On Being Better Bereans
A couple weeks ago, Trevin Wax posted a short list of urban legends frequently heard from the pulpit. These aren’t doctrinal mistakes per se. They are mistakes in interpretation, especially when it comes to appropriate background information and extra-biblical sources. Some of the myths are real whoppers (e.g., NASA has discovered a missing day), but others are repeated in study Bibles and commentaries (e.g., Gehenna was a burning trash dump). I admit I’ve repeated the last example many times. And while Trevin didn’t give a lot of information to counter that claim, the article he linked to makes a lot of sense. Maybe the “trash heap” illustration was too good to be true.
So how can we be better Bereans? Most Christians are eager to receive the word, especially when we get new insights and background information, but how many go the extra step and examine the Scripture to see if the new nugget is actually true (Acts 17:11)? Here are a few things to keep in mind when we hear an exciting new teaching or connection:
1. Be wary of anyone who claims to have uncovered the real meaning from the Greek or Hebrew. We have so many good English translations, put together by the best scholars. If your pastor or favorite author comes up with stuff they never did, be concerned.
2. Ask yourself, “how do I know this is so?” True, we all take a lot on faith, trusting the books we read and the people we listen to. But if you come across a new insight you’ve never heard, examine what primary source evidence there is for this new claim. You may think the Bible says a lot about Lucifer, but it may be really be from John Milton.
3. Beware of parallelomania! This is where a lot of Christians get into trouble. They are over-eager to make connections between the Bible and the Roman world. Yes, background information is helpful. But some popular teachers find connections everywhere. Do we really know that Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” was meant to be an assault on the worship of Pan near Caesarea Philippi? Often a possible connection is too good to pass up as preaching fodder. The results are predictable: the teacher presents amazing new background information and the people are amazed at the insights they’ve never heard before. Preachers, resist the temptation to put preaching points before exegesis and historical accuracy.
4. Be careful not to overcompensate. With all the good historical work N.T. Wright has done on the gospels, I often feel he is too quick to find political implications in familiar stories and too quick to make the narrative fit a return-from-exile theme. Many Christians have the habit of reading the Bible as a timeless book of ancient wisdom. That’s not right, but there’s an opposite danger, and that’s trying to make every story a subversive attempt to undermine Caesar.
5. Be concerned when you start to feel like you can’t possibly understand the Bible without multiple degrees. It does take skill to interpret many parts of the Bible, and background information can help. But if all the exciting things you’re learning fall in the category of “insights from ancient languages” or “insights from ancient culture” you could be heading down the wrong path.
6. Be extremely cautious when using Jewish sources. Christians love to hear about Jewish background. They love to learn what words or phrases really mean. But we must be careful. I use Jewish background on occasion. Just this week I preached on the Last Supper and talked about the Passover ritual. But I’m always cautious to do so. Consider:
a) Most of our “Jewish background” comes from the Mishna and Talmud which are centuries after the New Testament. Some of what they record was present in the first century, but it’s hard to be certain.
b) Whether we are using sources from Second Temple Judaism or from the Mishna, we shouldn’t be confident in our ability to recreate the Jewish world. That world was diverse and there is a lot we don’t know.
c) Don’t assume Jewish practices today reflect Jesus’ world. And don’t read back into the Old Testament what we first hear about centuries after Christ.
7. Realize that we all make mistakes. We hear things and read things that we later find out aren’t true. Be open to correction and ready to admit when you make a mistake. The goal is simply to know the Bible better. What have Bereans got to lose?