How to Memorize Scripture

In 2003, over a period of 9 months I learned the Gospel of John and the Epistles of St. Paul from Romans through 1 Thessalonians by heart. During the first four years after entering the seminary in Austria, I did very little review of these passages, and so some of them became a bit hazy. The amount of review to regain familiarity with the texts, is, however relatively small compared to learning them originally.

In the past weeks I have begun memorizing the Epistle to the Hebrews, and am keeping a journal of the time spent learning and of progress, so as to give an estimate of how much time it takes to learn a certain portion of Scripture by heart, and a more detailed account of techniques.

Here is a brief summary of some techniques I have found helpful for memorizing Scripture. I´ll write in more detail about some of these in individual posts.

Methods and techniques to memorize Scripture passages

  • Logical and poetic patterns: look for the flow of thought, logical divisions, for rhetorical techniques, for poetic patterns (parallel structures, chiasms [pyramid structure], etc.) This techniques has a long tradition. Fortunatianus writes in the 4th century: "What helps our memory the most? Division and composition: for order especially aids memory." Artis rhetoricae libri III.
  • Active recall: actively recalling something to memory fixes it more firmly in the mind than merely rereading or rehearing a passage.
    • When first learning, divide a passage or even larger verses into parts small enough that one can very quickly recite from memory without looking at the text. "The memory always rejoices in both brevity of length and paucity of number, and therefore it is necessary, when the sequence of your reading tends toward length, that it first be divided into a few units, so that what the mind could not comprehend in a single expanse it can comprehend at least in a number, and again, when later the more moderate number of items is subdivided into many, it may be aided in each case by the principle of paucity or brevity." (Hugh of St. Victor, De tribus maximis circumstantiis gestorum, written in 1130 A.D., translated in The Medieval Craft of Memory, 37-38)
    • Once you can recite a verse or a passage with confidence, do so three to five times.
    • When first memorizing a passage and when making the first refresher on a subsequent day, aim to be able to recall the text 85-95% of the time by the end of a study session.
    • Utilize time that is otherwise unused: memorize at a slow enough pace that you can keep up with reviewing passages in the time periods while walking to the store, while jogging or biking, while waiting in line, etc.
  • Sleep: sleep consolidates the memory;
    • don't attempt to permanently learn any passage in a single day; it is more efficient to study 15 minutes on one day and 15 minutes the following day than 30 minutes all on one day
    • After learning a passage on one day, in most cases after a night's sleep some parts will be more firmly fixed in the mind, and it will actually be easier to recall them, while other parts will be harder to recall. Rememorize the whole passage – you'll know which parts are difficult and need particular attention, and these parts will usually now also become more firmly fixed.
  • Spaced review: after having learned a passage firmly enough that you can recite it without needing to look at the text, continue to recite it every few days for the next few weeks — frequently enough that you can recite most or all of it accurately without needing to look at the text to remind yourself of it, and so that if you forget a verse or two while reciting it to yourself, you know while reciting what parts you have forgot, and can look them up, either immediately or sometime afterwards.
  • Utilize visual memory
    • Using the same edition of layout of a text, learning a passage in a fixed layout in the page, rather than using different editions, will allow the visual memory of where words are on the page to aid the oral memory of the heard and spoken words. Hugh of St. Victor advises using the same copy of a text when memorizing something, because one memorizes not “only the number and order of verses or ideas, but at the same time the color, shape, position, and placement of the letters, where we have seen this or that written, in what part, in what location (at the top, the middle, or the bottom) we saw it positioned, in what color we observed the trace of the letter” (De tribus maximis circumstantiis gestorum, ibid. p. 38) (I don't use this technique so much, as the convenience of having the Scripture text always with me, as for example on my cell phone, for me outweighs the value of the consistent layout of the text. – JFB)
    • A textual passage can be associated with a journey through a familiar place. (I have't used this technique myself.  – JFB)
  • Utilize music: singing a passage with a consistent melody aids the memory. (The passage may, however, remain difficult to remember without recalling the melody to one's imagination, which in turn can mean a slower rate of recall)
  • Analyze difficulties: When there is a particular difficult getting a passage right, look for the reason: is there a parallel passage elsewhere with which you are familiar, which brings confusion between the two passages? If so, make a specific mental note of the parallel passages and the differences between them.

One thought on “How to Memorize Scripture”

  1. Some say it works better if you start from the end of a text and add to it.

    Others say you can memorize only the start of sentences and then you will recall the rest. (I wonder)

    In the old times (Vedic chanting) people used to chain words together 12-21-123-321 then 23-32-234-432 etc.

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