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. Would she need a New Testament mnemonic?
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.

You wouldn't need a mnemonic for Judith
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.

New Testament Mnemonic in the shape of a many-handed woman
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 - did monks have a New Testament Mnemonic?
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

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs about the Synod, family life and women in the Church for The Tablet.

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