I mneed a mnemonic for the New Testament

Finding your way around the Bible

As we all know, Catholics tend to be less good at finding their way around the Bible than our Protestant friends and relations. There are many reasons for this. Apart from anything else, the Bible is huge : a collection of books rather than a book.  Then historically, the universal church (when it was the universal church) actively tried hard to prevent people getting their hands on the Bible and reading it for themselves. This shows an excellent grasp of just how dangerous and subversive the text can be, but was never going to work long-term. It was forbidden even to translate the Bible into another language for a long time, unless it was Latin, which was a bit of a giveaway, because it meant access was still restricted to the Right Sort of People.

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
Very easy to get bogged down
Hurrah for the Psalms! (yet again)

The only exception was the book of Psalms (hurrah!), which has always been treated as a special case, and there have been vernacular translations of it for many centuries.

page of psalm in multiple languages
Look at this lovely multilingual Psalter

This I think must simply be down to the heroic efforts of the Holy Spirit, and it has brought enormous comfort to countless people over the course of human history, which is indeed the Holy Spirit’s job.   But the other books of the Bible were kept closed up and only dealt out in tiny carefully-edited pieces, because people couldn’t be trusted with them.

Luther was right about some things

So historically Catholics weren’t very good at knowing where a bit of the Bible came from, and even worse at knowing exactly where, in this huge volume, to look it up.  Some great saints like William Tyndale and Jan Hus were burnt at the stake for trying to give us the Bible in our own languages.   We had the spread of mass literacy and the Reformation (could they be related?), and very swiftly, one of the obvious differences between Catholics and Protestants was that Protestants knew their Bibles.  They had Sunday schools and we had statues.  We had the teaching authority of the Church, but there is a different authority in being able to pick up any Bible and put your finger straight on whatever it is you are quoting to support your point of view.  In our family, we had to up our game when the only school available where we were living had an Evangelical ethos and some rather fierce children in the playground.   Our children still occasionally quote with great affection the Roy Castle bible story cassettes which we used to play in the car on long journeys.   So I’m good on the stories, but hazier about where exactly to find them.

Nun reading from lectern
Pay attention at the back
Buy one, get several free

Since the last couple of Popes, though, Catholics have been trying to get to know their Bibles better.

Giorgione’s Judith : a woman not to be passed over

And we have a couple of sneaky advantages : genuine Bible pluses, because our Bibles have more books in than the Protestant ones (for long and complicated reasons, which I don’t feel competent to discuss).

And some of them are wonderful and I would hate to be without them (Tobit, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus).  You don’t miss out on too much of the story without them, as the Bible goes back on itself and loops around, so you often have more than one telling of an event, but the book of Judith would be another serious loss, especially as only two other books are named after women (Ruth and Esther).

The order of the Old Testament

Finding your way around the Old Testament takes a lot of practice, like finding your way around a very large city.

Some people’s natural sense of direction is a spiral

A map is helpful; and mnemonics are maps for the mind.  For the Old Testament, there is, thank the Lord, an old mnemonic to help.  It starts ‘The great Jehovah speaks to us/In Genesis and Exodus’, and you can easily find it on the internet or just click here.  I first came across it in a book of mnemonics nearly fifty years ago, I think, and it must be well older than that to have been included.

The power of the mnemonic

Mnemonics are very personal.  I can’t remember things by numbers at all, I have to turn them into words.

Several more hands to keep a place marked might help as well….

For some people, it’s pictures.   You have to find the right sort of trigger.  That means that what works for me may not work for you (one reason why maps come in so many versions, perhaps).  There exist other mnemonics for the order of the books of the Bible, but that’s the only OT one that I find helpful, and I can’t always remember the right bit, and it leaves out the extra books, so I have it printed out with the other books pencilled in where they fit.  Then it’s a great help, especially with the minor prophets.  A Bible with a thumb index might help as well but 1. have you seen the price and 2. I’ve never seen a Catholic one in my local bookshop.  Also by now I suspect 3. the names on the tabs are in too small print to read.

The order of the New Testament

I thought when we took to studying parts of the New Testament that things would be easier.  Just the Gospels and a few letters.  Actually there are 27 books in the New Testament, varying wildly in length, and it’s really tricky finding things quickly (especially if it’s by St Paul).  So I hunted for a similar mnemonic for the New Testament, to give me a handle on it.

Monastic book shelves
39 books in the OT, 27 in the NT
The missing mnemonic

And I couldn’t find one.  I certainly couldn’t find anything that worked for me.  There were little songs, which you would think I would like, but they don’t work because the scansion of the names of the books is too similar (this incidentally is why little songs to learn your tables don’t work, because too many number names scan the same way, and there’s no rhyme to help : two twos can be one, two, three, four, five, six, eight, nine, ten or twelve, and still scan perfectly OK).   There were abstruse sentences with the initial letters of the Epistles (but these tend to leave out whole chunks of the New Testament).  I’m not giving links to these as I don’t want to look as though I am ridiculing other people’s efforts, but if you have a rummage around, you will see what I mean.  And something might work for you, even if it didn’t for me.

In the end, I wrote my own in sheer desperation.  It’s complete doggerel, but in a way, that’s the point.  It’s unfairly a fact of life that doggerel sticks in the mind better than most great poetry (and it’s what we all grow up learning in the playground).   Here is my effort, with apologies to anyone whose artistic sensibilities are offended by it.  If it is any use to anyone else, I’d be delighted.

Books of the New Testament mnemonic

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Acts and Romans follow on.

Corinthians 1 and 2 come next,

Galatians and Ephesians have less text.

For Philippi and Colossians a letter each will do,

But the Thessalonians needed two.

Tim gets two letters just on his own;

One for Titus and one for Phile-mon;

One to the Hebrews, then one from James,

Two from Peter (who had two names);

Next three letters from Apostle John,

Then Jude; and last the book of Re-ve-la-ti-on.

You need to pronounce Philemon Filly-moan to get the rhyme; and if you sound out the last word syllable by syllable, you could even intone it with a sort of Evensong hooting noise.  It all helps you to remember (and it’s a much easier word to rhyme than ‘Apocalypse’).  Hope it helps.

7th angel of the Apocalypse….and now you can remember what is the 7th book of the NT
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How lovely is your dwelling place (not mine, at the moment)

Moving house is a pain….

We are currently moving house,  possibly only for a short while, but we aren’t sure, so we have had to pack everything. That is extremely tedious, but even worse is unpacking. At least when you pack everything, it goes tidily into boxes, but when you unpack, you have to find a right place for all sorts of stuff that you rather wish you had never acquired.

soldiers pillaging house
Moving the contents out of your house is called    pillage
….partly because of what our houses mean to us

At least doing boring mechanical labour (shelving books, hanging clothes) leaves your mind free to wander (especially when you’ve found the CDs but can’t find anything to play them on yet – or, even worse, have the machine but not the flex….), so I was thinking about how important our living place is to us, and how much is wrapped up in the little word ‘house’.  I’m using it as a generic term.  There was a book in the Dr Seuss series that we had at home when my younger sisters and brother were small, called ‘Come over to my house‘, and I remember it went through all sorts of different sorts of dwellings in all different parts of the world, but the key point was : ‘Wherever you go, you will hear someone say,’Come over to my house! Come over and play!’ ‘, and I’m using it precisely like that, whether it’s a flat, a hut, a castle or anything else.  There are lots of occasions in the Bible where ‘house’ is taken to mean ‘family’, ‘clan’, ‘dependants’ or something along those lines, but I’m just discussing fixed physical dwelling places here.

‘Let us go to God’s house’

In dire need of distraction (and to prove to myself that I wasn’t just a beast of burden), I started wondering whether there was any relevant stuff in the psalms.  I couldn’t think of many examples off the top of my head.   What struck me was that nearly the only person who actually has a house, is God.  There’s all the polite arguing in the Bible between David and the Lord, and later Solomon, about whether God needs a house;  but God spends a lot of time pointing out that he made everything, so he could make a house if he wanted one.  ‘The earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 23/24), so it’s all his dwelling place.  Once David and Solomon have palaces, they can’t bear that the Lord shouldn’t have something at least equally impressive, and the Temple gets built, to very careful and elaborate specifications.  This is all in other books of the Bible, though, rather than in the psalms.   They range from referring to God’s dwelling on the holy mountain, or in the clouds,  to everyone calling out ‘Glory!’ to the Lord in his temple, but the actual dwelling usually remains nebulous (very appropriate).

World with cloud flying above
God among the clouds, and the earth below
A place for the Lord

There is one psalm (131/132) which recaps the conversation between David and the Lord : David goes on sleep strike until he can find a suitable place for God; he has a house, so he feels that God should have a house. He locates the ark of the covenant, and then offers the Lord somewhere where David feels he will be comfortable and looked after properly.  The psalm endearingly makes God sound like someone finding his ideal home in a newspaper supplement or on line: ‘For the Lord has chosen Zion;/he has desired it for his dwelling: ‘This is my resting-place for ever,/here have I chosen to live.’  The rest of it consists of  God’s reciprocal promises to David, as though in gratitude for the lovely house he has been provided with.  We sing this psalm once a year, on the feast of the Assumption.

Nomads don’t have ‘houses’

The early psalms are written by nomad people, so there are no references to any settled dwelling for humans.  The psalmist’s aspiration is limited to lying in safety on a bed (Pss 3 and 4 ).  Later there are a couple of references to houses for people, as the authors reflect their own experience, but they are rare, less than half a dozen.  The princess travelling to marry the King is adjured to forget her father’s house (Ps 44/45), presumably because she is going to a better one.   The only other houses are in Ps 100/101, where the psalmist celebrates having his own place where he can arrange things the way he chooses: ‘ I will walk with blameless heart within my house…no man who practises deceit shall live within my house’; the psalm about David deciding to build a house for God; and the two psalms starting at 126/127, which emphasizes how central God is to any enterprise :  ‘Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do its builders labour.’.  The second of the pair is a celebration of the just man’s homelife (this is the psalm so often sung at weddings), with his wife in the heart of his house and his children surrounding the table (127/128).  There is a clear subconscious mental link between women and houses : you need a house to keep your wife in (‘at home the women’ Ps 67/68).  And if it’s your house, you say who can come in.

So one of the crucial differences between people and God is that God definitely has a house to which a person may be allowed access. From the very beginning, there is an idea that God has a settled place, even if man may not approach it (Moses goes up the mountain to find God, while everyone else won’t set foot there).  This is long before the building of the Temple.  The usual expression for God’s dwelling is God’s ‘holy place’ or ‘holy mountain’ (from Ps 3 on), specifically Mount Zion (from Ps 2 on), and some time later, Jerusalem (Ps 75/76).

Did Adam and Eve have a house?

God puts Adam and Eve in a garden, but there’s no mention of them needing any shelter, because they are safe from all danger and sufficiently warm even out in the open (until the serpent walks in, on his legs which he is soon to lose).  The garden has walls and gates, though, which is why they can be excluded from it, so it fulfils some of the requirements of a house.

Adam and Eve with serpent
Legs still there (for now)

We know the garden is very beautiful and well-watered, but there’s no indication of even a little shed, which is interesting, because they might have liked somewhere to keep the tools they had to help them cultivate the garden (as I was trying to find somewhere for secateurs and screwdrivers).

Just how lovely is your dwelling place, Lord?

We have no specifications for God’s own holy dwelling.  We know nothing about it, except that it is a wonderful place to be, and if you are there, there is nothing else which you want or need. ‘I love the house where you dwell ‘ (Ps 25/26).  ‘To be near God is my happiness’ (Ps 72/73).  ‘How lovely is your dwelling place’ (Ps 83/84).  It’s big, because it has courts in the plural, and there are trees growing in the courtyards (Pss 83/84, 91/92,, 95/96 and 133/134) .  It is peaceful and beautiful, and the food is good (Pss 22/23, 35/36, 67/68, 111/112).  It is full of singing and music (hurrah!) , and everyone is happy there (Pss 83/84, 86/87, 91/92, 117/118, 121/122 – there are lots of examples).  One day in God’s house is worth a thousand anywhere else (Ps 83/84), and even being at the gate or by the threshold is enough (Pss 83/84, 86/87).  So we have no details, but it is all infinitely desirable.

French mediaeval castle
A castle to feel safe in

The psalmist emphasizes different aspects of the Lord’s own dwelling depending on the circumstances he finds himself in.  Thus God’s house is described as a refuge or a fortress, a citadel, mountain fastness, tower, a stronghold, a sanctuary, a temple (I’m not giving references for these because they are so common) whenever the psalmist is singing in a dangerous situation or feeling under threat.   When you are in danger, being in God’s house is above all to be safe.  God himself is a fortress personified more than once (e.g. Ps 27/28).

Let me dwell in your tent (Ps 60/61)

I started by ascribing the lack of house-references to the psalmists being nomads.  Nomads live in tents (or even caves, Ps 73/74).  Just as our ideas about Christmas are affected by our own context, as I discussed in the bleak midwinter blog, so are our ideas about God, and indeed there is lots of evidence in the psalms for God living in a tent just like the psalmists do.   ‘Lord, who shall be admitted to your tent?’ (Ps 14/15) is a recurring question, meaning exactly the same thing as ‘Who shall climb the hill of the Lord?’ (Ps 23/24), because you can’t go where you aren’t welcome.

Beautiful tents
Glamping, mediaeval style

God’s tent is naturally impressive.  It is made of darkness and clouds (Ps 17/18); he has stretched out the heavens as a tent-cloth (Ps 103/104) – and you imagine a tent made of that beautiful dark blue with little gold stars embroidered on it.   Unlike the beloved painted ceilings or laboriously-placed glowstars  we might have to leave behind in a house-move (one day we’re going to have to abandon the under-the-sea mural in my youngest daughter’s bedroom, and it will be hard),  if it’s a tent, you can take it with you.  The whole world is God’s tent, under his canopy of stars and clouds.

All are welcome

Wherever God is based, tent, fortress, palace or mountain, there is always enough room for those he loves.   Psalm 67/68 lists all those who are welcome : the just, orphans, widows, prisoners. The wicked will perish, but God makes a special home for the lonely and the poor.  The women are settled comfortably and given jewels and finery (well, it’s a start).  Interestingly, as the psalm goes on, the doors get wider and wider.  In v3, the wicked perish at God’s presence,  by v7, rebels can live even though they are confined to a parched land, but by v19 God has taken captives, receiving men in tribute and ‘even those who rebel, into your dwelling, O Lord’.   God is still smiting his foes, but everyone else is welcome as soon as they choose to come, and this is what is striking about the portrayal of Zion : ‘In you all find their home’ (Ps 86/87), and everyone is happy to go there : ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say :’Let us go to God’s house.’ And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem’ (Ps 121/122).

foxes in dens, birds in nests
Look at everything snuggled up in its own place
Once people move to settled homes (NT)

We can see how time has moved on and how lived experience is different in the New Testament, written so much later.  Jesus talks with seeming regret about having no house even though the animals do (Mtt 8 20, ‘Foxes have holes’ ), but Paul seems to have gone through dwelling in a house and now wants to return at least mentally to a more unsettled lifestyle, using the idea of not being settled here on earth to emphasize the need to place your eyes on eternity (Heb 13 14, ‘no abiding city’).  Paradoxically, this still shows how much our homes mean to us, because otherwise we wouldn’t need to be encouraged not to dwell on them even while dwelling in them.

mediaeval bedroom
How tidy a room can be with few possessions beyond a portable mummy

There’s nothing like moving for making you feel detached from your possessions.  You wave them off in their boxes, and especially if there is a long period before you get them back, you manage fine.  When they do reappear and you have to find places to unpack them into, then you wonder why you ever needed more than one white shirt etc.  That is your chance to give things away, if you are in a place with good charity shops or recycling facilities.

Unfortunately for us, books are the big exception.  It takes years to build up your collection, and once you have, you want to keep them.  All.   I am having to manage temporarily  with only a small number of my books, and it’s all right at the moment (I chose very carefully which ones I did bring, plus I have my Kindle), but I packed all the books I use for work becaue I really do need them every day.  They may be old and battered, but they are precious to me, and looking things up on the Net is no substitute (though it sometimes works).  So I hope, in the many mansions Jesus talks about in heaven, there will be plenty of bookshelves.

Monastic book shelves
Some people seem to have enough room on their bookshelves, but we never have had…yet
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