IVP - Addenda & Errata - The Best “Rejection” Decision I’ve Ever Made

February 4, 2009

The Best “Rejection” Decision I’ve Ever Made

At SBL a few months ago a certain professor of NT spoke with me about his enthusiasm for memorizing Scripture—whole books of the NT, and even in Greek. In fact he had a proposal for a book on memorizing Scripture. His evident enthusiasm for memorizing entire books of the Bible caught me at a receptive moment. It was something that in recent years I’d often thought about trying.

I shelved Scripture memorization a long time ago. When I was a kid, I had to memorize and recite at least one verse of KJV before breakfast, except on Sundays. I don’t recall ever going hungry, but it left a bad taste in my mouth and some tear stains on India paper. The last serious episode of memorizing I recall was one summer during my college days, when I worked at the Grand Canyon. I remember sitting on the South Rim of the canyon working on memorizing a few chapters of the Gospel of John. Since then I don’t think I’ve experienced more than sporadic attempts at memorizing.

Anyway, upon returning home from SBL I opened up the Greek text of Colossians and started to memorize. It’s a Pauline letter that I’ve previously spent quite a bit of time in. It’s not too lengthy. And it seemed to me that the pay-off would be handsome. Memorizing the Greek text, by the way, immediately solves the problem of what English translation to use! (And that’s a problem, quite frankly.)

First, I learned that memorizing doesn’t come as easily at age 59 as it did at age 9 or 20. Though I’m sure there are many other folks my age who can memorize with much less effort than I! But it’s possible. Just don’t set your expectations too high. Don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t seem to be “taking” fast enough. If you keep at it, the text will work its way into the cranium, laying down its patterns and crystallizing in words, sentences and paragraphs. Keep inching forward and keep reviewing. Nothing is lost and much is gained by taking more time. Think of it as meditation. Or lectio divina, if that sounds cooler. And if you make a mistake that is represented in the textual apparatus at the bottom of the page, give yourself an extra point! You’ve got a bit of tradition on your side. Some ancient scribe’s mind traveled in the same vein.

One great benefit of memorizing is that you notice things in the text that have escaped you before, such as patterns of words and phraseology. And it’s a fantastic way to review Greek grammar and vocabulary. Then too, you can feel yourself starting to think Paul’s thoughts after him. As I recite a text I’m trying to recall the train of thought.

I’m beginning to think that memorization is a terrific step forward in exegesis. And I now think that a sure way to slow the flow of commentaries, and possibly increase their value, is to require commentators to first memorize the text! (There are scholars in the past and even the present who are reputed to have committed large tracts of the NT to memory—or at least succeeded in convincing their students that they had.)

And here is another benefit: walk the dog, go on a drive or a run, and lines and paragraphs of the Greek text come to mind unbidden. Not bad.

To be sure, in the midst of all this I’ve had the experience of looking at a new paragraph of Greek text and flinching from what seems like a daunting thicket of words and syntax—even though I know what it says. But amazingly, as I wade into it with the sole aid of memory, the thicket takes form and shape, and the trouble pretty much dissolves.

Memorizing is quickly becoming a lost discipline. Ironically, the writing of texts probably originated as a memory aid. And memorizing used to be a common feature of education. In some parts of the world, and some communities of our own society, it still is. Think of the many Muslims who succeed in memorizing much or all of the Quran. Yet here in the West we often demean it by calling it rote memory. That, I’m afraid, is an unworthy label, most casually applied by those with little experience in the benefits of memorizing.

The good professor sent me his book proposal in December. By that time, I’d invested many hours testing out his own thesis, so to speak. But I eventually decided it wasn’t going to work as a book. Or at least I’d never be able to convince others at IVP that it would work as a book! There just aren’t enough people who will pick up a book on memorizing whole books of Scripture. But what will work is a teacher who is enthusiastic about it and will require and coach students in memorizing. Or even fire up a tough-skinned editor. They will experience the benefits for themselves. And these disciples will in turn disciple others in the art. Some ideas are just not viable book material. But they are great nonetheless.

I’ve never worked so hard—or experienced quite so much joy—in arriving at a “rejection” decision. And I told him so.

Now, on to Colossians 2. Thelo gar humas eidenai. . .

Posted by Dan Reid at February 4, 2009 4:26 PM Bookmark and Share


It might not be a best seller, but I would read it. I am a young pastor - two years removed from Seminary - and set a 2009 goal of memorizing two of Paul's letters. Philippians and Colossians. I'm not going for it in the Greek, but maybe that will be 2010. I have had the same experience with the text coming to mind unbidden. As I work on Philippians, the text seems to run in my head like a jingle, and it seems to seep in between the bone and the marrow. Good stuff.

Comment by: jason smith at February 4, 2009 9:16 PM

Most scholars on first century Judaism will tell you that the boys grew up memorizing Torah and that many had it totally memorized by age 12. Some then went on to study it further, some did not. But regardless of whether you ended up being a Rabbi or a fisherman, you knew large swaths of the Books of Moses. Some scholars say that it is likely Jesus had the entire Old Testament memorized. Think of it - the entire thing! When I think of my own feeble memorization attempts, I am humbled by the Master Teacher and the sheer amount of time he must have spent reading, speaking, and memorizing the text. I agree with you here that memorization is not just for Sunday School kids, but also for the Christian who is serious about their faith.

Comment by: James Prather at February 13, 2009 9:02 AM

Funny how certain concepts are more marketable than others. Always good to read up on how that process happens.

Frankly, while I completely agree that the text in its initial proposal would have been lacking one might fine tune that suggestion and create a workbook and daily readings for memorization from the Scriptures that could have a dramatic impact on many.

Memorizing Scripture is indeed a rapidly dying practice. I remember having certain verses I was required to memorize in my youth...they are still with me (in their KJV form) today. Why have we lost this? It is a practical tool to interalize the sacred words of God. I miss having this practice talked about and practiced.

Thanks for the food for thought. It is deeply appreciated!

You are the Church!

Comment by: Robert Angison at February 16, 2009 12:44 AM

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