I hope you can read this! We take it for granted that most people can read. But that was not true in Bible times. In the Greek and Roman world, only a small minority of people ever learned to read. The proportion of Jewish men who could read was certainly higher, but there were still many who never learned – and of course, it was almost unknown for a Jewish woman to read or write. Another fact we tend to forget is that there were no printed books. Every copy of a book had to be made painfully by hand. To get your own copy of a booklet meant paying a skilled scribe a week’s wages. Writing materials were expensive too. Very few people could afford to own books.
So how did God’s people get to know the Scriptures? Answer: they memorised them. In the home and in the synagogues, Jewish children learned by heart huge chunks of Scripture. The first duty of Jewish parents was to teach their children the Scriptures. “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates..” (Deut 6:6-8). In New Testament times, a Jewish boy began to memorise Scripture from the age of three. The first two texts he learned were Deuteronomy 6:4 and 33:4. By the time he was in his teens he was expected to know much of the Law (the first five books of the Bible) by heart. But the learning process never ended. Week after week for the rest of his life, he sat in the synagogue, heard Scripture read aloud and memorised what he heard.
When Jesus preached to the crowds, he constantly quoted Scripture. He would certainly not have had copies of the Old Testament books in front of him – that would have meant carrying piles of large, heavy scrolls everywhere he went! He didn’t need to: he could quote from memory – and he could assume that his Jewish hearers would recognise the quotations straightaway. Look through the book of Acts and see how much Scripture Peter (Acts 2), Stephen (Acts 6) or James (Acts 15) quote in their sermons… from memory!
It was no different in the New Testament churches. Most Christians would never have a copy of a gospel or of one of Paul’s letters. But they listened as these new books were read aloud again and again – and they memorised what they heard. Paul encouraged Timothy, the young pastor of the church in Ephesus, to devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13). That was the only way the members of the church would get to know and remember the Old and New Testament Scriptures.
It is only in fairly recent times that ordinary people have had access to books. (The first book ever to be printed in England was published in 1477). And it was only in the 19th century that literacy began to spread through the working-class population of England and Wales. Remember the story of Mary Jones and her Bible: how she longed to learn to read and then to get her own Bible? Such hopes seemed an impossible dream to the ordinary working-class people of 18th century Wales. Yet Christians could still get to know God’s Word. How? They used their memory. In church and in Sunday-school, Scripture was read aloud, taught and memorised. Mary Jones was memorising the Scriptures long before she could read them for herself!
It was not only the Scriptures that Christians learned by memory. All through the centuries, Christians memorised the great creeds – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed. They fed their souls on those wonderful statements of truth: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth.. One of the first priorities of the Protestant Reformers was to write catechisms – simple summaries of Bible truth in question and answer form, which people could memorise. Luther’s shorter catechism set out profound truths in the simplest language so that every child could understand and memorise: “Q. Thou shalt have no other gods: what does this mean? A We should fear and love God, and trust in him, above all things.” In Presbyterian Scotland, every child was expected to know the Westminster Shorter Catechism by heart.
Then there were hymns. Hymns were “lined out” in the churches till people knew them by heart. The minister (or precentor) would read a line aloud. The people would sing it. He would read the next line – and so on through the hymn. People who would never learn to read books of systematic theology learned their doctrine from the hymns they memorised. John Wesley claimed that his “Collection of Hymns for the use of the people called Methodists” was “in effect, a little body of experimental and practical divinity”. And so it was.
The human memory is a wonderful thing, its capacities almost unlimited. Yet how little we exploit its potential today. We assume that we shall always have access to the printed page or the computer disk. How foolish that is! Some of us will go blind as we get older. We shall no longer be able to read Scripture. But if God’s word is stored up in our memories, we shall have a resource that cannot be taken away from us. Some of us will be given opportunities to witness in situations where we cannot carry a Bible. But if we know God’s Word by heart, we will always be able to use it. Some of us will become increasingly forgetful as we get older – we will be unable to remember events that happened ten minutes ago. But Bible-verses, hymns, catechism answers learnt sixty years earlier will still be there, buried in our hearts, to feed our souls.
No-one is too young to start memorising. And no-one is too old. Generally speaking, the older we are, the harder we find it to learn anything by heart. But it’s amazing how the memory improves with practice. Set yourself realistic goals. For some of us, a verse a week is a triumph. Better a little well-learnt than chapters crammed in but not properly digested.
Last hint. Learn with others. Christian families can memorise together. Christian friends can agree on a programme of learning. Why not find a few friends and learn a catechism together, one question a week. Agree that whenever you bump into one another, or whenever you phone, you’ll greet one another with the words of question you’re learning that week. “Hello, this is John. What is the chief end of man?” “Oh, hi John. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever…”