Modern Veria (Veroia) in Greece, the site of ancient Berea (Beroea), was the home of one of the oldest continuously existing Jewish communities until the Nazi’s deported all the Jewish quarter residents during World War II. An old stone 17th century synagogue remains as a reminder of the Jewish population and synagogue which were there when Paul visited sometime around A.D. 50 in our text for this week, Acts 17:1-15.
After suffering persecution by the Jewish community in Thessalonica, Paul finds the Jewish people of Berea more “noble” (to use a frequent translation) in verse 11. The word is literally “well-born,” signifying a good character. The NRSV’s “more receptive” doesn’t quite capture the thought, although it was certainly true. The Berean Jews were more willing to listen to and carefully examine the message Paul brought them rather than rejecting it out of hand.
The rest of verse 11 explains why so many modern Christians would like to identify with the Bereans. They “examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” It’s a picture of careful study of God’s Word to determine the truth of what is being proposed. Of course the “scripture” in the hands of the Bereans were only what we call the Old Testament, and their study was aimed particularly at determining whether the claim that Jesus was the Messiah was true.
All in all, the Bereans portray an intellectual character that does bear imitation by Christians today, not just in their Bible study, but in their admirable combination of openness of mind with critical examination of the claims before them. Either of those two qualities alone often produce deplorable results. Mere open-mindedness by itself makes one a sucker for whatever new viewpoint or fake news comes along. On the other hand, critical thinking operating alone makes one an eternal skeptic, never willing to accept any truth no matter how well established.
As G. K. Chesterton said in his autobiography, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Which is exactly what the Bereans did. Their open-minded reception of the Gospel of Jesus Christ led them to finally close their minds and believe it wholeheartedly.
Contemporary Christians could very much stand to learn this combination of receptiveness and critical thinking centered around Scripture. Innovative doctrinal and ethical claims need to be shown the same gentle-spirited willingness to listen in combination with a tough-minded subjection of those claims to a careful and reasonable reading of the Bible.
The history of Berea witnesses to the success of such an approach. Modern Veria remains a testimony to minds firmly committed to and closed on the Gospel. At least seventy churches were built there in Byzantine times and forty-eight of them still exist, maintained even through the Ottoman Muslim occupation of the town. As I pointed out two weeks ago, a beautiful mosaic portraying Paul’s Macedonian mission stands in the modern town square. It’s a small city that received Christ thoughtfully and carefully and then consistently stood firm in faith down through ages.