On Making Students Memorize Prose

It still happens occasionally that teachers make students memorize poetry, though it doesn’t happen as much as it used to. Prose, however, is a different story, I think.

But, not being one easily deterred by what seems, you know, reasonable, I am making students memorize prose anyway this semester. In Greek.

Which is to say, I’m currently teaching a one-credit course in Patristic Greek. We are reading Gregory of Nyssa all semester. I thought they should get to know some of it by heart. Here is the first passage that students had to memorize, from To Simplicius, On Faith:

…πολλὰ δι’ ἡμᾶς ἐγένετο ὁ μονογενὴς θεός. καὶ γὰρ καὶ λόγος ὢν σὰρξ ἐγένετο· καὶ θεὸς ὢν ἄνθρωπος ἐγένετο· καὶ ἀσώματος ὢν σῶμα ἐγένετο· καὶ ἔτι πρὸς τούτοις καὶ ἁμαρτία καὶ κατάρα καὶ λίθος καὶ ἀξίνη καὶ ἄρτος καὶ πρόβατον καὶ ὁδὸς καὶ θύρα καὶ πέτρα καὶ πολλὰ τοιαῦτα ἐγένετο, οὐδὲν τούτων τῇ φύσει ὤν, ἀλλὰ δι’ ἡμᾶς κατ’ οἰκονομίαν γενόμενος.

“…[F]or our sake, the only-begotten God became many things. Yes, for being the Logos, he became flesh. And being God, he became man. And being unbodied, he became bodied. And in addition to these things, he became sin and curse and stone and axe and bread and sheep and way and door and rock and many such things–being none of these by nature, but having become them for our sake according to the economy of salvation.”

(The translation is my own.)

Why this passage? Thanks for asking. I’ve got a list.

  1. You notice things you wouldn’t otherwise. This happened to me just yesterday when I was working on learning this passage. I had not noticed the wordplay in πολλὰ δι’ ἡμᾶς ἐγένετο ὁ μονογενὴς θεός, “For our sake, the only begotten God became many things.” Why does this matter? Because the clause, and the passage as a whole, is entirely taken up with the contrast between what the Son of God is in himself–i.e., God–and what became on account of us.
  2. The next three antitheses–between the Son being Logos and becoming flesh, being God and becoming man, and being “unbodied” and becoming a body–serve the same purpose. By memorizing the passage in Greek, students learn the important Greek terminology for all of these things. This applies to “nature” (τῇ φύσει) and “economy” (κατ’ οἰκονομίαν) as well: two more technical terms, incidentally, that point up the contrast between the Son of God’s being and becoming.
  3. Relatedly, students get a great example of punchy, antithetical style in the first part of the sentence that begins καὶ γὰρ καὶ. In the second part of the sentence (from καὶ ἔτι through the period), they get a great example of “polysyndeton,” the logically unnecessary use of conjunctions for rhetorical effect. Each of these is useful for students both for understanding Gregory’s rhetoric and for developing their own.
  4. The passage contains a crash course in the Bible’s figurative names for the incarnate Son: “sin” (ἁμαρτία, 2 Corinthians 5:21); “curse” (κατάρα, Gal. 3:13); “stone” (λίθος, Ps. 118:22; Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:4-8); “axe” (ἀξίνη, Matt. 3:10; Luke 3:9); “bread” (ἄρτος, Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; John 6:22-59; 1 Cor. 11:23-24); “sheep” (πρόβατον, Is. 53:7; Acts 8:32); “way” (ὁδὸς, Matt. 7:14; John 14:6); “door” (θύρα, Matt. 7:13; John 10:7-9); “rock” (πέτρα, Matt. 6:18; 1 Peter 2:8). Students will have already known some of these as terms applied to Christ.[1] But all of them? I doubt it–what about “axe,” for instance? In this way, memorizing the passage (and its meaning) tells students something useful about patristic exegesis.
  5. The passage is a wonderful reminder of God’s fundamentally gracious and outward-directed action in salvation, even to the point of taking on a mortal body to die for man’s sins. This is emphasized by the repeated phrase “for our sake” (δι’ ἡμᾶς). It thereby teaches them something absolutely essential (the pun is intended) about who God is: the Son of God’s becoming (flesh, man, body, sin, curse, stone, axe, bread, sheep, way, door, rock) is predicated on who he is in himself.


1 For example, when I was blanking on (as I recall) “door” in class, a sharp student was right there to assist.


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