14-6-3-5 Memorizing Scripture
To learn a Gospel is a possibility. I knew two
English Christians who could recite all four of them. One, admittedly,
was an intellectual of above average ability. The other: a school
caretaker who read his Gospels in a council flat on a rough South
London estate, with an unbelieving wife. After our Sunday School
lesson, we'd always put Jimmy to the test. " Go on Uncle Jimmy, Luke
10" . And out it came. " John 2" . Word perfect, as we followed in our
Bibles. Jimmy, beloved Sunday School teacher, I salute you, for your
unfeigned love of our Lord Jesus, and for your inspiration.
Between them, those two brethren answer all the excuses. Got too much
in your mind already because of your job and profession? Harry did it,
here and now in the twentieth century; and Paul did it in the first.
Too much of a simple soul, not your kind of scene? Jimmy did it,
Cockney accent and all. And so did Peter. Yet my sense is that none of
them set out to do it. They ended up like that because they loved
their Lord, and therefore the word of His grace. It was sweet, truly
sweet, to their taste. My point is, quite simply: it is
possible, if you want to, here and now in this life, amidst the hustle
and bustle of London, Toronto, Moscow, Jo'burg, Nairobi, Manila, Hong
Kong... amidst the slow, steady life of a Devon village, the petty
gossip and small talk of a small town in the Baltics, or in rural
Ontario, or an isolated Siberian village. It is possible, for
every one of you. And for me too.
As a digression, there is evidence within the text of
the NT, in addition to church tradition, which would suggest that
memorizing Scripture was a common feature of the early believers:
- " Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias...?"
(Rom. 11:2) suggests that Paul expected them to know this passage. "
What the Scripture saith" rather than " what is written"
might suggest that they learnt these passages by heart and spoke them
out loud, probably because the majority of the early believers were
either illiterate or had no access to the manuscripts.
- A passage in Ps. 118 is referred to in Lk. 20:18;
Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6-8. One wonders if this was a proof
text which the early believers would have known by heart. And one
wonders likewise about Psalm 2- it is referred to so often.
- The early believers remained devoted to the
instruction (lit. 'doctrinizing') given by the apostles. This might
suggest rote learning.
- The twelve gave themselves continually to " the
ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4); using a phrase used in contemporary
literature to describe how the synagogue minister made pupils memorize
Scripture texts. Hence Paul reminds the Ephesians to " remember the
words of the Lord Jesus, how he said..." ; not, 'how it is written'
(for the Gospels were in circulation by this time). He jogged their
memory of one of the texts they ought to have memorized (Acts 20:35).
- The letters of Peter and John are likewise shot
through with allusion to the Gospels, conscious and unconscious. Peter
uses Scriptures like Ps. 110 and 118 in exactly the same way as he
heard the Lord use them (Acts 3:34 = Mt. 22:44; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7 =
Mt. 21:42). A list could be compiled for Peter's allusions to the Lord
as I have for Paul's. It may be that Peter's difficult reference to the
spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:19) is a reference to Is. 61 in the same
way as Christ used it in Lk. 4:18. This point is meaningless without an
appreciation of the extent to which Christ's words featured in the
writing and thought of Peter.
- The Old Testament as well as New is written in such
a way as to encourage memorization, although this is often masked by
the translation. There are several devices commonly used to assist in
this. Not least is alliteration, i.e. similarly sounding syllables: Pantote
Peri Panton (1 Thess. 1:2); Polymeros
1:1); hautee protee entolee (Mk. 12:30); aphtharton
(1 Pet. 1:3,4). In 2 Tim. 3:2,3 nearly all words end in (-oi),
the masculine plural case termination- when it would surely have been
possible to construct the sentence in another way. " We have piped unto
you, and ye have not danced (orcheesasthe); we have mourned
unto you and ye have not lamented (ekopsasthe)" (Mt. 11:17)
could be dynamically rendered: 'We piped for you, and you never stept;
we dirged for you, and you never wept" . It has been
pointed out that if some NT passages are translated into Aramaic, the
common language of the day in first century Israel, there would have
been ample encouragement for memorization. Thus: We preach Christ
crucified (mishkal), unto the Jews a stumblingblock (mikshol),
and unto the Greeks foolishness (sekel), but unto them that
are called...the power (hishkeel) of God and the wisdom (sekel)
of God" (1 Cor. 1:23,24). The device of acrostic Psalms
(9,10,25,34,37,119,145) and the use of acrostics in Lamentations and
Esther would likewise enable the reciting of them. The repetition of
the same word at the beginning of successive sentences is yet another
such feature (Dt. 28:3-6; 2 Sam. 23:5; Jer. 1:18; Hos. 3:4; 1Cor. 13:4;
2 Cor. 2:11; Eph. 6:12). The same phrase is also sometimes repeated at
the beginning and end of a sentence with the same effect (Ex. 32:16; 2
Kings 23:25; Ps. 122:7,8; Mk. 7:14-16; Lk. 12:5; Jn. 3:8 Rom. 14:8
Alfred Edersheim (The Life And Times Of Jesus The
Messiah) and J.W. Wenham (Christ And The Bible, Tyndale,
1972) give examples of how even quite ordinary Jews in first century
times could quote large sections of the Old Testament verbatim.
It was expected that the disciples of rabbis memorized their teaching,
and there's no reason to doubt that the Lord's disciples, both those
who immediately heard Him and those who subsequently became disciples
of their invisible Heavenly rabbi, would likewise have memorized the
gospel records of His words. This would account for the way they are
arranged [Mark especially] as series of 'pericopes', small bite-sized
sections which lend themselves to memorization. This would explain how
Paul can use technical terms for handing on a tradition (paradidomi,
1 Cor. 11:2,23) and receiving it (paralambano, 1 Cor. 15:1,3;
Gal. 1:19; Col. 2:6; 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:6); and of
faithfully retaining the tradition (katecho, 1 Cor. 11:2;
15:2; krateo, 2 Thess. 2:15); matched perhaps by John's
insistence in his letters that the converts retain that teaching which
they received "from the beginning". And so it wouldn't at all be
unreasonable to expect that the early Christians memorized a Gospel,
perhaps the one they had been taught by the initial preacher of Christ
whom they had encountered- be it the account of Matthew, Mark, Luke or
John. Jesus was a wandering rabbi, and "a rabbi was usually someone who
had ordered his own teaching into a mishnah (a memorized
"repetition") for his disciples to commit to memory nand repeat" (1).
(1) Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New
York: Random House, 2005) p. 82.