Prelude: a word on the Bereans

I have some other things which I am going to post today after I finish editing them, but I wanted to say a word about Acts 17:11-12 before I got to that, and I have 15 minutes this morning …
    Now [the Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.
It's common for people to consider the noble Bereans as people who were somewhat bibliocentric in their worldview, and that we ought to emulate in what they did with Paul's message to them. We should, as it says, "examine the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so". Therefore, in the same way the Bereans were skeptics who scrutinized Paul, we should be skeptics who scrutinize all men when they bring some teaching before us.

But we should consider what is being said here both in context and in the force of what Luke wrote. On the one hand, when Paul reasons from the Scriptures with the Thessalonians, they rioted. They didn’t actually listen to what he was saying. Luke says that, "the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar". So what occurs in Thessalonica is ignoble.

But then Paul and Silas go to Berea, and what we have to consider is that Paul did the same thing in Berea that he did in Thessalonica. That is, "Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead".

And when this happens in Berea, the Jews there were themselves not forming mobs as a result of Paul's exposition of Scripture: they received the word with eagerness. Against the jealousy of the Thessalonians, there is the nobility of the Bereans. But in what way were they noble?

When we read the English, it seems that the Bereans were skeptical of Paul, and then because they compared his teaching to Scripture, they received him gladly. But factually, unless Paul was doing something innovative in this synagogue because of what happened to him at the last one, Paul was already giving an argument from Scripture – the Bereans didn't have to go back and see if there was any Scripture which substantiated Paul's message: Paul's message was, as Luke says, "reasoned ... from the Scriptures".

But there is something under the text of the last clause which often gets missed, and that is the optative mood of the verb "echo" regarding the manner in which the Bereans searched the Scripture.

Here's what my handy Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics says about the Optative mood:
There are less than 70 optatives in the entire NT. In general, it can be said that the optative is the mood used when the speaker widhes to portray as action as possible. It usually addresses cognition, but may e used to appeal to volition. Along with the subjunctive and the imperative, the optative is one of the potential or oblique moods. [Wallace. 480]
Dr. Wallace also goes on to say this :
The very paucity of the optative in the NT illustrates a principle of syntactical shifts between Attic and Koine:When one morphosyntactic feature if becoming absorbed by another in Hellenistic Greek and when a Hellenistic author uses the rarer form, he normally does so consciously and with understanding. [Wallace, 480]
The emphasis, btw, is in the original. And as one example of the oblique optative, Acts 17:11 is listed among 6 others.

Well, so what? What's that mean in Acts 17:11? When it says that they examined the Scripture to see if these things were true, the implication of the optative is that they hoped that they were true. They were not scrutinizing Paul to see if he was lying: they were examining and evaluating the Scriptures which Paul presented them because they wanted to believe what the Scriptures said.

This is a very nuanced approach to this passage – and it may not forbid the run-of-the-mill understanding of the nobility of the Bereans. But what made these people noble was not a high skepticism on their part, but a willingness to receive the Scripture for what it says. They would rather examine the Scripture Paul presents to them rather than riot blindly out of jealousy. So as we turn to the Bereans as examples of how we should live as Christians, let's think about whether we believe they are demonstrating skepticism and a cold, rational eye – or if they are demonstrating something else which looks like the hope which Scripture points us toward.