It was the Sabbath in Berea, although for most of the inhabitants, it was just another day — an ordinary day in a rather ordinary town. Berea had no pretensions about being among the great cities of Greece. There was less of the frantic hustle and bustle of the major cities such as Athens, always buzzing with new ideas, or Corinth with its cosmopolitan population and liberal life style.
Life in Berea was quieter. The city was at the foot of Mt. Bermius, in southwest Macedonia. You could catch glimpses of the Aegean sea through the gaps. On a clear day you could see the summit of Mt. Olympus. The people of Berea regarded this with awe, for lived the gods there: mighty Zeus, chief of the gods; Ares, god of war; and the beautiful Minerva, goddess of love.
But not everyone in Berea believed that. As in most Greek cities, Berea had a Jewish community — part of the diaspora who had spread throughout the ancient world when the people of the Old Testament nation of Judah was taken into exile. They clung tenaciously to their own customs, and particularly their religion. They worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and dreamed of the day when their God would send the Messiah to gather them again in the promised land and lead them into a new golden age.
Meanwhile, they jealously guarded their customs and traditions. So, as the city went about its business that Sabbath day, a small group of worshippers made their way through the streets to the synagogue that was their center of worship.
The services that day followed the time-honored traditions. The people sang psalms and listened while the rabbi and other elders read scriptures from the sacred scrolls. There was a sermon, delivered as usual by the rabbi. It was also a custom of the synagogue to ask any visitors if they had any words of wisdom or exhortation to impart.
This week there were some strangers in town. Three men had arrived from Thessalonica. Their leader, Paul, was a well spoken man, and obviously well educated. So, following custom, the leaders of the synagogue asked him if he had anything he would like to say.
Paul accepted eagerly and began to speak with a passion and intensity. The Bereans listened, first politely, then with growing interest and amazement. Paul’s message centered around someone called Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. Using the sacred scrolls as evidence, he forcefully supported an astonishing claim: that this Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of their Holy Scriptures concerning the coming of the long-awaited Messiah.
Some of the Bereans had heard of Jesus, the carpenter who had been acclaimed as the Messiah, but who was then crucified like a common criminal. Many false messiahs had come and gone through the years and, to the Bereans, Jesus’ ignominious death only confirmed him as another one.
But this man, Paul, presented the crucifixion as the very evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. He told them confidently that if they had understood the scriptures they would have recognized this. Not only was Jesus crucified, Paul went on to explain, but three days later he was resurrected from the dead! Jesus was alive, and offered forgiveness of sin and eternal life to all who accepted him as their Savior.
Paul demonstrated that many well-known prophecies pointed to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. The radical message seemed almost like heresy and blasphemy, but the Bereans recognized that Paul knew the Scriptures thoroughly, and was well acquainted with their traditions.
It was a challenging idea. As descendants of the chosen people of Israel, these Jews looked for a Messiah who would lead them in a great victory over the Romans and restore them to their former glory. Paul explained, however, that the prophecies showed the Messiah would first come as a lowly servant, to be despised and rejected, even by his own people.
Paul finished speaking and braced himself for a storm of protest. He knew that what he had said was controversial. Often his audiences reacted violently. He was becoming used to being attacked, beaten, stoned or thrown in jail. Just days before, his life had been threatened by the Jewish leaders of Thessalonica, and he and his friends had to be smuggled out of the city by night. That was why he had come to Berea.
But this audience seemed to be different. Instead of the usual hostile reception, they swamped Paul with questions. As they dispersed, they eagerly discussed his astonishing message — Paul had given them much to think about.
During the following days, the Bereans continued to discuss Paul’s sermon. He had shown them their familiar Scriptures in a way they had never seen before. Paul seemed to be talking about an entirely new relationship with God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. If he was right, their whole system of belief would be shaken to the core. But was he right?
Most of the people did not have copies of the Scriptures at home. The printing press had not been invented and handwritten copies of Scripture were extremely expensive. So the Bereans came back to the synagogue during the week, asking the rabbi to help them search the precious scrolls. They wanted to see if Paul was indeed speaking the truth.
Scripture after scripture affirmed that Jesus did indeed fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah. When the Bereans saw with their own eyes the evidence that Paul was speaking the truth, many of them accepted Jesus as the Messiah.
It was an exciting time, but it couldn’t last. Paul’s enemies from Thessalonica followed him to Berea. Once again, Paul had to be smuggled out of town, down to the coast, and on to Athens. But the memory of those unusual days in Berea live on in the book of Acts. Luke wrote of the Bereans: “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:11-12).
Why did the Bereans respond so enthusiastically to Paul’s message? To answer this question one must first understand something about the social and political climate in the Roman Empire in the first century. Specifically, this means learning about the influence of the Diaspora.
The word diaspora is Greek, meaning “dispersion.” When the first letter is capitalized, the term refers to the dispersion of the Jews. This dispersion began with the Babylonians, who deported the Jews in four successive exiles, beginning with King Jehoiakim in 606 B.C. (2 Chronicles 36:6-7; Daniel 1:1-3). The second exile, in 597 B.C., involved the greatest migration of population (2 Kings 24:14-16). A third in 586 B.C. followed the burning of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:8-12; Jeremiah 52:28-30). The fourth and final group was led captive in 581 B.C. (Jeremiah 52:30).
During this 25-year period, a number of Jews fled to Egypt (Jeremiah 43). Very few Jews were left in the land of Judah. They were replaced by Babylonian captives from other lands. When the Medo-Persian Empire, under Cyrus, conquered Babylon (539/8 B.C.), Cyrus allowed some Jews to return to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). Many Jews, however, remained in Babylon, while others migrated to other parts of the world.
Eventually, Jewish communities began to spring up in lands as far away as India to the east and Spain to the west. Their population grew so much that the “number of Jews in the Diaspora far exceeded that of the Jews who lived in the homeland.” One scholar estimates that four and a half million Jews lived in the Roman Empire during the reign of Caesar Augustus (30 B.C.-14 A.D.), accounting for 7 percent of the population (Eduard Lohse, The New Testament Environment).
By the time of Paul, the Jewish population worldwide may have grown to 6 or 7 million, accounting for as much as 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire (G.A. Van Alstine, “Dispersion,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).
This figure is considerably higher than the number of Jews at the end of the Old Testament period (fifth century B.C.). Only the proselytizing activities of Jews can explain this dramatic increase. (Proselytizing is the effort of believers to convert nonbelievers.) Because of their unusual circumstances as an exiled people — living among strangers yet unwilling to forsake their God and their religion — the Jews began to view their national purpose differently. They saw themselves in terms of the biblical injunction to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6).
Jews were active everywhere, bringing to conversion many of the people around their communities. Their success was partly due to the nature of religious belief at the time. Most religions fell into one of two categories. Some, like the mystery religions (e.g., the Eleusinian and Andanian mysteries, or the Mysteries of Dionysos), appealed to the emotions but had little or no ethical basis. Others, like Stoicism, were thoroughly ethical but had minimal emotional appeal.
Judaism, on the other hand, blended a supreme ethical law with a rich emotional experience. It satisfied the intellect without sacrificing the heart. And yet, as the Jewish historian Josephus points out, Judaism did not pander to the baser instincts: “The greatest miracle of all is that our Law holds no seductive bait of sensual pleasure, but has exercised this influence through its own inherent merits” (CA p ii. 38).
In most Roman cities of any size, there was a Jewish community. Although these communities were diverse in structure, they were generally well organized. Furthermore, Jewish communities throughout the Roman world were loosely connected to each other. It did not take long for news, especially news regarding the well-being of a particular community, to travel throughout the Empire.
The heart of any Jewish community was the synagogue, which served primarily as a place where the Law could be read and discussed. Each synagogue had its own copy of the Torah (Law). Some also had copies of the Nevi’im (Prophets) and/or the Kethuvim (Writings).
By the first century B.C., Jews had already developed regular patterns for reading from the Torah each Sabbath. These cycles assured that the entire reading of the Law would be completed regularly. The cycle in the Diaspora, covering the Law in one year, differed from the Judean cycle, which covered the Law every three years. Although there is no scholarly consensus about the origin of reading cycles for the Nevi’im and Kethuvim, most scholars believe there was no standard pattern in existence during the first century.
The highest minister of the synagogue, the archisynagogos, determined who would read from the sacred scrolls. He could select anyone educated in the Law to read from the Scripture and to discuss its implications. Paul’s credentials would have been impressive, particularly to members of a synagogue in a small, out-of-the-way city like Berea. He had spent years training as a Pharisee, several under the renowned Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. Paul would have been recognized immediately as an educated man.
The Bible found in most synagogues of the Diaspora was the Septuagint, a Greek translation. This translation had become a standard for the many Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, because they no longer spoke or read Hebrew. As a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek had become the common language. For that reason, during the third century B.C., Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, translated their Holy Scripture into Greek. Later called the Septuagint, this translation was the Bible from which Paul read and preached at Thessalonica and Berea.
A tale of two cities
Thessalonica was one of the first European cities to hear the apostle Paul’s message concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Acts 16 tells the story of Paul first crossing into Europe from Asia. Thessalonica was the second European city in which Paul stopped to preach the gospel.)
Paul recognized the potential of the city, which was the capital of Macedonia and a metropolitan center of an estimated 200,000 residents. Thessalonica would be ideal as a base of operations from which the gospel could be disseminated. Indeed, other religions, such as the cult of the Egyptian gods, had already spread throughout the region from Thessalonica. In the same way, the city later became a strategic point from which the gospel spread, even though the Thessalonicans had first met Paul with hostility.
In A.D. 50 or 51, writing his first letter to the church there, Paul acknowledged this fact: “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia — your faith in God has become known everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
Many Thessalonian Jews undoubtedly resisted Paul because of the recent expulsion of Jews from Rome (A.D. 49 or 50) due to the “constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus,” as noted by the Roman historian Seutonius (Vita Claudius 25.4). Chrestus is Latin for the Greek Christos, or Christ. The emperor Claudius ordered the expulsion to end the riots, which were presumably the result of Christians coming into conflict with Jews. At any rate, the Thessalonian Jews would have known about the expulsion when Paul arrived.
The strategy of the Jews, who “formed a mob and started a riot” (Acts 17:5), was probably inspired by the events in Rome. The Roman Empire had a longstanding policy of local autonomy, which generally left local rulers in charge of their affairs, provided they could maintain the peace. Perhaps the Jews rioted with the hope that their city rulers would banish Paul quickly in order to avoid Roman intervention.
The Jews in Thessalonica were already aware of the Christian movement (Acts 17:6), though they had not heard Paul or any other minister face-to-face. Instead, they had decided against the gospel based on second-hand information, closing their minds to the truth. Few were willing to approach Paul’s ideas with an open mind. Fewer still were willing to examine the Scriptures objectively to see what they said.
The situation was different in Berea, a smaller town located about 40 miles from Thessalonica. The Roman writer Cicero described the city as a “town off the beaten track,” probably because Berea is several miles away from the Via Egnatia, the primary road in the region (In Pisonem 36.89).
Even so, Berea’s position overlooking the Haliacmon plains, and its proximity to the natural springs at the base of Mount Bermius, made it one of the more desirable towns of the region. Its people were of high social standing, as indicated by inscriptions archaeologists have unearthed as well as Luke’s account in Acts, which describes the people as “more noble.”
When Paul spoke in the synagogue at Berea, he stood before an assembly of four types of listeners. The crowd consisted of Jews by birth; Greek proselytes to Judaism; Greeks who believed in God and were called “God-fearers,” but who had not made the final commitment of circumcision; and finally, curious onlookers.
Prominent women in Berea
A remarkable aspect of Luke’s account of the Berean synagogue, often passed over by the casual reader, is the importance of women.
Luke mentions the women first, then the men, reversing the order used when describing the Thessalonican synagogue: “Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:12).
Unfortunately, not all modern Bibles reflect this distinction. That’s because early copies of the scrolls and letters that became the New Testament began to differ from one another. Depending on the language and geographic region in which they were copied and translated, and depending on the theological and cultural biases of the copyists, minor changes in meaning were introduced.
Verse 12 of Acts 17 is a good example. The Western texts reverse the order: “Also many of the Greeks and of the prominent men and women believed.” This reversal is typical of the Western text, which downplays the prominence of women. It is an indication of the theological bias in the Western church, which placed women in a subordinate role.
“It appears that there was a concerted effort by some part of the church, perhaps as early as the late first century or beginning of the second, to tone down texts in Luke’s second volume [Acts} that indicated that women played an important and prominent part in the early days of the Christian community. [W.M.] Ramsay long ago remarked with some justification that in reaction to the conventions in various parts of the Roman Empire, `the Universal and Catholic type of Christianity became confirmed in its dislike of the prominence and public ministration of women. The dislike became abhorrence, and there is every probability that the dislike is as old as the first century, and was intensified to abhorrence before the middle of the second century.’ In fact, it seems more likely that the `Western’ text was simply reflecting Roman and Western ideas about women not playing prominent roles in public life. In any event…Luke’s attempt to give women special prominence in Acts soon rubbed people the wrong way” (Ben Witherington III, “The Anti-Feminist Tendencies of the `Western’ Text in Acts,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 1984, pp. 83-84).
The Eastern texts, on the other hand, place the women first. They more accurately reveal the Greek attitude toward women in the early church. The early Christian community accepted women as full members of the congregation. Just as men in the church were “brothers” (Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 6:6; James 1:9), women were “sisters” (Romans 16:1; 1 Corinthians 7:15; 9:5; James 2:15).
Women in Macedonia, the province in which both Thessalonica and Berea were located, were known for their independent spirit. The passage in Acts points to this spirit, showing that the women were important supporters of Paul. It’s true that the women involved may have been wives of influential men. However, “if some of the women who believed the gospel at this time were the wives of leading citizens, the initiative was theirs, not their husbands: (F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts).
It was the third category, the God-fearers, that caused much of the trouble in Judaism. The Jews had worked with many of these individuals, bringing them along toward conversion. And although the God-fearers believed, many of them had not accepted circumcision.
The Greeks, unlike many of the ancients, refused to tatoo, mark or scar their bodies. They admired the human form as perfect beauty. Any cutting or marking of the body was extremely distasteful because it detracted from this natural beauty. Of course, circumcision is a cutting of the foreskin that changes the natural appearance of a man’s body, and many Greeks therefore thought that circumcision was barbaric.
It was for these reasons that a number of God-fearers met regularly with the Jews, worshipping the same God but not willing to be circumcised. Paul’s preaching was a threat to the Jews precisely because he offered these Greeks full acceptance into Christianity, without circumcision. In a sense, the Jews viewed Paul as a thief, reaping the benefit of their long labor.
Furthermore, many of the Jews, because of their traditional understanding of the prophesied Messiah, viewed Paul’s message as impossible. Someone who had died could not be their Messiah: “How could a Jew believe that a crucified man was God’s Messiah?… Hence it became of cardinal importance for these first Christians to demonstrate that ‘Christ crucified’ was not a contradiction in terms” (James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament).
The response of faith
Perhaps you are in the same position as the Bereans nearly 2,000 years ago, beginning to learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel will challenge you. Most of us have probably grown up with some distinctive ideas about the gospel. But are those ideas right? It can be a bit unsettling to look into the book to see what it really says, and to find that some of our cherished ideas about God and religion may not be based on the Bible at all.
Like Paul, we want to introduce you to Jesus Christ. Perhaps, like the Bereans, you have heard of him. But are your ideas about him correct? The Bereans were honest enough to examine Paul’s claims to see if they were true. “They searched the scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11), to prove for themselves the truth of his arguments. Are you willing to do the same?
They did not just cling blindly to their traditions and doctrines either. They were open to the truth and to growth. The response of the Bereans was impressive because “they tested the truth of Paul’s message by the touchstone of Scripture rather than judging it by political and cultural considerations” (Richard N. Longenecker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9).
Unlike the Bereans, you have numerous resources at your disposal: many different Bible translations, reference books, even computer programs. But the Bereans had the most valuable tool of all — a teachable and open mind. Is this what you have?
Author: Paul Kroll