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?

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45 thoughts on “On Being Better Bereans”

  1. Mike says:

    This is very helpful. Thanks.

  2. Kevin, I especially thought your point #1 was apt.

    I studied a lot of Hebrew and Greek in seminary. It is easy for young preachers like me to always be saying: “In the Greek…”; I have to resist the urge myself. I fear it tends to make people think they can’t understand their English Bibles.

    Thanks for the good post.

  3. Doug Hibbard says:

    A book that should be required reading, even for us Baptists that don’t really require anything, is D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. He shines a light on a lot of the method that leads to these mistakes.

    And I’ve said the trash dump thing too—heard it from a few preachers, saw it in one article/commentary/something and used it.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Much of the Bible is a correspondence between people (i.e. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians). If someone understands the background, the correspondence makes perfect sense. If one doesn’t understand the background, the Bible will confuse them, or they will have to force the text to fit a preconceived notion.

  5. Rose says:

    In my experience Bereans have a lot to lose: in particular, good relationships with pastors who are embarrassed and defensive when their preaching isn’t received as “from the very mouth of God.”

  6. Gary says:

    Great post and reminder, Kevin! And an “amen” to Doug’s comment above. And, last, I can think of a few teachers & preachers here in the GR area that need to hear this! (wink, wink)

  7. Greg says:

    In light of recent exegetical creativity to appeal to what people want to hear… This is an excellent list to help Pastors and laymen to be leery of “new” revelation that speaks to today’s culture.

    Thank you for your for speaking to this issue head on…

    God Bless,

  8. John says:

    I want my picture back…

  9. Phil says:

    Can you clarify what you meant by “many christians have the habit of reading the bible as a timeless book of ancient wisdom. That is not right…”? If that is not what the bible is than what, in fact, is it?

  10. Aaron Meares says:

    As usual, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks, Kevin!

  11. JB says:

    Great post! Though, I do have a question for clarification of a great doctrinal controversy in your post. Is that Harry from Harry and the Hendersons?

  12. Rose says:

    Phil, Consider the juxtaposition of “timeless” and “ancient,” and you have your answer. The Bible is of both divine and human origin. That must figure into a faithful hermeneutic.

  13. Mike Minter says:

    After 37 years of preaching finally someone has had the spiritual guts to tell it like it is. I have often wondered how anyone could have devotions without a PhD? I look for common denominators in scripture to see if there is a theme running throughout the bible on a subject. There often is and it requires no seminary degree. May all pastors read and heed this article.
    Mike

  14. Megan says:

    I second Phil’s question!

    Perhaps I don’t understand the context (I am not familiar with N.T. Wright), but *isn’t* the Bible ancient, wise, and timeless?

  15. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    As a Berean, I regard N.T. Wright’s affirmation of egalitarianism and women’s ordination as being N.T. Wrong.

  16. C. L. says:

    Re: Phil & Megan- Maybe he means “many Christians have the habit of reading the Bible as *just* a timeless book of ancient wisdom”?

  17. Timothy says:

    The issue of ‘timeless wisdom’ is that for the most part (always?) the wisdom of the Bible is addressed to specific situations. This means that the situation addressed affects how we should take it today. It does not mean that the wisdom has a “use by” date that once passed invalidates the wisdom.
    I am ambivalent about the very last point in the post. I agree that we need to be sceptical or at the very least cautious of our (or NT Wright’s) ability to describe accurately the first century Judaism that may or may not be the context for the biblical text. However, just to ignore it merely means that we impose our own context on the biblical text without meaning to. This too can be distorting. Nonetheless I believe that the Bible is a living word and thus the vehicle for God communicating to us today, whether we use Second Temple Judaism or just our own instincts. Conversely, as some distortion is inevitable, it is important that we bring our understanding to the community for assessment and mutual edification.

  18. truthmatters says:

    Hey Kevin… is that a picture of your great great grand pappy? Ahhh, just kidding. It’s not Monday morning humor, and I don’t think you believe in evolution.. One way we can be better Bereans, is to study Scripture with Scripture.

  19. graham veale says:

    I’m not entirely sure that it’s accurate to say that “most of our “Jewish background” comes from the Mishna and Talmud which are centuries after the New Testament.” As a matter of fact,I’m sure that’s completely inaccurate.
    There is very good reason to trace a lot of this material back to First Century Palestine (see Craig Keener’s “The Historical Jesus of the Gospels” and Darrell Bock’s “Jesus According to Scripture”). We also have archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalms of Solomon, etc etc.
    I worry that Piper’s response to Wright is irresponsibly dismissive of the historical method (just as Wright is too dismissive of Piper!). I hope that a little Urban Myth about the limits of the historical method doesn’t manifest itself the TGC!

    Graham

  20. Jared says:

    This post is excellent! I also agree with Graham Veale’s caution. My own caution for point #1 is that all translations have a theological preunderstanding (e.g. the Torah has been abolished). It stands to reason that translations (which are essentially commentaries of the original text) that adhere to the same theological stream will differentiate little. If one disagrees with a theological premise, then we can’t use good translations as the measuring rod for that theological issue. Romans 10:4 comes to mind (i.e. is telos “end” or “goal”?). But at least that has been discussed in the mainline evangelical community.

  21. A lot of these errors (That I am definitely guilty of making!) we make come from a lack of critical thinking and a failure to see the main theme of the bible: the gospel. I’ve found it helpful to try and think ‘gospel’ whenever reading, gospel & context = authenticity. Thanks for this post, and Trevins, both have been EXTREMELY helpful. That darn trash dump one is so subtle, I just accepted that one as true! fool me once…

  22. Alex Philip says:

    In light of this discussion, can anyone help me discern if Pastor Mark is accurate in his discussion about this sponge and the drink that Jesus was offered?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDKh4kDv6ms

    Thanks!

  23. Mark says:

    I have a question related to Kevin’s first point. If the best scholars have already translated the original Hebrew and Greek into various English translations, why is it important for future pastors to study Hebrew and Greek in seminary? If their study of the original languages won’t uncover additional insights, wouldn’t it be sufficient for pastors to just consult multiple versions (NASB/ESV/NIV/NLT) to get various expert opinions on translation, then cross-check with commentaries (other experts) to find the best conclusion? As a seminary student with multiple semesters worth of Greek/Hebrew classes ahead, I’m wondering how that knowledge will be beneficial in sermon preparation if the work of translation has already been done by people far more qualified. If I have to check my own translation again the commentaries anyway, I wonder if the work of personal translation is merely an exercise of guesswork that offers the reward of being able to match what the experts say. Thanks for any help.

  24. Andy J says:

    There is very much we know about 1st C and 2nd Temple Judaism and so learning the contexts in which the NT letters were written is essential. Clearly God doesn’t require all people to know such things but being a “Berean” Christian certainly requires that we inquire of the world(s) in which the letters were written. We in the States (or me in Europe) way too easily read out all political readings because for most of us politics and religion are disconnected. And so the Roman Empire for them back then must seem irrelevant. On the contrary. Not to worship as the Romans did threatened the stability of empire. Yes we definitely need to challenge what our University professors who have PhDs in these ancient historical fields should say, but then those of us who have PhDs in other disciplines (physics) must rely on the consensus. I think Christians today in the West think all Christians in the 1st Century are Evangelicals “like us”. And so we just read into the texts our own social worlds. Western individualism is more pervasive and entangled in us than we realize. I worry about that some will read your blog entry and think, “To hell with learning from the past. I’ll just continue to read the Bible the way we Europeans or Americans do and hope for the best.” This is one reason I think that there are more and more Christians getting seriously connect to local churches. They read the Gospels, for example, as written to them as individual believers primarily and not first to Israel and a call to them to believe in their Messiah. I guess what I’m try to say is that Christians should be better learners of the ways in which the Bible is more rooted in their social and historical contexts so that they can better be shaped by what the Bible really is saying. I know some say the letter to the Romans really about how individuals can get justified or right with good apart from doing good works to earn salvation. That would be an example of a wrong reading of Romans–even if that statement is an implication. But it is not what Paul was trying to say given the questions he raised and answered. Christians should go out of their way to find out best they can to learn more if they really care about finding the will of God and leaving today accordingly. Christians today are more and more lazy I think being distracted by the world. For more and more people it seems the Bible is just one more collection of “how to live better” that is put along side all the other ideas of “how to live better”. But shouldn’t the Bible be more than that and shouldn’t Christians really try to the best they can to learn what it really says? I do think you are calling pastors and preachers to a much higher standard. And won’t they be more accountable for leading congregations in understanding the Bible? I like what you say about preachers buying into urban legends. They of all people need to get serious about reading not just the Bible but more on the social and cultural world the Bible was addressing.

  25. Andy J says:

    Correction: I said, “This is one reason I think that there are more and more Christians getting seriously connect to local churches.” I meant to say “NOT getting seriously connected…”

  26. Jonathan says:

    What does it mean that God has gifted the Church with teachers? Does this mean that some people simply have more passion and drive to dig into the text/historical background/original languages and actually like doing it? Does it mean they have some natural ability in public speaking? Does it mean they are (for whatever reasons) smarter than some people and make connections easier, faster, and more accurately? Do they have a knack for taking the text and bringing it to bear on the lives of those they shepherd?

    What does it mean? Why do we need God-given teachers in the Church today if everyone’s got four translations and a Holy Spirit to help them out? (This is an honest question by the way, no sarcastic)

    Also, I heartily agree with those who are worried about people telling us to take all that ‘second-Temple stuff’ with a grain (a small grain) of salt. Yes, there is diversity of opinion within second-Temple Judaism, but if you’re not a parallelomaniac then getting a flavor for the world of the NT authors can only be beneficial if you ask me.

  27. Kevin DeYoung says:

    A couple thoughts to some good questions.

    1. Yes, the Bible is full of ancient, timeless wisdom. I didn’t phrase that very well. What we must realize is that this ancient, timeless wisdom comes to us through a certain historical context.

    2. I am a firm believer in the importance of learning the original languages. But the a little knowledge is often a dangerous thing. We mustn’t think we are going to uncover secrets or that with two years of Greek we’ll be in a good position to correct every English translation. Certainly, with different translation philosophies we may differ with the versions from time to time. But the value in learning the languages is mainly so we see the intricacies of the text and use the best tools.

  28. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Oh, and Harry and the Hendersons is a cinematic achievement.

  29. Mark , as a young pastor who just finished many semesters of Greek and Hebrew, I thought I’d respond to your question: ‘why is it important for future pastors to study Hebrew and Greek in seminary?’

    I think it is important to study the original languages just like Kevin stated above. The main use I have for my Greek is to make sure I am not making some major mistake. I totally agree with Kevin about how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Some guys get really enraptured with Greek vocabulary. It only takes about one afternoon to learn enough Greek to do that. I think that much original language study is better than a little.

    I think the big issue Kevin is trying to lay bare here, and my pet peeve, is when preachers are so constantly looking for some Greek nugget to pass on to people that only they (the seminary trained pastor) could uncover. I think that lots of ‘greek-dropping’ from the pulpit actually serves to erode people’s confidence in their own ability to read and understand the Bible.

    Hope my point of view helps you.

  30. Stephanie says:

    I love it when pastors unpack the original words – and love being able to look up things in my concordance to get a fuller idea of what that word means in that context and in other places it’s used.

    but i loved this whole article – i’ve heard the Gehenna/burning pit thing a ton of times, and always wondered where “they” got it… I like citations! LOL!

    I also agree with Rose, that if you do want to know more, you are generally going to get in trouble. If I want to know more, deeper, background information – I don’t go to my pastor. From painful experience! I know there are good ones out there, but i won’t even ask a question unless i have a pretty good close friendship with them (and even then, i’m careful….)

  31. John says:

    Hey, Mark, good question. On the one hand, I have taken six semesters of Greek, so clearly I think there is some benefit to learning (strongly agree with Steve above that more is better than little). On the other hand, go around to a half dozen or so pastors that you respect and see how much of their time in sermon prep is spent “in the original languages”. I tried that and found that for every single pastor that I talked with, original language study consisted of using a tool like Bible Works or Logos. Most just don’t have the time to spend on each and every sermon only to “discover” what hundreds of previous scholars have already explained.

    All that being said, I love reading my GNT, and woudn’t trade it for anything.

  32. Mark says:

    Thanks everyone for your thoughts – this has been very helpful for me. Looking forward to learning what hopefully amounts to more vs. little…

  33. Abu Tulip says:

    Thanks, Kevin. Our current pastor is a very good example of avoiding most of these traps. If something is not clearly present somewhere in the Word, he is really not all that interested in it.

  34. MarieP says:

    Very helpful article!

    But a comment on the title. My pastor just preached on the Bereans yesterday, and he pointed out that what we mean today by “be a Berean” is not exactly what it meant in its original context. You could say that another myth of the church is that the Thessalonian Christians were sub-par to the Berean Christians because they didn’t search the Scriptures to if what Paul said was true. But the text actually is comparing the Thessalonian Jews who scoffed with the Berean Jews who were open to the claims that Jesus is the Messiah. So to be a Berean in the original context means to be open-minded to anything and everything in the Scriptures, no matter what it means for our lives, cherished sins, or traditions.

    Still wondering how the term came to mean “be critical of what you hear and compare it to Biblical truth.” Not that it’s a bad thing in the least to do, as long as you’re willing to keep the original meaning of being a Berean in mind too.

  35. MarieP says:

    You might be interested in listening to the sermon here. BTW, he greatly appreciated the posts on theological urban myths as well!

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=515111141560

  36. Regarding point one: I no longer trust the ‘scholars’ prima facie. Numerous examples could be given about important mistakes they’ve made. Take John 10:28 for example. The KJV phrase “and they shall never perish” has been translated to indicate [future] active indicative. In fact BlueLetterBible shows it to be [2nd Aorist] middle subjunctive, meaning it should read, “And they should not destroy themselves.” Yet whether it’s the KJV, NKJV, NLT, NIV, ESV, RVR, NASB, RSV, ASV, Young, Darby, WEB, or HNV, the results are all the same—it’s been translated to either “and they shall never perish” or “(and) they will never/not perish”. It’s sad to see, but I’ve noticed newer translations seem to rubber stamp time-honored translations to a fault, rather than buck tradition.

    In short, yes, be wary of new claims of insight, but do your own due diligence.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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