Memory work

I live near Cambridge and I teach the Bible, so today I had to make time in my diary to visit the Tyndale House Open Day. Tyndale is a library dedicated to biblical studies and serves as “an international centre for research that specialises in the languages, history and cultural context of the Bible”. Visiting is always a real treat, whether for a lecture or to do my own research.

Front of Tyndale House, Cambridge

I raced through housework and morning study, checked and memorised where the elusive car parking spots might be found today and popped over for an hour at lunchtime.

Leningrad Codex (copy) on a table with other Codices

Of course, it was not going to be enough time to really explore properly, but I did get to look at some copies of ancient codices and meet some interesting people.

It’s not often I can chat about polyglots, nominative determinism or Agatha Christie’s archaeological poems with like-minded Bible enthusiasts and it is very useful to engage academically to keep my brain working well.

Remembering words in other languages seems more straightforward – even normal – at places like Tyndale. While I was visiting I had the chance to hear from Fausto, a visiting student who is working on transmitting the Bible to cultures without written language. There was then a short talk on ‘Manuscripts and Scripture Memorisation’ by Dr Kim Phillips. I found this intriguing. We talk about ancient people having very good memories, but don’t seem to be able to show hard evidence for it. I suspect that our technology-reliant generation are not using our memory muscles sufficiently and are the poorer for it in any case, but working on memory skills certainly brings a sharper mind. Memorising Psalms, even hundreds of years ago, was a matter of a lot of hard work, with or without tunes.

Some of the fascinating work Kim has been doing concerns ancient shorthand versions. The writers were not always male – in one text the scribe apologises at the end for smudges incurred as a result of breastfeeding while writing! Even 1000 years ago there were some who multi-tasked motherhood and biblical study. I was surprised at how reassured I felt to learn this.

Each passage was shortened to key words, letters or phrases. Accuracy mattered, but how much needed to be recorded varied. For well-rehearsed Psalms only a few words might have been enough.

I wondered if this might mirror how I learned some verses back in Holiday Clubs, where the individual words were removed one at a time while the group repeated the entire passage:

For ….. so ….. ….. ……
that …. …… ….. one and …… …..
that …….. ……. in …..
would not ……
but have ……. …… .

John 3:16

Or how much of this Psalm might I recall if I only had the following lines?

The Lord is my shepherd; …………………….
……………………………….. in green pastures;
he leads me beside ………………………..
he ………………………….
……………………………….. right paths
    for his ……………………….

Even though …………………………………………
I fear ……………………
for …………………………..
your ………………………………………..
they …………………………

You prepare …………………………………………….
in the presence of ………………………………
you anoint ……………………………………………
my cup ……………..
Surely ………………….. and ………….. shall follow me
    all the …………………………
and I shall ………………………………………………………….
…………………………………………………….


(See this link for the answers!)

I imagine the same task could be done with songs, or quotes from films. It is surprising how much we do learn by heart when we are motivated to. I don’t imagine I’ll be memorising the Psalms, although it is encouraging to hear about how this could be done.

Psalm 42 shorthard ancient text

The scribe would have noted down just enough to be able to recall the rest. This represents all of Psalm 42.

Psalm 42 Hebrew

The words in bold here are the only ones written down. The rest was memorised. The longer phrase (10 here) identifies a verse which was similar to a verse in the following Psalm, to keep them distinct and accurate.

(I have taken these two images from Kim Phillips’ twitter account: https://twitter.com/K_L_Phillips)

A good number of people had turned up and there was plenty to see and discuss. Hopefully there will be future events, ideally on days people are more likely to be able to visit, so that others can get excited about the work going on. Children (young and old) may well enjoy trying out cuneiform in clay. Chatting to some of the staff, trustees and researchers proved that they are not ivory tower Bible nerds but fascinating people with faith, humour and intelligence. I enjoyed talking with one of the researchers I’ve been following on social media (https://twitter.com/JamesBejon) as his work on names and literary patterns in the Bible feeds into my own writing and thinking.

I’ll hopefully remember the things I learned today for some time to come. I am also reassured that what I do is interesting to many people and that there are folk through history, across the world and even in my own town who share my passion for exploring the depths of the Bible, even in the craziness of everyday life.

Front of Tyndale House (taken from Twitter)

2 thoughts on “Memory work

  1. Amazing work, Lucy, thanks. Very best regards to both you and your father. Michael  Alan Riach: Mongrel verse and the uniformity of the military machine | The National

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  2. Love it! SO interesting. I did Religious Studies at Uni and it was so interesting, and I chose to study the Intertestamental period & Judaism for a special subject in my final year, so learned about how the Jewish religion developed into something quite a bit different, with parties such as the Pharisees & Scribes who discussed endlessly and wrote commentaries on the Bible (OT as we call it!) – who they were, how they worked, etc.

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