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Eat This Book, a Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.

I’ve written about the lack of reading comprehension I observe among believers. That is, they may read a Bible passage but seem unable to “comprehend” it with basic reading comprehension skill. More people in our society seem to be moving towards functional illiteracy.

Peterson’s book is not so much about that, but it is related to it. In the preface he shares how his young grandson (unable to read yet), took a New Testament he’d been given and proceeded to “read it” by moving his eyes back and forth across the page in a serious manner. Peterson sees this as a parable for believers; we are reading the Bible but not really reading it, because we are not reading it formatively. Have you ever “gotten lost” in something you love or enjoy like a hobby or interest or program? Well, Christians should be this way with the Scripture. John and Ezekiel were told to “eat” the scroll. Are we “eating” Scripture so that it is forming us into mature believers and engaging our day to day lives?

For whatever reasons (not sure?) I liked the later 2/3 of the book better than the opening third of it. As I began reading it, something about the writing style took time to grow on me. I’m glad I didn’t quit, as the book eventually opened up to me.

I’ve encouraged Christians to try reading Bible commentaries. I began reading commentaries in their entirety several years ago, instead of only using them as a reference work. It has been so worthwhile. Yet, I don’t think I’ve gotten a single person to give this a try! Well, Eugene Peterson encourages this!! So, if you won’t take my advice, take his! Ahem.

From page 54 in my paperback edition (bold added by me):
“It is useful for readers of the Bible to keep company with some of our master exegetes; the easiest way to do it is to use their commentaries. Biblical commentaries are, for the most part, employed by pastors or teachers in the preparation of sermons or lectures. They are treated as “tools.” But there are treasures in these books for the ordinary reader of the Bible. Among those of us who read – eat – this text not in preparation for an assignment, but simply for direction and nourishment in following Jesus, which means most of us, biblical commentaries have for too long been overlooked as common reading for common Christians. I recommend reading commentaries in the same way we read novels, from beginning to end, skipping nothing.”

Later in the book you learn the fascinating story of how The Message came to be. To summarize, Peterson was frustrated that the members of his church were not seeing how the Scripture connected to events going on in the community – even as he was teaching a study on a book of the Bible (Galatians) that applied to it. So he decided to paraphrase Galatians and began going through Galatians that way – and everything changed. The people began to get it! Eventually his Galatians notes/study was published, and then he was asked to translate the entire New Testament, which became the entire Bible, a project that took 10 years.

Peterson explains the history of and benefits of a paraphrase or translation that uses the language of everyday people. Chapter 8 “God’s Secretaries” and chapter 9 “The Message” are both exceptional. I will shelve this book in the section of my library where I have books on how we got our Bible, its language and translation, and related history – even though this is only part of what the book is about.

Briefly, chapter 8 reminds us that the Bible is the most translated book in the world. It reviews the history of the Hebrews/Jews (and the world around them) as language changed from Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek. Even as Jesus hung on the cross, his identity as “King of the Jews” was on the sign in Aramaic, Latin, Greek.

Chapter 9 considers important archaeological discoveries at the end of the 19th century (papyri scraps found in Egypt with everyday ancient Greek on them) and early 20th century (the language of Ugarit in Syria) that shed helpful light on New Testament Greek and understanding Old Testament culture. I learned about Ugarit in a seminary class, but have no memory of the important Egyptian papyri scrap discovery!

Up until the Egyptian papyri discovery there were about 500 words in the Greek New Testament that were unique to the New Testament. These words were not found in other ancient Greek documents, keeping in mind that such preserved documents were formal or academic type works in classic Greek. Well, these papyri scraps were “garbage” – stuff people threw out (not seen worthy for preservation): personal letters, shopping lists, receipts, etc. In these scraps of paper they found about all 500 of the unique Greek words in the New Testament! The point? The New Testament used some language of the ordinary, common people. (Koine or common Greek)

The further point? Peterson is “defending” the Bible being in everyday language that people can understand. He reminds us how William Tyndale, the greatest of the early translators of the Bible into English, wanted it to be understandable to even the “the boy that driveth the plough.”  Or how Martin Luther was adamant that the German language Bible be in the language of the ordinary man at the market and mother in her house.

The King James Bible actually went the opposite of this. While the King James Bible is a beautifully worded translation and a literary classic of the Western world, it is the language style of the royal court, not everyday people.

I’ll close this review with a quote from earlier in the book:

“The primary organ for receiving God’s revelation is not the eye that sees but the ear that hears – which means that all of our reading of Scripture must develop into a hearing of the word of God…Unless [our] Bibles are embedded into the context of a personally speaking God and a prayerfully listening community, we who handle these Bibles are at special risk. If we reduce the Bible to a tool to be used, the tool builds up calluses in our hearts.
(Page 92)

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