Memorizing the Whole New Testament

I was once advised in seminary to "avoid memorizing any unit of Scripture shorter than a chapter" because of the way that might lead to proof-texting. You may imagine my intrigue and dismay at this suggestion as one whose high view of Scripture had never translated into any great aptitude at memorizing it. The constant foil to my attempts to memorize has been Paul Larson, a friend from seminary. I had seen his one-man presentation of several epistles during school, but when I learned that he had done the same thing for the whole book of Acts, and that he is on track to have memorized all the New Testament's books by 2015, I decided to reconnect with him to learn about his approach.

As a consequence of our discussion, I have successfully memorized all of John chapters 1-4 and am well on my way to finishing chapters 5-8. This is an absolutely unthinkable development for me, and I can only say that it's testimony to Paul's approach. While it hasn't been effortless, and while I don't anticipate I'll memorize the whole New Testament, the last few months have been very exciting, and I can only commend his strategy to those who have struggled as I have. So how does it work?

As Paul explained to me, much of the history of memorization has consisted of listening and reciting. When we read, our eyes tend to jump ahead and skip over sections we think we know. But there's no way to skip ahead in listening, so we naturally focus more intensely.

When he decides on a book or section to memorize, Paul divides up it up into manageable portions and then listens to the first portion at least once a day for three months, trying to mouth along with the words as much as possible. For the first month, the material will be largely foreign; by the second month, he is often able to recall the text's general thrust; and in the third month the focus becomes simply filling in the blanks and smoothing out the mistakes. Once one portion is completed, he moves onto the next until he has finished the book. (Paul said he's able to do his memorization work on his iPod while doing household chores or shopping. This is definitely a time-saver, but personally I had to focus exclusively on listening to make much progress.)

I would not have believed it possible to memorize nearly eight chapters of running text had I not just done so. I have already begun to see the need for practice to retain what I have learned, and I do get tripped up occasionally if I don't memorize some kind of structural outline. But on the whole the benefits of this approach have been overwhelming. For example:

  • It works perfectly for reading along in a major commentary.
  • It's great for really soaking in the context and the overall progression of the book.
  • It facilitates easier sight reading in the biblical languages, or in any language, because of the way I know the material.
  • It keeps me from being overwhelmed by new material.
  • It doesn't involve memorizing all the verse numbers.
  • It is itself a great apologetic for the legitimacy of trusting oral transmission (even for those of us who agree with Richard Bauckham...).

If you're skeptical of this strategy, I would challenge you to take two or three chapters from your favorite book and listen to them once a day for a few months. I think you will find to your great surprise that you have already begun to memorize them -- virtually without effort -- by the end of that time. (Note: there are many great audio Bibles, but I have the most experience with this one and this one)

I haven't yet made it my goal to do public performances of Scripture, or to memorize the entire New Testament. But neither can I say that those things seem entirely out of reach anymore. I would not put myself to the trouble to do this kind of thing for great works of literature, for the writings of influential thinkers, or even for helpful devotional writers, but Scripture defines and transcends all those categories. It is the inspired Word of God, and in committing it to heart, we are in fact internalizing the God-revealed answers to the mysteries into which every society in all human history has desired to look. Could there be a greater privilege or more worthwhile investment for a Christian?