synagogue were jealous. Once again, this is the verb “to be zealous” and can have a connotation of strong or even violent response to a false teaching (Phineas, Elijah, Judas Maccabees, etc).

They form a mob made up of “bad characters from the marketplace,” probably day-laborers who were at the time unemployed. Luke very carefully describes this group as a disorderly mob, irrational and violent. This is in contrast to how Christianity entered the city (rationally, in the synagogue, and accepted by prominent people), and in contrast to the people of Berea in the next paragraph. This mob rushes Jason’s house in order to arrest Paul and Silas, but settle for Jason instead. It is possible that Jason was a leader in the church and therefore was arrested as a representative of the Christians.

Paul presents similar arguments in Berea, but with different results. Just as in Thessalonica, Paul visits the synagogue and reasons with the Jews and God- Fearing Gentiles that Jesus is the Christ. But in Berea, Paul’s message was received with goodwill. The difference is that this congregation “searches the scripture” to confirm Paul’s message.

Luke describes the Berean Jews as “more noble,” a phrase which might be glossed as “more open-minded” (BDAG). The word εὐγενής is used by Josephus (Antiq. 12.5, 255) for those “better men” who rejected Antiochus and the Hellenists. Luke is therefore described the reception of Paul’s message as attracting intellectually competent and well born individuals. Those who accept Paul’s message are described as men and women of “high standing,” (εὐσχήμων).

Luke’s point in all this is to show that the message Paul proclaims is attractive to the intellectuals of the day. Those who are thoughtful and noble in their thinking will see the light of Paul’s gospel, those who reject it are troublemakers and make false accusations about Paul, stirring up strife and discord.

I think that there is ample opportunity to apply this text to the present day church, which unfortunately stirs up quite a bit of strife and discord and fails to present the claims of Christianity in a rational, reasonable light.  Paul laid his gospel out in a compelling and culturally relevant way and found success.  The acerbic noise coming from some quarters of the Church (on a variety of issues) is not at all presenting a “reasonable faith” to a world which needs the Gospel.